Authors: Frode Moen(1) and Kenneth Myhre(2).
1. E-mail address: email@example.com, Tel.: +47 932 487 50.
Centre for Elite Sports Research, Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Social and Educational Sciences, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway.
2. Centre for Elite Sports Research, Department of Neuromedicine and Movement Science, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway.
Research suggests that the numbers of athletes who are suffering from burnout symptoms are considerably. In this study, the authors explore associations of working alliance between coaches and athletes on positive- and negative affect, worry and athlete burnout in a group of Norwegian junior elite athletes. An online survey, consisting of the Working Alliance Inventory, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, the Worry Questionnaire and the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire was completed by a sample of 358 junior elite athletes. Data analysis was conducted using structural equation modelling. The theoretical model in this study explained 66 % of the variance athlete burnout. These effects mainly derived from positive affect, negative affect, worry and the working alliance directly. However, working alliance also showed a significant indirect effect through the mediating variables positive affect, negative affect and worry. These results are discussed in a cognitive and affective activation-perspective.
Keywords: Working alliance, sport, affect, worry, athlete burnout
Junior elite athletes who take their sports seriously normally aim of future success in their sports. However, the great majority of junior elite athletes will not experience to succeed in their sports in the long run (16, 23). Elite sport is a competitive environment where athletes are evaluated at a regular basis compared to their fellow athletes with objective measurements such as different tests measuring important sport specific capacities and results in competitions. Ultimately, the athletes need to show their competitiveness in competitions and achieve good results. Such demands have the potential to be experienced as stressful for athletes because they are exposed to how competitive their coping resources are (75, 80). Stress has the potential to stimulate emotions, cognitive appraisals and worries negatively (75). Negative emotions are closely related to negative affect, as opposite to positive affect, which is closely related to positive emotions (45). Interestingly, worry is stimulated when a situation is considered to be beyond an athlete’s control (9, 65).
The coach-athlete relationship in junior elite sports is a helping relationship that is aimed at helping athletes to be competitive in their sports (38, 49, 50, 51). Ambitious athletes need to experience performance enhancements and goal achievements as an outcome to define the coach-athlete relationship as successful (59). To attain success in elite sports athletes need intense nurturing and years of commitment to intensive quality training (15, 16, 76). Thus, coaches need to develop clear goals and accompanying strategies together with their athletes, and the athletes need to experience that the strategies they are using help them to progress in their sports (61). If goals and accompanying strategies are unclear, and if athletes do not experience strategies as effective, then the coach might stimulate cognitive appraisals and emotions negatively, and ultimately stimulate athletes to experience the dysfunctional state defined as athlete burnout (35, 63, 66). Therefore, the aim of the current study is to explore relations between working alliances between coaches and athletes, worry, affect and athlete burnout among Norwegian high-level junior athletes in sports.
Young athletes who are aiming to become future elite athletes in their sports are exposed to heavy physical and psychological loads from several sources. Adolescence is suggested to be a particularly stressful period in life for young athletes, with school, sport and peer groups as potential impactful stressors (13). Research shows that these loads might potentially, if not balanced properly, affect performance negatively and eventually lead athletes into the non-functional state known as athlete burnout (58, 60, 81). Disturbingly, researchers claim that the occurrences of athletes who are suffering from burnout seem to be rising (18, 65).
Research on burnout among athletes in sport has historically been guided by the cognitive affective model, which in turn has derived from the human service and organizational psychology literatures (52, 53, 75). The cognitive affective model claims that burnout is a result of chronic exposure to stress, and that the stress occurs because athletes perceive that they are incapable to meet situational demands over time (26, 66). Athlete burnout is viewed as a multidimensional construct that has three central dimensions: 1) Emotional and physical exhaustion, 2) Reduced sense of accomplishment, and 3) Sport devaluation (69, 72). Emotional and physical exhaustion are experienced as feelings of fatigue associated with the sport setting such as training, competitions and different psychological hassles (72). The emotional component is associated with the potential psychological stressors that the athletes experience in the process of developing their potential and enhance their performances. Such possible stressors can be worries about unfulfilled goals and tasks, negative affect responses because of possible unfulfilled expectations, and/or social difficulties with their peer athletes or coaches (27, 29). The physical component is associated with the balance between intensity and duration of the training and competitions they complete, and the amount of time and resources put into recovery (5). Emotional and physical exhaustion are the core components in burnout, and it is nearly unanimous agreement that exhaustion is the result from the chronic stress that exceeds an athlete’s resources (14, 26). Reduced sense of accomplishments is characterized by a feeling of inability to achieve the tasks in their sports, followed by negative evaluations of themselves with regard to their identity as an athlete. In such cases, performances are below expectations and the athletes are unable to achieve their personal goals (72). The sport devaluation dimension relates to athletes having developed a detached attitude towards their sports, and expresses negativity and a lack of concern regarding both the sport itself and their performance (72). Ultimately, high levels of burnout may lead to lack of motivation, with dropout from sports as a subsequent result (25, 55, 57, 72). This study will focus on possible psychological strains that can occur related to the coach-athlete relationship.
The coach-athlete relationship
There is a long history of research in sports that claims the coach-athlete relationship to be crucial for successful outcomes (34, 38, 41, 57, 61). The coach–athlete relationship refers to all the situations where feelings, thoughts and behaviors are inter-related between coaches and athletes (39). Historically, research on coach-athlete relationship has put special focus on relationship values, such as the constructs of the three C’s “Closeness”, “Commitment” and “Complementarity” (38, 40). The depth of the coach-athlete emotional attachment in the relationship is covered by closeness. Further, commitment reflects the intention or desire to maintain the coach-athlete relationship over time, while complementarity defines if the relationship is effective or not (38). However, an effective coach-athlete relationship is supposed to positively influence an athlete’s self-efficacy, motivation and satisfaction (21, 24, 41). Therefore, the emphatic values as proposed by the three C’s is not sufficient to influence athletes’ capacities in an optimal way. A coach’s sport specific understanding and ability to develop strategies that help athletes to achieve their goals in the particular sport are also important and influence the effectiveness and the outcome of the coach-athlete relationship (36, 40, 57).
Interestingly, research from clinical environments claims that success change-inducing relationships (athlete development) rely on the emphatic cooperation between the helper (therapist) and the person who seeks help (7, 31, 65). Such relationships are defined as a “working alliance” between the helper and the person who seeks help (client), and a Working Alliance Inventory (WAI) scale is developed to measure important characteristics of this alliance (31). The WAI is based on Bordin’s model of the therapeutic working alliance, which is conceptualized trough the three terms “goals”, “tasks” and “bonds” (7). It was originally designed to measure the strength of the working alliance within therapeutic relationships (31). However, WAI is later adapted to other helping relationship contexts, like for example supervision (2). In the working alliance theory, goals are the objectives for the collaboration, and are considered the desired outcome from the helping relationship (8). The key regarding goals is to reach a high level of agreement or mutuality between the therapist and the client. Tasks are the behaviors and cognitions engaged in by both the therapist and client in the cooperation process. In the sport setting then, a functional coach-athlete working alliance is where both parts perceive these tasks applicable and beneficial (7). Thus, athletes must experience that the tasks are developing their capacities and results in goal attainment. Bonding is related to the level of “partner compatibility”, which develops from the interaction between coach and athlete in the activities they are involved in (8). A high level of bonding is expressed as mutual liking and trusting, and a feeling of common purpose and understanding between the coach and the athletes (8, 31), and reflects the depth of emotional attachment in the relationship. Research on relationships in sport claims that emphatic understanding from the coach is a key to develop effective relationships between coaches and athletes (34, 42, 43, 57). However, emphatic understanding alone is not sufficient. Ambitious athletes need to experience performance enhancements and goal achievements as an outcome to define the coach-athlete relationship as successful (59). Thus, effective coach-athlete relationships should be founded on clear goals, accompanied by strategies that are meant to help the athletes to achieve these goals, and produce successful experiences during training and competitions.
On the contrary, if emphatic understanding is missing, if goals and accompanying strategies to achieve them are unclear, and if athletes do not experience strategies as effective, then the relationship is likely to be experienced as ineffective (35, 63, 66). Therefore, it is a big paradox that the coach-athlete relationship might become a potential stressor for junior elite athletes (29, 35, 63). Such a potential stress load adds to the other loads that young athletes are exposed to and if the stress load is persistently it might ultimately lead to athlete burnout (26).
Based on the theoretical framework of the WAI, effective coach-athlete relationships should lead to a clear understanding of goals, an understanding- and a strengthen belief in a strategy that is beneficial to reach these goals, and an emphatic cooperation between the coach and the athlete. These three principles are found to be essential in the work to achieve performance enhancements, and are supported by goal setting theory and Bandura’s self-efficacy construct (3, 48). Goal setting theory claims that clear goals and associated defined strategies are important to effectively effect performance (48). There is also a long history in research that shows how the beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments affect performance (3, 24). Thus, based on the framework of the WAI, athletes are considering both the emotional attachment in the coach-athlete relationship, as well as the perceived outcome from their task specific work toward goal achievement when they evaluate if the relationship is effective or not.
Performance enhancements, impairments and stress
Both the cognitive affective model (75) that has guided the research on burnout and the Cognitive Activation Theory of Stress (CATS) claim that athletes are stimulated to make cognitive evaluations of the situations they are exposed to, to consider what they can do about them (70). When athletes consider that the situation is unknown, when the athletes perceive a threat, or when there is a homeostatic imbalance, stress will occur (65, 80). Thus, the physiological and psychological consequences in the situations the athletes are exposed to, all depend on their cognitive evaluations (73, 75). If the athlete expects to have the resources to cope with the situational demands, the stress can be defined as positive (58). However, if the athlete does not expect to have the necessary coping resources, the stress can be negative. Researchers have found that the body responds differently to these two different types of emotional stress (17, 65). The positive stress response results from situations where athletes have the resources to cope with the demands and believe they can control the situation (46, 65), and might actually be constructive when conquered. On the contrary, negative stress results from situational demands that athletes cannot control, because of inadequate coping resources, and is experienced as destructive for the body. Athletes who experience improvements and achieve their goals will experience a positive stress response, because of a confirmed ability to meet situational demands (56, 80). However, when young elite athletes experience an inability to meet situational demands, for example lack of development or lack of goal attainment, the experience of negative stress is a natural response. Such negative stress is closely related to negative affect, as opposite to the positive stress, which is closely related to positive affect (45). Interestingly, worry is also stimulated when a situation is considered to be beyond an athlete’s control such as when an athlete is exposed to negative stress (9, 65). Worry is defined as a mental problem-solving process on an uncertain issue containing the possibility of one or more negative outcomes (9).
Research claims that a close relationship with significant others is important in any helping relationship, and if such relationships is not well-functioning it might stimulate worries and negative affect (33, 37). Former studies also suggest that ineffective relationships stimulate negative affect, while effective relationships stimulate positive affect (21, 36). Importantly, both coaches and athletes expect that the coaches are there to help them to develop their potential (34, 55, 64). Based on this framework, it is valid to claim that an important aspect of the coaches role in the coach-athlete relationship is to help the athlete reduce negative stress impact, and stimulate positive stress responses. However, if the emotional bond is not established, and the relationship is experienced as ineffective, then the relationship is likely to stimulate negative stress responses, since athletes will consider the situation to be beyond their control. Thus, an ineffective coach-athlete relationship might stimulate athletes to worry more, because of an experienced inability to cope with situational demands (80). The cognitive affective model involves both cognitive functions, such as worries, and affective reactions such as positive- and negative affect, which in total might contribute to the development of athlete burnout (26, 66).
The present study
The occurrences of burnout among young elite athletes are a big challenge since motivation is found to be one key variable in the work to achieve successful outcomes in sport (22, 23). To stimulate growth and development of athletes’ talents in sport, the relationship between coach and athlete has to be well functioning over time (6). Otherwise, the athlete might experience worry and negative affect as a result from imbalance, incongruence, and incompatibility between the coach and the athlete (28, 82). Further, burnout is likely to occur from exposure to such stress impact over time (74). Based on this, the aim of this study is to explore relations between working alliance, worry, affect and burnout among Norwegian high-level junior athletes attending high schools specialized for sports.
It is hypothesized that working alliance predicts worry negatively, positive affect positively, and negative affect negatively. Further, it is expected that worry predicts positive affect negatively, and negative affect positively. Finally, working alliance and positive affect is expected to predict burnout negatively, whereas worry and negative affect is expected to predict burnout positively. The model is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Hypothesized model
Participants and procedure
Five hundred and twenty-nine junior athletes from three different Norwegian high schools for elite sports were invited by the authors to voluntarily participate in this study. The schools at which these athletes attend are specialized for elite sports, and the athletes have to document both talent and ambition to gain admission to these schools. Training is on the school schedule every day of the week, and the athletes also normally practice their sports after school several days during weekdays, and in the weekends. Thus, the athletes in this study invest a lot of time to develop as athletes in their sport, and have ambitions to develop their potentials at elite senior level.
In the invitation they received, the athletes was asked to participate in an online questionnaire where they had to answer scales measuring psychological variables such as perceived working alliance with their coach, affect, worry and athlete burnout. In addition, they also responded to questions covering demographic variables, such as gender, age and sport.
From the 539 participants, 358 (54 % males and 46 % females) completed the data collection, which gives a response rate of 66.4 %. The sample had a mean age of 18.2 years (ranging from 17 to 20 years), and practiced a variety of sports with cross country skiing (28 %), soccer (22 %) and biathlon (13 %) being those most frequently reported.
The general variables
The variables examined in this study include items and inventories such as age, gender, the type of school, type of sport, performance level and training data, and whether the athletes were ill or injured. Further, psychological measurements based on previously developed scales proven to hold both satisfactory validity and reliability were used. These scales were originally in English and were translated into Norwegian by the authors. They are described below in more detail.
The Working Alliance Inventory (WAI). The Working Alliance Inventory (WAI; 31, 79) in a version adjusted for the sport context was used to assess coach– athlete relationship characteristics. This 12-item questionnaire yields three central dimensions: (a) agreement on the goals pursued in the relationship (the goal dimension); (b) agreement on tasks to be accomplished to achieve these goals (the task dimension); and (c) the development of a personal bond between the coach and the athlete (the bonding dimension). The athletes were asked to consider these 12 items regarding their thoughts and feelings towards their responsible coach in their sports on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 7 (always). Examples of items covering these dimensions are “My coach and I work on mutually agreed-upon goals”, “My coach and me agree about the steps I need to take to improve in my sport” and “There is mutual trust between my coach and me” for the goal-, task- and bonding dimensions, respectively. Validation studies of the WAI scale have proven good construct validity and high reliability (12, 79). The Cronbach’s alpha for the total measurement in this study was .92, while it was .64, .89 and .90 for the goal-, task- and bond dimension respectively.
The Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ). A Norwegian version of The Penn State Worry Questionnaire (54, 68) was used to measure worry. PSWQ is made up of 16 items, each rated on a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all typical) to 5 (very typical). The athletes were asked to rate how typical or representative each of the different items were for them. An example of an item is “If I don’t have enough time to do everything, I don’t worry about it.” Another item is “When I’m under pressure, I worry a lot.” An important aspect of the PSWQ is that the instrument is not related to any specific worry domain or content (54) in contrast to other worry measures (e.g., Worry Domains Questionnaire, WDQ; 77). The reliability and validity of the Norwegian PSWQ is in line with former studies conducted with the original PSWQ (20, 67, 68). The Cronbach’s alpha for the measurement in this study was .93.
The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; 83) was used to measure positive and negative affect in this study. PANAS consist of two sub-scales that measure positive affect and negative affect respectively. The athletes were asked to rate the extent to which they have experienced each particular emotion within the last week as an athlete, with reference to a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (“not at all”) to 5 (very much). Ten descriptors representing different emotions are used for positive affect (i.e. excited – strong – proud) and negative affect (i.e. upset – nervous – irritable), respectively. The PANAS has strong reported validity with such measures as general distress and dysfunction, depression, and state anxiety (82), and previous research on young athletes has supported the factor structure of PANAS (19). The Cronbach’s alphas for the measurement were .84 (positive affect) and .85 (negative affect).
The Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (ABQ). The Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (ABQ; 70, 72) was used to measure athlete burnout. ABQ consists of three five-item subscales assessing the three key dimensions of burnout: (1) devaluation of sports participation, (2) a reduced sense of accomplishment, and (3) emotional and physical exhaustion. Examples of items covering these dimensions are respectively: “I have negative feelings toward sports”, “It seems that no matter what I do, I don’t perform as well as I should”, and “I feel so tired from my training that I have trouble finding energy to do other things”. The athletes rated the extent to which each items addressed their participation motives in sport on a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (“Almost Never”) to 5 (“Almost Always”). As described by Raedeke and Smith (71), a global burnout score was computed by calculating a mean from the three subscales. Previous research has supported both the reliability and the factorial and convergent/divergent validity of The Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (18, 47, 70). The Cronbach’s alphas for each of the dimensions were .77, .82 and .85, and it was .89 for the complete measure.
Firstly, data were analyzed by examining the correlations between variables by using Pearson correlational coefficient. The data were initially analyzed by means of confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to establish the quality of the measurement instruments and determine the zero-order correlations between the study variables. In a second step the proposed model was tested with structural equation modeling (SEM) using the IBM AMOS 21 software. Due to its robustness towards violations of the multi-normality assumptions, we used a maximum likelihood estimator (MLR), as suggested by Brown (10). The first indicator of each scale was used to set the metric of the latent variables, in accordance with the standard approach in most latent variable models (10).
We further explored relations between the variables in both the CFA, and the structural model by means of SEM, which is a statistical methodology that takes a confirmatory approach to the analysis (11). In this approach, a hypothesized model of the relations between the constructs is tested statistically to determine the extent to which it is consistent with the data, which is referred to as the goodness of fit. If the goodness of fit is adequate, the plausibility of the proposed relations among the constructs is supported.
To assess the model fit, we used well-established indices, such as CFI, IFI, TLI, and RMSEA, as well as the chi-square test. For the CFI, IFI, and TLI indices, values higher than .90 are typically considered acceptable, and values higher than .95 indicate a good fit of the data (11, 31). For well-specified models, an RMSEA of .06 or less reflects a good fit (32, 78).
Correlations and descriptive statistics
Table 1 shows the correlations between the study variables as well as the possible maximum scores, statistical means, standard deviations, and Cronbach’s alphas. Except for the correlations between the sub-dimensions in athlete burnout, negative affect exerted the strongest correlation with athlete burnout (positive = more NA equals more burnout), followed by worry (positive), perceived performance (negative) and training load (negative).
The zero order correlations between the study variables vary from .17 to .94 (positive or negative relationships). The Cronbach’s alphas of the variables in this study varied from excellent to acceptable.
Measurement model (CFA)
To investigate the measurement model and the relations between the variables, we initially conducted a confirmatory factor analysis of the latent variables. Initially, the preliminary CFAs calculated for each variable separately did not reveal good fit to data, probably due to high complexity in relation to sample. This appeared for Working alliance when entered as a second-order latent variable with “Goal”, “Task” and “Bond” as primary factors (each containing four indicators). Same results occurred for Worry, Negative affect and Positive affect when entered as first-order latent variables with four, sixteen, ten and ten indicators respectively (conform to the items of the scales), and also for Burnout, when entered as a second-order latent variable with “Emotional and physical exhaustion”, “Sport devaluation” and “Reduced sense of accomplishment” as primary factors (each containing five indicators).
Thus, to reduce complexity, a parceling method was applied. Parceling is a common practice in structural equation modeling and involves using composite scores derived from multiple individual scale items (44). The technique has a number of proposed advantages that include higher sample-size-to-estimated-paths ratios, increased reliability of manifest indicators and less violation of normality assumptions (3). For the indicators of the latent variables Worry, Positive affect and Negative affect, three parcels constructed from item means of three to four single items was used (44). For the latent variables Working alliance and Burnout, parcels conform to the primary factors were used (meaning that items belonging to each sub-dimension of the scales was clustered as one parcel). With these adjustments, acceptable model fit was achieved for these models as well.
For the final model, a covariance structure model of Figure 1 was specified; including Illness and Training load entered as fixed exogenous variables. This model had good fit to data (χ2 (94) = 214.087, p < .001, CMIN/DF = 2.278, RMSEA = 0.060, IFI = 0.959, TLI = 0.947, and CFI = 0.959), and all loadings in the model were significant at p < .001. Supporting the zero-order correlations (see Table 1), the correlations between the latent variables varied from low to moderate/strong, as showed in Table 2. The result from the CFA supports the conceptualization of five separate but correlated constructs (see Table 3).
As acceptable model fit was achieved in the CFA, the hypothetical model displayed in Figure 1 was further tested by means of specifying the relations between the variables as depicted in the model. Standard errors and confidence intervals of the model parameter estimates were bias corrected by a bootstrapping procedure with 500 bootstrap samples. The path model had acceptable fit to the data (χ2 (95) = 216.171, p < .001, CMIN/DF = 2.275, RMSEA = .060, IFI = .959, TLI = .947, and CFI = .958). Estimates of the standardized regression weights and the squared multiple correlations are shown in Figure 2, whereas unstandardized regressions weights, standard errors, total effects, and indirect effects are presented in Table 4.
Figure 2. Structural Equation Model (Standardized Solution; N=358), ** p< .01
As shown in Figure 2, worry was influenced significantly by working alliance with a moderate negative effect size. Also, negative affect was significantly influenced by working alliance with a medium effect size, whereas positive affect was significantly by working alliance with a medium effect size. Finally, working alliance directly influenced burnout significantly with moderate negative effect size.
In total, working alliance explained 5 % of the variance in worry. Further, working alliance and worry explained 21 % and 35 % of the total variance in positive affect and negative affect respectively. Finally, working alliance, worry, positive affect and negative affect explained 66 % of the variance in burnout.
The purpose of the present study was to explore relations between working alliance, worry, affect and burnout among Norwegian high-level junior athletes attending high schools specialized for sports. More specifically a theoretical model of relations between working alliance, worries, positive affect, negative affect, and how these variables predict athlete burnout was tested. The main findings of this study are that WAI and worry significantly predict athlete burnout indirectly, while WAI, PA, NA, and worry significantly predict athlete burnout directly. The theoretical model that is proposed in this study explains 66 % of the variance in athlete burnout.
The impact of working alliance on worry, PA and NA
Our hypotheses that WAI would predict PA positively and worry and NA negatively were confirmed by the findings in this study. This is in line with former research suggesting that ineffective relationships is likely to stimulate negative affect, while effective relationships stimulate positive affect (21, 36). More specifically, our results show that several preconditions need to be fulfilled for a coach-athlete relationship to be predictive of PA. Firstly, athletes must experience that the relationships between their coaches and themselves are strategically and effective in order to achieve commonly determined goals. In addition, athletes requires a deep confidence in their coaches’ abilities- and genuine interest to help. On the opposite, the coach-athlete relationship is actually predictive of NA and worry if these preconditions are not present.
A possible explanation to these results might be that the relationship is a potential stressor when it is not working effectively (1). The participants in this study are ambiguous athletes who aim to become future elite athletes in their sports, and they have decided to spend four years at a specialized school for sports to grow their talents. Thus, it is reason to believe that these athletes are expecting that coaches are there to help them to achieve their goals (55, 64). If athletes do not experience that the coaches understand what they are trying to accomplish (corresponding to the goal dimension of WAI), a genuine interest to help them (the bond dimension of WAI), an agreement about the steps they need to do take to improve and a confirmation that the steps are working effectively (task dimension of WAI), then they are stimulated to worry more and will experience higher levels of NA (33, 37). This is supported by previous research, which revealed the following coach behaviors to be most commonly mentioned coach-related stressors among athletes: 1) “being non supportive” 2) “constantly criticizing”, 3) “not giving performance feedback” and 4) “not clarifying what the athlete possibly do wrong” (1). The three dimensions of WAI, on the other hand, describes characteristics of the coach-athlete relationship that might actually counteract theses specific stressors, and thereby prevent the relationship from becoming a negative stressor for the athlete. This also supports that if the dimensions of goal, task and bond as described in working alliance theory is ensured, one can expect outcomes that according to CATS, stimulates an athletes’ feeling of control and ability to cope with situational demands (80).
With regard to worry, it is found to be stimulated when a situation is considered to be beyond an athlete’s control, and “mental solving” of a perceived problem is required (9, 65). The Cognitive Attentional Syndrome (CAS) might confirm this claim (84), as CAS is explained as a cognitive response to negative stress. Relational difficulties in the coach-athlete relationship are in previous research found to stimulate negative stress (27), and it is likely that such negative stress might stimulate athletes to pay their attention to internal cognitions, such as worries (84). Importantly, both worry and NA are stress loads that comes in addition to i.e. the physical and mental loads that the athletes in this study are exposed to in their training and education. Worry and NA are considered inconvenient for athlete development (46), and might ultimately lead to athlete burnout if being persistent on negative levels (26).
The impact of worry on PA and NA
We further expected worry to predict PA negatively and NA positively. These expectations was only partly confirmed by our findings. Worry showed a significant, positive prediction with NA, while worry did not predict PA negatively as expected. This finding confirms that if athletes are disposed to worry, they are also in danger of experiencing NA as a response (84). Worry is a mental problem-solving process that is stimulated by an uncertain issue containing the possibility of one or more negative outcomes (9). Thus, negative stress is associated with worry and is closely related to negative affect (45, 84). CAS also claims that worry can contribute to NA (84). The findings in this study show that worry is predictive for NA, and can be explained by the uncertainty athletes experience when the relationships with their coaches are experienced as ineffective, and they feel unable to change this situation.
The variables WAI and worry did explain 21 % of the variance in positive affect, but only WAI contributed significantly in this regard. A possible explanation of the finding that worry is not significantly, negatively associated with PA, might be that levels of worry does not necessarily influence levels of PA, as other variables are more determinative for stimulation of PA (45). In this regard, the significant, direct positive relationship between WAI and PA revealed in this study is noteworthy. The potential of the relationship for stimulation of positive affect in athletes might represent an important, influential tool that coaches should be well aware of in their practice.
The impact of working alliance, worry, PA and NA on burnout
Our model finally expected that WAI and PA would predict athlete burnout negatively, whereas worry and NA would predict athlete burnout positively. All of these expected relationships were significantly confirmed, and in total, these variables explained 66 % of the variance in burnout. These findings support the suggestion that the coach-athlete relationship can lead to burnout if it is not experienced as effective (1). On the other hand, and just as important, it might also serve as a preventer of athlete burnout if experienced as effective.
The significant influence of WAI, PA, NA and worry on athlete burnout, all support the suggestion that the coach-athlete relationship is a potential stressor that stimulates negative stress if it is not experienced as effective. Further, the positive associations worry and NA show with athlete burnout, and the negative association between PA and athlete burnout, all support the cognitive affective model that has guided the development of athlete burnout. Thus, firstly the theoretical model in this study supports that both cognitive and affective dimensions are central in explaining athlete burnout. Secondly, it highlights the importance of a well functioning helping relationship in this regard, and underlines that the coach-athlete relationship is actually a “double-edged sword” which might be just as harmful for the athletes if not functioning, as it is positive and stimulating if functioning well. In conclusion, the coach-athlete relationship might, to varying degrees, be either burnout preventive or burnout supportive.
CONCLUSIONS AND LIMITATIONS
The coach role in sport is a helping relationship that is supposed to help athletes grow their talents. Athletes who lack motivation and experience show symptoms of burnout, are not in an optimal state to grow their talents. Thus, it is important to build effective coach-athlete relationships in sport. This study claims that an effective relationship, that are preventive of burnout, is built on a coach’s genuine interest to help the athlete, a common understanding of athletes’ goals and effective strategies to reach these goals. Coaches need to spend considerable time with their athletes to develop such relationships.
It is worth noticing that this study limited by its cross-sectional design. Such data do not support analyses in causal terms, even though our interpretations are based on previous findings and theoretical analyses. As burnout is described as a slow and gradual process that is expected to change over time, longitudinal examinations might provide greater insights into the development of burnout, and possible contributors in this regard. However, the effects found in this study suggest the coach-athlete working alliance to be a significant contributor to burnout in junior elite athletes. With this in mind, it is suggested that coaches working with junior elite athletes should be educated in social and processual skills as well as general and specific sport knowledge. This might prevent stress related to relationship issues in the coach-athlete relationship.
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