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.
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.
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.
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.
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