The causes of burnout in athletes

I have formed a view, as a result of a lengthy career in Olympic Weightlifting, that the most difficult tasks of the coach are neither the instruction of Weightlifting technique,  nor the teaching of athletes how to train effectively. Though these activities are time consuming and require considerable learning to perform, there is yet another level of coaching that far exceeds in complexity. The hardest task is keeping athletes highly motivated over many years despite all that life throws at them. This article will examine the causes of burnout in athletes and what the coach and supporters of the athlete can reasonably do to mitigate the risks.

The initial Excitement

On a regular basis, I meet with eager new starters in Weightlifting wanting to solve the mystery of Weightlifting technique. Sometimes it is the case that, even at the outset, the beginner has sourced and studied videos of World class athletes. What they see is incredulous and they are overwhelmed with fascination at the skill, speed and strength of the Weightlifter and the weights lifted. In the initial stages, the beginner will apply themselves to the learning of Weightlifting technique with happiness, excitement, anticipation and be totally enthused with their own learning and achievement.

Soon, the athlete’s attention is turned to the discovery of the optimal training process. The quantification of volume and intensity, the seemingly infinite variations of exercises and the underlying principles of training will delight and perplex the beginner at the same time.

In short, the first few months of training in Weightlifting are a wonderment of learning, rapid improvement and a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment. A failure to complete every planned session, achieve every nuance of technique or even a gross neglect of needed flexibility work seems to not deter the progress of the athlete. Furthermore, the beginner athlete will arrive at the gym unworried by whether the impact of the day’s work will affect training and whether they can achieve the planned targets and training load. For the athlete at that moment, training will simply be a welcome antidote to whatever the day has thrown at them. For an hour or more, the athlete’s focus on training to the exclusion of all other cares and woes brings happiness, fulfillment and a sense of well-being.

Why does the situation change?

In the early stages of sport participation the investment of resources is relatively small and the pay back is generous. Whether the participant is 7 or 70, introduction to a new sport provides an expansion of opportunity for the individual to find new friends, to improve health and fitness and to ‘recreate’.  In Weightlifting, the beginner may invest 2-4 hours per week at the gym and incur regular but small financial costs for fees, personal equipment (lifting shoes and costume) and travel expenses.  While there may be considerable ‘effort’ to learn the new activity, improvement in skill and fitness is rapid and this amply justifies the financial and time investment.

This happy state of equilibrium continues until the participant progresses to a point where they aspire to goals that necessitate much higher levels of commitment. Training time now begins to significantly expand, costs spiral upwards and major decisions have to be made by the athlete and family. The weekly time budget is re-examined, commitments are rescheduled and decisions reluctantly made to drop leisure and non-essential activities to make space for additional training and competition. Furthermore, the household finance budget is impacted by lost hours of earning, the cost of competitions interstate and overseas, uniforms, training apparel, medical services and additional travel costs to training.  These adjustments will be made incrementally over time if the athlete and supporters perceive a realistic probability that further improvement will result in the short and long-term. In the justification process that follows the athlete and the family will begin to be aware of the significant sacrifices that are made in order to enter the elite levels of competition.

As the months and years roll by, it is probable that the individual and their supporters will on many occasions question the sufficiency of the return on their investment. In sport, there are many extraordinary examples of commitment by participants and supporters. Readers are encouraged to obtain a paper titled ‘Sacrifice: the lonely Olympic road’ by Wilding, Hunter-Thomas and Thomas (2012) which is freely available on the Internet. The paper details the extraordinary investment made by Laura Hunter-Thomas and family including arriving home after midnight from training, flying across the world for training camps and the family splitting apart to enable the athlete to move from the UK to the USA in pursuit of the perceived best training environment.

As the athlete sets a path toward high performance, it is therefore important for the athlete’s supporters to understand the pressure that will likely result. This pressure, if not well-managed, represents a risk to the athlete’s motivation and well-being and can ultimately have undesirable consequences for family and supporters.  The dimensions of this pressure have been investigated and reviewed by many authors including Hanton, Fletcher & Coughlan (2005), McKay et al (2008), Harwood & Knight (2009), Nunomura & Oliveria (2013), Taylor & Collins (2015). Harwood and Knight (2009) identified and separated stressors into three different groupings – (a) Organisational (b) Competitive (c) Developmental. The following tables attempt to provide examples in both a Weightlifting and a general context.

Table A: Organisational stressors
  • Transport logistics to training and competitions
  • Financial costs
  • Changing family activities to fit around competition/training,
  • Changing working hours or employment area
  • Holidays reorganised or cancelled
  • Siblings split between parents
  • Restriction of parent social life
  • Uneven distribution of family resources

 

Table B: Competitive stressors
  • Pressure to perform
  • Worries about performing poorly
  • Brooding over start weights and competition targets
  • Making weight (bodyweight categories)
  • Parental emotion on the day
  • Intimidation by competitors
  • Gossip and back-biting culture of parents
  • The ‘Spotlight Effect’ – constantly in the centre of one’s own world
  • Trust issues with coach(es)

 

Table C: Development stressors
  • Long term concerns about education needs
  • Uncertainty of future if sport plans don’t work out
  • Changing coach or club
  • Choosing competitions to attend
  • Lifestyle and the loneliness of the elite athlete

It is noteworthy that organisational stressors have been estimated to occur four times more frequently than competition stressors (Hanton, Fletcher & Coughlan, 2005). Therefore the potential impact of this form of stress on the athlete in terms of achieving long-term goals should be considered by coaches and supporters.

Burnout in athletes

Burnout is a commonly described phenomenon in all walks of life and its existence in sport is apparent even in the adolescent athlete. Factors that lead to burnout include high training volumes, demanding performance expectations, insufficient rest and recovery, injury, and chronic emotional and interpersonal conflict (Bean, Fortier, Post, & Chima, 2014). Often there is a “last straw” that seals the dropout of the athlete and it is quite possible that an adverse or uncharitable comment made by the athlete’s coach is all that it takes. However burnout is not just suffered by the athlete but also amongst the athlete’s family. Questions begin to be raised within the family unit of the merit of the lifestyle they are leading for merely a sport. The investment decision comes under increasing scrutiny and inevitably issues arising from participation are magnified. One such issue that is commonly reported by parents is a lack of information and guidance (Harwood & Knight). A lack of information would be expected to increase organisational stressors, e.g. not having early indications of the costs of an interstate trip, or not having a clear idea of the arrangement for an overseas trip.

It is clear therefore that the coach’s task is much greater than the teaching of skill and the provision of training programs if the athlete’s ultimate potential is to be achieved. The athlete must engage in highly motivated and productive training over many years and this objective requires the coach to understand the stressors that lead to burnout and to prioritize the physical and mental well-being of the athlete. Succeeding in this objective requires a great deal of support from those who are closest to the athlete and when the opportunity presents, it is helpful for the coach to have good lines of communication with the athlete’s supporters. Furthermore the coach must understand the importance of their own influence on the athlete’s motivation and the overall effect of the training environment they provide on the long-term progress of the athlete. As the experienced coach knows, it is a hard task to set the training environment tough enough so that athletes get the results they seek, but at the same time ensure that athletes are not subject to chronic and debilitating pressure.  In the quest for high performance, coaches should consider the implementation of strategies to mitigate against burnout (see Table D).

Table D: Mitigation strategies
Coach
  • Provision of information and guidance to parents
  • Set a positive task-oriented (empowering) training environment
  • Foster a supportive culture within the club
  • Prioritize physical and  mental wellness
  • Implement periodisation across the year
  • Avoid over-zealous training methods that increase risk of injury
Parents
  • Avoid criticizing or overly-providing feedback on athlete’s performance
  • Avoid over-emphasizing winning
  • Avoid expressing indebtedness of the athlete to parents or others
  • Seek counseling if stress within family becomes difficult
  • Help children to interpret sporting experiences
Coach and Parents
  • Teaching of life skills to the athlete
  • Act as role models for appropriate behaviour and attitudes
  • Plan the competition calendar well ahead
  • Take a long term-approach
Athlete
  • Avoid frequent drops in bodyweight to make weight for minor competitions
  • Reflect regularly why you do sport, and what is good about it
  • Avoid living up to other people’s expectations
  • Leave decisions about starting weights and competition plans to coaches where possible
  • Avoid constant worry and calculation about improvement needed
  • just keep taking lots of little steps, enjoying every challenge

Conclusion

Attaining elite status and representing one’s own nation on the world stage of sport is surely a dream of many a young participant. The question of what does it take to get to that exalted level of ability will be pondered by a great many but few will ever gain sufficient insight to be able to understand. This paper has endeavoured to present that success in sport requires the participant to endure years of exceptional commitment and to withstand multiple factors that lead to loss of motivation, exhaustion and burnout.
It is likely that athletes will, on many occasions, wonder whether they have the ability to go further with their sport. They will attempt to assess their own physical and mental characteristics, make comparisons with other athletes, appraise the abilities of their coach and evaluate the advantages of their present training circumstance to determine the possibility of future improvement. But is probable that, at moments of great success that instigate increased commitment to training, few athletes will see any possibility that their own level motivation will be the factor that lets them down. The athlete and family will receive no information or counseling that will prepare them for the impending pressure that success will bring or the difficult decisions that they will need to make. It is inevitable that the athlete will at times be exhausted by training, suffer injury and illness, and fall victim to weight of expectation on young shoulders. These stressors will be magnified if at the same time other aspects of the athlete’s life are in disarray including financial hardship, taxing study or work commitments, impoverished social experiences and relationship issues. The coach must be knowledgeable of these issues and provide tuition in life skills to the athlete and guidance to parents when the opportunity presents.

Bibliography

Wilding, A. J., Hunter-Thomas, L., & Thomas, R. (2012). Sacrifice: the lonely Olympic road. Reflective Practice, 13(3), 439-453.

Bean, C. N., Fortier, M., Post, C., & Chima, K. (2014). Understanding how organized youth sport may be harming individual players within the family unit: A literature review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(10), 10226-10268, doi:10.3390/ijerph111010226

Hanton, S., Fletcher, D., & Coughlan, G. (2005). Stress in elite sport performers: A comparative study of competitive and organizational stressors. Journal of sports sciences, 23(10), 1129-1141.

Harwood, C., & Knight, C. (2009). Stress in youth sport: A developmental investigation of tennis parents. Psychology of sport and exercise, 10(4), 447-456.

McKay, J., Niven, A. G., Lavallee, D., & White, A. (2008). Sources of strain among elite UK track athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 22(2), 143-163.

Nunomura, M., & Oliveira, M. S. (2013). Parents’ support in the sports career of young gymnasts. Science of Gymnastics Journal, 5-18.

Taylor, R. D., & Collins, D. (2015). Reviewing the family unit as a stakeholder in talent development: is it undervalued?. Quest, 67(3), 330-343.