Burnout and Stress in Athletes

We usually associate sports with stress relief! So, what happens when stress develops in a sports environment vitiated by pressure? Burnout is a phenomenon that often exists amongst athletes. Read this article to learn about its causes and consequences.
Burnout and Stress in Athletes

Last update: 27 January, 2021

The issues surrounding burnout and stress are very common today as the work world is increasingly demanding. However, burnout is linked to multiple variables including psychological needs and basic living conditions. For this reason, it often presents itself when there’s excessive competition, which is when the needs and conditions mentioned fall by the wayside.

One of the clearest examples is in athletics , in which high physical and mental pressure are combined. Take an example: athletes sacrifice a lot of time to maintain their skill set and meet expectations. If their sacrifice doesn’t lead to a reward, psychological defeat will eventually occur. This is one of the many examples that we’ll see below.

What is burnout?

Burnout develops due to prolonged stress to a person. When everyday life is stressful, the increased level of alertness and response leads to a general state of chronic fatigue, inefficiency, and discomfort.

Why is it so serious? This ill-adjusted state of response and emotional instability directly affects personal and work relationships. In turn, the individual can resort to withdrawal, isolation, and denial. The negative loop of symptoms and direct effects have consequences at various levels:

  • Psychosomatic: physical symptoms such as headache, unstable sleep or gastric discomfort.
  • Behavior: problems connecting with others, outbursts of anger and withdrawal.
  • Emotional: distancing themselves from their friend group, anxiety, and poor work performance.
  • Defensive: denial of their situation and displacement of feelings.

Burnout in sports

Athletes favor many obstacles and high demands when they’re training. In addition to this, a highly competitive environment often exists amongst rivals and even teammates.

To achieve the results and avoid burnout, an athlete must have realistic planning, motivation and goals.

On many occasions, it would seem that the only thing that matters is to be the best and in order to achieve that, friends, family and free time are set aside. Even so, it’s not enough. The most evident proof of this is the low percentage of athletes who make a living from their chosen sport.

«In Uruguay, out of all the children who play soccer, which is our great treasure, only 0.16 percent will reach a professional level. Therefore, more than 99 percent fail. But, we treat them all equally, we work with everyone in the same way so that they’re immersed in the cultural universe ».
—Oscar W. Tabárez—

Basic psychological needs

Several studies have linked burnout in sports with the lack of fulfillment of basic psychological needs. These are:

  • Competence: the degree to which subjects feel valuable and recognized at a social level regarding their performance and skills.
  • Autonomy: this aspect refers to the degree to which subjects feel that they’re the leaders of their successes.
  • Relationship: refers to the need and satisfaction that results from establishing assertive links with their close environment.

The frustration that results from the lack of any of the above-mentioned points, has been identified as a factor that predicts burnout. This shortcoming based on the negative effects, disruptive links, low self-assessment, and autonomy translates into physical and mental distress. The direct consequences are evident when an athlete suffers repetitive injuries or tries to leave as quickly as possible from a workout.

Institutional variables

Another fundamental aspect of burnout among athletes is the institutional factor. Other research shows that, the greater the infrastructure and support provided by the institution that offers the sport, the lower the burnout rates. A club that offers little infrastructure will expose its athletes to more physical issues and less developmental capacity.

Teamwork can help all members to progress sportingly.

On the other hand, we’ll also see a greater predisposition to  burnout in institutions that view the athlete as a business. As the Uruguayan coach Oscar W. Tabárez establishes, in the case of soccer, given the low probability of creating a living out of it, athletes have to internalize that there’s another life after athletics. For this, an institution that provides other tools to athletes, such as education and psychological support, will register lower burnout rates.

The coach’s role in burnout

The coach is a fundamental aspect of any sports team. They’re the ones in charge of the physical activity, they establish rules and objectives and they decide rewards and punishments. They’re also an example for their athletes. For all of these reasons, a coach has a special impact on the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of athletes.

Coaching style and burnout

Various leadership styles are related to burnout in athletes. Among the main ones are:

  • Perceived leadership ability: burnout rates will be lower if an athlete perceives that their coach has good leadership skills.
  • Coaching style: the coaching style predicts the frustration centered around the lack of basic psychological needs.
  • Internal relationship: if the coach doesn’t promote the proper environment, bullying and harassment may occur which facilitates burnout.

How do you identify burnout?

Although there are many possible symptoms associated with burnout due to self-exhaustion, there are three main areas. When these three characteristics are present, burnout may be present:

  • Emotional exhaustion: the individual looks apathetic, visibly tired and unable to express their problems.
  • Losing a connection with themselves: individuals don’t look the same, they care less about sports and connecting with others.
  • Low personal achievement: change in performance, accompanied by low self-esteem.

The situations described above won’t be uncommon to any professionals that work in sports. It’s a problem that requires a fast and effective solution to prevent maladaptive behavior from becoming a habit in the athlete. The first step is to identify the source of the stress and then provide the necessary support.

A coach or any sports professional should use all the tools at their disposal to reverse the situation. Talking with family, recommending consultation with a professional or encouraging change in habits are some of the many proposed solutions.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Raedeke, T.D., & Smith, A.L. (2004). Coping resources and athlete burnout: an examination of stress mediated and moderation hypotheses. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 26, 525-541.

The contents of this publication are written for informational purposes. At no time do they facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.