Burnout in youth sport: Part 2 – Here comes the science part.

Quitting sport isn't the same as burnout, but it's a potential consequence!
Quitting sport isn’t the same as burnout, but it’s a potential consequence!

In part one of this three-part post on burnout in youth sport, we talked about what exactly burnout is. Essentially, long lasting feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation (not getting anything out it anymore) and reduced personal accomplishment (no sense of achievement). Here in part two, we’ll explore briefly explain some of the theories as to how and why burnout occurs.

What are the causes of burnout?

There are a number of different explanations for what causes burnout and, to be honest, it’s probably some combination of these explanations that lies at the heart of the matter, and as you read on, you’ll no doubt see some links between them. But I’ll try to explain them briefly anyway, as it might give some insight into how to prevent our young athletes from burnout out.

1. Stress.

The idea that burnout the end result of prolonged exposure to stress has perhaps been given the most attention. I’ve discussed stress before in another post, but basically, stress occurs when we think that we haven’t got the ability to cope with the various demands associated with competition, training, perhaps our personal lives, school etc., etc.

Anyway, if this goes on for a long time, burnout, (along with all some or all of the symptoms described in part one) is thought to be the result.

2. Commitment. 

Thomas Raedeke1 and his colleagues  suggested that people are committed to sport either by attraction (they do it because they want to do it), or entrapment (they do it because they feel they have to keep doing it).

There are loads of reasons why young athletes might feel trapped by their sport, including pressure from coaches or parents, not feeling like they have anything else to do, or that they’ve invested so much time and effort already that they might as well continue. But whatever the reason, Raedeke and his colleagues suggested that individuals who feel entrapped by (as opposed to attracted to) their sports were more likely to burn out.

Motivation linked to burnout

3. Motivation. 

I talked about self determination theory in another post about injury, and how we all have a need to feel in control (autonomy), to feel like we belong (relatedness), and to feel that we’re good at what we do (competence). When all three of these needs are satisfied, we’re generally intrinsically motivated, i.e., we take part in activities because we enjoy them.

Researchers have suggested that burnout is linked motivation, and one study in particular2 found that athletes who were more intrinsically motivated had lower burnout scores, while athletes with a lack of motivation (the opposite end of the scale) had higher burnout scores.

This study only showed that there was a link between motivation and burnout, not that a lack of intrinsic motivation caused burnout, but it’s an interesting idea anyway and, in some ways, linked to the commitment theory above.

4. Sport Culture. 

One other idea that’s worth a mention is that the way high-performance sport is organised leads to young athletes burning out or leaving sport early. After interviewing a group of young athletes back in the 90s, Jay Coakleysuggested that burnout was the result of young athletes not really developing much of an identity beyond their “athletic” role, and having little control over their lives.

So there we have it. Four explanations (described fairly briefly)  for burnout in sports. Like I said above, there are links between all four, and in fact, Henrik Gustafsson and his colleagues developed a model that integrated these explanations.

Understanding the theory helps us to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place. In part three, we’ll look at ways of helping to reduce the likelihood that our young athletes will experience burnout.



  1. Raedeke, T. D. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology19, 396-417.
  2. Cresswell, S. L., & Eklund, R. C. (2005). Motivation and burnout in professional rugby players. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport76(3), 370-376.
  3. Coakley, J. A. (1992). Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem. Sociology of Sport Journal9, 271-285.

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