Burnout in Sport and Performance
- Robert C. EklundRobert C. EklundUniversity of Stirling
- and J.D. DefreeseJ.D. DefreeseUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Athlete burnout is a cognitive-affective syndrome characterized by perceptions of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and devaluation of sport. A variety of theoretical conceptualizations are utilized to understand athlete burnout, including stress-based models, theories of identity, control and commitment, and motivational models. Extant research has highlighted myriad antecedents of athlete burnout including higher levels of psychological stress and amotivation and lower levels of social support and psychological need (i.e., autonomy, competence, relatedness) satisfaction. Continued longitudinal research efforts are necessary to confirm the directionality and magnitude of these associations. Moreover, theoretically focused intervention strategies may provide opportunities for prevention and treatment of burnout symptoms via athlete-focused stress-management and cognitive reframing approaches as well as environment-focused strategies targeting training loads and enhancement of athlete psychological need satisfaction. Moving forward, efforts to integrate research and practice to improve burnout recognition, prevention, and intervention in athlete populations likely necessitate collaboration among researchers and clinicians.
Burnout among athletes as a consequence of the stress of highly competitive sport became a concern following the emergence of commentaries on troubling chronic experiential states experienced by some professionals in stressful alternative health care (e.g., Freudenberger, 1974, 1975) and human service settings (e.g., Maslach, 1982). Freudenberger’s observations on a phenomenon involving physical and mental deterioration and workplace ineffectiveness as a consequence of excessive demands among alternative health care professionals are typically regarded as formally ushering the term “burnout” into the psychosocial lexicon (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). Maslach (1982) observed a similar phenomenon in studying human service workers. Her development of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI; Maslach & Jackson, 1981, 1986) to study the phenomenon effectively served to conceptually formalize burnout as an experiential syndrome involving symptoms of sustained feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (negative attitudes and feelings toward the recipients of the service), and inadequate personal accomplishment (a sense of low accomplishment and professional inadequacy). Following the emergence of these insights and developments in work settings, “burnout” in sport quickly became an amorphous catch-all explanation for an array of troubling phenomena, including the negative, amotivated, and exhausted states sometimes suffered by athletes as well as implicated problems with injury, sport withdrawal, and/or personal dysfunction. Efforts to conceptualize and understand athlete burnout started appearing in the sport science literature soon thereafter (e.g., Cohn, 1990; Feigley, 1984; Gould, 1993; Henschen, 1990; Rowland, 1986; Schmidt & Stein, 1991; Smith, 1986; Yukelson, 1990).
While the notion of burnout held considerable appeal for sport scientists, reservations existed about the relevance and applicability of Maslach and Jackson’s (1981, 1986) burnout syndrome to athletes (e.g., Feigley, 1984; Garden, 1987). The stresses and circumstances of athletes’ involvement in sport are much different from those of professionals involved in health and human service settings, so it seemed entirely reasonable to question “the extent to which the nature, causes and consequences are unique and to what extent they are shared by those who suffer burnout in other domains of activity” (Smith, 1986, p. 44). Nonetheless, variation in the nature of ongoing stressful demands does not inherently require that the associated experiential consequences also differ in their aversive nature. Evidence across a variety of workplace settings has indicated that there is commonality in the experience of burnout in response to chronic situational exposure to psychosocial stress, despite variation in the specific stressors implicated across workplace settings (Schaufeli & Enzmann, 1998). Evidence from studies with athletes involved in serious competitive sport have also supported Schaufeli and Enzmann’s conclusions about cross-domain (i.e., sport versus work) commonality in the experience of burnout as a response to chronic exposure to psychosocial stress (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007; Goodger, Gorely, Lavallee, & Harwood, 2007).
The athlete burnout syndrome as conceptualized by Raedeke (1997), Raedeke and Smith (2001) is characterized by the enduring experience of (1) emotional and physical exhaustion, (2) sport devaluation, and (3) reduced accomplishment. Although modified to be of particular relevance to sport, this sport-specific conceptualization of the syndrome is consistent with the syndrome posited by Maslach and Jackson (1981, 1986). Specifically, the general notion of a sense of inadequate or reduced personal accomplishment being symptomatic of burnout mapped over directly in Raedeke’s conceptualization. Maslach and Jackson’s (1981, 1986) emotional exhaustion syndrome facet was extended to include chronic physical exhaustion. This modification was consistent with the broadening of the exhaustion construct in the third edition of the MBI manual with the introduction of the MBI General Survey (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996). The original depersonalization syndrome facet was argued to have little sport-specific relevance because client services do not feature in athletes’ experiences per se, so it was replaced with a facet relating to sport devaluation (a cynical and diminished appraisal of the benefits of sport involvement by the athlete). This change was also consistent with the re-conceptualization of depersonalization in the general workplace literature as a particular manifestation of the cynicism that occurs in burnout (e.g., Maslach et al., 1996; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Overall, the emergence and subsequent broad acceptance of this syndrome conceptualization of athlete burnout resulted in commentaries that took on more conceptual coherence. Empirical investigations of this commonly accepted athlete burnout conceptualization also served to advance theoretical understanding of the problematic condition.
The emergence of Raedeke’s (1997), Raedeke and Smith (2001) syndrome conceptualization was also particularly important because, before that time, discussions of athlete burnout were not necessarily all focused on the same construct. The commentaries instead spanned a variety of distinct, if interrelated, constructs, including reference to depressed mood states, amotivation, maladaptive psychophysiological responses to training, sport dropout, and so on (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). The “everybody knows what it is” problem (Marsh, 1998, p. xvi) was evident in the variety of idiomatic and amorphous conceptualizations being discussed because the commentaries were often grounded in anecdotal accounts provided by coaches, sport scientists, and even athletes themselves (Dale & Weinberg, 1990; Rotella, Hanson, & Coop, 1991). The net effect was that early research and theoretical development efforts were focused on an array of constructs all sharing the label of “athlete burnout” rather than a single common experience.
The noticeably different conceptualizations of athlete burnout employed by Silva (1990) and Coakley (1992) are illustrative of the problem identified in the preceding paragraph. Silva conceptualized athlete burnout as the ultimate phase in a maladaptive response to overtraining. The burnout phase, though sharing some commonalities with the burnout syndrome conceptualization, was posited to become manifest when “[t]he organism’s ability to deal with the psychophysiological imposition of stress is depleted, and the response system is exhausted” (p. 11). Silva’s (1990) perspective effectively conflates the burnout syndrome with the overtraining (or staleness) syndrome (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). Some commonalities are evident across the two chronic conditions (e.g., exhaustion, mood disturbances, concerns about performance adequacy), but they should be regarded as distinct conditions requiring nonidentical intervention strategies (Raglin, 1993). At its core, the overtraining syndrome is a chronic condition involving systemic (e.g., neurological, endocrinological, and immunological) maladaptive responses to excessive overreach training (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). The athlete burnout syndrome, however, results from chronic exposure to psychosocial stress and, importantly, can become manifest entirely in the absence of excessive overreach training (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). Coakley’s (1992) conceptualization of athlete burnout, however, is considerably different. He regarded athlete burnout as being withdrawal (i.e., dropout) from committed, successful involvement in highly competitive youth sport to escape its controlling and aversive socioenvironmental constraints. His perspective stands in stark contrast with other extant athlete burnout conceptualizations (e.g., Raedeke, 1997; Silva, 1990; Smith, 1986) wherein withdrawal from sport is viewed not as burnout in and of itself but rather as one potential, but not requisite, consequence of the burnout experience.
Given the existence of the variety of different conceptualizations employed in early athlete burnout research, some entangled with other related but distinct conditions (e.g., depression, overtraining syndrome, dropout), careful consideration is required in interpreting that literature relative to more contemporary syndrome-based efforts. Despite the conceptual challenges presented in some of the historical efforts, they were important to the field. They incited interest in the empirical investigation of burnout in sport and ultimately resulted in greater fidelity in construct conceptualization as well as the introduction of well-grounded theoretical explanations of the aversive experiential state (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007).
An early milestone in research on athlete burnout can be found in the International Tennis Federation’s implementation of rule changes and provision of educational recommendations to deal with the problem in the 1980s (Hume, 1985). Subsequent funding of a research project on athlete burnout by the United States Tennis Association Sport Science Division (e.g., Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996, 1997; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996) served to catalyze the interest of sport psychology researchers in the topic. The absence of a conceptually and psychometrically sound measure of athlete burnout, however, presented an initial obstacle to research. The arrival of the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (ABQ; Raedeke, 1997; Raedeke & Smith, 2001) resolved that problem, and subsequent research on the topic has burgeoned in quantity, and conceptual and methodological sophistication.
Key Burnout Antecedents and Supporting Theories/Models
Ultimately, early anecdotal accounts and attempts to formulate theories on athlete burnout led to a core set of historical explanations for the sport-based phenomenon. Three early conceptualizations were especially influential; they specified that burnout was the result of (1) chronic exposure to psychological stress and maladaptive coping processes (Smith, 1986), (2) a maladaptive pattern of sport commitment (Raedeke, 1997), or (3) the autonomy-usurping constraints of intense involvement in highly competitive youth sport on young athletes’ identities and control beliefs (Coakley, 1992). Ultimately, all three conceptualizations have been useful in developing broad understandings of athlete burnout and key antecedents, despite the lack of definitional uniformity across instances. They continue to have relevance for investigative design and interpretation of burnout research. Consequently, we briefly review each conceptual perspective before outlining some general tenets of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000a, 2000b). Self-determination theory has subsequently become an influential theoretical perspective guiding athlete burnout research.
Smith (1986) provided perhaps the earliest formal theorizing on athlete burnout as a psychosocial construct in the sport science literature. His conceptualization of burnout related to the “psychological, emotional, and at times a physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable activity” (p. 37). It relied on the work of several theoretical perspectives from psychology, including social exchange theory (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959) and Lazarus’s (1966, 1982) contentions on emotion and the stress and coping process. In Smith’s view, athlete burnout was a result of chronic sport-related appraisals of stress that were not effectively mitigated by coping efforts. A variety of cross-sectional research studies have supported links between burnout and perceived stress and deficits in coping resources (e.g., Raedeke & Smith, 2001; 2004). More recently, Schellenberg, Gaudreau, and Crocker (2013) provided longitudinal evidence in a study of passionate involvement in sport supporting earlier cross-sectional findings on links between coping and athlete burnout. Specifically, in their study of 421 volleyball athletes, changes in athlete burnout were positively predicted by obsessive passion via its mediated positive association with disengagement-oriented coping behaviors. Overall, as supported in a systematic review of literature (Goodger et al., 2007), the psychological stress and coping model represents a useful, if somewhat rudimentary, conceptual means to understanding athlete burnout. Research conducted from this perspective indicates that perceived stress tends to exacerbate the possibility of an athlete experiencing burnout as do athlete deficits or mismatches in coping skills and resources.
The second historical burnout conceptualization, offered by Coakley (1992), involved a focus on the sociological factors that may contribute to athlete burnout. Based on data from qualitative interviews with adolescent athletes, Coakley (1992) concluded that burnout, conceptualized as a particular type of withdrawal from sport, was the result of environmental constraints rather than the individual’s responses to stress per se. Specifically, Coakley posited that this particular type of withdrawal from sport resulted from the development of a unidimensional sport identity and the individual athlete’s perceived lack of control over his or her sport participation. This perspective has received very limited empirical support; the exception is the partial support found in one study of competitive swimmers (Black & Smith, 2007). Despite limited empirical support, this conceptualization does bring important attention to the idea that, beyond individual perceptions of stress or commitment, organizational (or team) factors within intensely competitive youth sport may contribute to athlete burnout (Coakley, 2009). Certainly, this conceptualization has focused additional, necessary attention on the social structure and demands of sporting environments in which athletes participate, rather than solely on individual differences in athlete appraisals of stress as the major contributor to burnout.
The third early perspective posited that burnout symptoms could arise from a specific constellation of athletes’ perceptions of their commitment to sport. Building on the broader sport commitment framework proposed by Schmidt and Stein (1991), Raedeke (1997) conceptualized burnout as a potential result of entrapped commitment to sport (as opposed to attraction-based commitment, which has benign or even salutatory effects). Specifically, Raedeke postulated that this maladaptive sport commitment pattern (characterized by a high level of perceived costs, investments, and social constraints along with few perceived benefits or alternatives), if sustained, would result in the athlete’s elevated perceptions of burnout. Support for this conceptualization was found using cluster analytic procedures, with data obtained from a sample of adolescent swimmers (Raedeke, 1997). Specifically, the cluster of swimmers endorsing this entrapped pattern of commitment stress reported the highest levels of burnout symptoms (exhaustion, devaluation, reduced accomplishment). Ultimately, this commitment theory perspective on athlete burnout has received some theoretical support and continues to be used to design and interpret athlete burnout research.
Finally, over the last decade or so, researchers have increasingly turned to self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000a, 2000b), a prominent theory of human motivation, as an explanation to advance understanding of athlete burnout. This theory has proven to be exceptionally useful and revealing in those efforts. In SDT, Deci and Ryan contend that satisfaction of basic psychological needs results in optimal human functioning, social development and personal well-being, while the thwarting of psychological needs has the less salubrious results of diminished personal and social functioning and states of ill-being. The psychological needs enumerated in SDT include the needs for autonomy (i.e., to experience behavioral volition), competence (i.e., to perceive oneself as behaviorally effective), and relatedness (to feel socially interconnected with valued others). Satisfaction of these needs is regarded as being universally essential for human health and well-being.
In SDT, motivation is considered relative to the broad categories of autonomous and controlled motivation as well as relative to the more specific motivational regulations underlying behavioral enactments (i.e., intrinsic motivation, integrated regulation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, external regulation, amotivation). Autonomous motivation includes self-determined behavioral imperatives to satisfy one’s fundamental psychological needs (i.e., intrinsic motivation) and extrinsic but internalized motivational imperatives that can also satisfy these needs in some degree because they are consistent with one’s identity (i.e., integrated regulation) and/or personal objectives (i.e., identified regulation). Controlled motivation is more externally controlled (and thus less self-determined) and includes behaviors governed by external punishment and reward contingencies (i.e., external regulation) and behaviors resulting from feelings of shame, guilt or pride (i.e., introjected regulation). Finally, amotivation, arguably the motivational signature of athlete burnout (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007), involves behavior without intent to act resulting from not feeling competent, not believing that effort will result in desired outcomes, or not inherently valuing an activity (Ryan & Deci, 2000b).
Evidence supports SDT claims that autonomous behaviors supported by self-authored, or self-determined motivational regulation, are more adaptive, whereas behaviors governed by controlled motivational regulations and amotivation are less adaptive for motivational persistence, psychological health, and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000a, 2000b). With regard to athlete burnout, individuals whose experiences fail to satisfy or thwart the aforementioned psychological needs would be expected to exhibit less self-determined forms of sport motivation and, ultimately, higher levels of athlete burnout. Overall, the efficacy of self-determination theory in facilitating researcher efforts and understanding of athlete burnout has been supported in Li, Wang, Pyun, and Kee’s (2013) systematic review of literature in this area.
Review of Current Knowledge Base on Burnout in Sport
Collectively, research guided by the aforementioned theories and models has advanced our understanding of the occurrence and consequences of the athlete burnout syndrome while also serving as a useful guide to informing applied practice in sport (DeFreese, Smith, & Raedeke, 2015). This review of the burnout literature is intended to be representative of the knowledge base and informative as to future work, though it is not absolutely comprehensive. This section describes a pair of larger-scale research projects funded by the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) and also highlights important projects that are representative of the key conceptual outcomes of the contemporary burnout knowledge base.
Initial Funded Burnout Projects
The USTA provided support for one of the first funded projects on athlete burnout. The reports emanating from the mixed-methods research endeavor were informative (e.g., Gould, Udry et al., 1996; Gould, Tuffey et al., 1996, 1997) and, not surprisingly given the high-profile nature of the project, have been influential. The investigation was grounded in Gould’s (1996) conceptualization of athlete burnout as a motivational response to sport participation. He maintained that the commonly reported decreases in sport motivation observed among athletes reported as being “burned out” were the result of their prior highly motivated sport engagement involving chronic exposure to stress in their sport involvements. In observing that the stress encountered by athletes could be psychological and/or the result of training stress, Gould argued that burnout could be experienced either psychologically or physically. Some support for his position was found among the elite adolescent tennis players taking part in the USTA study (Gould, Udry et al., 1996; Gould, Tuffey et al., 1996, 1997). Specifically, athlete burnout was associated with less adaptive forms of motivation (i.e., amotivation), lower self-reported use of coping skills, high levels of perfectionism, and social pressures from parents or coaches. This research was integral to the early understanding of athletes’ burnout experiences and served as a guide for much of the subsequent research conducted in the area. In sum, the USTA study was important even if its eclectic conceptual grounding and use of an early tenuous measure of athlete burnout present some challenges for interpretation.
A subsequent series of studies funded by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) also contributed to the knowledge base on athlete burnout on conceptual, measurement, and methodological accounts. As a starting point, interviews with 15 rugby athletes endorsing elevated burnout symptoms about their experiences with burnout supported the relevance of the burnout syndrome and highlighted several key burnout antecedents in the rugby environment, including competitive transitions, heavy playing and training demands, and social pressures to comply with demands despite physical or mental fatigue (Cresswell & Eklund, 2006c). A multitrait–multimethod assessment of athlete burnout measurement provided important evidence indicating that psychometrically valid and reliable data could be obtained with the ABQ and that burnout in elite rugby athletes was psychometrically related but nonetheless distinct from depression (Cresswell & Eklund, 2006b). Across the series of studies, consistent evidence was obtained indicating that athlete burnout was associated with less self-determined forms of motivation among professional and top amateur rugby players (Cresswell & Eklund, 2004, 2005b, 2005c).
The NZRU investigation also involved some of the earliest longitudinal research efforts, two of which were quantitative and one was qualitative. In the first instance, a 30-week “rugby year” monitoring study (Cresswell & Eklund, 2006a) was conducted to assess burnout experiences across time for athletes playing in multiple tournaments representing different teams (e.g., club, provincial, national) at different points in time. Data were collected from professional players (n = 109) at three time points (i.e., at the end of precompetitive training, approximately 10 weeks later during the season, and finally at approximately 30 weeks—during the final weeks of regular games). In hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) analyses, statistically significant variation was observed over time in burnout dimensions of reduced accomplishment and exhaustion but, contrary to expectations, in a nonlinear fashion. Players reported an increase in reduced accomplishment by the second time point, but further increases were not observed in the closing weeks of the rugby year. Changes on the exhaustion dimension varied across time by position (i.e., backfield and forward players), with the backs reporting a sharper decrease in exhaustion at midseason measurement than forwards and a subsequent sharper increase at the end of the competitive year.
In a separate study assessing both burnout and SDT motivational constructs, changes in burnout were again observed among athletes over the course of a 12-week tournament (Cresswell & Eklund, 2005a). Data in this tournament within the “rugby year” were also collected at three time points (pre-tournament, mid-tournament, and end of tournament) from professional rugby players (n = 102). Significant variation over time in burnout was only observed in the reduced accomplishment dimension, and a significant team by time interaction suggested that the variation was due to more than just game outcomes. As expected, amotivation was positively associated with end of tournament burnout, and self-determined motivation was inversely associated with burnout perceptions at this later period. A number of other pragmatic factors of interest were also associated with the key characteristics of burnout across time in the HLM analyses, including win/loss ratio, injury, starting status, playing position, experience, and team membership.
In the third longitudinal qualitative study (Cresswell & Eklund, 2007), interview data were obtained from professional players (n = 9) and members of team management (n = 3), and again at three time points (pre-season, mid-season and end of season) over a 12-month period. These data revealed that there was a dynamic element to athletes’ experiences of burnout over the course of the year that included periods of positive and negative change over the time frame. These data also suggested that elevations in perceptions of burnout were attributed to matters such as playing and training demands, competitive transitions, injury, and pressures from coaches/administrators, as well as from the media.
As with the USTA-funded project, the studies conducted in the NZRU project advanced the extant literature on athlete burnout on both conceptual and empirical grounds. Unlike the USTA project, however, the NZRU studies occurred at a time when other active programs of research were also emerging within the field—which is to say that research inquiry on athlete burnout was on the uptick at that time. Perhaps most notably, Lemyre and his colleagues (e.g., Lemyre, Hall, & Roberts, 2008; Lemyre, Treasure, & Roberts, 2006; Lemyre, Roberts, & Stray-Gundersen, 2007), as well as Lonsdale and his colleagues (e.g., Lonsdale, Hodge, & Rose, 2006, 2009; Hodge, Lonsdale, & Ng, 2008) were also conducting important studies on athlete burnout, also typically grounded in SDT, at a time overlapping with the NZRU studies. In short, subsequent to the USTA project and the arrival of the ABQ, athlete burnout has emerged as a topic of focal interest within sport psychology wherein the sophistication and number of articles published has noticeably increased year on year.
Theoretical Elaboration and Extension in Athlete Burnout Research
The bulk of the motivationally grounded athlete burnout research in the last decade or so has often been grounded in SDT although other theories (e.g., achievement goal theory) that also make differentiations in motivational qualities have also been employed. Sport psychology researchers have found considerable intuitive appeal in the notions that the quality of athlete motivation or athlete unsatisfied fundamental psychological needs might cause and/or mediate the emergence of aversive sport-based involvement experiences. Overall, theory testing investigations in the area, including cross-sectional and longitudinal designs, have been informative for developing understanding of processes involved in burnout in sport settings.
As a starting point, Lemyre and his colleagues (e.g., Lemyre et al., 2006, 2007, 2008) have conducted prospective design investigations that have been revealing in supporting a SDT explanation of the burnout experience among athletes. They examined the possibility that motivational shifts along a continuum of self-determination could predict athlete burnout symptom development over time among collegiate swimmers (n = 44). Variability in self-determined motivation over a season was indeed found to predict swimmers’ end-of-season burnout symptoms, with shifts toward less self-determined motivational regulations being associated with elevations in athlete burnout. In a related prospective investigation, Lemyre et al. (2007) examined the possibility that beginning-of-season motivation, as operationalized using a self-determination motivational continuum index, could predict end-of-season burnout in elite and junior elite winter sport athletes (n = 141). As expected, end-of-season burnout was significantly predicted by pre-season scores on the self-determined motivation continuum. Interestingly, the prediction of burnout was enhanced when symptoms of overtraining were also included in the analytic model. This pair of studies provided substantial evidence supporting the utility of self-determination theory for understanding athlete burnout. Specifically, athletes experiencing more self-determined forms of motivation endorsed lower burnout scores at the end of the training period assessed in each instance. In a related third study grounded in achievement goal theory rather than SDT, Lemyre, Hall, and Roberts (2008) reported athlete burnout to be positively associated with athlete-endorsed ego/outcome motivational climates (characterized by an emphasis on winning and social comparison) and negatively associated with task/mastery climates (characterized by an emphasis on individual effort and improvement). This pattern of findings was subsequently replicated and extended in research focused specifically on the motivational climate created by teammate peers (Smith, Gustafsson, & Hassmén, 2010) without reference to coaches, parents, or administrators.
Self-determined motivation has also been examined as a mediator of relationships with athlete burnout (e.g., Appleton & Hill, 2012; Curran, Appleton, Hill, & Hall, 2011; Jowett, Hill, Hall, & Curran, 2013) or, alternatively, as an adaptive psychological outcome in the study of athlete burnout (e.g., DeFreese & Smith, 2013b). Curran et al. (2011), for example, found support for the hypothesis that the relationship between harmonious passion and burnout would be mediated by self-determined motivation in cross-sectional data obtained from a sample of male elite junior soccer players (n = 149). In contrast, DeFreese and Smith (2013b) found teammate social support satisfaction and perceived availability of support to be both positively associated with self-determined motivation and negatively associated with burnout in cross-sectional data obtained from collegiate American football athletes (n = 235).
Finally, Lonsdale and Hodge (2011) considered the temporal question on the causal sequencing of relationships between burnout and self-determined motivation and showed that that lower levels of self-determined motivation preceded the development of burnout. Though not settling the matter of causal sequencing definitively, their findings did provide support for a self-determination theory grounded explanation of athlete burnout.
Relative to the basic psychological needs subtheory of SDT, researchers have also examined satisfaction of the fundamental psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and their association with burnout in athlete populations. Research on elite rugby players found that players classified as “high-burnouts” reported lower perceptions of need fulfillment compared to “low burnouts” (Hodge, Lonsdale, & Ng, 2008). Interestingly, however, research has also suggested that simultaneous satisfaction of psychological needs is associated with lower levels of athlete burnout than satisfaction of any psychological need individually (Perreault, Gaudreau, Lapointe, & Lacroix, 2007). Finally, an inverse relationship between psychological need satisfaction and athlete burnout has been reported in data from elite Canadian athletes (n = 201) showcasing self-determined motivation as a potential mediator of the relationship (Lonsdale, Hodge, & Rose, 2009). In sum, self-determination theory has received considerable support in the extant literature as an effective means to understand athlete motivation and psychological health outcomes, including burnout. That said, motivation may be understood through a variety of other theoretical conceptualizations (e.g., achievement goal theory, attribution theory). Acordingly, self-determination theory is not the only potentially useful motivational framework for the conceptual grounding of athlete burnout research.
Coaching and Athlete Burnout
Burnout researchers have also conducted studies examining the potential influence of sport-based social agents on athlete burnout. Of note, the impact of significant others (e.g., coaches) was highlighted in both the USTA and NZRU research programs. Thus, coaches are key members of the sport-based training and competition environment, and their influence on athletes is nontrivial. The idea that coaching styles and behaviors may contribute to the experiences of burnout among athletes seems logical, perhaps especially given earlier evidence that the burnout being experienced by coaches may elevate the risk of burnout among their athletes (Price & Weiss, 2000; Vealey, Armstrong, Comar, & Greenleaf, 1998). Recent theoretically grounded studies of coaching styles and behaviors relative to athlete burnout have revealed that coach interactions with athletes are worthy of consideration in the matter; perhaps even as a potential focus of burnout intervention efforts (e.g., Barcza-Renner, Eklund, Morin, & Habeeb, 2016; DeFreese et al., 2015; González, García-Merita, Castillo, & Balaguer, 2015).
As a first example, the González et al. (2015) longitudinal investigation implicates the leadership style provided by coaches in working with their athletes as a potential antecedent of athlete burnout. Specifically, González et al. (2015) reported the results of a two-season SDT-grounded prospective investigation of associations between athlete-perceived coaching styles and athlete outcomes of well- and ill-being (respectively, self-esteem and burnout). Among the 360 male youth soccer athletes sampled, athlete perceptions of an autonomy-supportive coaching style were found to be positively associated with self-esteem development across seasons and negatively associated with the development of burnout via a positive association with psychological need satisfaction and a negative association with psychological need thwarting. Athlete perceptions of a controlling coaching style, however, were negatively associated with development of self-esteem across seasons and positively associated with the development of burnout via negative association with psychological need satisfaction and positive association with psychological need thwarting. Ultimately, longitudinal assessment of the association of athlete perceptions of coaching behaviors with athlete burnout perceptions supports the idea that coaching styles may have a developmental impact on athlete psychological health and well-being. This position merits continued examination across athlete ages and competition levels.
Barcza-Renner et al. (2016) extended research in this area by examining the potential mediating effects of athlete perfectionism and motivation on the relationship between controlling coaching behaviors (as opposed to the more general controlling coaching style) and athlete burnout. Division I NCAA collegiate swimmers (n = 487) provided cross-sectional data for analysis within three weeks of their conference championship meet. Athlete perceptions of controlling coaching behavior were predictive of athletes’ socially prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism and their motivation (i.e., autonomous, amotivation). Specifically, self-oriented perfectionism was positively associated with autonomous motivation and negatively associated with amotivation. In contrast, socially prescribed perfectionism was negatively associated with autonomous motivation and positively associated with controlled motivation and amotivation. Autonomous motivation and amotivation, in turn, predicted athlete burnout in expected directions. Support for the potential mediating effects was observed in modeling results, with significant indirect effects across model pathways. Overall, these results also support self-determination theory contentions that the social context of engagement has motivational implications for the health and well-being of involved actors in sport.
An organizational psychology perspective that may be useful in the continued examination of athlete perceptions of social actors, including coaches, on their sport experience can be found in Leiter and Maslach’s (2004) areas of worklife conceptual framework. As adapted to sport by DeFreese et al. (2015), this framework is grounded in the notion that athletes’ satisfaction with perceptions of the congruence or “fit” of their interests/values as an athlete and the interests/values of actors in their sport organizations (i.e., coaches, administrators) have implications for their psychological outcomes. Incongruences were hypothesized to be associated with elevations in athlete burnout; whereas, good athlete-sport organization “fits” were expected to be associated with more adaptive psychological outcomes. Examination of data from a sample of collegiate American football athletes (n = 235) provided support for this conceptual perspective (DeFreese & Smith, 2013a). Regardless of the framework used, however, research to date supports the importance of coaches to their athletes’ sport-based burnout experiences. Overall, the athletes’ relationships with their coaches and other sport organizational social agents can shape their perceptions of sport involvement and burnout.
Ideographically Oriented Research on Burnout
The case study has been another important method for understanding individual differences in athlete burnout and the development of its symptoms. Gustafsson, Kenttä, Hassmén, Lundqvist, and Durand-Bush (2007), for example, conducted retrospective interviews with elite Scandinavian endurance athletes (n = 3). All athletes exhibited burnout syndrome dimensions as conceptualized by Raedeke (1997), Raedeke and Smith (2001), as well as the key conceptual burnout antecedents identified in the extant literature, including strong athletic identities and decreases in sport motivation associated with maladaptive sport commitment patterns over time. Moreover, all individuals in the study described their burnout symptoms to be negatively associated with their overall mood and athletic performance. Nonetheless, individualized contributors to burnout were evident in each case as well (i.e., stress levels, anxiety, injury). These findings were replicated and extended in a related interview study involving 12 Swedish athletes with elevated ABQ scores (Gustafsson, Hassmén, Kenttä, & Johansson, 2008). More specifically, this second study provided additional support for the conceptually linked burnout antecedents identified in this group’s previous work as well as highlighted the description of “total overload” from sport and life demands such as school. In sum, research on individual burnout cases has been integral to understanding symptom development in “burned-out” athletes, while largely supporting the results of nomothetic analyses of data obtained from larger athlete cohorts endorsing varying levels of burnout symptoms.
Selected Longitudinal Burnout Research Efforts
Longitudinal research studies on athlete burnout continue to grow in both number and impact on understanding of the phenomenon. Accordingly, recent research efforts have focused on longitudinal monitoring of burnout and its antecedents of perfectionism, social perceptions, and gender. These studies represent a positive trend toward further understanding of burnout development. Accordingly, we have selected recent studies that have had significant impact on the understanding of athlete burnout development (e.g., DeFreese & Smith, 2014; Isoard-Gautheur, Guillet-Descas, Gaudreau, & Chanal, 2015; Madigan, Stoeber, & Passfield, 2015, in press).
First, Madigan, Stoeber and Passfield (2015) examined perfectionism and burnout among junior sport academy athletes over three months of active training. Results of this two time-point assessment of advanced junior athletes (n = 101) indicated that perfectionistic concerns scores predicted heightened burnout levels over the study window, whereas perfectionistic striving scores predicted decreases in burnout over the same time period. These intriguing and suggestive findings on the potential contributions of different types of perfectionism to burnout development were limited by the two time-point investigative design. This research group’s subsequent, more sophisticated, three time-point analyses of data obtained from junior athletes (n = 141) attending sporting academies, however, further clarified the pattern of associations among these variables. Specifically, Madigan, Stoeber, & Passfield, (2016) found support for the perfectionism-burnout link to be mediated by athlete motivation. Within a three time-point multilevel structural equation model, autonomous motivation was found to mediate the negative relationship between perfectionistic strivings and burnout at both the between- and within-person levels. Controlled motivation, however, was found to only mediate the positive relationship between perfectionistic concerns and burnout at the between-person level. This pair of multipanel studies further highlights the relevance of understanding the potentially paradoxical effects of the different types of perfectionism on athlete burnout understanding as well as the potentially mediating effects of different qualities of sport motivation. This promising area merits continued examination in future athlete burnout research efforts.
Second, DeFreese and Smith (2014) examined the impact of social support and negative social interactions perceptions on athlete burnout and well-being (as indicated by life satisfaction) over four time points in a competitive season among 465 collegiate athletes. After accounting for commonly identified antecedents of athlete burnout (i.e., perceived stress, sport motivation, trait negative affect, trait optimism) across time, social support and negative social interactions were associated (respectively, negatively and positively) with athlete burnout across the competitive season. In contrast, the prediction of athlete life satisfaction across the competitive season by social support and negative social interactions exhibited relationships in the opposite directions to those observed in predicting athlete burnout (i.e., respectively positive and negative in association). Altogether, this study highlighted the importance of both the positive and negative athlete perceptions of the social environment to burnout and has serious implications for continued longitudinal burnout monitoring and prevention efforts.
Finally, Isoard-Gautheur, Guillet-Descas, Gaudreau, and Chanal’s (2015) recent report on the development of burnout among elite adolescent handball athletes at a national athlete training center in France sheds light on potential gender differences that might be implicated in the process. Their five-wave multiyear study of 895 male and female athletes (aged 13–18 years at initial data collection) highlighted significant decreases in the reduced accomplishment burnout dimension over time, with the effect being most pronounced for girls. Moreover, significantly different rates of change in the exhaustion dimension were observed in interactions with the sport devaluation dimension, with, interestingly, exhaustion being attenuated at times of higher levels of sport devaluation. Overall, however, sport devaluation tended to increase over the five-year period, and more so among girls than for boys. Ultimately, changes in the burnout syndrome facets of emotional and physical exhaustion (i.e., remained relatively stable across time) and reduced accomplishment (i.e., decreased across time) developed in a way that was developmentally consistent with athlete well-being across adolescence and relative to present-day gender differences in sport importance. This study provides a particularly good example of the integration of interests in simultaneously acquiring research and clinical knowledge through the developmental monitoring of burnout symptoms among athletes in elite performance programs. The consideration of other factors (e.g., training schedule, competitive level, perfectionistic tendencies) that may be reasonably expected to influence the experience of athlete burnout (as occurred with gender in this study) is also warranted in future, similar investigations. Certainly, the accumulation of knowledge on developmental trends and influences on burnout development when combined with well-tested explanatory theory offers the prospect of effective alternatives for clinical interventions designed to prevent or ameliorate the development of burnout symptom in the future.
Future Research Directions
One inherent problem with the discussion of future research directions on athlete burnout is that there can seem to be so many potential research areas that it can be difficult to decide where to start. This article presents some guidance on starting points for future research. The future burnout research directions identified are not meant to be exhaustive but, rather, to provide grist for a fruitful conversation among sport scientists and clinicians in designing studies to add to the knowledge base on burnout while also informing practice. The few future research directions on athlete burnout provided subsequently merit specific consideration at least on that account.
The adequacy of research and clinical practice rests substantially on the availability of measures that are suitable, reliable, and well validated. As a consequence, our first recommendation on future research directions is relative to athlete burnout measurement. The emergence of the ABQ, the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire, the most commonly used measure of the construct since its initial development in 1997, opened new horizons in athlete burnout research. Despite the resulting advances in athlete burnout research, recent discussion has pointed to the need to further improve the measurement of athlete burnout. Researchers should proceed cautiously on this front because measurement development should not be an end in itself; rather, it should be a matter that occurs in service of advancements in research or clinical purpose. Throughout its extensive in athlete populations varying on a variety of demographic dimensions (e.g., age, gender, sport, competitive level), the ABQ has consistently exhibited acceptable levels of reliability and validity (Raedeke & Smith, 2009).
Nonetheless, certainly no measure is perfect, and the ABQ is not an exception to that truism. Nonetheless, much work remains to be done in exploring ABQ scores relative to matters such as nomothetic and ideographic cut-points for elevated risk of consequences associated with burnout, its utility for monitoring the effectiveness of clinical or program based interventions, or matters relating to its suitability for use across a variety of situations and populations. Specifically, to ensure reliability in this key target population, which is most often examined through qualitative methods, continued measurement development is necessary in populations of “burned-out” athletes (i.e., those endorsing high levels of burnout symptoms). Such work represents a future research direction, with implications for both ongoing research and practice efforts relative to athlete burnout.
Measurement development may be useful for purposes beyond those initially envisaged for the ABQ. All the same, a well-informed sense of ABQ limitations, as well as current and future measurement needs, should be primary considerations if developmental efforts are to be fruitful. Thus, continued efforts to examine the reliability and validity of the ABQ are needed so that any move to refine or replace it is informed by identified measurement needs for research and/or clinical practice rather than simply being a quest to have a different measure. Continued research to optimize measurement of athlete burnout is needed, but it is also important to be mindful of the issues of conceptual confusion which have historically plagued understanding of this psychological construct. One area relative to ABQ advancement that has already been made apparent—a condensed version minimizing response burden (preferably providing data with similar reliability and validity properties)—could be very useful to researchers. Subject burden can be a compliance issue in longitudinal monitoring studies, particularly in studies that assess other psychological health and well-being variables. Hence, the availability of a reliable and valid short version of the ABQ is an avenue of fairly immediate interest.
Research efforts in organizational psychology have examined whether a temporal sequencing exists in the developmental progression of burnout dimensions. Specifically, it remains uncertain whether exhaustion (Leiter, 1989) or depersonalization (i.e., devaluation in sport) and accomplishment perceptions (Golembiewski, 1989) drive the overarching burnout experience for working professionals, but the possibilities are intriguing. Though support for these ideas in worker populations is still being established, it may be useful to assess potential developmental sequencing of burnout dimensions among athletes via the ABQ measurement. If we can identify a causal sequence between individual burnout symptoms and the overall burnout experience in sport, or perhaps point out alternative developmental patterns contingent upon particular individual differences (e.g., personality or dispositional attributes), researcher and clinician alike might be able to prevent burnout and provide treatment in sport. Because of the limited theoretical basis for this inquiry in sport, researchers should begin investigation cautiously, while strongly considering the possibility that a ubiquitous temporal sequencing may not exist in athlete populations.
Another area ripe for athlete burnout research is the role played by various sport-based social actors involved in preventing, attenuating, and (in some instances) exacerbating athlete burnout. These actors could include sports medicine or psychology clinicians, parents, coaches, spectators, or even media involved in conveying sport to the masses. Advancing understanding of perspectives on athlete burnout from these actors could build on previous work utilizing quantitative (survey), qualitative (interview), or mixed methods designs and extend further into experimental design or intervention evaluation studies. Specifically, further understanding of environmental social antecedents of burnout (e.g., social support, conflict) is needed to inform the development of psychoeducational interventions that utilize targeted social agents and their interactions with athletes as a means of burnout monitoring, prevention, and, when warranted, treatment.
Finally, longitudinal burnout monitoring efforts should be a feature of future research and, in particular, monitoring that includes biometric assessments. The previously mentioned foundational, longitudinal work has shed some light on the development of burnout in athlete samples, but research gaps remain in our understanding of variables moderating and mediating its progression. These gaps may start to be addressed via systematic monitoring during athletes’ intensive training and competitive periods as well as during less demanding (e.g., off-season) periods. Well-designed efforts, informed by relevant theory, to obtain data over time on relevant psychosocial and behavioral variables for monitoring and predictive purposes would advance knowledge on athlete burnout. The objective monitoring of biometric markers of health behaviors through “wearable” technology that is cost effective, portable, and user friendly merits further investigation in predicting the development of athlete burnout (Eklund & DeFreese, 2015). At present, the combination of these technologies with psychological assessments would be innovative for study in this area, and it may be longitudinally revealing. Improved understanding of these associations in athlete populations could ultimately inform the development of user-friendly applications to effectively monitor athlete burnout during training and/or competition.
Given the paucity of work in this area, and the many calls for research on athlete psychological health and well-being in an era of increased early sport specialization, the previously mentioned efforts merit extramural funding support. Hence, efforts to that end are encouraged. Interest in the long-term costs and benefits of sport participation will continue to grow among researchers and, more broadly, in contemporary society. Thus, the time is ripe for research efforts that track the development of athlete burnout over career-segments or entire careers via projects designed with both theory and practice (i.e., recognition, treatment) in mind.
The rule changes and educational recommendations implemented by the International Tennis Federation, as described by Hume (1985), do not stand alone among organizational initiatives to address concerns about athlete burnout, but, to date, systematic examination of the effectiveness of practical strategies to prevent and/or mitigate burnout symptoms among athletes has been limited. Specifically, no reports of evaluations of interventions on athlete burnout exist in the extant literature that can provide a basis for suggestions or recommendations for clinical practice. For that reason, intervention strategies based on extant theory and athlete burnout research are cautiously recommended. Accordingly, clinical judgment is especially important in managing athlete burnout, and all techniques touched upon should be tailored to the unique needs of the individual athlete.
One way clinicians and/or athletes themselves can help to lower burnout-related perceptions is to employ strategies to manage or cope with psychosocial stress in training and/or sport participation. A variety of stress management techniques (e.g., imagery, relaxation training, mindfulness) may provide effective coping resources for competitive athletes. Moreover, cognitive strategies to help athletes minimize their initial stress appraisals (i.e., normalization of stress responses to training or competition) could also be helpful. Ultimately, any strategy that may minimize the athlete’s initial stress response and/or help the athlete to cope with the resulting stress could have a long-term effect in preventing and treating burnout symptoms. This idea is bolstered by earlier commentaries on theory and practice relative to sport coaches (e.g., Fletcher & Scott, 2010), whereby stress management and the effective utilization of coping strategies is highlighted as a key precursor of more adaptive outcomes of involvement within the stress-inducing environment of competitive sport.
Strategies to support athletes in developing adaptive patterns of sport identification and commitment could also be effective in preventing or treating burnout. For example, efforts to expand potentially unidimensional athletic identities by facilitating at least one nonsport interest (e.g., academics, music, art) could be helpful in deterring or mitigating burnout. Additionally, reminding athletes of the benefits and enjoyable aspects of sport relative to alternative activities could be beneficial in minimizing burnout symptoms from a commitment perspective (Raedeke, 1997; Schmidt & Stein, 1991) as well as indirectly promote perceived control for athletes within sporting environments which may, at times, minimize their choice to participate (Coakley, 1992, 2009). Ultimately, regardless of the psychological and/or physical recovery strategies facilitated to promote positive athlete outcomes, continued sport participation, at least on an autonomous basis, is a choice that is often shaped by identity and control perceptions (Samuel & Tenenbaum, 2011). Having more complex, multifaceted self-identities may be more protective for athletes against maladaptive psychological health and well-being outcomes than having to rely solely on a strong exclusive athlete identity (Brewer, 1993; Van Raalte and Linder, 1999). Accordingly, competitive athletes with multifaceted self-identities and commitment patterns characterized by sport enjoyment may be less likely to develop burnout symptoms.
As previously observed, research has shown that more adaptive (i.e., self-determined) forms of motivation are associated with lower burnout in both cross-sectional and longitudinal study designs. Thus, efforts to shape the imperatives regulating athletes’ involvement in sport may be an effective strategy for combatting burnout for some athletes. Cognitive strategies to remind athletes of the inherently interesting (intrinsically motivating) aspects of sport could help promote more self-determined forms of motivation. Meanwhile, environmental strategies designed to enhance satisfaction of athletes’ psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness in sport may also be beneficial. Research has shown (see Li et al., 2013, for a review) that these psychological needs perceptions by athletes positively impact self-determined motivation for sport and are both directly and indirectly associated with lower self-report athlete burnout scores.
Athlete perceptions of the social environment created by coaches, teammates, and parents have been associated with athlete burnout perceptions. Accordingly, strategies designed to improve athlete access to and utilization of social support from important sport-based social actors and to cope with negative social interactions or conflict could be helpful as burnout prevention and treatment efforts (e.g., DeFreese & Smith, 2014, DeFreese et al., 2015. Smith et al., 2010). For example, clinicians, coaches, or teammates could develop strategies to promote social assimilation and minimize social isolation in their athletic environments. These socially driven burnout prevention/intervention strategies may have added benefits for clubs such as the promotion of team task and social cohesion and/or the development of intrateam friendships and acceptance. Thus, such strategies are both preventative and responsive to burnout symptoms, while not singling out individual athletes for a specific psychological “issue.” This may be particularly helpful as there could be some actual or perceived social stigma for athletes who admit they are “burned-out” (cf. Cresswell & Eklund, 2006c).
With the exception of the approaches mentioned above, environmental strategies are seldom recommended for burnout prevention and treatment because the onus is often put on the athletes themselves to “manage” their responses to their sport environments. Yet, other strategies to alter training and/or competition environments may also be helpful burnout interventions. For example, some sport environments may promote unreasonable amounts of stress, an all-or-nothing athletic identity, a thwarting of psychological needs, and/or a conflictual or isolating social environment. Accordingly, strategies to change sporting environments and to minimize the promotion of athlete burnout also warrant consideration. For example, techniques that help shape sport environments that promote athletic identities, stress levels, and motivational patterns that are less likely to yield “burned-out” athletes should be considered. These strategies could involve implementation of logistic changes such as training breaks (which may also address potential comorbid problems with the overtraining syndrome) and/or changes in training structure in order to increase novelty and motivation and prevent athlete boredom. Alternatively, leader-directed strategies such as autonomy supportive coaching (Mageua & Vallerand, 2003), which focus on providing athletes with choices and a rationale for coaching decisions, may also be helpful in structuring sport environments that are less likely to promote burnout. These efforts will likely require carefully educating coaches (Eklund & DeFreese, 2015) on how to support athletes’ autonomy without losing the control needed to properly instruct and develop their athletes both on and off the field.
To our knowledge, extant macrolevel efforts to manage and/or intervene upon burnout (i.e., excluding interventions conducted by therapists with individual athletes) have been largely limited to those conducted outside of sport in organizational or workplace spheres. Those efforts have had a primary focus on stress management (e.g., Ivancevich, Matteson, Freedman & Phillips, 1990; Munz, Kohler, & Greenberg, 2001). The results of such interventions have been promising, and, though differences between sport and work exist, such interventions may have usefulness for athletes. Ultimately, the appropriate transfer of such work-based intervention to sport may have benefits for stress management, burnout prevention, and, ultimately, the psychological health and well-being of athletes. Previously reviewed efforts in sport aimed at minimizing the stress and burnout of coaches could inform the development and assessment of such interventions with athletes (Fletcher & Scott, 2010). Efforts on the potential adaptation of the areas of worklife to sport (DeFreese et al., 2013a) may also aid in the translation of coach-based interventions, with potential flow-on effects for athletes.
Finally, clinical awareness, discriminative judgment, and appropriate consultation or referral, if needed, are required in working with athletes who present as experiencing burnout because of its overlapping symptomatology with other conditions (e.g., depression, overtraining syndrome). As a first example, the commonalities in the burnout and overtraining syndromes (e.g., exhaustion, mood disturbances, concerns about the performance adequacy) are striking, but they can be clinically misleading. Excessive training stress, however, is not requisite for developing the athlete burnout syndrome (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007), even if it may sometimes contribute to the athlete’s psychosocial stress (e.g., Gould, Tuffey et al., 1997).
On a different note, amotivation is often regarded as the motivational signature of athlete burnout (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). As noted by Kreher and Schwartz (2012), however, athletes suffering with the overtraining syndrome are often highly motivated and goal oriented, as indicated by their willingness to invest in even greater volume and intensity of training to address their concerns about underperformance and performance plateaus. Accordingly, these syndromes should be regarded as distinct conditions requiring intervention strategies that are not identical (Raglin, 1993). Selection of the appropriate intervention strategies requires proper recognition of the condition being experienced by the athlete, and the commonalities across these syndromes may be misleading in some instances.
The commonalities between burnout and depression have also long been recognized (Freudenberger, 1975; Glass & McKnight, 1996), including the overlapping presence of depressive cognitive styles (Bianchi & Schonfeld, 2016). Athletes dealing with burnout can have depressed moods, and depressed athletes can feel burned out, so symptomatology can be tangled. An important primary difference between burnout and clinical depression can be found in the experiential generality of the condition. Burnout tends to involve situational specificity of symptoms, at least during the early stages of burnout (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1997), whereas clinical depression involves symptomology that pervasively diminishes a person’s interest and pleasure in life (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Despite the potentially misleading commonalities, proper recognition of the condition being experienced by the athlete is paramount in providing suitable intervention treatment from a properly trained clinical specialist as directly as possible.
Integrating Research and Practice
Despite future intervention possibilities with respect to athlete burnout, experts in sport science and sports medicine have expressed concerns that injury and a variety of undesirable psychological outcomes are embedded nontrivial risks for young athletes involved in early sport specialization (Smucny, Parikh, & Pandya, 2015). The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, for example, has identified burnout in particular as a potential psychological health risk of early sport specialization for children and adolescents (LaPrade et al., 2016). This idea has been further bolstered by recommendations from pediatrics physicians to limit and carefully monitor youth sport specialization effects because of potentially aversive mental and physical health effects (Brenner & AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 2016). An in-depth discussion of the potential risks (and benefits) of early sport specialization is beyond the scope of this commentary, but it should be noted that sport specialization is growing in importance in both sport science and popular culture. The potential impact over time of early sport specialization on the development of athlete burnout among elite performers remains unclear.
At the same time, sports medicine physicians have identified burnout as one of the most important noninjury issues that they address in interactions with athlete patients of any age (Mann, Grana, Indelicato, O’Neill, & George, 2007). Therefore, burnout is relevant to those who are invested in supporting the psychological health and well-being of athletes of all ages. Accordingly, longitudinal investigative designs are likely to be very important in advancing understanding of potential links between burnout and important related issues like early sport specialization and injury. The integration of research and practice may be the most productive way to understand and monitor the development of athlete burnout, while simultaneously providing medical and/or psychological services (nonclinical or clinical) to those athletes who may need to improve their psychological health. For these reasons, the integration of research and practice is of interest to both sports medicine staff and governing bodies with the means to support such integrative work.
As an example, burnout monitoring efforts (i.e., efforts designed to decrease stress, improve coping skills, and enhance social support utilization) could be augmented so as to be clinically useful as well. Psychosocial and biometric monitoring data could be utilized as a clinical decision-making tool designed to refer athletes to burnout interventions or other therapeutic programming (e.g., management of stress, the overtraining syndrome, or clinical mental health issues). If burnout monitoring reveals possible clinical anxiety or depression, the athlete could be referred to the appropriately credentialed mental health specialist (e.g., clinical psychologist). Thus, research could help develop an effective decision-making algorithm for burnout (or other mental health symptoms) referral decisions from monitoring data as well as examine feasibility and effectiveness issues in any implicated interventions with the identified athletes. Given the paucity of published sport-based intervention studies to date, drawing from burnout intervention studies employed in professional settings (e.g., Rollins et al., 2016) may benefit efforts in this area. Altogether, the combination of athlete burnout monitoring and intervention efforts outlined in this article could have positive and substantive effects on athletes’ psychological health and well-being, and represent an innovative future direction for clinical research in sport.
Who Can Help in the Prevention and/or Remediation of Athlete Burnout
Individuals directly involved in athlete training and talent development (i.e., coaches, administrators, teammates) are well positioned to notice the signs and symptoms of burnout (e.g., chronic exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, sport devaluation). These individuals could therefore be important agents in integrated efforts to monitor and conduct research on athlete burnout. Some individuals in this group (e.g., coaches), pleading time constraints and absence of relevant training, could question their effectiveness in burnout research and practice. For these individuals, educationally oriented involvement in burnout monitoring could be beneficial for athletes in their appraisals and responses to training and, perhaps ultimately, their performance outcomes.
At the same time, coaches may have considerable intuitive insight into athlete burnout. Raedeke, Lunney, and Venables (2002), for example, explored the question of how coaches draw conclusions about burnout after monitoring their athletes. They asked swimming coaches (n = 13) to reflect on their opinions regarding the signs and antecedents of athlete burnout. The coaches generally characterized the symptoms of burnout in terms that were consistent with Raedeke’s (1997) conceptual definition but also included withdrawal from sport as symptomatic—the latter is considered a potential behavioral consequence of athlete burnout rather than being symptomatic per se (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). Moreover, these coaches described the antecedents or causes of athlete burnout in swimming as including outside pressures (e.g., parents, coaches, friend), self-pressure, peer comparison, as well as issues related to swimming autonomy and identity. In sum, understanding burnout is crucial in developing talent and promoting psychological well-being in sport, and of course, coaches and athletic administrators are crucial to such efforts. Accordingly, their efforts relative to burnout prevention and remediation (as well as relative to differentiating symptomatologies across the overtraining and burnout syndromes) may aid greatly in athlete training and performance outcomes as well as in psychological health and well-being.
Those tasked with caring for the mental and physical health of athletes are also essential in the area of athlete burnout practice, including the monitoring, prevention, and treatment of athlete burnout. Specifically, within the scope of their practice, team members of sports medicine (athletic trainers, sports medicine physicians, clinical sport psychologists) need to be prepared for clinical recognition of the symptoms of burnout among athletes (and able to distinguish burnout from other psychological health or maladaptive training response issues). Consequently, when symptoms merit it, these individuals should also be prepared to properly refer athletes to professionals with more specialized treatment expertise. This is especially true for issues of clinical mental health. In sum, collaboration among researchers, practitioners, coaches/administrators, and athletes themselves to improve athlete responses to training and competition is necessary for effective research and practice relative to burnout in sport. Communication among sports medicine team members and those tasked with talent development will likely produce the best outcomes for athletes relative to burnout. Consequently, when burnout is recognized in the athletes they serve, these individuals can work together to most effectively manage this negative psychological response and to promote more adaptive sport-based psychological outcomes.
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