As many theories in psychology suggest, our actions, behaviour and personality is greatly influenced by those within our lives, whether friends, parents, teachers, or in a sporting scenario, our coaches. This article shall look at how a coach can hold significant power in the coach-athlete relationship, which ultimately can play a role in athlete burnout.

Burnout can be referred to as “a withdrawal from [sport] noted by a reduced sense of accomplishment, devaluation/resentment of sport, and physical/psychological exhaustion”, and occurs when an athlete experiences an increase in stress-induced costs, such as the amounting pressure to perform (Smith, 1986; Raedeke et al., 2002). Ultimately, burnout would result in dropout and withdrawal from sport. Our role as coaches or sport psychologists is to find the trigger and predictor of burnout, in order to prevent burnout from occurring.

Perceived coaching styles/behaviours have been found to predict athlete burnout (Vealey, Armstrong, Comar and Greenleaf, 1998). With much of the coaching field being dominated by coaches who possess a goal-orientated and coach-centred approach to coaching, the results have a tendency to be the predominant focus. For some coaches, how the player gets to the successful end result is not important, which explains coaches direct linear approach to coaching and decision-making. Sport is primarily based on providing opportunities, so when an athlete has a lack of control and autonomy in the decisions influencing their actions and performance in sport it can trigger burnout. With this in mind, it suggests that burnout can be perceived more as a social and interpersonal problem, instead of a personal failure (Coakley, 1992).

When an athlete becomes absorbed into the sport they may connect their identity with the sport. Therefore, if a coach has control over the direction of sport, it may be thought that a coach has control of the shaping of an athlete’s identity.  As an athlete becomes somewhat ‘powerless’ in the decision making process with a lack of autonomy, it may be assumed that their identity and personal development spirals out of their control (Kimball, 2007). When this occurs, athletes may experience burnout, due to the confusion, and therefore stress, and detach themselves from sport in attempt to regain control of their identity (Coakley, 1992). This in itself is a highly emotional process, as feeling the need to detach yourself from a sport which you are highly involved in just to gain control of your self-identity can be perceived as a big decision and lifestyle change.

As a result of the focus of sport today primarily being directed towards winning and results, coaches may push their athletes to their physical and mental limitations. Coaches may enforce repetitive practice in hope to see success. This may result in overtraining; training to the extent where there are no benefits, just consequences (Brenner, 2007). With no evidential benefits, players may have no motives to continue and therefore become demotivated to continue trying, resulting in withdrawal from sport. In addition, players may devaluate sport. Devaluation in sport relates to the loss of interest and resentment a person holds towards a sport due to a coaches focus on performance, oppose to the individual holistically (Goodger, Gorely, Lavallee and Harwood, 2007). This means that by a coach highlighting results and winning as the key focus instead of holistic player development, players may become detached from the sport; they may feel that they are participating because they have to, instead of intrinsically wanting to, thus causing burnout (Goodger et al., 2007).

Overall, much of what has been mention relates to the coach being predominantly in control of the direction and decision surrounding an athlete’s involvement in sport. As burnout can be influenced by significant others, such as coaches, it suggests that burnout is not only based on physiological exhaustion, but also social complications. The lack of awareness a coach has in relation to the power in the coach-athlete relationship can fundamentally trigger burnout, due to the assumption that coaches have the responsibility to make decisions within sport.  Instead, power in the coach-athlete should be seen as constantly shifting, meaning that athletes too should have the freedom to make decisions and have input in regards to direction and choices surrounding their involvement in sport. Coaches should therefore be more aware of how influential their input is, so instead to telling an athlete what to do, they could instead scaffold and guide their learning in order to give them a sense of achievement. This would ultimately retain engagement within sport and reduce the chances of burnout, as athletes may recognize that they do have control of their own lives. Instead of sport and coaches controlling the shaping of player identity, sport instead can act as a tool to guide and enhance self-identity and a positive development.

ReferencesShow all

Brenner, J. S. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245.

Coakley, J. (1992). Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem?. Sociology of sport journal, 9(3).

Goodger, K., Gorely, T., Lavallee, D., & Harwood, C. (2007). Burnout in Sport: A Systematic Review. Sport Psychologist, 21(2).

Kimball, A. C. (2007). “You signed the line”: Collegiate student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomy. Psychology of sport and exercise, 8(5), 818-835.

Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout.Journal of sport psychology, 8(1).

Vealey, R. S., Armstrong, L., Comar, W., & Greenleaf, C. A. (1998). Influence of perceived coaching behaviors on burnout and competitive anxiety in female college athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10(2), 297-318.