The link between motivation and athlete burnout
Burnout is a maladaptive outcome of sport participation. Kids and talents driven too hard in their sports domain can potentially lead to burnout from an activity they ones loved. But what is the underlying mechanism that drives the burnout-process?
Sport Psychology research has established a meaningful link between motivational constructs and the process of burning out over the last decades. Athlete burnout is in this context considered a multidimensional process, with physical and emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation and reduced sense of accomplishment as end products (Raedeke, 1997).
Several studies have pointed out a relationship between athlete burnout propensity and motivational aspects (Gould, 1996; Gustafsson, Kenttä, Hassmèn & Lundquist, 2007; Lemyre et al., 2007; Raedeke, 1997). Burnout research taking a social-cognitive perspective has revealed that motivational dispositions, perceptions of motivational climate, perceived ability, and dimensions of perfectionism are closely linked to symptoms of burnout in elite athletes (Lemyre, Hall, & Roberts., 2008). Based on different motivational profiles, results at the end of the season yielded distinct differences on signs of athlete burnout (Lemyre et al., 2008). The following conclusion pointed out a relationship between a maladaptive motivational profile and athletes` perception of being controlled. In combination with low goal attainment this might contribute to the athletes’ feelings of entrapment in the sport context. Feelings of entrapment are often followed by lowered intrinsic motivation; where ego orientation, perception of a performance oriented climate, and dimensions of perfectionism is known to be major contributors (Lemyre et al., 2008). Motivational profiles were a high task orientation remained, whereas ego orientation was suppressed displayed low signs of burnout. If both goal orientations were moderate to high, there was a greater risk of elevated burnout scores (Lemyre et al., 2008). This finding can be explained by the dimensions of perfectionism that may evoke athletes` concern about mistakes, and constant striving for errorless performances (Lemyre et al., 2008). This indicates that the burnout syndrome is not simply “motivation gone awry”, as stated by Gould (1996), but more likely a consequence of an underlying maladaptive motivational profile (Lemyre et al., 2008).
Meaningful relationships between different levels of self-determined motivation, autonomy support, and signs of burnout in elite swimmers have also been established. A decline in motivational quality throughout the season increased possibility for athlete burnout at the end of the season (Lemyre et al., 2006). Authors suggested that monitoring athletes’ motivational quality and feelings of self-determination in their actions was potentially helpful in the attempt of steering athletes` clear of maladaptive outcomes such as burnout (Lemyre et al., 2006). An argument to this conclusion is athletes’ maladaptive response when being fuelled by external regulations in their athletic participation. Potentially, this influences them to follow training plans without questioning or adjusting them according to personal needs and developments. Consequently athletes` feelings of autonomy are suppressed and further training adaption is inhibited (Lemyre et al., 2006).
It has also been established that self-determined motivation and overtraining have their own unique contribution to athlete burnout. This was based on the fact that high levels of self-determined motivation did not function as a moderator for reports of overtraining in burnout development (Lemyre et al., 2007). Findings from the Olympic team athletes indicated a much clearer relationship between overtraining and burnout symptoms than did the group of junior elite athletes. Additionally, level of self- determined motivation was more evident in burnout development among juniors compared to Olympic athletes (Lemyre et al., 2007). A relationship between self- determined motivation at the beginning of the season and signs of burnout at season’s end, clearly emerged in the group overall, supporting this approach to burnout research. Authors concluded it not being the motivation per se, but the quality of athletes’ motivation one must consider important in development of athlete burnout (Lemyre et al., 2007).
It has also been proposed that other factors besides training load must be considered when explaining athlete burnout (Gustafsson et al., 2007). Qualitative research also emphasizes the importance of motivational factors in developing burnout (Gustafsson, Hassmèn, Kenttä & Johansson, 2008). Initially high motivation is common among burned-out athletes. Motivation tends to disappear as the burnout experience develops. Athletes described a shift in motivation from intrinsic to becoming more extrinsically motivated, resulting in amotivation at the end. Additionally, nine of 10 athletes described having mainly ego oriented goals during the period before burning out (Gustafsson et al., 2008). An ego oriented goal orientation catalyzed the burned-out athletes` motivational loss, by not being able to beat others and not coping well with the fact that other athletes outperformed them. This supports the possible maladaptiveness of an ego oriented goal orientation especially when ability is low (Gustafsson et al., 2008).
Findings taken from three case-studies emphasises the need to understand each burnout case individually (Gould, Tuffey, Udry & Loehr, 1997). Inappropriate goals, self-induced perfectionism, and triggers from significant others must be considered contributively factors in the complexity of burnout development. The fact that athletes reported high initial motivation developing towards motivational loss and burnout (Gustafsson et al., 2008), and the altering from perceiving sport as fun to experiencing burnout and loosing motivation (Gould et al., 1996b) shows a dynamic nature of the burnout process, and possible changes over time spans.
As I have pointed out in this article, the link between motivation and burnout is a complicated process we have to take into consideration when developing athletes. I hope this could give some advise to coaches and athletes in how to administer training and training environments to help steering away from maladaptive outcomes like burnout:
– Give athletes room for autonomy in the training process – foster and nurture intrinsic motivation and support an adaptive motivational profile.
– Create mastery-oriented performance climates to support an adaptive motivational profile.*
– Monitor training load, hours and fatigue closely to steer away from overtraining symptoms. Focus on recovery from training.*
– Be aware that perfectionism could possibly inhibit performance development.
– Make training and competitive settings fun!
Gould, D. (1996). Personal motivation gone awry: Burnout in competitive athletes. Quest, 48, 275-289.
Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., & Loehr, J. (1996b). Burnout in Competitive Junior Tennis Players: II. Qualitative Analysis. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 341-366.
Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., & Loehr, J. (1997). Burnout in Competitive Junior Tennis Players: III. Individual Differences in the Burnout Experience. The Sport Psychologist, 11, 257-276.
Gustafsson, H., Kenttä, G., Hassmèn, P., & Lundquist, C. (2007). Prevalence of Burnout in Competitive Adolescent Athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 21-37.
Gustafsson, H., Hassmèn, P., Kenttä, G., & Johansson, M. (2008). A qualitative analysis of burnout in elite Swedish athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 800- 816.
Lemyre, P-N., Treasure, D.C., & Roberts, G.C. (2006). Influence of Variability in Motivation and Affect on Elite Athlete Burnout. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 12, 32-48.
Lemyre, P-N., Roberts, G.C., & Stray-Gundersen, J. (2007). Motivation, overtraining, and burnout: Can self-determination predict overtraining and burnout in elite athletes? European Journal of Sport Science, 7, 115-126.
Lemyre, P-N., Hall, H.K., &Roberts, G.C. (2008). A social cognitive approach to burnout in elite athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 18, 221-234.
Raedeke, T.D. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport and Exersice Psychology, 19, 396-417.
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About Frank Heggebo
Graduated MSc in Sport Psychology and Coaching from the Norwegian School of Sport Science. Specialyzing in motivation, overtraining and athlete burnout. Academic and working experience is mainly focused around talent development and psychological qualities needed to excel into elite performance. Currently work as a head coach in cross-country skiing national team. Also provide mental training consultantancy for athletes and teams. Teaching sports in an upper secondary school. Sports director at Ølen Sportsclub.