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Understanding Student-Athlete Burnout

By: Keith A. Kaufman, Ph.D.

There is a school of thought in American sport today that “more is better.”  Parents and coaches, perhaps dreaming of the spoils of athletic success, are encouraging kids at increasingly younger ages to specialize in a particular sport and to commit to year-round training in it.  Cutting-edge physical training programs frequently require overloading athletes to obtain maximum training gains.  The pressures to do and achieve more keep growing, and far too rarely is consideration given to the costs of operating in this non-stop fashion.  In reality, however, the human body needs recovery to thrive.  Without it, performance can begin to suffer and/or an athlete can start breaking down.  The state of burnout is often regarded as the endpoint of this breakdown process and is characterized by the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.

What leads to burnout is too much training stress coupled with too little recovery.  Training stress can come from a variety of sources on and off the field, such as physical, travel, time, academic or social demands (e.g., Metzler, 2002).  Multiple models have been developed to explain how the burnout process unfolds.  One of them, proposed by Silva (1990), conceptualizes burnout as a training stress syndrome where too much stress can first produce staleness, then overtraining, and eventually burnout.  Staleness is defined by a clear drop in athlete motivation and a plateau in performance. Overtrained athletes often exhibit psychophysiological malfunctions and performance declines.  According to Silva and many other sport scientists who have studied burnout, the only way to halt this cycle is to rest, usually not a satisfying prescription to athletes who feel they cannot stop and want to “push through” their negative symptoms.  Raedeke (1997) has suggested that an x-factor in burnout could be a sense of being trapped by circumstances within a sport.  In other words, an athlete may recognize a need to stop, but feel compelled to continue (e.g., to keep a scholarship or starting role), which can further exacerbate training stress.  

Another factor that can contribute to burnout is the nature of an athlete’s motivation.  Youths in our culture typically get involved with sports for intrinsic reasons like having fun, learning new skills, getting exercise and making new friends (e.g., Ewing & Seefeldt, 1989).  Intrinsic motivation has been linked to superior athletic performance, including the peak performance state known as flow (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  However, what tends to happen as athletes advance through levels of competition is that their motivation shifts toward extrinsic rewards such as trophies, scholarships, money, celebrity or approval.  Participation stops being only about the joy of partaking in the sport itself and becomes more about what can be obtained through the sport, a change that often brings a ton of added pressure with it.  Athletes can sometimes end up feeling controlled by the very rewards they are pursuing, which may undermine their raw desire to participate in their sport and create a sense of being trapped, potentially fueling burnout (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).         

Research on the prevalence of staleness, overtraining and burnout is sparse.  Silva (1990) surveyed student-athletes from the Atlantic Coast Conference and found that 72 percent endorsed experiencing some staleness during their sport seasons, 66 percent believed they had experienced overtraining (with the average being two experiences during their college careers), and 47 percent reported feeling burned out at some point during their collegiate career.  Gustafsson, Kentta, Hassmen, and Lindquist (2007) studied 980 elite adolescent athletes and found that 1 percent to 9percent of female athletes and 2 percent to 6 percent of male atheltes had experienced symptoms of high-level burnout.  Certain burnout cycle symptoms can look a lot like clinical depression, so it is valid to wonder how our understanding of its prevalence has been impacted by misdiagnosis.  In my practice, I have encountered athletes who had been diagnosed with depression and even put on antidepressant medication by mental health professionals, when, in fact, they were burning out in their sport.  Making this differential diagnosis can be difficult, but it is critical to ensuring that the proper course of treatment is followed.

It is important that athletics staff educate themselves about the symptoms of burnout and actively monitor student-athletes with whom they work for signs of this cycle occurring.  Among the red flags to watch out for are changes in emotions (e.g., irritability, moodiness, disinterest), cognitive functioning (e.g., difficulties concentrating), decreases in strength and coordination, physiological changes (e.g., appetite loss, increased resting heart rate), and greater susceptibility to illness (Etzel, Watson, Visek, & Maniar, 2006).  As Reynolds (2008) put it, there is no mystery about the prescription for treating burnout: rest, rest and more rest.  Other potential interventions may include setting short-term goals to bolster motivation, incorporating fun activities into the rigors of training, and practicing stress-reduction techniques like meditation and visualization (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  Mindfulness-based interventions, like Kaufman, Glass, and Pineau’s (in press) Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE), could be an emerging approach to help prevent and treat burnout.  A recent TIME Magazine cover story (Pickert, 2014) praised mindfulness as a means to pause and recover in an era when it feels like stopping and unplugging is an impossibility. More is better continues to be emphasized in the world of sport, but the reality is that sometimes, less is more.  

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Etzel, E. F., Watson, J. C., Visek, A. J., Maniar, S. D. (2006). Understanding and promoting college student-athlete health: Essential issues for student affairs professionals. NASPA Journal, 43, 518-546.

Ewing, M. E., & Seefeldt, V. (1989). Participation and attrition patterns in American agency-sponsored and interscholastic sports: An executive summary. Final Report. North Palm Beach, FL: Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Gustafsson, H., Kentta, G., Hassmen, P., & Lindquist, C. (2007). Prevalence of burnout in competitive adolescent athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 21-27.

Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Pineau, T. R. (in press). Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: A mindfulness-based mental training program for athletes. Washington,DC: American Psychological Association.

Metzler, J. (2002). Applying motivational principles to individual athletes. In J. M. Silva & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 80-106). Boston:Allyn and Bacon. 

Pickert, K. (2014, February 3). The mindful revolution: Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently. TIME Magazine, 40-46.

Raedeke, T. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19, 396-417.

Reynolds, G. (2008, March 2). Crash and burnout. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Silva, J. M. (1990). An analysis of the training stress syndrome in competitive athletics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 5-20.

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

About Dr. Kaufman

Dr. Keith A. Kaufman is a licensed psychologist who specializes in the mental training of athletes and others who wish to improve their health and performance.  He has office locations in Washington, DC and Alexandria, Virginia, and is a Research Associate at Catholic University.  Dr. Kaufman has co-developed an influential training program for athletes called Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE). Dr. Kaufman received his B.A. in both Psychology and Exercise & Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received the Patrick F. Earey Award to the outstanding senior Exercise & Sport Science major.  He obtained his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Catholic University.  Dr. Kaufman can be contacted through his websites: www.KeithKaufmanPhD.com and www.MindfulCompetitor.com.