Burnout in Sport

Modern  sport  culture  is  replete  with  qualities thought to make burnout prevalent, including high training  volumes  and  competitive  demands,  near year-round  training,  and  in  some  sports,  specialization at young ages. Given this sport landscape and the concerns raised by sport scientists and others involved in the sport community (coaches and administrators), the importance of athlete burnout is now widely recognized. This entry defines athlete burnout, describes its epidemiological significance, discusses potential causes, and concludes by addressing preventive strategies.

Defining Athlete Burnout

The term burnout is used in a variety of contexts in  everyday  discourse.  Although  some  of  these meanings converge with scientific uses of the term, others do not. Burnout is sometimes used synonymously with the term sport drop-out. However, not all  athletes  who  drop  out  of  sport  do  so  because of burnout; athletes may leave sport for any of a myriad of reasons. Although some athletes who do experience  burnout  will  discontinue  sport,  others may maintain their involvement. Others may compete at a lower, less demanding, level or they may choose to participate in a different sport. Thus, the term burnout should not be used interchangeably with the term sport drop-out.

Within  the  scientific  community,  burnout  has a  more  precise  meaning  than  that  often  used  in everyday  language.  The  most  widely  accepted definition casts athlete burnout as a psychological syndrome  of  emotional  and  physical  exhaustion, a  reduced  sense  of  accomplishment,  and  sport devaluation.  Athletes  experiencing  burnout  may be emotionally exhausted from dealing with continual stresses of competition, training, and other demands for their time (work, school). They may also  feel  physically  exhausted  from  high  training loads. Another key factor involved in burnout is a reduced sense of accomplishment in which athletes question  and  doubt  their  sport  skills  and  ability to  be  successful.  They  may  feel  they  are  training hard  yet  making  minimal  progress  toward  their goals. Finally, sport devaluation is represented by a  psychological  detachment  from  sport  in  which athletes  may  stop  caring  about  sport  and  their performance to the point of developing a resentful attitude toward sport.

Epidemiological Significance

Although  the  modern  culture  of  sport  has  characteristics  that  suggest  burnout  may  be  on  the rise, the actual prevalence of burnout is unknown. Research  surveying  current  athletes  suggests  that a  low  percentage  of  athletes  (e.g.,  2%–10%) have  relatively  high  scores  on  a  self-report  burnout  measure  as  assessed  via  the  Athlete  Burnout Questionnaire,  or  psychological  characteristics suggesting  they  may  be  experiencing  burnout. Research  surveying  current  athletes  suggests  that a low percentage (e.g., 2%–10%) have characteristics  suggesting  they  are  experiencing  burnout. However, surveying current athletes may underestimate  its  occurrence  as  some  athletes  who  experience  burnout  may  have  left  sport  or  have  been absent  from  practice  when  the  questionnaire  was administered.

Even  if  burnout  is  not  very  prevalent,  it  has epidemiological  significance  because  of  the  millions  of  sport  participants  across  the  globe  and the  negative  toll  it  has  on  individuals  suffering from it. Although minimal research has examined its  consequences,  burnout  can  potentially  have negative impact on all spheres of an athlete’s life, both  within  and  outside  of  sport.  Within  sport, burnout is thought to lead to performance decrements,  decreased  motivation,  and  possibly  sport discontinuation. Beyond sport, it can hurt physical and psychological well-being as well as negatively impact personal relationships.

If  athletes  do  experience  burnout,  it  is  not something  that  will  dissipate  after  a  short  break from  sport—rather  burnout  is  often  chronic  in nature.  Consequently,  it  is  important  to  structure sport in a way that prevents burnout rather than attempting to treat it once it occurs given its relatively enduring state. Developing effective prevention strategies is predicated on first understanding what causes burnout.

Potential Causes of Burnout

It is widely accepted that burnout is a reaction to chronic  stress  and  occurs  when  demands  associated with sport participation exceed or tax an individual’s  resources  over  an  extended  time  period. Thus, burnout is linked to an imbalance between demands and resources.

Demands  involve  all  the  stressors  involved  in sport. These stressors, at least in many sports, stem from the physical demands associated with training.  In  some  cases,  burnout  may  be  the  result  of overtraining characterized by overly high training volumes (duration x intensity) coupled with inadequate  recovery.  In  addition,  the  time  demands associated  with  sport  can  also  be  a  contributing factor to burnout, in which athletes feel that sport takes  too  much  time  and  results  in  their  missing out  on  other  life  opportunities.  Finally,  the  pressure  associated  with  competition  may  be  another source of stress associated with burnout.

A variety of external influences, such as pressure  from  coaches  and  parents,  may  also  be sources  of  chronic  stress  associated  with  burnout.  For  example,  overinvolved  parents  may  create  excessive  pressure  that  predisposes  athletes to  burnout.  On  a  more  subtle  level,  parents  who are  supportive  of  their  child’s  sport  experience, but  whose  family  life  centers  around  sport,  may also  predispose  athletes  to  burnout.  Additional parental  characteristics  associated  with  burnout include  setting  high  standards  for  their  children coupled  with  being  critical  of  their  children  and their performances.

Finally, coaches, through their leadership style and  interactions  with  athletes,  may  also  create  a sport culture or team atmosphere that may make burnout more likely. Athletes who play for coaches who  are  perceived  as  being  socially  supportive, empathetic, and who provide praise, instructions, and training and a democratic coaching style have lower  burnout  compared  with  other  athletes.  In contrast,  autocratic  and  aversive-style  coaches who create a fear of failure in athletes may make burnout more likely.

Finally,  the  demands  associated  with  sport can  come  from  internal  sources.  Some  athletes have personality qualities that make them vulnerable  to  burnout.  For  example,  athletes  who  are perfectionistic,  characterized  by  excessively  high performance standards and self-doubt, are at risk of burnout. Related to perfectionism, athletes who base their self-esteem on performance accomplishments are more likely to experience chronic stress and burnout. Also, athletes who are pessimistic are more  likely  to  experience  burnout  compared  to those who are optimistic. Finally, athletes who are trait anxious, defined as predisposition to experience high levels of anxiety, are more likely to experience burnout than those with low trait anxiety.

Although burnout is a response to chronic stress, not all athletes who are in demanding sport environments  experience  burnout.  Coping  resources also play a role in the burnout process. Resources are the internal and external factors athletes have available that help them effectively manage stress. They  include  external  factors  such  as  social  support  and  participation  in  activities  that  facilitate recovery. They also include internal resources such as self-awareness, strong self-regulatory skills, and effective  lifestyle  management  skills  that  include healthy  eating  habits  and  good  sleep  habits.  For example,  having  a  good  life  balance  wherein athletes  are  involved  in  more  than  just  sport  and potentially the strong use of mental skills training techniques may also serve as coping resources. In addition, athletes who experience low levels of life stress outside of sport are theoretically less vulnerable to burnout compared with those who experience a great deal of stress outside of sport.

At this point, it is widely recognized that burnout, especially exhaustion, is a reaction to chronic stress. Consequently, identifying stress related factors associated with burnout is important to understanding this phenomenon. However, there is more to  the  burnout  process  than  a  simple  reaction  to chronic  stress.  Burnout  is  only  experienced  when highly  committed  athletes  become  disillusioned and frustrated with their sport involvement. Given that  burnout  is  intricately  connected  to  commitment and motivational processes as well as stress, researchers have developed a commitment perspective on burnout, drawing from the organizational psychology and relationship literatures.

On a positive note, athletes can be committed to sport because they are passionate about it. These athletes  want  to  be  involved,  find  it  enjoyable, and  concomitantly  experience  high  benefits  and low costs. Because of their favorable outlook, they are likely to invest a great deal of time and energy into  sport  and  perceive  that  it  is  more  attractive than  alternative  options.  These  athletes  are  not theoretically likely to burn out as they experience enjoyment-based commitment.

There is another side to commitment. Although commitment  can  be  influenced  by  positive  pulls (e.g., passion, enjoyment, satisfaction), it can also be affected by nonpositive pushes (e.g., too much invested  to  quit,  lack  of  attractive  alternatives, social pressure to continue involvement). In other words, athletes can be committed for a combination of reasons related to wanting to be involved and feeling they have to be involved. Entrapment based  commitment  occurs  when  athletes  begin to  have  a  more  negative  view  toward  sport  (e.g., decreasing   positive   pulls)   but   maintain   their involvement  because  they  feel  they  have  to  continue  (i.e.,  increasing  non-positive  pushes).  These athletes feel they are trapped and stifled by sport while missing out on other life opportunities. This is  evident  by  decreasing  enjoyment  coupled  with decreasing  benefits  and  increasing  costs.  Despite this, they maintain involvement because of feeling locked into the role of being an athlete. They may feel  there  is  too  much  invested  to  quit;  perceive few  attractive  alternatives  to  being  an  athlete;  or perceive that other people, such as coaches, teammates,  or  parents,  expect  them  to  maintain  their involvement.

In addition to these sources of entrapment, two additional factors that may result in athletes, especially adolescent sport participants, feeling trapped by sport include a unidimensional identity and low perceived control. In normal development, adolescents sample a variety of activities and roles in the process  of  forming  their  personal  identities.  The teenage years are also characterized by the development  of  personal  autonomy.  However,  sport participation,  especially  high-level  involvement, can  result  in  athletes  prematurely  developing  a unidiemsional  identity,  which  increases  the  risk of burnout. In addition, although they may have chosen initially to participate, in some situations, adults  control  their  sport  experience,  resulting in feelings of low control over the sport involvement.  Having  a  unidimensional  identity  whereby their sense of self is based exclusively on being an athlete,  as  well  as  low  perceived  autonomy,  may result  in  athletes  experiencing  sport  entrapment and  their  feeling  trapped  into  the  role  of  being an athlete. This theoretically increases the risk of burnout.

Converging  with  a  commitment  perspective, athletes  who  are  passionate  about  sport  view  it as  important  and  invest  a  great  deal  of  time  and energy into sport. Much like commitment, passion is  not  something  athletes  simply  have  or  do  not have,  rather  there  are  different  types.  One  type is  an  obsessive  passion  for  sport  that  is  associated with higher burnout scores, at least in some research.  The  other  type,  harmonious  passion,  is characterized  by  a  more  intrinsically  motivated type  of  passion  associated  with  lower  burnout scores.

Given  that  burnout  is  linked  to  an  erosion  of motivation,  researchers  are  using  common  motivation  theories,  such  as  self-determination,  and achievement  motivation  theories  to  better  understand  the  burnout  process  and  what  potentially might  predispose  athletes  to  it.  According  to self-determination,  the  fulfillment  of  basic  psychological  needs,  including  perceived  competence (positive perception of skills and abilities), autonomy  (sense  of  say  and  control  over  their  sport involvement),  and  relatedness  (sense  of  belonging and  acceptance),  is  associated  with  higher  levels of well-being. The fulfillment of these basic needs is  also  connected  with  quality  motivation  such as  high  levels  of  intrinsic  motivation,  whereby athletes  participate  for  the  inherent  pleasure  and satisfaction  derived  from  sport  participation.  In contrast, need thwarting is associated with indices of  ill-being,  including  burnout.  Burnout  and  the lack  of  need  fulfillment  are  also  associated  with low-quality motivation. On the extreme level, this can  include  being  amotivated  (without  motivation). On a less extreme level, lower quality motivation  characterizes  athletes  who  participate  not because they want to but, rather, because they feel they have to be involved in sport. This can be due to  either  external  pressure  by  a  coach  or  parent or  internal  pressures  of  feelings  of  obligation  to remain involved.

Another  common  motivation  theory,  achievement  motivation,  which  has  been  used  to  understand burnout, focuses on whether athletes and the team atmosphere are mastery oriented or outcome oriented.  With  a  mastery  team  climate,  success  is defined in terms of effort, learning, and improvement. In contrast, outcome-oriented team climates focus on social comparison and doing better than others. In a mastery-oriented climate, mistakes are viewed  as  part  of  the  learning  process,  whereas in  an  outcome-oriented  climate,  they  are  viewed negatively and punished. Although studying burnout from an achievement goal perspective has not received  extensive  investigation,  mastery-oriented team  climates  are  generally  thought  to  be  associated with lower burnout scores compared to athletes who view the team climate as more outcome oriented.

Preventing Burnout

Nearly  all  of  the  scientific  literature  on  burnout has  been  either  correlational  or  qualitative  in nature.  The  focus  of  the  correlational  research has been to examine the association of scores on a burnout measure with other variables that are theoretically related to or potential causes of burnout. The  qualitative  studies  have  focused  on  in-depth interviews  of  athletes  who  experienced  burnout to better understand the burnout process. At this point, very few, if any, studies have evaluated the effectiveness  of  interventions  designed  to  prevent or  treat  burnout.  Thus,  the  knowledge  based  on intervention  strategies  is  not  well  developed  and comments  on  preventive  strategies  are  provided tentatively.

As  a  starting  point  for  understanding  potential  interventions  designed  to  minimize  burnout, public  health  frameworks  provide  a  launching pad. Primary prevention strategies involve changing the sport culture or environment to eliminate or  modify  factors  that  potentially  cause  burnout. Interventions designed to help individuals manage or  cope  with  the  stress  associated  with  sport  are titled  secondary  prevention.  Finally,  interventions helping  athletes  already  suffering  from  burnout are regarded as a tertiary prevention strategy with a  focus  on  treatment  or  rehabilitation.  As  stated in  the  adage  “an  ounce  of  prevention  is  worth  a pound of cure,” interventions designed to prevent burnout  are  more  effective  than  treating  burnout once it occurs given its chronic nature.

At this point of knowledge development, one viable  strategy  to  prevent  burnout  is  to  target theory-based   variables   associated   with   burnout  in  the  intervention  design.  These  can  range from  individual  characteristics  associated  with stress-related  processes  (e.g.,  perfectionism)  to the  social–organizational  structure  of  sport  (e.g., coach  and  parent  behaviors,  how  sport  is  structured, and training demands and recovery).

Given  that  burnout  is  a  reaction  to  chronic stress,  a  common  belief  is  that  is  that  teaching athletes stress management skills will help prevent burnout. For example, helping athletes learn effective time management as well as lifestyle management  skills  will  help  them  deal  more  effectively with the demands of being an athlete. In addition, an increased focus on recovery activities, as well as helping athletes to achieve a balanced lifestyle, will also  help  prevent  burnout.  Mental  skills  training techniques, such as effective goal setting, self-talk, and relaxation skills may also be effective. If athletes can learn to effectively cope with stress, then burnout will be less likely.

Although  stress  management  strategies  have a  role  in  preventing  burnout,  it  is  premature  to conclude that teaching athletes stress management skills  geared  at  the  individual  will  be  the  most effective  intervention  approach.  In  fact,  researchers in organizational psychology argue that teaching individuals stress management strategies have not been very effective in reducing burnout. This is because social–environmental factors have a larger role in work burnout than individual factors. The same is likely true for athletes. Thus, interventions that target the sport environment will be more efficacious  than  those  that  target  the  individual  and focus on helping athletes effectively manage stress. Taken one step further, some scholars suggest that teaching athletes how to cope with stress is analogous  to  treating  burnout  with  a  bandage.  Rather than  addressing  the  underlying  cause  of  burnout, which  is  how  sport  is  structured,  teaching  stress management  only  addresses  the  surface  of  the problem.

In  addition  to  teaching  stress  management  as part  of  life  skill  development,  interventions  need to  address  social–environmental  modifications designed  to  create  a  more  positive  sport  experience  for  athletes.  Consequently,  commitment  and motivation  theories  should  play  a  role  in  designing  effective  interventions  targeting  burnout.  For example,  strategies  could  be  developed  to  help ensure  that  sport  fulfills  the  basic  psychological needs  of  perceived  competence,  autonomy,  and relatedness.  In  addition,  coaches  who  create  a mastery-oriented  team  climate  will  help  prevent burnout. Sport could be structured in a way that empowers  athletes  by  developing  multifaceted identities  and  that  gives  them  control  over  their sport  experiences.  Finally,  interventions  designed to  enhance  enjoyment-based  commitment  and minimized  feelings  of  entrapment  should  be  central components of interventions. Given that burnout  is  a  complex  process,  interventions  that  are multimodal in nature will be the most effective.

Conclusion

Although  most  athletes  do  not  experience  burnout,  it  is  nonetheless  a  significant  issue  within contemporary  sport  culture.  Although  the  term burnout  conjures  a  variety  of  images,  it  is  best defined  as  a  psychological  syndrome  involving exhaustion,  sport  devaluation,  and  a  reduced sense  of  accomplishment.  Burnout  is  a  complex issue  that  involves  both  stress and  motivationrelated  processes.  Given  its  complexity,  research addressing antecedents, underlying processes, and consequences  associated  with  burnout  will  serve as the foundation for designing effective interventions.  Interventions  designed  to  prevent  burnout should be multimodal and target both stress and motivation processes.

References:

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