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

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2 Case study: Victoria Pendleton

So far, you have seen how control (autonomy) is a feature of Self-determination theory (SDT) – what follows is a quick summary of what this theory suggests about motivation.

According to this theory, three core human needs must be satisfied for an individual’s well-being. These are:

  • autonomy – a sense of being able to make choices and take some control, as described earlier
  • relatedness – a sense of belonging, connectedness and rapport with others
  • competence – developing mastery and achievement in what you do.

In contrast, frustration of these needs contributes to ill health (Deci and Ryan, 1985). The theory is called SDT since it suggests that motivation occurs on a continuum from individuals who are more self-determined (i.e. freely choose to do an activity due to the pleasure and enjoyment they get from it), to those who are less so (i.e. because they ought to or feel obliged to do something by others). You should note that the perception of the satisfaction of these needs is more important than any reality as you will see as you now apply SDT to the case of cyclist Victoria Pendleton.

Activity 2 Victoria Pendleton’s early career crisis

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Former Olympic cyclist and double-gold medallist Victoria Pendleton revealed in her autobiography an early crisis including some symptoms of burnout and depression when, at the age of 22, she acted on British Cycling’s suggestion that she try training abroad in Switzerland for eighteen months.

Read about this episode drawn from Oakley’s (2014) analysis of autobiographies. Effectively this extract summarises Pendleton’s autobiographical account of her experience.

How might autonomy, relatedness and competence needs be used to help explain her struggles at the time?

Figure 2 Pendleton (left) mainly rode in velodrome sprint events (2005–12)

She [Pendleton] relocated to the UCI sprint academy in Aigle, funded by the GB team. It was a cosmopolitan environment with 12–15 top riders from around the world.

It was a tough transition; moving to a new training group, facing higher training standards and adapting to a new coach, Fred Magne, who used a fairly autocratic regimented approach. This included, after lunch everyday, athletes going to a ‘Salle de Repose’ to take a communal sleep in a large dormitory room with mattresses on the floor. Pendleton put her head down and got on with her new life but found the going tough.

‘My body was not accustomed to such intense training … I had never seen such big black eyes under my eyes …

‘I was motivated by a need to try and keep up with the other women. Every time [they] went out on the track [their] individual times would be logged in the book, and compared by the whole group the same day … It felt as if they were miles ahead of me.’

Gradually, her times on the track quickened. She kept on working. At the 2003 World Championships she took a huge step forward, finishing fourth. Many were astonished by her sudden leap into the top four in the world.

Pendleton identified the start of her problems as being connected to her relationship with her new coach, Magne, and her own wish for some input into her training.

‘It seemed to me that … I lacked core strength. I had studied core stability at University and thought I’d include some additional abdominal exercises in the gym … Fred called me into his office. ‘What’s the matter with the programme I give you? He asked angrily.’

Feeling increasingly isolated from the group she describes how her relationship with Fred deteriorated. She spent many hours in her room, alone, feeling like an outcast. It got worse. She started self-harming, using a Swiss army knife to cut her arm. It must have represented a terrible low point, alone, far away and without support. She maintained the facade of normalcy by wearing long-sleeved garments and saying she was ‘ok’ to those around her, and on the phone to her worried mother.

Pendleton continued competing. Later in April she won her first World Cup in Manchester. Then in May her mood dipped as she finished fourth in the World Championships in Melbourne. Pendleton’s fourth was made more negative by a snide comment made by her competitor, fifteen years her senior, who had just beaten her to take bronze, ‘You will always be a princess – but you will never be the queen’.

‘After 18 months of training under Fred I did not seem to be making the progress I should have done. In my depressed mood I considered fourth place at the Worlds a failure … I felt stuck – and emotionally blocked.’

Eventually, Steve Peters, British Cycling’s psychiatrist came to meet her. She broke down in tears the first time they met when he said he was there to help her. The challenge and pressure of relocation, changing coach and a lack of social support probably triggered the expression of underlying difficulties.

(adapted from Oakley, 2014)
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The important point is that it is Pendleton’s perception of these needs which influences her well-being and motivation. Looking at her autonomy, relatedness and competence needs in turn:

  • Perceived autonomy – the change to an autocratic coach who did not allow athletes much influence over their training has all the hallmarks of an environment in which Pendleton had limited control over her own circumstances.
  • Perceived relatedness – the fact that she was isolated with no obvious support group close by and that she had no reported friendships with others or feelings of belonging is evident.
  • Perceived competence – this one is a conundrum since she was still performing at a high level (fourth at the World Championships). Yet this did not seem to be enough for her high standards despite winning a World Cup event in Manchester. This emphasises the point that it is not the actual performance but the perception of performance that influenced her mood; it might also be linked to her focus on outcome goals, as well as the ego-involving goal climate Pendleton found herself in. You will look at this in more detail in the next section.

The issue of self-harm as mentioned in Pendleton’s case is obviously a serious matter, but it is inappropriate to discuss it further here. Needless to say, cases involving self-harm should always be referred to a medical practitioner.