The Burnout Athlete

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Many athletes dedicate their lives to their sport; however, the human body cannot always handle the demands of sport. The general consensus among athletes is that you must work very hard in order to improve performance. For the most part, that assumption is true. Hard training places much stress on the body and makes a person weaker, and it is in the rest period where the gains are actually made. Overtraining is seen in athletes when sufficient rest is not included in their training program and their performance plateaus, and then eventually declines.
This chronic debilitating syndrome is characterized most commonly by fatigue, the inability to exceed the former level of performance, and a decreased ability to recover. If an athlete continues to overtrain, it can ultimately lead to burnout, which is total mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, often resulting in early withdrawal from the sport environment. Burnout is characterized by loss of desire to play, lowered self-esteem, emotional isolation, increased anxiety and mood changes.
In the following studies, psychologists have tried to determine what exactly causes repeatedly poor performances and the tendency for athletes to prematurely quit the sports they love. The study done in 1984 on the psychological burnout in high-level athletes, David Feigley notes the lowered quality of our national team programs due to high rates of dropout much before athletes reach their prime. He focused on elite adolescent athletes because their attrition rate is so high. Until this study was done, burnout was related mostly to job stress, but the findings were seen to be applicable to sporting situations.
When bureaucratic management organizations were compared to sports programs, many similarities were discovered including hierarchical authority, rational authority, impersonal application of rules and the division of labour. In this study, Feigley refers to burnout as a condition produced by working too hard for too long in a high-pressured situation, accompanied by a progressive loss of idealism, energy and purpose that is often paralleled by a feeling of being locked into a routine.
The individual displays a pattern of physical and emotional exhaustion involving the development of negative self-concepts and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people (Feigley, 1984). There were several characteristics that identified people as more susceptible to burnout including perfectionism, being other-oriented and lacking assertive interpersonal skills.
His research found that burnout could be the result of demotivation occurring from the change and nature of feedback, the increasing need for autonomy, and the increasing awareness of the physical, competitive and social consequences of intense participation (Feigley, 1984). Feigley concludes that by diagnosing the symptoms early, recognizing susceptible individuals, and combating demotivators can assist in preventing and amending this disorder. In 1987, Morgan, Brown, Raglin, Oâ€Connor and Ellickson, engaged in a study on the psychological monitoring of overtraining and staleness involving competitive university swimmers.
Overtraining is seen as deliberate and important in endurance sports, which is the reason he chose the sport of swimming. The general procedure was a psychometric assessment using the Profile of Mood States (POMS), which measures relevant levels of mood, tension, depression, anger, vigour, fatigue and confusion. The POMS was administered to approximately 400 members (male & female) of the swimming team over a period of ten years within a realistic setting and training load, instead of one manipulated experimentally.
They came to the conclusion that mood state disturbances increased in a dose-response manner as the training stimulus increased. The possibility that the changes in mood state could be attributed to something other than training for a competition like academic, economic or social stressors, led Morgan et al. (1987) to carry out an investigation using swimming and control groups. The findings supported the view that increased mood disturbance with overtraining is associated with the training stimulus rather than the other stressors.
This study also looked at an aspect known as tapering and came to the conclusion that this reducing of the training load can be as effective as complete rest, if sufficient time is available. A few years later in 1990, Murphy, Fleck, Dudley and Callister examined the training loads of athletes in a controlled environment as opposed to the previous studies done during a usual training season. In monitoring psychological tribulations, this study used standardized clinical instruments, which hadnâ€t been used before as there has been little research done in this area. The objective was to discover psychological characteristics of overtraining.
Athletes participating in judo at a United States Olympic Training Center were chosen for the study because of the high volume and intensity demands in their training programs. The subjects were monitored over a ten-week period consisting of three phases. They were assessed by use of psychological instruments such as the POMS, the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory, the Spielberger State-Trait Personality Inventory, the Derogatis Symptom Checklist and the Psychological Skills Inventory for Sport. An increase in negative mood states following an increase in volume training was not seen in this study as earlier ones have shown.
The most reliable gauge used until this point had been the POMS score, but in this study there was no substantial change for the duration of the experiment. Another study was done in 1990, this time by John Silva in order to present conceptual models that define the nature of positive and negative adaptations to training stress using intercollegiate athletes involved in ten different sports. Since little was known about the prevalence of negative responses to training stress, what the athletes perceive as the causes and symptoms, and how often athletes experience negative training stress Silva decided to investigate it.
He first divided training stress into three phases, staleness, overtraining and burnout. Staleness, which Silva defines as the initial failure of the bodyâ€s adaptive mechanisms to cope with the psychological stress created by training stimuli, was experienced by 72. 7% of the athletes, who perceived it as tolerable. Of the respondents, 66. 1% indicated that overtraining, as Silva describes, as the repeated failure of the bodyâ€s adaptive mechanisms to cope with chronic training stress, was bad to experience.
The number who experienced the final phase of burnout, (the exhaustive psychophysiological response exhibited as a result of frequent efforts to meet excessive training demands), dropped to 46. 9% and was rated as being the worst effect of negative training stress. A few years later in 1994, Bo Berglund and Hans Safstrom engaged in a study, which monitored the psychological changes during training and racing seasons in fourteen world-class canoeists to determine whether mood disturbances are the result of an increase in training load.
On the basis of distress markers, they also tried to titrate the training loads of the athletes during periods of hard training and tapering. Starting in the off-season, (when there was a low training load), and continuing until the end of the season, Berglund administered a Swedish version of the POMS, because previous research had consistently shown that mood responses are sensitive indicators of how well athletes can tolerate overtraining (Berglund, 1994). At the same time, the athletes were also asked on a weekly basis, to complete a training load rating test describing the previous weekâ€s workouts.
During the heavy training, the POMS score increased significantly to approximately 160, until the athletes reached the tapering period, where there was a significant improvement in mood state in which the score decreased to 120. The findings were consistent with earlier studies that an evaluation of mood response to hard training can reduce the risk of staleness. Recently, in 1997, Hooper, Mackinnon and Hanrahan were interested in determining whether athletes who are stale showed different values in the POMS from those who are intensely trained but not stale.
Hooper indicates staleness in this investigation as when the athlete has reached any of the states of negative adaptation to training stress (staleness, overtraining, or burnout). The POMS mood states of nationally ranked swimmers were measured over an entire season. There were five times during the season when the subjects were tested: early, mid and late season, during tapering and post-competition. This questionnaire was answered before the testing of performance. Hooper et al. (1997) classified the swimmers as “stale†or “not stale†at the end of the season based on certain criteria.
Compared to previous times, stale athletes demonstrated poorer competitive performances. In contrast, the non-stale athletes showed an improvement in performance. In comparing the POMS scores of the stale versus non-stale swimmers, there was no notable difference. Hooper et al. (1997) coupled this current data with that of a previous study (Morgan et al. , 1988), which showed that significant increases in POMS scores have been observed in athletes after intensified training, which did not result in staleness, to come to their conclusion.
The fact that there were only three stale athletes and the POMS assessment was administered only five times on non- training days, are limitations that Hooper et al. (1997) declare in their study. The general conclusion drawn from this study is that while it appears that the POMS may be useful for monitoring for those athletes predisposed to staleness, it may not reliably differentiate between stale and non-stale athletes under all circumstances (Hooper et al. , 1997).
Also in 1997, Ralph Vernacchia composed an article on psychological perspectives on overtraining. He uses the combined results of previous studies to define overtraining, identify the overtrained athlete and also caution risk factors for this syndrome. Vernacchia agrees with Morganâ€s (1992) use of the word overtraining implying it is an ongoing process, whereas staleness and burnout refer to the outcomes of overtraining. This article emphasizes the need to stress an athlete just before, but never to, the point of exhaustion.
There are two motivational patterns displayed by unsuccessful athletes, discussed by Vernacchia, which need to be investigated in order to understand the motivations of the overtrained athlete. They are the undermotivated, overconfident underachiever and the overmotivated, underconfident underachiever. Two tools identified by Vernacchia used to recognize overtrained athletes are the POMS and the Daily Analysis of Life Demands for Athletes Inventory. It concludes by offering recommendations for preventing overtraining in athletes.
Overtraining in athletes is a phenomenon, which manifests symptoms that are detrimental to an athleteâ€s performance. Interest in this subject arose in the mid 1980s, therefore has not been studied to a great depth. Every study has its own set of signs and symptoms associated with this syndrome, but are becoming more similar and distinct as the years go on. The psychological assessment tool that has been used most often throughout these studies is the POMS, which is seen to have both positives and negatives associated with it.
The only known treatment for this syndrome is rest, which is why early detection is very important. The longer the overtraining has occurred; the more rest is required. The athlete may then slowly resume training at low volumes on alternate days and gradually work their way back up to reasonable loads, being careful not to let it recur. A general conclusion to date has been that monitoring athletes during periods of strenuous training for symptoms, which are indicative of overtraining, are beneficial in prevention.
Coaches and athletes need to be educated on the factors that lead to overtraining in order to eliminate the possibility of occurrence and adhere to the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cureâ€. Many steps can be taken to prevent overtraining, and they all begin with good communication between the athlete and coach. The athletes could start by keeping a log of training and include how they felt, muscular soreness, fatigue and general heath after each workout. The coach must allow the athlete adequate rest following intense, high volume workouts and it is the athleteâ€s duty to express concerns when this is not happening.
Ultimately, a training program should allow for flexibility, and when early warning signs of overtraining are evident, adjustments need to be made accordingly. In reviewing the literature to date on this topic, and realizing the disastrous consequences for athletes, it is safe to say that being undertrained is far better than being overtrained. Nonetheless, continued research on intensive training and tapering cycles, involving more subjects and a greater range of sports is necessary for the benefit of athletes.