Burnout in youth sport: Part 1 – What is burnout?

We’ve all had times when we’re feeling a bit tired and lacking motivation, when we don’t really feel like practicing or training, or when something we usually enjoy doing seems like a bit of a chore. More often than not, once we remind ourselves that we actually love what we do, or even take a few days off, we can get on with it and get back to enjoying our sport.

burnout_syndrom

What exactly is burnout? …Is this picture even relevant? …So many questions.

But sometimes that feeling can last a bit longer and feel that little bit more intense. I’m sure the coaches reading this can think of young athletes that display those characteristics. Maybe you’re the parent of a kid who’s lost interest in sport. Perhaps they’re experiencing burnout, but what exactly is burnout? What causes it? And what can we do to stop our young athletes from burning out and quitting before they’ve even got going?

This three-part post is going to address those questions. I’ll try to answer the first one here, and then see about the others in part two and part three.

What is burnout?

Well the definition of burnout, from a psychological sense, is “an enduring experiential syndrome of exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment1.” Ok. Great. So what the hell does that mean?

Well first of all it’s ‘enduring’, so if we feel a bit tired and demotivated for a few days, it’s probably not burnout. Burnout is something that takes a while to develop and an experience that lasts a fair while. As for the other parts, well, Exhaustion doesn’t just refer to physical fatigue, but is about feeling emotionally depleted too. Depersonalisation refers to a cynical attitude towards interactions with others, and Reduced Personal Accomplishment… well, that refers to feeling like we’re not really achieving much or that maybe we’re not that great at the sport after all.

The notion of burnout actually originated in work settings, but sport psychology researchers suggested that depersonalisation didn’t really apply to athletes, so ‘Sport Devaluation‘ was used instead2. This referred to the feeling of just not getting much out of the sport any more, or not really caring about sporting performance. So for athletes, burnout is characterised by long-lasting feelings of:

  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • Not really caring much about the sport
  • Underachievement

There has been some argument in the past as to whether actually quitting sport is a characteristic of burnout or not, and the general consensus seems to be that it is not. Some athletes who leave sport aren’t necessarily burned out and some athletes who experience burnout don’t necessarily leave the sport.

But leaving sport altogether is certainly a potential consequence of being burned out for a long period of time, along with depressed mood, reduced motivation, poor performances, and perhaps poor recovery from illness and injury3. So the consequences can be severe, even if the athlete stays in the sport.

A reduced sense of personal accomplishment?

Reduced personal accomplishment.

Do you recognise any of those symptoms or characteristics in athletes you coach, or perhaps your son or daughter is displaying some of those signs. 

Part two of this three-part blogpost will explore some of the different ways that we can explain why young athletes burn out.

Then in part three, we’ll look at how we can reduce the risk of burnout in youth sports.

Have you had experience of working with burned out athletes? Have you ever experienced burnout yourself? Leave a comment below if you like.

________________________________

References

  1. Maslach, C., & Jackson, S.E. (1986). MBI: Maslach Burnout Inventory; Manual Research Edition. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  2. Raedeke, T. D. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology19, 396-417.
  3. Cresswell, S. L., & Eklund, R. C. (2006). Athlete burnout: Conceptual confusion, current research and future directions. In S. Hanton & D. Mellalieu (Eds.), Literature Reviews in Sport Psychology (pp.91-126). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

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