Burnout in Athletics: An Article by Michael Hay
Burnout is a common issue amongst high level athletes. Understanding the possible causes and affects of burnout can help us deal with the symptoms and better manage our training and daily life when the grind of the season starts to wear us down. Before we discuss some of the different burnout models, it is important that we review some definitions as they pertain to the subject of burnout in athletics.
The deliberate strategy of exposing athletes to high volume and high intensity training loads that are followed by a lower training load, known as the rest or taper stage.
Refers to short cycles of training (lasting a few days to a few weeks) during which athletes expose themselves to excessive training loads that are near or at maximal capacity.
A physiological state of overtraining which manifests as deteriorated athletic readiness. The end result or outcome of overtraining when athletes have difficulty maintaining standard training regimens and can no longer achieve previous performance results.
A physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity. This withdrawal is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of personal accomplishment, low self esteem, depression, and sport devaluation as well as depersonalization.
Staleness and burnout are more common among elite level athletes (like us!)
Research indicates that once an athlete experiences staleness or burnout, this athlete is more likely to experience the negative effects later in their career.
Studies have also found that burnout can be a factor for coaches and exercise science professionals as well. Currently there are many different models for burnout amongst athletes, but most aspects can found as various combinations of the elements in the following five models:
Cognitive-Affective Stress Model:
In the first stage, termed situational demands, high demands are placed on the athlete, such as high volumes of physical practice or excessive pressure to win. In the second stage labeled cognitive appraisal, individuals interpret and appraise the situation. Some individuals will view the situation as more threatening than others will. The third stage focuses on physiological responses. If you appraise a situation as harmful or threatening, then over time as your perceptions become chronic, stress can produce physiological changes, such as increases in tension, irritability, and fatigue. In the fourth stage, behavioral responses, the physiological response leads to certain types of coping and task behaviors, such as decreased performance, interpersonal difficulties, and eventual withdrawal from activity. Reactions are often moderated by personality and motivation, different people react differently to stressful situations, much like how certain athletes react differently to anxiety. Burnout is a unique experience for every individual who suffers from it.
Negative-Training Stress Response Model:
Silva suggested that physical training stresses the athlete physically and psychologically and that it can have both positive and negative effects. Positive adaptation is the desired outcome, while the negative result of too much training may result in negative adaptation such as staleness and burnout. This model focuses on the physical aspect of training.
Unidimensional Identity Development and External Control Model:
Developed by Jay Coackley, it theorizes that burnout occurs because the structure of highly competitive sport does not allow youngsters to develop a normal identity; they don’t get to spend enough time with peers outside of competitive sports environments. Athletes focus their identity almost exclusively with success in sport, and when a lack of success or injury occurs, the result can be burnout. Additionally because the social worlds of young athletes are organized in such a way that their control and decision making are inhibited because most of their life decisions are made by coaches and parents, yielding feelings of helplessness, which in turn can lead to burnout.
Commitment and Entrapment Theory:
This theory contends that athletes compete because either they want to, they feel they have to, or both. In this model burnout is the result of being “entrapped” by a sport they do not really want to be involved in because their self identity is so tied to being an athlete, because they lack attractive alternatives to sport, or because they believe they have invested too much time and energy into the sport to stop participating.
This theory holds that burnout is the result of one or more of the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) not being met.
There are many factors that are theorized to lead to burnout:
- Starting competitive sports at too young an age
- Pressure to turn pro at a young age
- Early specialization and excessive training, limited to no off-season
- Volume of training (directly proportional)
- Non-sport stress
- Physical concerns (injury, overtraining, exhaustion, etc.)
- Logistical concerns (travel grind)
- Social or interpersonal concerns such as dissatisfaction with social life, negative team atmosphere, etc.
- Psychological concerns (unfulfilled or inappropriate expectation, lack of enjoyment etc.)
It is important to reflect on the issues that are most relevant to you if you feel as though you are suffering from symptoms of burnout or staleness. The most important thing that you can do is verbalize your feelings to a coach or counselor who can address your best interests and help you make the best decisions in order to help alleviate your symptoms.