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Various factors cause burnout in college athletes

By Daniel Gould and Meredith A. Whitley

A summary of the article "Sources and consequences of athletic burnout among college athletes" presented in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, Volume 2, Issue 1.

To develop one’s talent in any field, it has been shown that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Given the amount of time, sacrifice, and effort necessary to become an expert athlete, it comes as no surprise that researchers are interested in examining burnout in competitive athletes. The review by Daniel Gould and Meredith Whitley presented in the June issue of the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport attempts to identify the sources and consequences of burnout in collegiate athletes.

While there is no one universally accepted definition of burnout, the authors of this review identify athlete burnout as a physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity. This withdrawal is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation, often occurring as a result of chronic stress and motivational changes in the athlete. The reviewers identify several models of athlete burnout.

Cognitive-Affective Stress Model. In 1986, sport psychologist Ron Smith conceptualized burnout as a process involving four stages: situational demands, cognitive appraisal, physiological responses, and behavioral responses. He hypothesized that the process of burnout unfolds when an athlete faces a "situational demand," such as high intensity training or high expectation for success. The second stage, "cognitive appraisal," sets in when the athlete assesses the situation and determines whether he or she has the resources necessary for the demands of the situation. If the athlete feels that the demands outweigh the resources, then he or she will experience "physiological responses" such as tension, insomnia, fatigue and exhaustion. The final phase of this model is the "behavioral response" of the athlete-the task behaviors and coping responses to the situation. Because the cognitive-affective stress model is so broad, it is difficult to directly test.

Unidemensional Identity Development and External Control Model. This model of burnout was offered by Jay Coakley in 1992. Coakley contends that although stress is involved in athlete burnout, it is not necessarily the cause. He suggests that burnout occurs because of the way sport is structured in our society-by minimizing the personal control that athletes have in decision making and constricting the development of normal identities for young people. Young athletes are socialized to focus almost exclusively on their sporting success, creating a sport-centered identity. When the athlete is unable to attain goals, he or she experiences increased levels of stress and, eventually, burnout.

Negative Training Stress Models. This model of burnout suggests that burnout occurs as a result of overtraining and inadequate rest. Researchers Silva and, later, Kentta and colleagues suggest that when training volumes are too high, too intense, and too persistent, it can lead to staleness and eventually burnout. While overloading is common in training and can lead to improvement with proper rest, this model suggests that burnout is the end product of a physical training process gone array.

Motivational Models. There are three motivational models offered as explanation for burnout:

  1. The entrapment view holds that athletes have three reasons for committing to a sport-they want to, they believe they have to, or a combination of the two. The athletes who feel entrapped, or believe they "have to" participate in sport, are the ones who are prone to burnout.
  2. Self-determination theory contends that individuals have three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) and when these needs are met, motivation is optimized. Thus, athletes who feel they are autonomous, competent, and related to significant others will experience lower levels of burnout.
  3. The engagement approach takes the stance that engagement in sport is comprised of confidence, dedication, and vigor. Thus, engaged athletes are negatively related to burnout. It should be noted that theoretically precise predictions about how engagement or the lack of engagement leads to burnout have not been made.

While considerable progress has been made regarding burnout in collegiate athletes, there is still considerable research left to be done. Studies are needed to assess the long-term consequences of burnout. Does burnout affect an athlete’s relationship with teammates, coaches, and family or friends? How does burnout influence an athlete’s long-term view of his or her collegiate sport experience? The current research does offer implications for college athletic departments. Personnel need to realize that different severities and strains of burnout exist. Not everyone who burns out will discontinue sports involvement-some are entrapped. others will likely burn out for a short time but recover in the off season. Some burnout is physically driven while other strains appear to be driven by excessive expectations placed on athletes and a lack of control and decision making given to the athletes. Athletic staff must be familiar with these strains and symptoms and actively work to monitor the athletes with whom they interact.

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