We usually see the bright side of top level sports. Our favorites lifting the trophy or being decorated with an Olympic medal. We cheer for them – and do not always consider all the hard work and training hours these athletes must endure on their way to the top.

The process of developing into the elite level of performance is hard work. We all know the potential shortcomings an individual must experience on his/hers way to the top. Most of us fail this process. So what is the potential fall-pits of top level sports and for that matter – sports in general?

Based on the psychological work ranging over different performance context –  strong evidence suggests that an individual reaching the elite level of performance with no less than 10 000 hours of deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tech Römer, 1993). This research gives the foundation for the 10000hour rule – often being used in various performance development settings. Top level athletes also are described as being able to endure hard and exhaustive training, tolerating pain and pushing themselves beyond their capacities (Jones et al., 2007). This is what makes these athletes winners. They train more and harder.

In this tough training process one can come to think – is this all good? Are there no potential risk factors?

The overtraining syndrome is clearly an issue for athletes and coaches at elite level. This is defined as an undesirable training outcome with negative performance development as an end result, potentially being a factor contributing to athlete burnout (Kenttä & Hassmèn, 1998). An athlete suffering from overtraining syndrome is often characterized by poor performance, severe fatigue, muscle soreness, overuse injuries, reduced appetite, disturbed sleep patterns, immune system deficits and difficulties to concentrate. These symptoms are often shared with burned-out athletes, but is distinguished by one core element – motivation (Kenttä & Hassmèn, 1998). An athlete who is overtrained remains motivated, whereas a burned-out athlete lacks motivation (Raglin, 1993).

Research provides us insight into how motivational factors might help coaches and athletes steer clear of maladaptive training outcomes such as overtraining and burnout (Lemyre et al., 2007). Seemingly, there is a close relationship between self-determined motivation, overtraining and athlete burnout. If an athlete is intrinsically motivated in his/hers training process, and is provided with autonomy support from coaches – the potential risk of negative training outcome is reduced (Lemyre et al., 2007). There is also an unclear definition of the concept “overtraining” – with the finding that it most likely not the training volume per se, but insufficient recovery producing the problem (Kenttä & Hassmèn, 1998).

This body of evidence supports the finding of Gary McPherson (1997) when he identified what clearly gave the best basis for forecasting progress and development on a music school was – if the the kids had a long term commitment perspective.

Evidence then suggests that motivational quality really does matter also in the process of physical training. If one is intrinsically driven, the activity itself and performance development – is so important that some days rest, an easier session, a vacation is no big deal. Intrinsically driven athletes have the long term perspective and knows how to push hard on training, but also when to pull back. When to rest.

A suggestion to all coaches and athletes is then – monitor your motivational quality, and listen to bodily signs.

To get to the top it requires 10000hrs of training. Make them all count in a constructive way.