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Athlete Burnout

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Athlete ‘Burnout’ is increasingly becoming a major factor that negatively influences high level performance across a diverse num,ber of sporting disciplines.


The psychological term ‘burnout’ first started to appear in the media in the 1970’s, early research focused particularly on burnout within professions such as nursing and law enforcement. Since that time burnout is now recognized as a growing problem in professional sport, with an increasing number of games and competitions in this now multi-million pound industry, the pressure to succeed is greater than ever before. This essay will examine burnout within a sporting context, early research in sport focused on the overtraining syndrome which primarily looked at the associated physical signs and symptoms, however it is now recognized that overtraining can be linked to a complex interaction of physiological and psychological stresses leading to a state known as burnout (Cresswell and Eklund, 2003; Weinberg and Gould, 2003). In order for an individual to function optimally, it requires an ability to balance physical and mental stresses in equilibrium; if an individual has an overload in either it can severely affect the other state leaving the individual more susceptible to burnout.

Figure 1-Factors of Burnout

Theoretical explanation of Athletic Burnout

Burnout is a complex multi-dimensional concept which appears to be due to an exhaustive psycho-physiological response; previously it has been explained using theoretical models. Three of these sport specific models have received scientific support (Weinberg and Gould 2003). However all approach this matter from a slightly different angle, Smith (1986) designed a cognitive-affective model which acknowledged the high physical/mental pressures and demands placed upon athletes, which are perceived differently by individuals leading to a final resultant of stress or burnout. Silva (1990) developed a negative-training response model which illustrated that physical training in athletes causes physiological and psychological responses which can be both positive and negative. Too much training without sufficient recovery can lead to negative responses which can lead to staleness and overtraining and eventually burnout. Finally Coakley (1992) focused on the sociological nature of burnout believing it to stem from external pressures placed upon the athlete particularly when they were young by parents and coaches. He believes that this causes a loss of normal identity, as most decisions are not made by them, and unrealistic expectations are placed upon them. These external pressures make them feel like failures if they don’t achieve this sporting success, thus increasing pressure and causing burnout.

All three of these models cover some of the broad contributing factors which can lead to burnout; however none of these models cover all the factors exclusively.  To fully aid the practitioner in dealing with athlete burnout, it would be useful to combine all three models into a multi-dimensional hybrid model so an individual intervention program can be set and implemented by the practitioner. An example of such a model is illustrated at the end of this section (Figure 2).

 There are massive amounts of anecdotal evidence regarding athlete burnout, stories of new young sensations in sport bursting on to the professional scene, figures such as George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Boris Becker and Jennifer Capriati, sports people of immense talent who one way or another never fully fulfilled their potential. Although these characters were successful, they never really fully dealt with the accompanying pressures and their careers ended somewhat prematurely in an unspectacular fashion.  

To substantiate burnout and to investigate these anecdotal claims researchers have developed tools such as the Profile of Mood States questionnaire (POMS), used in studies to assess psychological moods in relation to physical stress (overtraining) during the training/competitive season (Morgan et al., 1987; Murphy et al., 1990).The more widely used and accepted Maslach Burnout Inventory measures three components of burnout; emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment. This has been adapted by some researchers to be more sport-specific (Weinberg and Richardson, 1990; Eades, 1991), and more recently the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (Raedeke and Smith, 2001).

There is a clear link between overtraining and burnout, in the ‘real world’ some coaches and trainers have long used deliberate periodized training strategies in order for the body to adapt and offset the negative side-effects which can lead to staleness, injury or burnout (O’Connor, 1997). Although overtraining and burnout are overlapping syndromes, research has illustrated that burnout can still occur in the absence of excessive physical training Gould et al. (1996), so it is of the uppermost importance that the practitioner treats each athlete as an individual as each athlete can tolerate different levels of physical and psychological stress. Loads that may be too great for one may be optimal for another.

Figure 2-Authors multi-dimensional adapted model of the burnout process

Applied examples of burnout in the mass media

Athlete burnout is becoming increasingly more of a problem to coaches and managers, typically managers complain regularly in the press at the traditional Christmas and Easter holiday period of games which overloads their players. Some of today’s richer professional football clubs have the luxury of being able to rest players and implement a squad rotation system in order to create optimal performance.

 In other professional sports where clubs are not as rich, this is not always an option, just recently Daniel Anderson the St Helens Rugby League Coach said that his players were “listless and without quality” after playing three games in eight days. In such a hard physical sport this sort of schedule makes it “very tough to recover.” Anderson decided to cancel the day’s scheduled training session.


Previously under their former coach Ian Millward, St Helens had fielded a virtual reserve team at this time, only later to be fined by the RFL for fielding a weakened team which they felt devalued the game and exploited the fans. In the higher profile game of rugby union player burnout is an even bigger problem, the RFU commissioned a study into burnout and player welfare; as a result they increased the clubs player salary cap by £2,000,000. The salary cap exists so each club can only spend the same maximum amount on player salaries per year, thus hopefully preventing one or two mega-rich clubs from dominating the game and maintaining nationwide interest. Further to the study chief executive Howard Thomas said “that he wanted each premiership side to have more than forty players.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_union/english4266267.stm.

 In rugby union during international week’s club rugby carries on as normal in direct contrast to professional football, where in England premiership games are temporarily suspended.

Footballers often complain about the number of games they have to play and this has been blamed for the amount of injuries top players are getting and their poor performances in major tournaments. As a result UEFA reduced the number of Champions League games clubs must play in their competition on the advice of Professor Jiri Dvorak FIFA’S chief medical officer http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/2275615.stm.

Professional footballers are of a higher profile than most other professional sportsmen, and are constantly under the spotlight, but most top clubs do implement a squad rotation system and generally most get two months off at the end of the season. In Gaelic football the season spans twelve months, Cavan manager Martin McElkennon is calling for an end of season break, he is quoted as saying “it’s one of the reasons why older players don’t play at this level any more.”  http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/northern_ireland/gaelic_games/4540260.stm

Strategies to combat burnout

As burnout can occur in any individual regardless of sex, age, or level (Gould et al., 1996; Kelley et al., 1999) it is essential that strategies are put in place to prevent and combat burnout. Figure 3 shows a diagram to illustrate how psycho-physiological strategies inter-act.

Figure 3-Psycho-Physiological Interaction of Strategies







The table below shows personal/situational strategies that can be implemented by coaches/individuals to combat burnout.




Social life with friends away from their sport

Balance professional and family life

Make own time

Set realistic goals/ peak for certain events

Regular assessment of these goals

Get to know players as individuals

Protect younger squad members

Limit media obligations

Actively talk about issues to family, friends, fellow players, support team

Squad Rotation systems

Give mid season breaks

Talk to older more experienced peers

Identify excessive training workloads

Learn Stress Management skills

Use relaxation techniques/imagery

Use a variety of training methods

Make training fun

Stay in good physical shape

Encourage player input

Keep a positive outlook

Minimize the impact of travel strain

Team building exercises/trips holidays including family members where possible

Research by Cresswell and Eklund (2002) suggests assisted player planning of squad rotation systems to keep key squad members fresh, management of training loads and scheduled rests for players. This appears a strategy that is currently implemented by clubs which is directly related to Silva’s negative-training stress response model (1990). A common finding of the research is the perception of excessive workload and stress being specific to the individual; therefore it is vital that the coach can familiarize themselves with their athletes to aid communication and thus relate to each athlete making them feel valued (Gould et al., 1996; Hendrix et al., 2000; Weinberg and Gould, 2003). Players like to feel valued and often perceive a lack of choice or influence on team situations as stressful (Cresswell and Eklund, 2002). A key strategy to prevent staleness is to set achievable short-term goals which leads to enhanced long-term motivation; this also promotes communication and feedback between athlete and coach. Other key strategies include rewarding hard work with fun orientated training sessions where a variety of games can be played and mid/end of season breaks where un-related activities are offered (Weinberg and Gould, 2003). National squads before major tournaments usually offer activities to build team spirit and prevent boredom.

Athletes, players and parents need to be educated regarding the personal strategies that they can employ to help prevent burnout. Injured players should be given as much information as to their injury to educate themselves and get them to be actively involved and buy into the rehabilitation process. Psychological techniques such as self imagery and positive self-talk should be offered to the individual, in some cases this has been thought to enhance the healing process.

Gould et al. (1996) illustrated multiple psychological pressures of American junior tennis players who self-reported parental pressures, lack of friends, negative atmosphere and unrealistic goals as some of their main concerns which led to a lack of enjoyment, de-motivation and ultimately wanting no longer to participate in their sport. This finding fits in with Coakley’s model (1992) which contended that sociological pressures led to lessened intrinsic motivation, and Smith’s model (1986).

Implications for applied practice for the Sports Rehabilitator

The Sports Rehabilitator is an integral part of the support team responsible for the performance and welfare of all individuals at a club. As a professional it is their responsibility to provide the best care possible for their players. In today’s sporting environment just physically treating injured players is only part of the role the rehabilitator must take on in order to provide the ultimate care. The rehabilitator spends many hours with players and must take on a multi-dimensional role; players must have faith in who treats them so the rehabilitator must firstly form an excellent relationship with the players. This relationship must be built on trust and honesty as sometimes vital joint decisions between player, rehabilitator and manager must be made. If a foundation of trust exists the rehabilitator often provides a port of call for individuals to vent their frustrations, this often gives a further avenue of support to players and importantly gives the practitioner further information of the player’s character. This thorough knowledge of an individual is vital in successfully implementing rehab programs specific to the individual when in some cases the practitioner and player have to spend many hours together. Injured players attitude may well fluctuate during rehabilitation the practitioner must be able to keep the player positive and motivated. In summary the rehabilitator must be an excellent people-person, a good listener and observer and at all times deliver the best care they can to their players.


Sport in the 21st century is a multi-million pound business; with the increasing amount of money that exists in sport today, players are becoming extremely valuable commodities. The increasing amount of money leads to an increased amount of pressure on players who are constantly in the public eye having to deal with sponsorship commitments and the global media. Top players are superstars who are unable to lead ‘normal lives’, these pressures and demands have increased on the players and inevitably will lead to the increased occurrence of burnout, although burnout is not exclusive to professional sportsmen. Top professional clubs appear to implement strategies to protect their valuable assets, but at lower levels these situational strategies are usually not a financially viable option available to clubs, therefore it is vital that staff at clubs can educate and implement strategies in order to protect the youngsters of today who may be our champions of tomorrow.

Total word count 2,183.

Actual word count 1,957


BBC SPORT 18 December 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/northern_ireland/gaelic_games/4540260.stm

Accessed 05 May 2006.

BBC SPORT 23 September 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/2275615.stm.

Accessed 26 April 2006

BBC SPORT 25 April 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_league/st_helens/4943020.stm.

Accessed 26 April 2006.

BBC SPORT 15 February 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_union/english4266267.stm.

Accessed 26 April 2006.

Coakley,J. (1992). Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem? Sociology of sport journal, 9, 271-285.

Cresswell,S.L. and Eklund, R.C. (2002). Key questions on player burnout. Unpublished paper in conjunction with the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. 1-8.

Cresswell,S.L. and Eklund, R.C. (2003). The athlete burnout syndrome: A practitioner’s guide. New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine, 31, 4-9.

Eades, A. (1991). An investigation of burnout in intercollegiate athletes. Paper presented at the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity National Conference , Asilomar, CA.

Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S. and Loehr, J. (1996). Burnout in competitive Junior Tennis Players. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 322-340.

Hendrix, A.E., Acevedo, E.O. and Herbert, E. (2002). An Examination of Stress and Burnout in Certified Athletic Trainers at Division I-A Universities. Journal of Athletic Training, 35, 139-144.

Kelley, B.C., Eklund, R.C. and Ritter-Taylor, M. (1999). Stress and burnout among collegiate tennis coaches. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 21, 113-130.

Morgan, W.P., O’Connor, P.J., Sparling, P.B. and Pate, R.R. (1987). Psychological characterization of the elite female distance runner. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 8, 124-131.

Murphy, S.M., Fleck, S.J., Dudley, G. and Callister, R. (1990).  Psychological and performance concomitants of increased volume training in athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 34-50.

O’Connor, P.J. (1997). Overtraining and Staleness. In Weinberg and Gould, 2003. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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

Silva,J.M. (1990). An analysis of the training stress syndrome in competitive athletics.

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

Weinberg, R.S. and Gould, D. (2003). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Weinberg, R.S. and Richardson, P.A. (1990). Psychology of Officiating. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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