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Athletes withdraw from sport for many different reasons: one potential reason is burnout. Burnout occurs when the rewards from sport participation (e.g., confidence, improving skills, teammate relationships) are no longer greater than the sacrifices of participation (e.g., pain, stress, excessive pressure). As a psychological condition, burnout in the sport arena is associated with fatigue, a decreased sense of personal accomplishment, and a lack of caring about one’s sport or personal performance. Although burnout can occur in athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, and officials, this entry will focus on athletes.
Precursors of Burnout
Two burnout models have been proposed. The first explains burnout as a response to chronic stress. In this model, athletes withdraw from sport when they do not think they can meet the demands of sport. The second model asserts that burnout occurs when athletes do not develop identities outside the realm of sport and when they perceive a lack of personal control. In both models, environmental and individual factors interact to produce burnout.
Specialization in one sport at an early age and year-round training, both environmental factors, may lead to burnout, especially in young athletes. Many believe that specialization in one sport must occur in order for athletes to reach their maximum potential and achievement. Within this environment, athletes may experience chronic stress due to excessive practice, time demands, and overuse injuries. Additionally, specialization limits athletes in their ability to create social relationships outside their sport, often resulting in a self-identity focused only on one’s sport involvement. Athletes may also experience tremendous pressure to practice and win from significant others in their lives. Pressure and high expectations from parents and coaches may result in stress, anxiety, and fear and is a potential predictor of burnout.
Perfectionism, often resulting in self-pressure or inappropriate expectations for success, is an individual factor that may lead athletes to experience burnout. Athletes who strive for perfection are at risk for burnout because they set unrealistic standards for themselves and devote large quantities of time to trying to achieve their high standards. Athletes who focus on the needs of others and lack assertiveness are susceptible to burnout: these athletes are often sensitive to criticism and ignore their own needs. Finally, athletes who experience high levels of anxiety are also at risk for burnout.
Signs and Symptoms
Because there are many different signs and symptoms of burnout, it is often difficult to detect in athletes. Physical signs of burnout include sleep disturbances, physical exhaustion, increased muscle soreness, decreased body weight, low energy, and overuse injuries (e.g., shin splints, stress fractures, “tennis” elbow).These physical signs of burnout are often the result of excessive training demands. Psychological signs of burnout include concentration problems, lack of caring, mood changes, negative affect or depression, emotional isolation, and increased anxiety.
Because of the psychological and physical consequences of burnout, it is important to take prevention measures. Athletes themselves need to maintain an optimistic outlook and focus on what they can control about their sport and their performance. This optimistic outlook can be created by setting short-term goals and learning self-regulation skills. By setting realistic yet challenging short-term goals, athletes receive feedback about their progress and maintain their motivation to continue striving for their goals. Self-regulation skills, including relaxation techniques, imagery, and positive self-talk, are important in dealing with the stress and pressures of sport participation. Proper communication is necessary among the social network (e.g., coaches, parents, teammates) of athletes. Within their social network, athletes should be able to express their feelings and frustrations about practice demands and competitions. Athletes also must take breaks during the season to ensure that they preserve their psychological and physical health.
The Role of Others
Parents and coaches can also work to prevent burnout in athletes. Both parents and coaches should allow athletes to be involved in decision-making opportunities— this helps athletes feel that they have control of their sporting experience. Parental and coach support should be given for all the athlete’s hard work and effort, not just for winning. Parents should help children prepare for competitions without putting excessive pressure or stress on them. It is also important that parents leave the coaching of their child to the coach. Additionally, parents should encourage their child to participate in a range of activities that they enjoy, instead of specializing in one sport at an early age. Coaches should maintain positive coaching standards and should avoid excessive use of punishment. Coaches should also have personal involvement with the athlete and work to understand his or her feelings and perspective.
Burnout is an important issue to consider in sport because it results in psychological and physical symptoms and may eventually lead to athletes withdrawing from sport. At present, the pervasiveness of burnout in the athletic population and the percentage of athletes who withdraw from sport due to burnout are unknown. As the rewards of sport—money, fame, medals—increase, it is likely that more athletes will specialize in one sport at earlier ages. Specialization often results in overtraining and an inability to form relationships outside of sport, thus increasing the likelihood of burnout to occur. Athletes, coaches, and parents should all take strategies to prevent burnout in athletes.
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