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Learning from sport burnout and overtraining
Learning from sport burnout and overtraining

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2 How does the research literature describe burnout?

In the 1970s, American researchers found many people working in the caring professions (e.g. nurses and teachers) became exhausted while dealing with the chronic strain associated with their roles. They reportedly felt ‘burned out’. The workers reported emotional exhaustion, a loss of empathy towards their clients and feelings of being inept at work.

Research into athletic burnout commenced in the 1980s, four decades ago. Three broad dimensions of burnout are now used by sport psychologists to help define burnout in sport, namely:

  1. emotional and physical exhaustion
  2. a reduced sense of accomplishment, and
  3. sport/training devaluation.
(Raedeke and Smith, 2001)

Explore your understanding of what is meant by each of the three dimensions by completing the next activity. These dimensions are the central part of this session.

Activity 3 Symptoms of the three dimensions of burnout

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Match the symptoms to the associated dimension of burnout.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. • excessively tired or lethargic

    • emotionally drained

    • unable to perform non-sport activities due to fatigue

  2. • decreased feelings of sport achievement

    • performing below personal standards

    • consistent negative self-evaluation

  3. • question the value/meaning of sport

    • resentful attitude to sport

    • reduced concern for quality of performance

  • a.Sport/training devaluation

  • b.Reduced sense of accomplishment

  • c.Emotional and physical exhaustion

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = b
  • 3 = a


The symptoms of emotional and physical exhaustion are as you would expect and include feeling ‘tired’, ‘drained’ or having ‘fatigue’. Likewise, symptoms of a reduced sense of accomplishment are as you would expect, but notice how performing below standards is also linked with a likely sources of stress in ‘negative self-evaluation’. Perhaps you can see the beginnings of a downward negative spiral over time with such symptoms.

Arguably the most important symptoms for your understanding of burnout are those associated with ‘devaluation’. If you devalue something you begin to question its meaning and have reduced concern for it and resentment creeps in. Later in the course you’ll see how cynicism is sometimes used to describe these negative, resentful feelings towards the sporting activity.

Ideally, the media would explain these dimensions to the general public to help them understand that burnout occurs in ‘normal’ individuals as well as in elite sportsmen and women. Notice how the psychologist’s review of the TV documentary in Activity 2 did not focus on the third dimension (sport devaluation). However, the next section does – with vivid honesty from swimmer Ellie Simmonds.