Athletic Burnout

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Athletic Burnout

Engagement in sport provides a great source of enjoyment for most athletes and improves the overall well-being of individuals. However, in today’s multi-million dollar sport industry, there is a substantial amount of pressure for an athlete to execute and succeed in professional sport (Hackfort & Huang, 2005). They are required to maintain their optimal physical condition in order to perform to their greatest ability, and many professionals understand the importance of training hard and constantly working at their skills to improve them. In addition to excelling in physical condition, mental toughness and perseverance are traits that are instilled in athletes at a young age to diminish psychological barriers that may limit their performance. However, if an athlete is not able to balance multiple physical and psychological stressors at equilibrium, many repercussions may arise which prevents athletes from functioning at a peak state. As a consequence to this prolonged chronic stress, the athlete suffers from burnout (Schaufeli & Buunk, 2003). Defining Burnout

Athletic burnout is recognized as a growing psychological problem that is increasingly becoming a major factor in negatively affecting the performance of athletes across a wide spectrum of sporting disciplines. Burnout is a psycho-physiological response that is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and perpetuating stress (Silva, 1990; Dale and Weinberg, 1990). It occurs when athletes feel overwhelmed and are unable to meet continual demands resulting in decreased sport performance, a reduced sense of accomplishment, and a decline in participation (Silva, 1990; Dale and Weinberg, 1990; Gustafsson, 2007). This internal response usually inflicts athletes that ineffectively try to meet excessive training and competitive demands through high motivation and unrealistic goals (Silva, 1990). Once affected, this stress reaction causes burned-out athletes to experience diminished enthusiasm and a decrease of interest and enjoyment in sports they previously adored, causing them to drop out (Cresswell & Eklund, 2003).

Depression, feelings of helplessness, and social withdrawal are few of many affective, cognitive, and behavioural consequences of burn out (Schaufeli & Enzmann, 1998). Burnout consists of multiple factors that contribute to its occurrence, thus it is found to be multidimensional (Tenebaum, Jones, Kitsantas, Sacks, & Berwick, 2003). While social interactions and training pose as major factors in burnout, burnout is also characterized by failure in adapting to stressful situations (Raedeke & Smith, 2004). Burnout is noted to be an ongoing, latent process that results in unsuccessful attempts of diminishing stress. (Silva, 1990). Stress is caused by social interactions, sport performances, physical demands, and internal and external demands; internal being unrealistic goals set by the athlete, and external demands being conflicts with others (Tenebaum, Jones, Kitsantas, Sacks, & Berwick, 2003). However, not all athletes who experience stress will burn out.

Effects of Burnout

Burnout is a complex phenomenon that manifests over a prolonged period of time (Smith, 2007). Because of the detrimental effects burnout has on an athlete’s performance and overall well-being, early detection is crucial (Smith, 2007). Acknowledging and addressing early symptoms can prevent burnout as well as major breakdowns. Symptoms include increased anxiety, depression, helplessness, sense of failure, inability to concentrate, chronic fatigue, insomnia, hyperactivity, abandonment of activities, and boredom (Schaufeli & Enzman, 1998). Although there are many symptoms of burnout, a person usually does not show all of them (Burisch, 2006).

Prevention and Intervention

Strategies for preventing burnout emphasize techniques that help athletes control stress and adjust to the conditions of sport participation (Coakley, 1992). This includes focusing training on improving all critical capacities which will increase the overall stress tolerance, and eliminating psychological and social stressors (Kellman, 2010; Hooper & Mackinnon, 1995). The basic assumption understood by psychologists is that there is a correlation between recovery and stress; as stress increases, increased recovery time is necessary (Kellman, 2010). However, burnout is amongst the repercussions that may form when there is an imbalancement between these two variables. Therefore to prevent burnout, athletes must learn to manage stress, set boundaries to prevent overextending, adopt healthy lifestyle habits, incorporate a balanced diet, and get proper exercise.

When action is not taken to prevent burnout and the athlete is pushed beyond their limit, it is important to take the necessary steps for the athlete to recover. The amount of time needed for an athlete to recover from burnout depends on several variables including the severity of the burnout, amount of social support given to the athlete, and the individual’s capacity to recover with the help of professional medical support such as a sports psychologist, nutritionist, and other personnel (Lehmann, Foster, Gastmann, Keizer, & Steinacker, 1999). Seeking medical and social support, cutting back on commitments, and re-evaluating priorities are crucial in order for an athlete to fully recover.

Psychotherapeutic approaches such as group therapies that are focused on changing the ways in which an individual perceives and deals with situations are also recommended (Salmela-Aro et al., 2004). Intervention programs have about 80% success rate with depreciating burnout, and may include online counselling, cognitive behaviour training, relaxation techniques, psycho-social skill training, communication training, and relaxation training (Awa, Plaumann, and Walter, 2009). However, the most effective way to combat burnout is to postpone the activity, or take time off, in order to fully improve the state of mind and overall well-being of the individual (Kellman, 2010).


Awa, Wendy L., Plaumann, Martina, Walter, U. (2009) Burnout Prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient Education and Counselling Burisch, M. (2006). The Burnout Syndrome: A Theory of inner Exhaustion. Heidelberg: Springer Medizin Verlag.

Cresswell, S. L., & Eklund, R. C. (2003). The athlete burnout syndrome: A practitioner’s guide. New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine, 31, 4–9.
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hope and burnout in competitive sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(14), 1495-1504. Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(Suppl 2), 95-102. Lehmann, M., Foster, C., Gastmann, U., Keizer, H., and Steinacker, J.M. (1999) Definition, types, symptoms, findings, underlying mechanisms, and frequency of overtraining and overtraining syndrome. Overload performance incompetence and regression in sport. New York: Kluwer Academic

Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2004). Coping resources and athlete burnout: An examination of stress mediated and moderation hypotheses. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26, 525–541. Salmela-Aro, K., Nataanen, P., Nurmi, J.E. (2004). The role of work-related personal projects during two burnout interventions: a longitudinal study. Work Stress; 18, 208- 300. Schabracq, J. A. M. Winnubst, & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The handbook of Work and Health Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 383-425). Chichester: Wiley & Sons. Schaufeli, W. B. & Enzman, D. (1998). The burnout companion to study & practice. London: Taylor & Francis. Schaufeli, W. B., & Buunk, B. P. (2003). Burnout: An overview of 25 years of research and theorizing. In M. J. Silva, J.M., (1990). An analysis of training stress syndrome in competitive athletics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 5-20. Smith, M. L. (2007). The relationship of event performance, anxiety intensity and interpretations, and the development of burnout in collegiate swimmers. West Virginia University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 101. Tashman, L. S., Tenenbaum, G., & Eklund, R. (2010). The effect of perceived stress on the relationship between perfectionism and burnout in coaches. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 23(2), 195-212. Tenenbaum, G., Jones, C.M., Kitsantas, A., Sacks, D.N., Berwick, J.P., 2003. Failure adaptation: psychological conceptualization of the stress response process in sport. Int. J. Sport Psychol. 34, 1-26.


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