Strategies to Help Athletes Avoid and Deal With Burnout

From Best Practice for Youth Sport by Robin Vealey and Melissa Chase as posted by the Coaches Association of Ontario

Did you ever experience burnout as a youth athlete?  How can we as coaches reduce the possibility and impact of burnout in athletes?

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We all have a vague understanding of burnout, but should we advise our athletes to drop out, take a break, make some changes, or suck it up? Because burnout is a popular term, we need to carefully consider what is true and not true about burnout in youth athletes.

Burnout is a negative psychological and physical state in which young athletes feel tired, less able to perform well, and less interested in playing their sports. Three symptoms characterize burnout.

  • Physical and Emotional Exhaustion
    • The exhaustion associated with burnout involves the depletion of emotional and physical resources beyond the typical tiredness that comes and goes throughout a sport season.
  • Reduced Sport Accomplishment
    • A lack of performance success or inconsistent performance, or it can be more about the perception on the part of the athlete that he/she is not playing up to his/her potential.
  • Devaluation of Sport
    • The athlete doesn’t care as much about his/her sport. Athletes may say “I’m sick of doing this”; “I don’t care about playing anymore”; or “It’s just not fun anymore.” Another common symptom is questioning things – for example, “Why am I doing this?”

Several factors contribute to burnout in youth athletes:

Factors Related to Burnout in Youth Athletes
Overload Factors Social Climate Factors Personality Factors
Overstress Pressure from parents Trait anxiety
Overtraining Negative coaching behaviours Weak coping skills
Staleness Feeling trapped in sport participation Negative perfectionism
Lack of personal control Obsessive passion
Unidimensional identity

Overload factors represent what people usually think about when they hear that someone is burned out. Overstress involves demand that exceeds athletes’ abilities to cope, such as when they are overloaded without adequate physical and mental recovery. Overtraining is the result of excessive training and inadequate recovery, which typically leads to decreased performance and psychological distress (Richardson, Andersen, & Morris, 2008). Some overload is needed to induce a training effect and improved performance, but too much overload without adequate recovery results in decreased performance (called staleness), exhaustion, decreased interest in training, and negative moods (burnout).

Social climate contributors to burnout are those negative aspects of the youth sport culture that are harmful to the psychological development and well-being of kids. These include pressure from parentsto perform or achieve certain outcomes (e.g., winning, making the varsity team, gaining a college scholarship) and negative coaching behaviors, such as extreme controlling behaviors and developmentally inappropriate training and performance expectations.

Although the structure of youth sport and the behavior of coaches and parents are critical in influencing burnout, several personality factors have been related to burnout in youth athletes. […] Youth sport athletes should protect themselves from burnout by engaging in different types of activities to define themselves in multidimensional ways.


Strategies to Help Athletes Avoid and Deal With Burnout

  1. Although definitiveness is lacking, it is thought that physical and emotional exhaustion serves as a first indicator of developing burnout in young athletes. Observing these symptoms should prompt coaches and parents to intervene immediately and work with the athlete to find the best strategy to ensure some rest, recovery, and mental rejuvenation.
  2. Identify athletes whose personalities or life situations predispose them to burnout, and make it a point to intervene with guidance and suggestions to help them achieve without crossing the line into harmful training behaviors.
  3. Anyone can help young athletes learn active coping skills. Better lifestyle management, healthier decisions, more rational perspectives on competition, and skill in identifying and pursuing personal mastery goals are all coping skills that can be learned by young athletes.
  4. Guide young people in adopting multiple areas of interest and achievement. Such variety and multidimensionality guard against burnout that occurs from a single-minded obsession gone awry.

From Best Practice for Youth Sport by Robin Vealey and Melissa Chase. Copyright © 2017  by Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. Available to order from Human Kinetics Canada at www.HumanKinetics.com or by calling 1-800-465-7301.