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Burnout in Sports (Research study review)

Updated on February 10, 2012

This is a research study review essay I wrote for my Sports Psychology class in University. The topic is relevant to many parents and coaches out there who push young athletes way too hard, which may actually hinder their progress in sports, rather than help, in addition to adding unneeded stress to an activity the child may have once enjoyed. I had heard an analogy that applies to burnout in which a coach had said that if you love pizza and you eat nothing but pizza for every single meal, every single day, pretty soon you will get sick of that too (in reference to forcing children who are forced into over training in their sport). This essay takes a look at two research studies in the field of burnout to prove it's affects on athletes and their long term development.


A neglected issue in sports in the past, burnout has become of growing concern in sport and exercise. Burnout in sport as defined by Raedeke and Smith (2001, p.283) as “ a psychological syndrome of emotional/physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation.” The evidence for the problem of burnout in sport may be found in athlete’s recounts on their experiences of burnout and their withdrawal from sport. Burnout may involve a psychological, emotional, and in some cases a physical withdrawal from a sport or activity the athlete once pursued and enjoyed (Cox, 2007, p. 430). In attempting to meet the overwhelming competitive pressures of sports many athletes experience conflicting physical, emotional, and mental demands which can in turn lead to burnout (Smith, 1986). Therefore, burnout can also be seen as a condition that results from excessive stress from an activity over an extended period of time. Athlete burnout has become of greater concern due to the potential performance decrements and negative welfare outcomes such as personal and family problems (Smith, 1986). Through a review of two studies on burnout it is understood that burnout is dynamic and multidimensional in nature and therefore may require many different intervention strategies, however this paper will focus on perhaps the two most widely accepted interventions for burnout; rest (time off from the offending activity) and relaxation.

Choosing an Intervention Strategy

It is important to first outline the reasoning behind selecting rest and relaxation as the proposed interventions of focus for burnout. As can be observed in the definition of burnout by Raedeke and Smith, the focus on burnout in this definition appears to be physical and mental exhaustion, reduced interest in sport, and reduced performance. An intervention that can encompass all of these facets of burnout appears to be taking time off from the offending activity or sport. The length of time taken off depends on the level of burnout and when the intervention is introduced. It is best to intervene at the earlier stages or prior to the onset of burnout to aid the interventions effectiveness and lessen the amount of time off needed by the athlete. Through time off from the sport, the athlete can recover from both mental and physical fatigue, and may find their interest in the sport re-sparked. This in turn will return the athlete to his/her original performance levels and allow for further performance improvements through a return of energy levels and motivation. The time off or rest can be pre-planned into the athletes schedule/annual plan such as after a gruelling schedule of numerous consecutive road/away games so that the athletes do not risk burning out. It is also important to make time for spontaneous breaks when the athlete feels symptoms of burn out. An assessment of the athlete’s burnout can be made using the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire or the Profile of Mood States (mood disturbance are one of the indicators of burnout in sport). The ABQ and POMS are tools that not only assess burnout, but can also be used to monitor the intervention being used by re-assessing burnout during the intervention. At the elite levels of sport competition taking time off may not always be an option. This is why a secondary intervention of using relaxation strategies is proposed. Through the use of relaxation strategies such as progressive relaxation, autogenic training, and meditation, athletes can manage the stress placed on them, both in sport and in their daily lives which may contribute to their potential burnout. An intervention of relaxation in conjunction with time off may serve as a means to recover physically and psychologically and offset the occurrence of burnout.

Study 1: "Experiences of Burnout Among Adolescent Female Gymnasts"

This paper will look at two published studies on burnout. The first study, “Experiences of Burnout Among Adolescent Female Gymnasts: Three Case studies” by Dubuc and colleagues (2010) considers the process of adolescent sport burnout in relation to perceived contributors, symptoms, and consequences. The researchers of this study conducted three case studies through interviews with three competitive female gymnasts, and at least one parent and coach about the gymnasts past burnout experiences. Subjects were selected using Raedecke and Smith’s Athlete Burnout Questionnaire, which is considered as the current most complete and objective method of assessing the multidimensional nature of burnout. The article includes a vignette of each of the three gymnast case studies which highlight the unique experiences of each gymnast, which in turn provides clinicians the opportunity to investigate the diverse dimensions of the burnout process. Although the respondents were not able to identify a clear progression to burnout, they believed that their fatigue, frustration, and decrease in motivation were early indicators of their burnout. Many similarities were found between the three respondents. First, all three respondents noted that they had challenges with maintaining balance between gymnastics and other commitments. As mentioned before, burnout is multidimensional in nature and as such the researchers proposed “finding a proper balance and prioritizing” as a coping strategy. The gymnast noted that maintaining balance between gymnastics and other commitments was a significant challenge, thus the proposed coping strategy of “finding a proper balance and prioritizing” may not be as easy as the researchers suggest. The commitments that the gymnasts have such as gymnastics, school, and social commitments all appear to have high priorities for these girls, thus it becomes difficult to manage. A better strategy would be to cope with stress that may be caused by all the commitments and the act of balancing them through relaxation strategies. If possible, depending on the level of gymnastics they are engaged in, a lighter gymnastics schedule can also relieve the pressure and time challenges these gymnasts face. Another similarity between the three case studies was that all three respondents believed that their sport was physically demanding, and consequently, being injured, and then training through injuries were a common challenge during their gymnastics experiences. An intervention of planned and spontaneous time off would be beneficial in regards to their injuries, both prior to injuries, so that they may not burnout and risk accidentally getting injured due to lack of focus during mentally demanding techniques, and after injury in order to help heal injuries and prevent or recover from burnout. There were also many differences identified across the three gymnast case studies which echo previous statements of burnout as being multidimensional in nature. The most noteworthy were the differences related to burnout symptoms. While some gymnasts expressed feelings of irritability, difficulty sleeping, feeling lonely, feeling stressed, these symptoms were not all shared by all of the gymnasts. The strength in this study was that the case studies produced much more detailed informational that would not be available through statistical methods. Furthermore, due to burnout research being in its infancy, a case study approach is appropriate and provides real examples of athletes suffering from burnout. The insight from not only athletes, but also parents and coaches also provided a more comprehensive understanding of burnout in youth sports. The weaknesses and limitations of this study also come from the method used. Case studies can also be very subjective and open to interpretation. It is also very difficult to generalize to other athletes, not only due to the method used, but also due to the very small sample of 3 athletes, a specific age group (adolescents), only females being used, sample from a single specific region, and the use of one specific sport (gymnastics) with very unique aspects not found in other sports. Another limitation comes in the use of retrospective interviewing which may lead to a recall bias by the respondents. Many of these limitations are acknowledged by the researchers and they suggest the cases should be examined through an individualized lens.

Study 2: “Changes in athlete burnout over a thirty-week “rugby year”"

The second study, “Changes in athlete burnout over a thirty-week “rugby year”" by Cresswell and Ecklund (2006) looked at professional New Zealand rugby union player (N=109) aged 19-32 and their experiences with burnout over a “rugby year” (30 weeks). In this longitudinal study, the researchers compared players reported burnout levels (as assessed by the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire) pre-competition, during the competitive phase and at the end of the competitive phase. The researchers then checked if a relationship exists between burnout and descriptive variables (injury status, playing position, starting status and teams) that have been said to contribute to burnout based on past cross-sectional research. The results in this study confirmed that the descriptive variables assessed in past cross-sectional research contribute to burnout and increase are greater towards the end of the competitive season, however the results indicate that they do not all increase in a simple linear pattern as the past research suggests. Some significant results from the study were that players reported that their feelings of reduced accomplishment increased pre-competition to in-competition phases. It was also found that changes in exhaustion over time were associated with playing position. Burnout was also related to injury, non-selection, sport experience and team membership. The result of this study provides evidence that athlete burnout fluctuates relative to changes in situational and environment demands, and player perceptions of the team environment. This study shows once again the multidimensional and dynamic nature of burnout, as such each one of the descriptive variables looked at in this paper may need different approaches when intervening. A strategy to deal with the effects of exhaustion would be time off or shorter practices for a period of time. Many of the variables looked at in this study deal with the athlete’s perceptions of themselves and/or the team. In these particular situations self-regulation strategies such as positive self talk, imagery, and goal setting, and cultivating a positive team environment may be appropriate in conjunction with relaxation strategies to reduce the perceived state of stress the athletes encounter. There are many strengths to this study; the use of a longitudinal study design spanning the entire rugby season allows us to see the dynamic nature of burnout as it changes throughout the season. The study also had a more then adequate sample size. The researchers looked at many variables that were associated with burnout and illustrated the multidimensional nature of burnout. While the subjects were of a specific sport and age in a specific country, the sport of rugby lends to greater generalizability then gymnastics in the previous study, due to rugby sharing many common characteristics with other popular sports (team selection, player positions, starting status, etc). Apart from the lack of generalizability in this study, the only true weakness was a lack of discussion on the possible interventions and coping strategies other then two lines stating the practical implications are to pay greater consideration to the descriptive variables mentioned.


Through a review of two studies on burnout it is understood that burnout is dynamic and multidimensional in nature and therefore may require many different intervention strategies. A strategy of “one intervention fits all” may not be appropriate as each unique symptom and cause may need to be addressed specifically and may require the use of more then one intervention. The interventions of rest and relaxation may be appropriate for many cases of burnout in conjunction with other more specific intervention strategies due to addressing the main problems of burnout as indicated by the definition of burnout by Raedeke and Smith.

Works Cited

Cox, R.H (2007). Sport psychology: concepts and applications (Eds). Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Cresswell, S. L., & Eklund, R. C. (2006). Changes in athlete burnout over a thirty- week ‘‘rugby year’’. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 9, 125–134

Dubuc, N.G., & Schinke, R.J., & Eys. M.A., & Battochio, R., Zaichkowky, L. (2010) Experiences of burnout among adolescent female gymnasts: Three case studies. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 1-18

Raedeke, T.D., & Smith, A.L. (2001). Development and preliminary validation of an athlete burnout measure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 23, 281-306

Smith, R.E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 36-50


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    • anahita-mahdi profile image

      Anahita 4 years ago from Toronto

      Great article!