What does burnout really mean?

Hybrid Performance Method
September 16, 2019
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5 min

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  • Burnout is characterised as a chronic accumulation of fatigue
  • It often involves a reduced sense of accomplishment, sport devaluation and physical/emotional Exhaustion
  • Burnout can be prevented if we understand what predisposes people and the risk factors that may make burnout more likely

By Rachel Cunningham


Everyone knows that feeling of being a bit rundown, feeling pretty sore and maybe even wanting to sleep all the time. Burnout is not something that is unique to sport but is often a term that gets thrown around and is synonymous with fatigue, but what does it really mean to be burned out? The concept was first explored outside of the sport domain and the term was coined by Christina Maslach, a social psychology researcher who described it as ‘a gradual process of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced commitment’ (Goodger, Gorley, Lavallee & Harwood, 2007). Within sport, the term became a colloquialism and lacked agreement on a distinct definition and in terms of measurement. Much of the research has applied Maslach’s (1984) definition to the three main dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (the feeling that something is unreal or feeling detached from something) and reduced performance. Latterly, an athlete specific version of burnout has been developed to reflect the specific challenges of this population. Burnout in sport is defined as “a withdrawal from [sport] noted by a reduced sense of accomplishment, devaluation/resentment of sport, and physical/psychological exhaustion” (Raedeke, Lunney, & Venables, 2002: 181). Sport devaluation replaced depersonalisation to be more performance specific. Raedeke et al. (2002) suggested that each of the dimensions of burnout are related to specific factors. 

Reduced Sense of Accomplishment: loss of confidence in skills and abilities

Sport Devaluation: loss of interest/don’t care attitude and/or resentment

Physical/Emotional Exhaustion: from intense training and competition

Burnout is not just something that happens after one or two hard training sessions but is a chronic accumulation of fatigue (both physical and mental). In more recent years the aim has been to differentiate burnout from overtraining by applying a biopsychological model of stress and recovery (Kallus & Kellmann, 2000), acknowledging that there are several variables that can lead to burnout. Therefore just taking time off will not necessarily be enough to mitigate its effects. The identifying quality of burnout vs overtraining is that those who are overtrained may experience some of the same symptoms of burnout but will still remain motivated to perform. Whereas burnout is characterised by a distinct lack of motivation and joy in the activity. 

Dealing With Burnout

Perhaps the best way to approach burnout, is to take a preventative approach rather than a reactive one. Research has looked at both early risk detection of burnout and factors that might predispose an individual to burnout compared to someone else. 

Predisposition

Sport Type

There is some evidence to suggest that being in either a team or individual sport can influence the risk of burnout. Being in a team that is characterised by offering encouragement, cooperation, and social support can act as a buffer against the stress experienced around performance. For example, a team with a coach who offers counsel, encourages participation and does not show a distinct preference for one team member over another is more likely to be protected against burnout. On the other hand, training as an individual, without anyone to turn to when things get tough or when you need some guidance, may prove to put the athlete at a greater risk for burnout. This can be mitigated for in individual sports in which training occurs within a community or a team-like environment such as a barbell club.

Anxiety 

To start, it’s important to define between two main types of anxiety. Cognitive anxiety is defined as a negative expectation or concern an individual has about performance while somatic anxiety is the physiological symptoms and feelings related to stress (Cremades & Wiggins, 2008). Cognitive anxiety is generally related to a negative effect on performance while somatic anxiety can contribute to better performance but also occasionally can be detrimental. The latter is dependent upon the direction of the perceived stress of a situation; whether it is viewed as positive or negative (Cremades & Wiggins, 2008). Individuals can also exhibit trait characteristics that they carry through every situation and these are associated with general anxiety about athletic performance as opposed to a specific situational response. If either of these are chronic experiences, the likelihood of burnout increases. Trait anxiety might not be the easiest thing to identify on the surface. Often times people with trait anxiety might appear successful on the outside, always turn up on time, turn themselves out perfectly and do things such as going out of their way to help others. Trait anxiety is more distinguishable when it is impacting negatively in someone’s life. Some behavioural characteristics might include:

  • (Excessive) Repetitive behaviours: nail biting, playing with their hair, cracking their knuckles
  • Overthinking
  • Nervous chatter
  • Procrastination and avoidance
  • Saying yes to everything/people pleaser
  • Always comparing themselves to others
  • Overloading their schedule
  • Fear of future activities but an inability to focus on the present moment

If you identify these behaviours in someone you’re working with or even yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have general anxiety, but if such behaviours are negatively impacting your quality of life it may be worthwhile seeking help. Some things that can help are focusing on sleep and identifying if there is additional stress in your life at the moment. If you coach someone and recognise these behaviours, it may be a good idea to check in with them to see how they’re doing. Generalised anxiety can be treated through things such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and reframing certain thought patterns with the help of a professional.  

Early Risk Detection

Awareness of both contextual factors and an individual’s experience of performance stressors can be useful in pre-empting potential burnout. A measure that considers the multiple ‘pathways’ to burnout may therefore prove advantageous. The Athlete Burnout Questionnaire is something that does just that, and may be useful for coaches or trainers in determining how best to support their athletes and in individualising their approach. Looking for early signs of burnout can also be informative. These may include things such as withdrawal behaviours, lack of progression, loss of interest, changes in eating habits and general emergence of negative responses/beliefs around performance. If you believe someone to be at risk it would be beneficial to check in with them and assess if they are experiencing any additional life stressors right now, how is their sleep? their recovery? nutrition? etc. Potentially then refer them on to a Sport Psychologist or medical practitioner for additional help. 

Takeaways

Burnout still continues to be a contested subject, but most agree it is not an inevitable consequence of high performance sport and neither can it be equated to overtraining. But both of these things can contribute to the emergence of burnout without the awareness of the multiple factors that might lead to it. By considering both the predisposition of an individual and the early risk signs, it is less likely that burnout will occur. But even in the eventuality that it does occur, understanding what might have led to the experience helps future prevention efforts and a more efficient approach to return to sport.

  • The key difference between overtraining and burnout is a distinct lack of motivation and disinterest in the activity
  • The type of sport and certain personality characteristics such as anxiety can predispose someone to experiencing burnout.
  • Burnout can be prevented and detected if there is awareness of signs and behaviours associated with it
  • The Athlete Burnout Questionnaire can be a useful tool in identifying the occurrence of burnout
  • Help is available!

By Rachel Cunningham

Cremades, J. G., & Wiggins, M. S. (2008). Direction and intensity of trait anxiety as predictors of burnout among collegiate athletes. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 10(2), 27-9.

Goodger, K., Gorely, T., Lavallee, D., & Harwood, C. (2007). Burnout in sport: A systematic review. The sport psychologist, 21(2), 127-151.

Kallus, K.W., & Kellmann, M. (2000). Burnout in athletes and coaches. In Y.L. Hanin (Ed.), Emotions in sport (pp. 209-230). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Maslach, C., & Jackson, S.E. (1984). Burnout in organizational settings. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Applied social psychology annual: Applications in organizational settings (Vol. 5, pp. 133-153). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Raedeke, T.D., Lunney, K., & Venables, K. (2002). Understanding athlete burnout: Coach perspectives. Journal of Sport Behavior, 25, 181-206.

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