Athlete burnout: The downside to competitive sport

by Nicole Dubuc-Charbonneau | March 16, 2015


As the level of play in many sports continues to rise, the risk of burnout grows stronger. FILE PHOTO

Being a competitive athlete is not always easy. Behind the scenes, athletes are trying to juggle training, work or school, as well as family and social relationships, all while striving to perform at their best. Unfortunately, as the level of play in many sports continues to rise, the risk of burnout grows stronger. While it progresses in stages, in the end, many great athletes are left feeling depleted, defeated and, as their passion fizzles, they walk away from the sport or activity they once loved.

How do we know what to look for? This is the tricky part as no two athletes’ experiences are identical. In general, the athlete is feeling physically and emotionally tired, unmotivated, unfocused and frustrated by a lack of improvement and by the chronic illnesses or injuries he or she often faces. As athletes start to doubt themselves, as well as their reasons for participating, many become irritable and choose to withdraw from social circles within the sport.

Parents and coaches ask, “What is causing burnout?” Again, the answer is not simple but chronic stress is one of the most commonly shared experiences among athletes. The causes of stress, however, are different for each. These can include over-training without sufficient recovery, intense travel schedules, pressure from coaches or parents to perform, high personal expectations, and many other stressors found within and outside of their training environment. The key is how each situation is interpreted. When viewed as threatening rather than challenging, athletes feel stressed and, if unable to cope, the risk of burnout increases.

So, what can be done? First, athletes, coaches and parents should become aware of the signs of burnout. However, that might not be enough. Athletes should be “tuning in” to assess how they are feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally on a daily basis and taking the proper steps to change their negative experiences in order to feel empowered and in control. For some, it may be time management or setting more realistic goals, whereas for others, taking additional time for recovery or practising various relaxation techniques may be the best approach.

Nicole Dubuc

Nicole Dubuc

Coaches and parents, on the other hand, can lend support by creating opportunities for the athletes to share how they are feeling and to discuss how they can help alleviate their stress. Sometimes, simply asking, “How are you feeling?” and “How can I help?” can be enough to help an athlete feel supported and prevent the onset of burnout.


Nicole Dubuc-Charbonneau is a mental performance consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association.


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