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

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1 Identity: what do burned out athletes say?

Researchers have recognised athletic identity as ‘the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role’ (Brewer et al., 1993, p. 237). Often, an exclusively athletic identity can predispose athletes to being more vulnerable to heightened levels of stress and anxiety (Martin et al., 2014), possibly because sporting success is particularly important for them. With this in mind, how does what burned out athletes say about their experiences support a social perspective of burnout, particularly in relation to identity?

Gustafsson et al. (2008) asked six hundred Swedish athletes to complete the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire that you learned about in the previous session. The ten with the highest burnout scores in the age range 22–24 years and who had dropped out of their sport agreed to be interviewed about their experiences. Out of this group of ten, seven reported poor coach–athlete relationships, six described themselves as having perfectionist traits and three female athletes reported eating disorders.

Activity 1 Sport as identity

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Read the following extract from Gustafsson et al.’s (2008) article entitled ‘A qualitative analysis of burnout in elite Swedish athletes’ in which descriptions of athletes’ sporting identity and self-worth feature strongly. Then answer the questions below.

  1. What is the difference between identity and self-esteem in this extract?
  2. How might the combination of an athlete’s identity and their self-esteem lead them to continue training and performing despite feeling trapped?

A strong athlete identity was an important reason the athletes did not leave [their] sport despite feelings of burnout. All described sport as an important part of their identity: ‘I was an athlete 24 hours a day, seven days a week.’ A strong identification with sport made the athletes continue with their training longer than they otherwise would have. One explained: ‘Sport has been such a big part of your life, training and competing. I guess you don’t want to realize it’s time to let go.’ The earlier success the athletes had experienced became an unspoken pressure, part of which was felt in the expectations of parents and other relatives. As one athlete stated: ‘‘Relatives and others saw me as an athlete, I had been performing so well for so long. There’s no direct pressure, but you feel it anyway.’

These findings [suggest] … that a strong athletic identity may encourage athletes to continue their training [even though] they might jeopardize their health and develop overtraining syndrome or burnout.

In conjunction …, the participants also said that being good at sport was important for their self-esteem. One athlete stated, ‘Performance in sport was very important for my self-esteem, that’s why I felt so bad when my performance started to deteriorate.’ For these athletes, athletic performance had become a vehicle for maintaining and enhancing self-esteem. … As one female athlete noted: ‘Sport was what I was good at and therefore you don’t just quit. Because if you quit, what are you good at then, what lifts you up?’

Having a positive image about oneself is considered one of the most basic human needs. Performance based self-esteem appears to be important in the development of burnout and offers a potential explanation for why athletes push themselves into this state of ill-health. Almost all athletes describe how they had been very successful at a young age, and that this had increased their own and others’ expectations. … Successful young athletes may be especially at risk for burnout, due to a combination of increased expectations and too-rapid progress in their career transition.

(Gustafsson et al., 2008)
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  1. In the extract the participants described their athletic identity and immersion in sport ‘24 hours a day’. This narrowly-focused, singular identity is an example of the unidimensional athletic identity in sport psychology that you explored in the last session. Many people have broader identities e.g. a family identity, a cultural identity, or identities in different friendship groups.

    ‘Identity’ is your description of who you are. ‘Esteem’ stems from your evaluation of who you are; the extract talks of an ‘image about oneself’. If your identity is narrowly focused on being an athlete, then any bad performances or slumps in performance may have a dramatic effect on how you value yourself. If you have a broad self-identity, then poor performances in sport may be offset by positive experiences in other aspects of your identity.

  2. Feeling trapped in sport is a risk that comes from having a unidimensional athletic identity. If your identity is restricted to ‘talented athlete’, then the danger is that only sporting performances will give you a sense of self-esteem (e.g. ‘without sport I am nothing’). This can make ‘letting go’ of sport difficult as an athlete may not know of anything else that will give them a sense of self-worth.

Some researchers describe this concept of athletes feeling trapped as sport entrapment (DeFreese et al., 2015). Athletes maintain involvement not because they want to but because they feel they have to remain in sport. As you will see, this having to undertake training can lead to imbalance between training stress and recovery.

Next you will hear an example of how athletic identity can easily become too closely connected to performances in an almost obsessional way.