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Keeping the Sparks Aflame: Preventing and Addressing Burnout in High School Student-Athletes


Student-athletes continuously navigate physical, psychological, and social demands including balancing academics and athletics, while striving to meet both internal and external expectations. Participation in athletics has numerous benefits such as mood enhancing effects, development of life skills (e.g., leadership, time management, resilience), and sense of belonging (Zuckerman et al., 2021). What happens, though, when these demands become too much and student-athletes’ psychobiosocial reserves are depleted?

Long-term psychobiosocial demands of sport can generate maladaptive responses, such as overtraining. Symptoms of overtraining include increased fatigue and decreased performance (Kellman et. al, 2018). These symptoms can lead to athlete burnout, Athlete burnout is defined as “a multidimensional, cognitive-affective syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation” (Williams & Krane, 2020, p. 476).

Psychological Predictors of Burnout

In a study that explored the psychological and affective determinants contributing to burnout in high school student-athletes, Moen and colleagues (2017) found that significant predictors of burnout included negative affect (e.g., sadness, anger, guilt) and worry. In other words, student-athletes who experienced negative affect or worry had a greater chance of experiencing burnout.  Moreover, these predictors are indirectly impacted by illness and injury. While illness and injury were not found to have a direct effect on positive affect, negative affect, and worry, they had a direct effect on perceived performance. Therefore, it is likely that athletes experiencing injury and illness are more likely to negatively perceive their performance which can contribute to burnout. 

What Coaches and Practitioners Can Do

Given burnout is so physically, emotionally, and socially demanding, it is paramount that coaches, caregivers, and student-athletes are informed. In doing so, it is essential to acknowledge that high amounts of life stress can contribute to burnout. It is also recommended that coaches and practitioners:

  • Explore other life and systemic factors that might be contributing to student-athlete negative affect such as social justice inequities, peer and familial relations, traumatic events, finances, and lifestyle changes (e.g., sleep, home, school).
  • Enhance a student-athlete’s positive affect to reduce the likelihood of burnout by offering perspective on optimism, hope, and resiliency.
  • Reduce negative affect by working with student-athletes to understand what might be contributing to this state and find an approach (e.g., growth mindset orientation, productive self-talk development) to transform it.
  • Alleviate worry by working with student-athletes to understand the source of the worry and develop strategies to shift it from being debilitative to facilitative. For instance, cognitive-reappraisal.
  • Be attune to the psychological impacts of injury and illness by being an added supportive resource for student-athletes to find coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness-based techniques and visualization.
  • Normalize that the psychological impacts and cognitive loads from other sources can contribute to burnout (Kellman et al., 2018).

The Importance of Developing an Individualized Plan

Every student-athlete is different. Therefore, when addressing or preventing burnout, it is crucial to use an individualized approach for each student-athlete. After speaking with a student-athlete or administering assessments such as the Athletic Burnout Questionnaire (Raedeke & Smith, 2001) and the Recovery-Stress Balance Questionnaire 36 Sport (Kallus & Kellmann, 2016) a plan can be developed. The Athletic Burnout Questionnaire (ABQ) is intended to assess athletic burnout in athletes. It includes three five-item dimensions of burnout: (1) a reduced sense of accomplishment, (2) emotional and physical exhaustion, and (3) devaluation of sports participation (Raedeke & Smith, 2001). The Recovery-Stress Questionnaire for Athletes (Kallus & Kellmann, 2016) is a 36-question instrument used to attain a subjective perception of an individual’s recovery factors and stress states. Questions are related to four dimensions: (1) general stress, (2) general recovery, (3) sport-specific stress, (4) sport-specific recovery. 

The inclusion of these two questionnaires can provide objective metrics and identify specific areas that are in need of improvement. Therefore, a plan can be designed collaboratively with each student-athlete based on their individual needs. Even though a student-athlete’s plan will, and should be, tailored to their individualized needs, the following factors can be considered in each plan: 

  • Sleep – It is important that student-athletes remain informed about the benefits of sleep and sleep hygiene.
  • Fun – Incorporate elements of fun, games, and laughter during training sessions and leading into competitions. In doing so, the prevalence of debilitative forms of pressure can also be alleviated.
  • Extracurriculars – Student-athletes who are involved in non-athletic activities have other sources of self-esteem and social support. If a student-athlete’s identity is fixated on their performance and placement, it can lead to identity loss when they are not able to compete or if their performance is impacted.
  • Social support – Having social support and feelings of camaraderie is crucial for overall well-being. Participation in social activities can enhance a sense of belonging in athletic and non-athletic contexts.
  • Mindfulness – Engage in mindfulness practices to enhance awareness, approach things in a non-judgmental manner, and shift focus.
  • Relaxation strategies – Guided positive visualization exercises are great to manage cognitive anxiety (mind → body). Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can help with somatic anxiety (body → mind).

Conclusion

The psychobiosocial benefits of participation in sport are innumerable! In order to facilitate the enhancement of these benefits within sport, burnout must be acknowledged and addressed.  Burnout is a multi-dimensional syndrome that interferes with individuals’ well-being and performance (Williams & Krane, 2020). Accordingly, to prevent and address burnout among student-athletes, coaches and practitioners must help student-athletes uncover what they love about the game, respark their flames and create an individualized plan specific to their balance and optimal load (Kellmann et al., 2018). In doing so, coaches and practitioners will be better equipped to address burnout in a more encompassing manner that includes the different dimensions of burnout (Moen et al., 2017). Coaches and practitioners have unique relationships with student-athletes that can offer immense support towards creating a strong platform propelling them towards their peak, within and outside the athletic realm! 

References 

Kellmann, M., Bertollo, M., Bosquet, L., Brink, M., Coutts, A. J., Duffield, R., … & Beckmann, 
J. (2018). Recovery and performance in sport: consensus statement. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 13(2), 240-245.

Kallus, K. W., & Kellmann, M. (Eds.). (2016). The recovery-stress questionnaires: user 
manual (p. 360). Frankfurt, Germany: Pearson.

Moen, F., Myhre, K., Klöckner, C. A., Gausen, K., & Sandbakk, Ø. (2017). Physical, affective 
and psychological determinants of athlete burnout. Sport Journal, 1, 1-14.

Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2001). Development and preliminary validation of an athlete 
burnout measure. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 23(4), 281-306.

Williams, J.M., & Krane, V. (2020). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak 
Performance
. McGaw-Hill Higher Education. 

Zuckerman, S. L., Tang, A. R., Richard, K. E., Grisham, C. J., Kuhn, A. W., Bonfield, C. M., & 
Yengo-Kahn, A. M. (2021). The behavioral, psychological, and social impacts of team sports: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Physician and sportsmedicine, 49(3), 246-261.



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