Authors: Donna Webster Nelson, Merry J. Sleigh, & Alyssa M. Nelson

Corresponding Author:
Donna Webster Nelson, Ph.D.
801 Oakland Avenue
Rock Hill SC, 29733

Positive and Negative Events Predict Burnout and Engagement in Athletes and Non-Athletes


The researchers compared predictors of engagement and burnout in adolescent athletes and non-athletes by focusing on daily positive and negative performance-related events (e.g., performing well in team practice) and interpersonal events (e.g., sharing a laugh with teammates). Participants were recent high school graduates who retrospectively reported participation in high school sports or heavy investment in alternate activities (e.g., marching band). The athletes and non-athletes were similar in how many hours they practiced and competed each week, frequency of activity-related travel, and performance level. In addition, the two groups did not differ in the extent to which their high school identity and self-esteem were based on their participation. Results revealed no overall differences between the two groups on engagement or burnout. For both groups, positive performance events predicted activity engagement (characterized by dedication, vigor and enthusiasm).  However, the experiences of athletes versus non-athletes differentially predicted burnout (marked by emotional and physical exhaustion). In athletes, burnout related to both performance and interpersonal events. In non-athletes, burnout was only related to performance events. In addition, burnout was positively associated with coach focus on winning (a situation more common for athletes) and negatively associated with coach focus on fun (a situation more common for non-athletes). These findings indicate that experiencing positive and negative events is a precursor for engagement and burnout in high school athletes and non-athletes. Promoting positive (relative to negative) events during training, practice, competitions or performances could enhance benefits and prevent maladaptive outcomes of participation in extracurricular activities. Positive social interactions may be particularly important for preventing burnout in adolescent athletes.

Key words: adolescent, burnout, engagement, daily events, athlete, extracurricular


Previous researchers strongly support the idea that adolescent sports participation is beneficial. For instance, compared to those who do not participate in sports, young athletes benefit from more favorable self-perceptions including more positive body image (Bowker & Findlay, 2009), enhanced feelings of physical competence (Koivula, 1999), and increased global self-esteem (Bowker, 2006; Fredricks & Eccles, 2006). Sports seem to serve a protective role by reducing the risk of self-esteem declines that frequently occur during adolescence (Bowker, 2006) as well as reducing the risk of adolescent depression (Dishman et al., 2006). Furthermore, sports participation often provides opportunities for social interactions and is linked to better social skills, less loneliness, and a sense of community (Lin, Chalip & Green, 2016; Neely & Holt, 2014; Weiss  & Ferrer, 2002). Finally, sports participation has been associated with better self-regulation and effective goal setting behavior (Bruner et al., 2017; Larson, Hansen & Moneta, 2006) and this may explain why it has also been linked to higher academic achievement (Eldridge et al., 2014; Lumpkin & Favor, 2012).

Experience and Antecedents of Burn-out

The aforementioned benefits reflect a general or average effectfor athletes who participate in organized sports compared with youth who do not. However, sports participation does not result in uniformly positive outcomes. Indeed, negative emotional outcomes are a relatively common consequence of adolescent sports participation, most notably in the context of competitive athletics (Curran, Appleton, Hill & Hall, 2011; Eklund & Cresswell, 2007). Some young athletes are plagued by a state of burnout, involving physical and mental exhaustion, self-doubt and negative evaluations of one’s athletic performance, as well as detachment and declining interest in their sport (Cresswell & Eklund, 2006; Raedeke & Smith, 2001; Williams, 2018). Furthermore, these effects seem to be linked to negative mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety, and fear of failure (Eklund & Cresswell, 2007; Gustafsson, Sagar & Stenling, 2017).

Given the potential harmful consequences of burnout on athlete performance and welfare, researchers have investigated possible antecedents of this syndrome. A study of elite male rugby players demonstrated that perceptions of sports-related stressors were positively linked to burnout (Cresswell & Eklund, 2004), and in junior elite athletes, chronic stress also predicted burnout (Frank, Nixdorf & Beckmann, 2017). Similarly, adolescent athletes’ perceptions of negative conflict with peers or coaches were identified as predictors of burnout (DeFreese & Smith, 2014; Smith, Gustaffson & Hassmen, 2010). For example, coaches with a disempowering or controlling motivational style increased the likelihood that their athletes experienced burnout (Appleton & Duda, 2016; González, Tomás, Castillo, Duda, & Balguer, 2017).

Alternatively, perceptions of social support have been shown to be negatively linked to burnout in professional athletes (Cresswell & Eklund, 2007), adult athletes (Al-Yaaribi & Kavussanu, 2017), collegiate athletes (Defreese & Smith, 2013), and adolescent athletes (Holt & Hoar, 2006). All of these findings are consistent with the cognitive-affective stress-based model of athlete burnout, arguing the idea that high amounts of sport-related stress in conjunction with lack of effective coping mechanisms predict athlete burnout (Smith, 1986).

Experience and Antecedents of Engagement

The flip side of this scenario is reflected in athletes who experience deep engagement in their sport, characterized by high levels of dedication, vigor, and enthusiasm (Lonsdale, Hodge & Jackson, 2007; Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzalez-Roma & Bakker, 2002). Vigor is defined by high levels of perseverance and striving for excellence despite obstacles. Dedication is characterized as reflecting deep involvement, inspiration and enthusiasm. Absorption is marked by deep concentration and focus on the task. Albeit not as extensively investigated as athlete burnout, athlete engagement has recently garnered the attention of researchers who acknowledge the need to study well-being in conjunction with ill-being. Positive sports engagement has been linked to favorable outcomes including effective self-regulation of behavior (Martin & Malone, 2013), personal and social responsibility (Martins, Rosado, Ferrerira, & Biscaia, 2017), continued sports participation (Henry & Hodges, 2018), competency (DongWook & Youngkuk, 2015), positive affect (Lonsdale et al., 2007) and the experience of flow, an intrinsically rewarding state of deep immersion in an activity (Hodge, Lonsdale & Jackson, 2009).

Previous researchers have also begun to examine antecedents of sports engagement. In accordance with their theory of self-determination, Ryan and Deci (2002) argue that satisfaction of basic psychological needs including autonomy (perceptions of choice and self-direction), relatedness (feelings of connecting to others) and competence (confidence in one’s abilities) determine the extent to which positive states such as engagement or flow will occur. Researchers have provided evidence that supports this proposed link between satisfaction of basic psychological needs and engagement of athletes (e.g., Curran, Hill, Hall & Jowett, 2014; Hodge et al., 2009; Podlog et al., 2015).  As one example, coaching styles impact whether athlete’s psychological needs are met, which in turn, interacts with athlete engagement. Curran, Hill, Hall, and Jowett (2015) found that overall engagement was higher when coaches focused on skill mastery versus performance. Conversely, burnout was related to coaches’ failure to satisfy athletes’ needs (Moen & Federici, 2017). Similarly, the satisfaction of psychological needs provides an explanation for perfectionistic concerns predicting burnout and perfectionistic strivings predicting engagement (Jowett, Hill, Hall & Curran, 2016). This relationship between basic needs, engagement, and burnout has also been documented outside the world of athletics. Thwarting of basic needs seems to prevent engagement and predict burnout in employees (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2014; Van Den Broeck, Vansteenkiste, De Witte, & Lens, 2008) and middle school students (e.g., Bartholomew, Ntoumanis, Ryan and Thogersen-Ntoumani, 2011).

Influence of Daily Events

Recent researchers, using the workplace context, explored engagement and burnout from a unique perspective, focusing on the relationship between well-being and daily positive and negative events. Sinclair et al. (2015) conducted an 8-month longitudinal study of nurses and found that daily performance and interpersonal events predicted outcomes such that positive events increased nurses’ engagement, while negative events undermined their engagement and facilitated burnout. These findings are consistent with the Affective Events Theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996) which argues that positive or negative affective events in the workplace evoke emotional responses that influence workers’ attitudes or actions. Sinclair et al. (2015) also found that negative events were more strongly linked to both engagement and burnout, compared to positive events. These particular results support the “bad is stronger than good” premise, suggesting that negative, compared to positive, events are more highly associated with healthy outcomes (Baumeister, Bratsiavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001).

The importance of daily events has been highlighted by literature in the stress and coping domain as well. According to Delongis, Coyne, Dakof, Folkman, and Lazarus (1982), daily hassles account for a greater proportion of accumulated stress over an individual’s life span, compared to more major life events or catastrophes. Daily hassles have been linked to anxiety (Asselmann, Wittchen, Lieb, & Beesdo-Baum, 2017; Johnson & Swendsen, 2015), emotional exhaustion (Schmidt, Klusmann, Lüdtke, Möller, & Kunter, 2017) and psychological distress (Villeneuve et al., 2014), while daily positive events seem to support daily well-being (Machell, Kashdan, Sort & Nezlek, 2015; Nezlek, Rusanowska, Holas, & Krejtz, 2017). Thus, a focus on routine, day-to-day occurrences may prove informative in taking proactive steps to prevent negative consequences of adolescent sports participation and promote positive outcomes. Prior research in sport and work contexts has documented noteworthy overlap with respect to predictors of engagement and burnout in these two domains. However, previous studies have not concomitantly examined the impact of daily events on adolescent athlete burnout and engagement. Thus, in the present study, the researchers expected that routine occurrences may impact adolescent athletes in a manner comparable to that observed in a work context (e.g., Sinclair et. al., 2015) influencing the quality of adolescent sports participation, as well as athletes’ experience of negative or positive emotional outcomes.

The present study also compared experiences of athletes with that of non-athletes who become deeply involved in alternate activities such as music or dance. Much of the previous research compares athletes to non-athletes, without clarifying the extent to which non-athletes engaged with extracurricular activities outside a sport context. Thus, data directly comparing participants across different extracurricular involvements is limited. Poczwardowski and Conroy (2002) reported different coping strategies for elite athletes compared to performing artists. Other researchers who have examined these two groups in conjunction found that high school students involved in either sports or alternate arts-related activities were less likely to drop out (Neely & Vaquera, 2017) and exhibited higher levels of self-awareness, social connectedness, and social responsibility compared to those not involved in such activities (Bower & Carroll, 2015).

The expectations in the present study were that daily events tied to performance and interpersonal interactions would predict engagement and burnout in adolescents who were actively engaged in athletics or other extracurricular activities. Specifically, a positive association was expected between engagement and positive events and a negative association between engagement and negative events. A reverse pattern was expected for burnout. Specifically, the current researchers expected a negative association between burnout and positive events and a positive association between burnout and negative events. The current researchers also expected greater vulnerability to burnout for adolescents who worked with a coach or activity leader who emphasized winning. This prediction is consistent with findings revealing a link between athlete stress and competitive pressures (e.g., Cresswell & Eklund, 2006; Gould, Tuffey, Udry & Loehr, 1997).



Participants (n = 121) were recruited through freshmen-level classrooms on a university campus and offered partial course credit for participation. Participants were recruited early during the fall semester, shortly after their high school graduation. The sample only included adolescents who reported significant engagement in sports or alternate extracurricular activities. Thirty-four participants identified as men, 86 identified as women, and one person did not identify a gender. The mean age was 18.78 (SD = 1.08); all participants were 18 years of age or older. Sixty-four participants reported as White/Caucasian, 51 as Black/African American, and six as Hispanic/Latino.

Seventy-three participants reported sports participation during high school, and the remainder reported heavy participation in some non-sport activity during high school. The most common sports activities were basketball (14 participants), track (10 participants), soccer (9 participants), volleyball (6 participants), and softball (6 participants). Other sports included baseball, football, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, and wrestling. The most common non-sports activities reported were orchestra/music (7 participants), marching band/color guard (5 participants), and dance (3 participants). Other activities traditionally not called “sports” included Junior ROTC, student government, yearbook, photography/video club and theatre. The researchers compared the demographic characteristics of the two groups. Chi-squares tests of independence confirmed that the groups were equivalent for participants’ race [χ2(2, N = 121) = 4.84, p > .05, ns] and gender [χ2(1, N = 120) = 0.44, p > .05, ns]. A t-test confirmed that the mean age of the two groups did not significantly differ, t(116) = -1.92, p = .057.


Participants encountered a series of researcher-created questions that assessed hours per week participants invested in their activity, frequency of activity-related travel, seriousness of participation, importance of participation, amount of time spent thinking about the activity, and performance level. Responses were made on 4-point Likert scales. Participants were also asked to indicate how much their identity and self-esteem during high school were based on the activity; these responses were made on 5-point Likert scales. Participants were asked to rank five factors (self-esteem, group cohesion, winning, improvement/growth, and fun) with 1 representing the factor that they perceived was most important to their coaches and 5 representing the factor that was least important to their coaches.

Participants also responded to the 12-item Sport Engagement Scale, which assess three aspects of engagement: vigor, absorption, and dedication (Guillén & Martínez-Alvarado, 2014). On the original scale, the questions are worded in the present tense. The researchers modified the scale by making the questions past tense, as participants were told to reflect on their high school experience. For example, “I am persistent in my sport activity” was modified to become “I was persistent in my sport activity.” An example of a modified item assessing vigor was “I was able to train for long periods of time.” An example of an item assessing dedication was “I was enthusiastic about my sport activity.” An example of an item assessing absorption was “Time flew when I was training or competing.” Participants responded on a 5-point Likert scale where 1 represented “Strongly Disagree” and 5 represented “Strongly Agree.” The scale functions best as a one construct scale, with a published reliability alpha of .90 (Guillén & Martínez-Alvarado, 2014). This sample achieved a reliability of .88.

Participants responded to a modified version of the Burnout-Exhaustion scale from the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (Raedeke & Smith, 2001). This five-item scale measures the level of physical and emotional tiredness that an athlete experiences. The original scale is specific to swimming and the wording is in the present tense. The researchers made two modifications. First, statements were re-worded to be applicable to any sport/activity. Second, statements were worded in past tense, as participants were reflecting on their high school experiences. For example, one item measuring exhaustion “I feel overly tired from swimming” was modified to “I felt overly tired from my sport/activity.” Participants responded on a 5-point Likert scale where 1 represented “Almost Never” and 5 represented “Almost Always.” The reliability alpha for the original scale is .88 (Raedeke & Smith, 2001) and the computed reliability alpha for the modified scale was .91.

            The researchers developed four scales to measure positive and negative interpersonal and performance events experienced. To develop the scales, the researchers questioned elite and recreational high school athletes, and wrote items based on common themes that emerged. The wording of the items was modeled on the previously mentioned scale that assessed positive and negative interpersonal and performance events in nurses and linked to both engagement and burnout in that sample (Sinclair et al., 2015). For example, the original scale had items such as, “A coworker complimented my work” and “I had duties for which I did not have sufficient education and/or experience,” while the new scale had items such as, “A teammate complimented my work” and “I was asked to perform skills for which I did not have enough training and/or practice.” Participants responded on a 6-point Likert scale where 1 represented “Never” and 6 represented “Very Often.”

            There were 22 items for Negative Performance, such as “I was bothered by physical pain during competition” and “I felt unmotivated during training/practice.” The scale achieved a reliability alpha of .92. Positive Performance had 17 items, such as “I exceeded my personal best at a critical time” and “I felt confident during training/practice.” The scale achieved a reliability alpha of .93. Negative Interpersonal had 17 items, such as “My teammates made me doubt my own abilities” and “My coach expected too much from me.” The scale achieved a reliability alpha of .92. The first version of the Positive Interpersonal scale had 16 items with a reliability alpha of .76. Reliability analysis revealed that one item had low correlation with the others (“I had positive interactions with my coach”). Dropping this item raised the reliability alpha to .90. Thus, the final Positive Interpersonal scale had 15 items, such as “My teammates and I supported each other” and “My coach supported me.” See Table 1 for a list of all items.

Table 1. Items Used in Positive and Negative Interpersonal and Performance Scales

Positive Interpersonal
A teammate or fellow athlete complimented my work during training/practice.
I had positive interactions with my teammates or fellow athletes.
My teammates/fellow athletes and I shared a laugh.
My teammates/fellow athletes and I supported each other.
I helped/encouraged a teammate or fellow athlete.
I received help/encouragement from a teammate or fellow athlete.
Teammates/fellow athletes went out of their way to be nice to each other.
Teammates/fellow athletes and I had fun together.
My coach complimented my work during competition.
My coach and I shared a laugh.
I received help/encouragement from my coach.
My coach went out of his/her way to be nice.
My coach and I had fun together.
I helped to build rapport (positive relationships) on my team or with teammates.
My coach supported me.

Negative Interpersonal
My teammates/fellow athletes showed little interest in me.
My teammates/fellow athletes doubted my commitment to the activity/sport.
My teammates/fellow athletes doubted my abilities.
My teammates/fellow athletes made me doubt my own abilities.
My teammates/fellow athletes expected too much from me.
My teammates/fellow athletes spoke harshly to me.
I experienced jealousy.
My coach was disappointed in me.
My coach showed little interest in me.
My coach doubted my commitment to the activity/sport.
My coach doubted my abilities.
My coach made me doubt my own abilities.
My coach expected too much from me.
My coach spoke harshly to me.
My efforts during training, practice, or competition went unnoticed.
My coach treated me unfairly.
I was discriminated against due to my race, ethnicity, religion, etc.

Positive Performance
I overcame a challenge I experienced during training/practice.
I performed very well in training/practice.
I put forth outstanding effort during training/practice.
I felt strong and energized during training/practice.
I felt confident during training/practice.
I enjoyed training/practice.
I overcame a challenge I experienced during competition.
I performed very well during competition.
I put forth outstanding effort during competition.
I felt strong and energized during competition.
I felt confident during competition.
I enjoyed competition.
I exceeded my personal best at a critical time.
I exceeded my own performance expectations.
I was allowed to set my own performance goals.
I rebounded (came back strong) after a major defeat.
I felt like a winner.

Negative Performance
I didn’t have enough physical energy to perform my best in training/practice.
I was bothered by physical pain during training/practice
I didn’t have enough mental energy to perform my best in training/practice
I felt a distracting level of anxiety during training/practice.
I doubted my abilities during training/practice.
I felt unmotivated during training/practice.
Training or practice conditions were stressful.
I didn’t have enough physical energy to perform my best in competition.
I was bothered by physical pain during competition.
I didn’t have enough mental energy to perform my best in competition.
I felt a distracting level of anxiety during competition.
I doubted my abilities during competition.
I felt unmotivated during competition.
Competition conditions were stressful.
The time commitment to the sport/activity was stressful.
I had to use equipment that was in poor condition.
I had to perform under unpleasant conditions (e.g., bad weather, hard footing).
I didn’t receive effective coaching to help me improve my performance.
I was asked to perform skills for which I did not have enough training/practice.
I received unclear instructions from my coach.
I received conflicting messages from my coach about performance goals.
I did not perform at the level of which I was capable.


            Participants were tested in group settings, and the protocol received Institutional Review Board approval. The study used retrospective methodology and the survey materials began with participants being instructed to “think only about the time period when you were in high school.” They were then asked if they had participated in any type of sport. Participants who played sports were asked to indicate the one sport that was “the biggest part of your identity at the time” and “the sport in which you invested the most time and energy.” Participants who indicated that they did not play a sport were asked to indicate the one activity that was “the biggest part of your identity at the time” and “the activity in which you invested the most time and energy.” Athletes were told to keep their sport in mind as they responded to the survey questions, while non-athletes were told to focus on their extracurricular activity. Non-athletes were presented with substitute wording or explanations of word definitions in the scales where necessary. For example, they were told that “teammates” should refer to any peers who participated in their activity alongside them, while “coach” could be a leader or group supervisor.

            Following these instructions, participants encountered the researcher-created questions related to investment with activity, identity, and perceived coach emphasis. Participants then responded to the modified versions of the Sport Engagement Scale (Guillén & Martínez-Alvarado, 2014), the Burnout-Exhaustion scale (Raedeke & Smith, 2001), and the researcher-developed scales assessing positive and negative interpersonal and performance events.


Means were calculated for the four performance and interpersonal scales for all participants combined. Negative Interpersonal yielded an overall mean of 2.06 (SD = .85). Positive Interpersonal yielded a mean of 5.12 (SD = .63). Negative Performance yielded an overall mean of 2.80 (SD = 1.05), and Positive Performance yielded an overall mean of 4.93 (SD = .65).  The mean for engagement was 3.92 (SD = .57) and for burnout was 2.68 (SD = .96). Burnout and engagement were not significantly correlated, r(121) = -.01, p = .916.

Athletes and non-athletes were compared using a MANOVA. Table 2 depicts the means (p > .05 in all cases). There were no differences between these two groups in how many hours they practiced and competed each week, frequency of activity-related travel, performance level, importance of the activity, time spent thinking about sport, and the seriousness of their participation.  In addition, the two groups did not differ in the extent to which their high school identity and self-esteem were based on their participation. The results also revealed no differences between the two groups on engagement, burnout, two interpersonal scales, and two performance scales.

Table 2. Mean and Standard Deviations for Athletes and Non-Athletes





Practice hours per week

11.34 (6.54)

11.20 (7.69)


Competition hours per week

5.32 (2.88)

4.56 (4.80)


Frequency of travel

3.53 (1.41)

3.04 (1.47)


Seriousness of participation

3.40 (0.76)

3.42 (0.77)


Importance of activity

3.36 (0.81)

3.44 (0.77)


Time spent thinking of activity


2.98 (0.73)


Identity based on activity

3.67 (1.02)

3.60 (1.23)


Self-esteem based on activity

3.68 (1.01)

3.48 (1.26)


Performance level in activity

3.88 (0.73)

3.94 (0.81)



3.92 (0.53)

3.90 (0.62)



2.76 (0.89)

2.55 (1.07)


Positive Interpersonal

5.09 (0.64)

5.15 (0.63)


Negative Interpersonal

2.09 (0.93)

2.0 (0.73)


Positive Performance

4.95 (0.59)

4.90 (0.74)


Negative Performance

2.85 (1.05)

2.73 (1.05)


Multiple linear regressions were used with negative and positive performance and interpersonal variables to examine predictive factors for engagement and burn-out in athletes and non-athletes as separate samples. See Table 3. In athletes, positive performance (β = .65, p < .001) predicted Engagement and a significant proportion of variance, F(4, 71) = 18.70, p < .001, R2 = .53. In non-athletes, positive performance (β = .64, p < .001) also predicted Engagement and a significant portion of variance, F(4, 47) = 12.28, p < .001, R2 = .53. 

Table 3. Beta Coefficients and Significance for Linear Regressions




p value

Engagement: Athletes




Negative Interpersonal




Positive Interpersonal




Negative Performance




Positive Performance




Engagement: Non-Athletes




Negative Interpersonal




Positive Interpersonal




Negative Performance




Positive Performance




Burnout: Athletes




Negative Interpersonal




Positive Interpersonal




Negative Performance




Positive Performance




Burnout: Non-Athletes




Negative Interpersonal




Positive Interpersonal




Negative Performance




Positive Performance




In athletes, positive interpersonal events (β = -.29, p = .029) and negative performance (β = -.41, p = .001) predicted Burnout and a significant proportion of variance, F(4, 71) = 10.92, p < .001, R2 = .40. In non-athletes, negative performance (β = .77, p < .001) and positive performance (β = .50, p = .032) events predicted Burnout, F(4, 47) = 6.00, p = .001, R2 = .36.

For athletes, activity-frequency predicted engagement, with moderate to large effects. Higher Engagement scores were related to: more frequent travel to play the sport, r(72) = .37, p = .002, seriousness of athletes’ participation, r(73) = .59, p < .001, importance of the sport to the players, r(73) = .54, p < .001, identity more strongly based on sport during high school, r(73) = .63, p < .001, self-esteem more strongly based on sport during high school, r(72) = .43, p < .001, more time spent thinking about the sport, r(73) = .58, p < .001, and higher self-reported performance levels, r(73) = .45, p < .001. The higher the engagement score, the more the athletes agreed that their current identity is related to that same sport, r(73) = .35, p = .002, a moderate effect. In contrast, none of the activity- or identity-related variables related to burnout in athletes.

For non-athletes, activity-frequency and identity variables predicted both burnout and engagement. Representing large effect sizes, higher Engagement scores were related to: seriousness of non-athletes’ participation, r(48) = .65, p < .001, importance of the activity, r(48) = .64, p < .001, identity more strongly based on activity during high school, r(48) = .63, p < .001, self-esteem more strongly based on activity during high school, r(48) = .63, p < .001, more time spent thinking about the activity, r(48) = .60, p < .001, and higher self-reported performance levels, r(48) = .53, p < .001.  The higher the engagement score, the more the non-athletes agreed that their current identity is related to that same high school activity, r(48) = .39, p = .006; this is a moderate effect. Reflecting moderate effects, higher burnout was related to: hours of competition per week, r(47) = .32, p = .031, and identity more strongly based on activity during high school, r(48) = .31, p = .031.

In athletes, positive but not negative events predicted how important the sport was, how much the athletes’ identities during high school were based on the sport, and how much time the athletes spent thinking about their sport. The more important the sport, the higher the Positive Interpersonal, r(73) = .26, p = .024, and the higher the Positive Performance, r(73) = .38, p = .001. The more an athlete’s identity was based on the sport, the higher the Positive Interpersonal, r(73) = .24, p = .044, and the higher the Positive Performance, r(73) = .39, p = .001. The more time the athletes spent thinking about their sport, the higher the Positive Interpersonal, r(73) = .33, p = .004, and the higher the Positive Performance, r(73) = .41, p < .001. These are small to moderate effects.

In non-athletes, Positive Performance was the only predictor for how important the activity was, how much the non-athletes’ identities during high school were based on the activity, and how much time the non-athletes spent thinking about their activity; however, several variables predicted seriousness of participation. The higher the Positive Performance, the more important the activity, r(48) = .43, p = .001, the more identity was based on the activity, r(48) = .38, p = .007, and the more time spent thinking about the activity, r(48) = .40, p = .004. These are moderate effect sizes. In non-athletes the more serious the participation in the activity, the higher the Positive Interpersonal, r(48) = .35, p = .014, the higher the Positive Performance, r(48) = .67, p < .001, the lower the Negative Interpersonal, r(48) = -.37, p = .010, and the lower the Negative Performance, r(48) = -30, p = .039; there are moderate to large effect sizes.

Participants ranked the perceived emphasis of their coaches from 1 being the most emphasized to 5 being the least emphasized focus. Table 4 depicts the means. Both athletes and non-athletes were most likely to perceive that their coaches emphasized improvement/growth followed by group cohesion. Athlete coaches then emphasized winning, self-esteem, and fun. Non-athlete coaches then emphasized fun, self-esteem, and winning. The coaches of athletes were more likely to focus on winning [t(108) = -2.28, p = .025], whereas non- athlete coaches emphasized fun [t(107) = 2.27, p = .025]. The more coaches emphasized having fun, the lower the burnout, r(109) = .27, p = .005; the more coaches emphasized winning, the higher the burnout, r(110) = -.24, p = .010. These are small effects.

Table 4. Participant Mean Rankings and Standard Deviations for Coaches’ Emphasis

Coaches’ Emphasis





3.53 (1.21)

3.63 (1.11)


Group cohesion

2.78 (1.20)

2.74 (1.13)



3.19 (1.56)

3.86 (1.37)



1.79 (0.99)

1.50 (0.88)



3.57 (1.28)

3.0 (1.25)



These findings build on what is known about the comparability of experiences for athletes and non-athletes. They also provide a unique perspective by comparing the experiences of adolescent athletes with those who were not engaged in athletics but were deeply invested in alternate extracurricular activities. Results revealed that high school athletes and non-athletes shared similar levels of investment in and experiences related to their sport or non-sport activity. These two groups also experienced similar levels of positive and negative performance and interpersonal events, with positive experiences being more common than negative experiences.


The researchers hypothesized that positive performance and interpersonal events would predict engagement, a prediction that was partially supported. The results demonstrated that positive performance events predicted engagement for both athletes and non-athletes. Interpersonal events did not. High school students who enjoyed training and were inspired to invest outstanding effort during practice experienced deep engagement in their extracurricular activities.  In turn, engagement and positive events strongly predicted high school students spending more time participating in and basing their identities on their extracurricular involvement, even into later adolescence (e.g., the early college years).

It is noteworthy that positive events predicted engagement, while negative events did not. This finding supports the premise of Affective Events Theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996), stating that positive emotional states are evoked through daily events that inspire positive affect. These results suggest that positive daily events can provide a foundation for enhancing constructive engagement in high school extracurricular activities, thereby increasing students’ well-being and quality of life.


Despite these similarities related to engagement, the experiences of athletes versus non-athletes differentially predicted burnout and did not match the hypotheses. For high school athletes, negative performance events and positive interpersonal events linked to burnout. In non-athletes, performance events (both positive and negative) linked to burnout, while interpersonal events were not significant predictors. This pattern of results suggests that social factors have a greater impact on athletes’ (compared to non-athletes’) vulnerability to burnout. This difference highlights the unique effect relational variables may exert on young people who play sports and is consistent with research that identified social support as a significant resource for student athletes (Freeman, Coffee & Rees, 2011; Reverdito et al., 2017) and a lack of social support as a contributor to burnout in collegiate athletes (DeFreese & Smith, 2014). Previous researchers have argued that the interdependence seen among athletes (both in individual and teams sports) relates to positive outcomes, such as improved group functioning, athlete satisfaction, social skill development, and social identity (Bruner, Hall, & Cote, 2011; Bruner, Eys, Blair & Wilson, 2015; Evans & Eys, 2015). Indeed, collegiate athletes have been found to underutilize professional mental health services, relative to non-athletes, presumably due in part to reliance on teammates for social support as an alternative to formal support services (Pinkerton, Hinz & Barrow, 1989).

Positive interpersonal relations seemed to be less central to emotional outcomes of adolescents in this study who engaged in non-athletic (versus athletic) extracurricular activities. Rather, performance events, which reflect an emphasis on independent action, assumed a greater focus for non-athletes. This pattern reinforces the notion that high school athletics may emphasize interdependence to a greater degree than alternate extracurricular activities.

Identification and Involvement

For athletes in this study, only positive events predicted athletic involvement and identity, and these activity and identity variables did not relate to burnout. In contrast, both positive and negative events influenced non-athletes’ seriousness of participation, and non-athletes’ burnout increased with more hours of competition per week and the more their identity was based on their activity.  One explanation can be derived from Schaefer, Simpkins, Vest, and Price (2011) who used social network analysis to compare middle and high school students’ extracurricular participation in sports and arts. They found that dyadic friendships were strongest for students who participated in the arts versus sports and suggested that athletes were likely to be friends with a variety of other students, both athletes and non-athletes, whereas artists were most likely to be friends more exclusively with other artists. This restriction in social networking could mean that when negative, activity-related events occur, especially those related to identity, non-athletes have limited external resources and consequently experience burnout.

Perceived Coach Emphasis

Another difference in this study concerned the emphasis of coaches/activity leaders in sports and non-sports contexts. Sports coaches were more prone to focus on winning, while non-sports coaches were more likely to concentrate on fun. Supporting the hypothesis, burnout was positively linked to an emphasis on winning and negatively associated with a focus on fun. This suggests that young athletes may experience more coaching-related risk factors for burnout compared to non-athletes.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although utilized by previous researchers in this domain (e.g., Coutinho, Mesquita, Fonseca & Cote, 2015; Russell, 2014; Zibung & Conzelmann, 2013), a limitation of the present study is the reliance on self-report data that required participants to assume a retrospective perspective, reflecting on their recent high school experiences. Although the majority of participants were reporting on relatively recent events, this methodology could have contributed to measurement bias. Perhaps specific events led to burnout and engagement, or the experience of burnout or engagement colored past perceptions. Future studies could focus on high school students who are actively engaged in their sport or non-sport activity to address this concern. It is worth noting, however, that even if the outcome modified memories, this study reported unique effects for athletes and non-athletes related to burnout.

Another potential future direction for researchers would be to examine the role of personality traits or other individual difference variables as moderators of the connection between daily events and engagement and burnout in young people. The interplay between person variables and situational factors in determining emotional outcomes has been highlighted in models such as the cognitive-relational theory of stress (Lazarus, 1991). If personality variables interact with environmental factors to impact appraisals of stress, this interplay is likely to have relevance to the experience of burnout and engagement. Exploring these variables would increase the understanding of the factors that contribute to the creation of activity contexts that promote favorable as opposed to unfavorable outcomes in the extracurricular pursuits of high school students. Furthermore, the association between parental involvement and burnout and engagement in athletes and non-athletes could be examined. While parental support has been identified by student athletes as an important coping resource (Cosh & Tully, 2015) excessive parental pressure and focus on success or failure are associated with athlete stress (Gustafsson, Hill, Stenling & Wagnsson, 2016). Since predictors of burnout differed for athletes and non-athletes in the present study, it is possible that parents may exert a different effect on adolescents engaged in sports and non-sports activities. Last, coaches of youth sports report that they emphasize fun, growth, social connections, and confidence as the most important outcomes for their athletes (Lesyk & Kornspan, 2000), which was similar, but not identical, to the present findings. Future researchers may want to investigate whether coaches and athletes agree on what coaches believe they are emphasizing, as complementary goals between coaches and athletes relate to lower levels of burnout (Westfall, Martin & Gould, 2018).


This study compared predictors of engagement and burnout in adolescent athletes and non-athletes. The researchers focused on daily positive and negative performance-related events and interpersonal events. Results revealed that experiencing positive and negative events during activity participation is a precursor for engagement and burnout in youth who are invested in both sports and non-sports activities.


A significant number of adolescents are invested in extracurricular pursuits during their high school years. While some experience healthy engagement in their activity, others experience maladaptive symptoms associated with burnout. The findings of this study indicate that a fruitful approach to enhancing benefits and preventing maladaptive outcomes associated with high school sports and non-sports activities is to focus on increasing the frequency of positive (relative to negative) daily events experienced by participants. These positive events can be performance-based or interpersonal. Although not all of the variables examined in the present study are under the coach’s control (i.e., poor weather conditions), many are under the direct or indirect influence of the coach. For example, coaches can increase positive performance events by providing functional equipment, monitoring athlete injuries, and offering regular opportunities for success during practice.

Positive social interactions may be particularly important for preventing burnout in adolescent athletes. Coaches can increase positive interpersonal events by verbally encouraging athletes, having realistic expectations of athletes, and explaining rationales for tasks. Coaches can also promote social support among their players by implementing cooperative practice teams (Standage & Vallerand, 2008) and organizing team-building social events (Bloom & Wickwire, 2003).

Activities that emphasize winning increase the susceptibility to burnout, so increasing the frequency of positive events may be particularly important in competitive contexts.  Coaches of competitive teams should be encouraged to design practice, training, and performance environments that promote intrinsic enjoyment of the sport. Autonomy promotes intrinsic motivation and thus coaches should provide athletes choices and opportunities to take initiative. All of the aforementioned constructive steps will help safeguard participants from the debilitating effects of burnout and provide a path for promoting their positive engagement, retention, optimal performance and enhanced well-being.




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