Athlete Burnout: Is the Type of Sport a Factor?

Submitted by  Shelley L. Holden, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL; Christopher M. Keshock, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL; Brooke E. Forester University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL; Steven F. Pugh, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL and Steven F. Pugh, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL.

Abstract

Athletes sometimes become disenchanted with sport participation and stop competing at what might have been the pinnacle of their sport careers.  Prior research has determined that athletes are likely to burnout if they are participating in sport for reasons other than sport attraction. However, prior research has not studied female athletes’ comparative levels of burnout among various sports.  The purpose of this study was to determine the level of burnout in female collegiate athletes based on their sport of choice. Participants were 108 female collegiate athletes at a Division I university in the Southeastern United States. Ages ranged from 19 to 24 (M= 19.8). Burnout was assessed by the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The instrument is divided into three subscales that include: Emotional Exhaustion (EE), Depersonalization (DP), and Personal Accomplishment (PA). MBI scores on the subscales were used to classify participants as (1) low burnout (2) moderate burnout, or (3) high level of burnout.  Results indicated female basketball athletes had the highest level of burnout in the areas of EE (M=27.2) and DP (M=8.5) which are classified as high (1) for EE and moderate (2) for DP. The volleyball players had the lowest sense of PA (M= 37.5) from their sport which correlates with a high (3) level of burnout. Participants on the track and field team experienced the lowest level of EE (M=12.7) which is classified as low burnout (1). Softball experienced the lowest level of DP (M=3.4) which is also classified as low (1), and tennis had the highest sense of PA (M=26.3) which means they were classified as having a low (1) level of burnout. Potential and current student athletes must be better educated in the area of stress and stress management. Further, they need to be better prepared for the demands of Division I collegiate athletics. Moreover, collegiate athletic departments should examine the programs offered to freshman athletes to include a course(s)/presentation(s) on stress and stress management to reduce the potential effects of burnout and avoid athletes quitting their sport.  Finally, these efforts might be more intense in those sports where athletes indicated higher levels of burnout.

Introduction

Burnout in athletes is thought to negatively influence the quality of their sport experiences, leading to decreased performance and ultimately discontinuing sport participation (17). Moreover, burnout is thought to negatively impact athletes’ well being both physically and mentally. It has been accepted that burnout is a consequence of chronic stress (3, 17-19). Stress is viewed as a mismatch between the perceived demands of a situation and one’s perceived capabilities and resources for meeting those demands (7, 19). When the demands of an individual’s circumstances outweigh the ability to handle the situation, the result could lead to maladaptive stress patterns (4, 6). Pines (1993) noted that burnout is a state of fatigue and emotional exhaustion which is the end result of a step-by-step process of disillusionment and is quite often found among individuals who are highly motivated (14). Thus, athletes becoming disenchanted with sport participation and stopping competing at what should have been the pinnacle of their sporting careers has been a common occurrence (20).

Prior research has determined athletes are likely to experience burnout if they are participating in sports for reasons other than sport attraction (1, 2, 8, 15, 16). Coakley (1992) conducted informal interviews with high-level adolescent athletes who were “burned-out” and determined that burnout was directly related to the social organization of intense sport participation. More specifically, burnout is related to control and identity issues that entrap athletes into sport (2).

Entrapment is defined as when the athlete does not want to participate in the sport, but feels they must maintain involvement for a number of reasons (15). Raedeke (1997) found similar results to Coakley (1992) in 236 male and female swimmers aged 13-18 (15, 2).  The athletes were surveyed on theoretical determinants of commitment and burnout (emotional/physical exhaustion), swim devaluation, and reduced swim accomplishment. Athletes who exhibited characteristics of entrapment associated with their sport had higher levels of burnout than athletes who were mainly involved in their sport for attraction-related reasons (15).

Another study was conducted by Raedeke, Lunney, and Venables, (2002) where 13 USA swimming senior coaches (11 males and 2 females) coaching swimmers aged 15-18 years old were interviewed to determine their viewpoints on the defining signs and symptoms of athlete burnout. Results indicated that a withdrawal from swimming was noted by a reduced sense of accomplishment, devaluation/resentment of sport, and physical/psychological exhaustion (16).

Lemyre, Treasure, and Roberts (2006) assessed elite college swimmers along the self-determination continuum to predict the occurrence of burnout over an entire competitive season. Results determined that shifts in the quality of motivation were accurate indicators of burnout. That is, there were noticeable variations in burnout levels at key points during the season when training was intense for a sustained period of time (8).

More recently, Bradford and Keshock (2010) surveyed 88 female athletes participating in cross country (n= 6), golf (n= 6), soccer (n= 26), softball (n=20), track and field (n= 13), and volleyball (n=17) at a Division I institution in the Southeastern United States. Results revealed the most frequently cited factors in attrition in female collegiate athletes were lack of free time and a feeling of being overextended, lack of playing time, injuries, and sport participation ceasing to be fun (1).

Burnout has been labeled as a serious problem that can affect more than an athlete’s performance. Athletes suffering from burnout may have a reduced quality of family and academic life.  Burnout has been correlated with various personal dysfunctions including physical exhaustion, inability to sleep, increased drug and alcohol use, and family and marital problems (11).

Since burnout is stress related, some athletes may be more susceptible to the effects of stress than others. Researching why athletes are more affected by chronic stress than others is a valuable question that can further advance the conceptual knowledge on burnout as it relates to athletes. Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to determine if there was a variation in the level of burnout by sport among female collegiate athletes.

Methods

There were 108 female participants who were collegiate athletes at a Division I university in the Southeastern United States. Ages ranged from 19 to 24 (M= 19.8). Participants were current members of the basketball (n=15), cross country (n=8), soccer (n=29), softball (n=17), tennis (n=3), track and field (n=19), and volleyball (n=17) teams.

Burnout was assessed by the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Permission to use the instrument was obtained from the publisher, Consulting Psychologist Press (CPP). Christina Maslach is recognized as one of the leading authorities on burnout in educational settings (6, 13). Prior research by Maslach and colleagues (5, 9, 10, 11) has identified the major components of burnout and their extensive work has provided a more fully developed conceptualization of burnout.

The MBI uses a Likert-type scale and is divided into three subscales that include: Emotional Exhaustion (EE), Depersonalization (DP), and Personal Accomplishment (PA). MBI scores on the subscales were used to classify participants as either (1) low burnout (2) moderate burnout, or (3) high level of burnout. Scoring on the MBI is accomplished individually for each of the three subscales of burnout using the numerical cutoff points listed on the MBI scoring key (21). Scores for each subscale (EE, DP, and PA) are considered separately and are not combined into a single, aggregate score.

There are nine items on the EE subscale, five items on the DP subscale, and eight items on the PA subscale. For both the EE and DP subscales, higher mean scores suggest higher degrees of experienced burnout (12). In contrast to the EE and DP subscales, lower mean scores on the PA subscale correspond to higher degrees of experienced burnout (21).

Emotional exhaustion refers to a tired or fatigued feeling that develops as an individual’s emotional energies are drained over a period of time; while DP is characterized by a decrease in authentic positive feelings in the workplace such as when athletes display signs of a cold or distant attitude, or emotionally distance themselves from their coaches and/or teammates (12). The PA subscale is characterized by a feeling of low personal accomplishment from one’s job or competitive sport. For example, when players conclude that they are no longer contributing to their individual or team success and development, feelings of profound disappointment can result (12).

Permission to conduct this study was granted by obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the investigators’ institution of higher learning. Participation was open to female athletes on the basketball, softball, tennis, track and field and volleyball teams at a Division I university in the Southeastern United States. All head coaches where contacted prior to the study to request their team’s participation. Researchers met with each team individually and were responsible for monitoring the completion, the instrument and demographic questionnaire.

Researchers eliminated any MBI responses that deviated from the accepted range of the instrument (0-6) and participants who did not complete the data form correctly.  Participants who provided incomplete information on the descriptive data form and/or the MBI were excluded from further analysis.  There were not any participants who incorrectly completed the descriptive data form or MBI instrument.

Results

Results indicated that female athletes on the basketball team had the highest level of burnout in the areas of EE (M=27.2) and DP (M=8.5) which are classified as high (1) for EE and moderate (2) for DP. The volleyball players had the lowest sense of PA (M= 37.5) from their sport which correlates with a high (3) level of burnout. Participants on the track and field team experienced the lowest level of EE (M=12.7) which is classified as low burnout (1). Softball experienced the lowest level of DP (M=3.4) which is also classified as low (1), and tennis had the highest sense of PA (M=26.3) from their sport which means they were classified as having a low (1) level of burnout.

Conclusions

Athletes in two of the sports programs surveyed (basketball and volleyball) scored in the high burnout ranges of the MBI subscales of EE and PA.  This would indicate that burnout prevention strategies for specific sports are needed and athletes may need to be better prepared for the demands of Division I collegiate athletics. Coaches in high risk sports should provide interventions to the athletes in the form of in-house presentations, service by specialists (i.e. sport psychologists, or counselors, etc.), and/or coursework on stress awareness and burnout prevention.

Applications in sport

Future research might examine the effectiveness of various interventions and attempt to identify a ranking of sports with regard to risk of burnout among participants.  Other research efforts might seek to determine the specific factors causing burnout and if there are differences in the level of burnout experienced by men and women within the same sport. At any rate, coaches should attend to the possibility of burnout affecting their athletes’ performance and take whatever measures necessary to reduce burnout in their players.

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