Understanding athlete burnout: coach perspectives.
Abstract: Although it is relatively easy to conjure an image of an athlete who has experienced burnout, athlete burnout is not yet well understood and has been depicted by a variety of definitions. One common definition of athlete burnout is a psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal from sport due to chronic stress (Smith, 1986). An alternative definition used in human service and coaching research describes burnout as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach & Jackson, 1984). The purpose of this study was to examine coaches' experiential knowledge to triangulate existing academic definitions and coaches' perspectives to describe defining signs and symptoms of athlete burnout. USA Swimming senior coaches (N = 13) were interviewed to characterize their viewpoints on defining signs/symptoms of athlete burnout. Coaches' views on causes/preventive strategies were also examined to obtain additional insights on how they construed this issue. Content analysi s resulted in the following definition: A withdrawal from swimming noted by a reduced sense of accomplishment, devaluation/resentment of sport, and physical/psychological exhaustion. Coaches also depicted a variety of stress-related factors thought to contribute to burnout as well as strategies to prevent its occurrence.
Article Type: Statistical Data Included
Subject: Burn out (Psychology) (Research)
Coaches (Athletics) (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Athletes (Psychological aspects)
Sports (Psychological aspects)
Authors: Raedeke, Thomas D.
Lunney, Kevin
Venables, Kirk
Pub Date: 06/01/2002
Publication: Name: Journal of Sport Behavior Publisher: University of South Alabama Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health; Sports and fitness Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 University of South Alabama ISSN: 0162-7341
Issue: Date: June, 2002 Source Volume: 25 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 86049191
Full Text: Burnout is a buzzword in the athletic community that has raised considerable concern from coaches and sport psychologists. Reflecting its importance to the athletic community, burnout has been addressed in numerous articles geared toward coaches, athletes, and parents in a variety of sport magazines. Undoubtedly, the term burnout is appealing because it enables most individuals to conjure a vivid image of burnout. For example, burnout is like a candle that once glowed brightly, began to flicker, and eventually extinguished. This analogy suggests the image of bright, promising young athletes who get fed up with sport participation and stop competing at what should be the top of their career. Although burnout is often discussed in the sport community, the empirical database on athlete burnout is not well developed (Coakley, 1992; Cohn, 1990; Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996; Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1997; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996; Price & Weiss, 2000; Raedeke, 1997; Silva, 1990; Vealey, Armstro ng, Comar, & Greenleaf, 1998). Consequently, athlete burnout is an important applied issue that is not yet well understood.

At this point in knowledge development, researchers have focused greater attention on providing conceptual models describing the causes of burnout than precisely defining what athlete burnout is (and is not). Theoreticians have linked burnout to stress, overtraining, social issues, and commitment/social exchange theory variables (Coakley, 1992; Schmidt & Stein, 1991; Silva, 1990; Smith, 1986). While it is undoubtedly important to understand the causes of burnout, it is also critical to carefully characterize key signs and symptoms to adequately define burnout.

In the human services, Maslach and Jackson's (1984) definition of burnout as a "psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity" (p. 134) helped clarify the burnout construct and served as a strong impetus for research.

A syndrome is a constellation of signs and symptoms that occur together and define a condition of significance. In early research efforts, the general aim is to identify characteristic signs and symptoms without necessarily focusing on understanding the precise nature and causes of the condition. As the knowledge base increases, refinements to the description of the syndrome occur as new evidence emerges delineating what is core and peripheral to its underlying nature. Although conceptual models and definitions of burnout have been forwarded, key signs and symptoms of athlete burnout have not been thoroughly delineated through empirical research at this point in knowledge development. Characterizing athlete burnout as a syndrome may help describe the nature of this issue.

Currently, a variety of burnout descriptions and definitions have been proffered across studies, position papers, and book chapters (Coakley, 1992; Dale & Weinberg, 1990; Gould, 1996; Smith, 1986; Weinberg, 1990). The variety of connotations associated with the term makes operationally defining athlete burnout difficult. Researchers outside of sport state that without a precise and consensual definition, the burnout concept is so broad and undifferentiated that it lacks meaning (Kahill, 1988; Maslach, 1982; Maslach & Schaufeli, 1993; Starrin, Larsson, & Styrborn, 1990). A well-developed operational definition that delineates burnout by characterizing key signs and symptoms is needed to advance our understanding of this issue.

One common definition describes burnout as a psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable activity as a result of excessive stress (Smith, 1986). Although this definition is intuitively appealing and provides a heuristic understanding of athlete burnout, it is unclear how well this withdrawal-based definition differentiates athletes who withdraw from sport because of burnout versus other reasons for sport discontinuation. Although the term burnout and dropout are distinguished to some degree by focusing on chronic stress, an athlete could feasibly withdraw because of chronic stress without experiencing burnout. Moreover, burnout is one of numerous possible consequences of chronic stress. A stress-based definition does not differentiate burnout from other possible consequences of stress.

The unresolved issues inherent in Smith's (1986) definition are reflected in the existing empirical research on athlete burnout. For example, Cohn (1990) provided golfers with Smith's definition and asked them if they could recall a time they stopped playing because they were "burned out." Results indicated that golfers recalled burnout lasting only between 5-14 days. However, longitudinal research in domains other than sport has shown that burnout is more enduring than a few days (e.g., Corrigan, et al., 1994; Lee & Ashforth, 1993; Poulin & Walter, 1993). Thus, it is doubtful that athletes' use of the term coincided with academic uses of term. Similar to Cohn's study, Silva (1990) had athletes list the causes of burnout without defining the term to the athletes or addressing what the athletes meant by burnout. This makes it impossible to determine what concept the athletes were discussing in their use of the term burnout.

Although Maslach and Jackson's (1984) definition of burnout is well accepted, it may not be applicable to athletes. Maslach (1993) warns about overextending their definition outside human services and states that their definition may need modification to fit a particular domain. Similar to human services, the coach-athlete relationship is characterized by a provider-recipient relationship (coaches provide a service to the athletes). However, athletes are on the receiving end of that relationship. Given that athletes are not human service providers, Maslach and Jackson's definition may not be applicable to them and may need to be customized to fit the unique characteristics of sport training.

Sport psychology researchers (e.g., Eades, 1990; Raedeke, 1997) have defined athlete burnout based on a modified version of Maslach and Jackson's (1984) research. For example, Raedeke (1997) defined burnout as a syndrome of physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment. The primary difference between this definition and Maslach and Jackson's (1984) is that Raedeke highlighted sport devaluation in contrast to depersonalization because of contextual differences between the role of an athlete and that of a human service provider. Depersonalization reflects a detached and negative attitude toward what is important in the human services-the clients. Applied to athletes, Raedeke argued that depersonalization is reflected in athletes developing a negative attitude toward what is important to athletes: sport itself. Hence, Raedeke described sport devaluation wherein athletes stop caring about sport and their performance. Given that Raedeke's definition represents an extrapolati on from the human service literature, research is needed to validate this definition.

Athlete burnout is an important applied issue, in part, based on concerns expressed by coaches. Consequently, it is important to understand what coaches mean by burnout. Without understanding coaches' perspectives it is difficult to determine whether academic researchers and coaches are using the term burnout in the same context. The colloquial use of the term by the public may differ from that used in academic discourse (Cox, Kuk, & Leiter, 1993; Maslach & Schaufeli, 1993). For example, one common assumption is that coaches view burnout as a character flaw of the athlete (Gould, Udry, et al., 1996). Alternatively, it is feasible that coaches may view burnout almost synonymously with the term dropout. Developing an understanding of coaches' frame of reference on burnout may facilitate communications with coaches and also contribute to an increased knowledge base on burnout.

Sport psychology researchers recognize that coaches have a wealth of experiential knowledge that can contribute to the academic sport psychology knowledge. Although interviewing athletes would undoubtedly provide a rich source of information, coaches deal with issues such as burnout on a day-to-day basis and can potentially shed insights on characterizing the key signs and symptoms associated with athlete burnout.

The purpose of this study was to examine coaches' viewpoints in order to identify points of convergence and divergence between coaches' perspectives and academic definitions of athlete burnout in order to delineate defining signs and symptoms of burnout. To do this, coaches' viewpoints on athlete burnout were examined. In addition, their ideas on causes and prevention of burnout were also examined to obtain additional insights on the nature of athlete burnout.



Participants included 13 United States Swimming senior swim coaches from Colorado and Maryland. Senior swimming is the highest age group swimming division, consisting of swimmers 15 to 18 years of age. Swimming was selected because a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that burnout is a critical issue within this sport. Senior coaches were chosen because they were likely to be full-time career coaches and typically have experience coaching all ages through the senior level. These coaches had, on average, 19 years of coaching experience (range 7-27, excluding one coach with 60 years of experience). All but two coaches were male.

Coaches were contacted by mail with a letter explaining the study purposes. Within the letter, we highlighted how burnout is associated with a wide variety of connotations and that we were interested in understanding their personal views. After the initial mailing, each coach was contacted by phone to determine willingness to participate and to schedule an interview.

Interview Guide and Procedures

A semi-structured interview format was used to determine coaches' personal perceptions surrounding the term burnout. This format included a series of neutral and open-ended questions. In addition, follow-up probes were included to allow coaches to elaborate and clarify their responses to the structured questions to ensure that each topic was adequately covered (Patton, 1990). All of the questions listed in the interview guide were asked, but not necessarily in the same order to create a natural flow to the interview.

Once the interview guide was written, the researcher responsible for conducting the interviews received training in interview techniques. Following, a mock interview was conducted and three individuals with experience in qualitative research provided feedback on both interview technique and question structure. After modifying the interview guide based on this feedback, two pilot interviews were completed (a master's swim coach and a NCAA Division I tennis coach).

The first section of the interview was designed to gather general background about each participant's coaching experience. The next section focused on uncovering what coaches meant in their use of the term burnout and what they considered to be defining characteristics (e.g., signs and symptoms) of athlete burnout. The final sections were aimed at understanding causes of burnout and preventative strategies. Throughout the interview, the interviewer stressed the importance of the coach providing his or her personal interpretations and thoughts on the term burnout regardless of how others used the term. Not counting the time spent establishing rapport with coaches, each interview lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours.

Data Analysis

The richness of qualitative data was captured through inductive content analysis modeled after the studies by Scanlan, Ravizza, and Stein (1989) and Gould, Udry, et al. (1996) and the procedures suggested by Patton (1990). This process involves identifying raw data themes that encapsulated the essence of what was said and then clustering those raw data themes into increasingly higher-order levels. To facilitate content analysis, each interview was transcribed verbatim, yielding a total of 167 single-spaced pages. Two researchers trained in the techniques of inductive content analysis analyzed the interviews. After listening to each tape, one researcher transcribed each interview and the other proofread the transcripts. This process not only ensured that the transcripts were accurate, but also familiarized both researchers with the interviews.

On gaining familiarity with each participant, the researchers divided the interviews into distinct quotes and coded the quotes into raw data themes. Following this, both researchers compared their coding schemes to locate points of convergence and divergence. Any inconsistencies either in the quote delineation or in the raw data theme codes were discussed. Points of disagreement were discussed until one acquiesced when the other presented a more convincing rationale for his results. If neither agreed, they re-coded the interview to establish refined and agreed-on categories. At this point, the researchers independently identified common themes from the raw data themes (first-order themes). The first-order themes were then discussed until convergence was reached. Additional iterations of the inductive analysis were completed to identify higher-order themes.

Once the interviews were coded, an individual not associated with this project was asked to read through randomly selected quotes and label them with a raw data theme. This analysis revealed 85% agreement between this person and the original coders.

Results and Discussion

To fulfill our primary purpose of triangulating coaches' experiential knowledge with academic discourse on burnout, results are grouped into three primary sections: (a) differentiating the terms burnout and dropout, (b) signs and symptoms of burnout, and (c) factors causing or preventing burnout.

Differentiating the Terms Burnout Versus Dropout

Paralleling critics of the burnout construct (Beemsterboer & Baum, 1984; Starrin, et al., 1990), coaches voiced concern that the term burnout is used too loosely and frequently. As part of their descriptions, all coaches made a distinction between the terms burnout and dropout. Coaches gave the general impression that dropping out results from a benign disinterest in swimming and a desire to participate in other activities. Burning out, on the other hand, was described to be much more negative, rooted in frustration and disillusionment and connected to resentment. For example, one coach mentioned, "Dropout is something different. They just have come in and didn't really like it. Swimming really isn't for everybody." Another coach mentioned, "I think there is a big difference between burnout and an athlete who just stops because he wants to pursue other avenues in life. In those situations, the athlete is usually not unhappy being there." Overwhelmingly, coaches agreed that the majority of dropouts are not bur ned out.

Coaches also viewed burnout as a long-term condition lasting for at least several months, if not to a complete withdrawal from swimming. No coach made mention of burnout as a condition that can pass in the matter of days or even in a couple of months. Based on coaches' conceptualization, not all the previous research on this issue actually sampled athletes who had truly experienced burnout. For example, Cohn (1990) stated that athletes left the sport for a period of up to two weeks because of burnout. Based on coaches' views, the time frame for burnout was too short in Cohn' study for the athletes to be considered burned out. Cohn's use of the term seemingly reflects a transient state of fatigue or needing a temporary break from sport.

They also highlighted that to burn out, athletes must have at one point been committed and enthusiastic about swimming: "They have got to be lit up in order to burn out." In other words, athletes must have some investment in a sport to experience burnout. Coaches also mentioned that burnout can occur without the athletes discontinuing sport participation; these athletes stay on the team simply going through the motions of practice. "I would say a majority of them stay on the team being burned out rather than quit altogether. I think no matter how bad the burnout is, they still realize that they have put time and commitment in to sport over the years."

Moreover, coaches emphasized that their view of burnout is more restricted than how athletes and parents use the term. Parents and athletes often use the term synonymously with the term dropout or as an excuse to stop swimming. "Some kids say burnout for reasons of excuse. They dislike the coach, they dislike the organization, some parent didn't fly with them, they didn't like practice." Although athletes leaving after only a short period of participation may state they are burned out; these athletes are simply using the term to denote their lack of desire to participate. They leave because swimming is not satisfying not because they experienced burnout.

How Coaches Described Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Through an inductive analysis, four primary dimensions or defining signs and symptoms of burnout were identified. These dimensions were symptoms reflecting withdrawal, a reduced sense of accomplishment, physical/psychological exhaustion, and devaluation of sport (see Figure 1 for theme descriptions and Table 1 for frequency values).

Withdrawal. Almost all coaches mentioned physical withdrawal from swimming as a defining aspect of burnout. This theme emerged from two first-order themes: withdrawal from training (e.g., not showing up to practice), and withdrawal from teammates (e.g., stopping to interact with teammates). Each of these themes directly addresses athlete behaviors that reflect symptoms of withdrawing from swimming.

Withdrawal From Training. The most common type of withdrawal behavior coaches cited was swimmers distancing themselves from the training program. One of the changes coaches noted was that swimmers start to use excuses to get out of workouts or reduce their workload. In addition, athletes may leave early or show up late to practice on an increasingly frequent basis or not show up at all. If the swimmers did come to practice, "they are just going through the motions" without putting in any special effort.

Withdrawal From Teammates. In addition to distancing from the actual training program, a number of coaches mentioned that athletes might start to physically separate themselves and decrease the amount of time they spend with teammates. For example, "I think they are very much to themselves, they are not jovial. They are not congregating with other children." Or as another coach mentioned, "They are not involved with the typical bantering or hanging out when the workout is done." Another activity of separation some coaches mentioned was aggressive behaviors (e.g., anger causing troubles with peers in practice) that also served to distance and isolate the swimmer from the rest of the team.

Reduced Sense of Accomplishment

Another central defining characteristic of burnout included a reduced sense of accomplishment, depicted by an incongruence between physical ability and desires. Under this theme, all coaches discussed a lack of improvement and athletes feeling frustrated and discouraged with swimming because they were not progressing.

Lack of Improvement. Most coaches emphasized that lack of improvement was a warning sign of burnout. One coach commented, "I would define burnout as a lack of progress" Another stated, "To me, at least, the typical burned out athlete is one who for the most part just does not enjoy his or her sport anymore, and they usually don't enjoy it because they quit progressing."

Burnout is not signaled simply by failing to improve, but how an athlete deals with the lack of improvement. "It is the inability to work through periods of where they don't improve." In other words, lack of improvement is a sign of burnout when athletes have difficulty handling diminished progress and feel they are going nowhere in swimming. For example, performance plateaus were often mentioned in association with psychological difficulties. "If they are plateauing you can see it in their face. You can see the frustration of, 'Oh, I am here every single day and I am just not making it.'" Physical maturation and injury were linked to burnout when athletes could not effectively cope with those issues.

Diminished Sense of Progress. This concept was defined as feelings of decreased progression of improvement. Swimmers may feel like they are going nowhere in swimming. "It is this state of mind where mentally and physically shut yourself down because you believe that you have gotten to a certain point aren't going to exceed that point." For example, one coach characterized the notion of frustration about swim progress: "They lose sight of their goals, become very emotional, saying why have I worked for the past eight months and I don't swim well." As another expression of these sediments, "Why did I spend six hours everyday for the last year and a half and I am not better off than I was a year and a half ago? What was the point?" A reduced accomplishment in swimming was depicted by unrealistic expectations of performance, perceptions of diminishing rewards from swimming, and unfavorable peer comparisons.

The most prevalent factor related to a reduced sense of accomplishment was unrealistic performance expectations.

Because his expectations - he was an overachiever all the way. And when reality drove home too massive a blow, he couldn't cope with it." "[The desire to have] 100% best times at every meet, which is what some kids expect, is not realistic .... I think it is difficult for some kids to accept that.

Coaches noted that the unrealistic expectations are related to the goals swimmers set for themselves. For example, they made comments such as

Burnout has a lot of to do with improper goal setting. I see a lot of kids that they set goals that are way too high and they train really hard. I think that is the essence of burnout." In addition to unrealistic goals, coaches also mentioned that focusing on end aresults rather than the process of striving toward goals contributed to a reduced sense of accomplishment and feelings of failure. "I have had swimmers in the past where they did have goals that were specific. We would sit down and we would say this is what you are going to have to do and all of that kind of stuff. Then at the end the goal wasn't met. Everything else was there, but at that specific point in time, the goal wasn't met. Then all of a sudden, they feel like, I am a failure. A lot of it is because we have zeroed in too much on the end result instead of the process of getting to the end result.

As alluded to in the above quotes, many of the coaches noted that athlete frustrations were rooted in unrealistic expectations and goals. In addition to unrealistic expectations is the perception of diminished rewards and unfavorable peer comparisons.

Sometimes they are extremely talented and experienced a high level of success at a very young age where they got a lot of accolades and attention paid to them. They are prone to burnout when some of that peaks off or other athletes finally start catching up to them.

Another coach described the peer comparison idea as follows:

If you start saying I am working so much harder and Sally's going so much faster. Then it is going to become a chore and you are not going to have any fun with it. And as soon as you decide that it is work with no reward, then you are going to get discouraged and dissatisfied and you are going to throw in the towel.

Devaluation of Swimming. Not only did the reduced sense of accomplishment involve feelings of frustration and disillusionment, but so did swim devaluation, the third defining characteristic of burnout. Devaluation occurred when athletes stopped caring about swimming. This devaluation ranged from a general detachment to a severe hatred or resentment of the sport. Athletes developing an apathetic attitude and no longer caring about workouts and swimming characterized detachment. As one coach stated, "When it comes right down to it, the motivation to set goals and recognize those goal are of value is gone."

Resentment focused on the swimmers harboring a hatred of swimming. Reflecting its importance to burnout, one coach stated that "resentment is universal in burnout" and another stated, "I think for the most part, anybody who is truly burned out with the sport basically it comes down to a hate. They just hate it. They don't dislike it, they hate it."

The description of devaluation illuminates how devaluation contrasts to a more benign loss of interest in swimming. Often times athletes drop out because of a simple disinterest in swimming and desire to pursue other activities, whereas devaluation entails disinterest plus more negative feelings such as detachment, hatred, and resentment of sport. For example, athletes may stop swimming claiming they do not like or care about swimming. Superficially, this description shares commonality with sport devaluation. However, in the case of burnout, sport devaluation takes on much more negative overtones (e.g., resentment and disillusionment).

Exhaustion. Coaches mentioned feelings of exhaustion are central to burnout. Burnout is a state of mind that occurs when both physical and mental avenues have been thoroughly exhausted. This exhaustion typically has its roots in overtraining as well as continued and unrealistic stress and demands. "On the physical side, you can see kids that have just kind of pushed themselves to their limits, [their] body breaks down and they are not getting enough recovery time. Their body is just saying, 'I gotta stop, I gotta quit.'" Emotional and physical fatigue were often described in an integrated fashion. Specifically, coaches mentioned that it was difficult for athletes to keep mentally invigorated when they were physically exhausted or overtrained and vice versa.

The definition induced from the coaches' experiential knowledge shares commonality with definitions espoused in the sport psychology and human service literatures (Maslach & Jackson, 1984; Raedeke, 1997; Smith, 1986). Similar to Smith's characterization of burnout as a psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable activity, every coach noted physical withdrawal as a sign of burnout. In addition, signs of psychological and emotional withdrawal were evident in the devaluation (e.g., stop caring about sport).

Paralleling Maslach and Jackson's (1984) research, coaches described exhaustion and reduced sense of accomplishment as key signs of burnout. However, depersonalization did not emerge as a salient dimension of athlete burnout. Rather than depersonalization being described as a defining characteristic, most coaches made reference to altered interactions with teammates in the context of withdrawal related behaviors (e.g., isolation and aggression). In contrast to Maslach and Jackson's definition, but aligned with Raedeke's (1997) definition, devaluation was an important aspect of burnout through the eyes of the coaches. Results from Gould, Tuffey, et al.'s (1996) research also supports the notion of sport devaluation. They identified low motivation, lack of desire to play, negative feelings (e.g., bad attitude toward tennis) as signs of burnout. These could all be interpreted as characteristics reflecting sport devaluation.

In terms of burnout, the interplay of the key signs and symptoms exemplify that these characteristics have a negative tone when viewed in the context of burnout. The dimensions are not free standing and each dimension by itself does not adequately reflect burnout. When the dimensions are viewed in combination with one another, a more complete picture of whether athletes are describing burnout or something else is apparent. For example, athletes could swim for a few months and drop out because they are not making fast progress in swimming. This reduced sense of accomplishment is not an issue of burnout. The reduced sense of accomplishment associated with burnout is much more negative, rooted in frustration and apparent when coupled with exhaustion and devaluation.

How Coaches Described Factors Causing and Preventing Burnout

Factors leading to and preventing burnout were explored to gain a more complete understanding of coaches' views on burnout. A thematic summary describing burnout causes and preventive strategies can be seen in Figure 2. Frequency data for each theme is listed in Table 2.

Pressures on the Swimmer as Causes of Burnout

Outside Pressures on the Athlete. Highlighting the strong association between stress and burnout, comments such as "I would say the number one cause would be just unceasing pressure" typified coaches views. Aligned with that, one coach mentioned:

I think the things that go along burnout are increased requirements and demands, and the fact that the yardstick keeps being elevated. With that comes a lot more demands on time, demands on performance, demands on everything that they do within their life. Their life becomes so structured around achieving that level that they lose track of themselves.

In describing the link between stress and burnout, coaches identified a number of pressures on athletes that are likely to lead to burnout. These include: pressure from parents, pressure from coaches, pressure to win, overtraining stress, and pressure from friends outside of sport to decrease their involvement in swimming.

The most salient cause of burnout cited was parental pressure. One source of parent pressure centered on overinvolved parents who had a zealous need for their children to do well.

We have had some kids where the parents have been so over involved that we haven't done a good job coaching because we feel like if we can't get the parent to change, then we almost have to be the parent and be more supportive and not push them as hard.

Other coaches described parents who spent a disproportionate amount of time talking with their child on how they were doing in swimming and seemed to be only concerned with the progress the swimmer was making. One coach mentioned that parents "never being satisfied with what they have done cause burnout. I've seen athletes who time after time achieve a personal best and all the parents said, 'And now you need to do this.'"

Several coaches also noted how parents can place undue pressure on their children by becoming a second coach. These parents may videotape the meets and go over the tapes at home. As a result, "swimmers feel like they never escape the sport. They come to the pool and the coach is pushing and training them and they go home and then dad and mom are training them."

Another coach mentioned that:

We do not allow parents on deck during practice because that can be a huge distraction... I have turned my back to help another swimmer and a parent sneaks in and they are coaching their kid behind my back.

Parents who live vicariously through their children can be another source of pressure. "You've got parents who live their lives through their kids, and they're actually the worst. They remedy their failures by projecting their egos onto their kids. They make their kids be their surrogate success stories, and they just ruin them."

Other outside sources of pressure include demands that coaches put on athletes.

I think as a coach it is pretty tough, you have got to be a motivator and a teacher.

Sometimes you lose track of where you are. You start riding them really hard because you want to see them do the best that they can do. And sometimes you cross that line where it is becoming more of a negative than a positive by getting on them.

Coaches described that being outcome oriented may cause coaches to put too much pressure on athletes. "I think most burnout cases that I have seen come from either a coach being too award oriented or their parents being too award oriented." Another coach stated, "I see too many coaches who are just trying to rub pieces of coal as hard as they can hoping that they are going to find a diamond. But in the meantime they throw away a lot of coal [burned out athletes]." Similar to that notion, other coaches described peers who "will push a swimmer hard enough and fast enough to build his [or her] own credentials." They also described coaches "who look at it more from a team approach than they do what is right or wrong for this individual. They push their kids incredibly hard, a lot more drop out than necessary, but the ones that survive are very good."

An additional pressure put on the athlete is that of overtraining. In fact, many coaches directly correlated burnout with overtraining. They also believed that athletes who typically burnout are those who were overworked at young ages. Coaches also acknowledged that intense training and constant fatigue wear the athlete down to a point where he or she is particularly vulnerable to burnout. "From a conditioning standpoint, there are times when the swimmer will feel broken down, but if from the beginning of the season to the end he is constantly broken down and never feeling good, you will lose them." Another coach commented:

We go through cycles where they are going to get tired. We push them till we see the toughest and the most mentally stable of the group starts to really get bothered, then we start backing down. And we sometimes lose a few on the way. It is somewhat like a survival of the fittest.

In addition to the training stress, coaches also recognized that inadequate recovery was involved in burnout. One coach mentioned, "When they are at the pool, I am trying to break them down. So when they go home it is very important that they are not staying up late, that they are getting their rest so they can recover." However, coaches also recognized that the athletes often did not get sufficient recovery because they want to do other things in the evenings and during weekends so they never really recover and the residual fatigue gradually accumulates.

This overtraining stress not only leads to fatigue, it can also lead to withdrawal, a reduced sense of accomplishment, and swim devaluation. Overtraining may result in the athletes becoming overworked to the point where they begin to decline and become increasingly discouraged with their performances and develop a hatred for the sport.

If you are going 10,000 yards a day when you are 10, you are probably not going to make it to when you are 13, let alone to when you are at college. You are not going to like the sport and you are going to end up hating it.

Although the previous sources of pressure stem from high demands to excel in swimming, pressure from friends outside of the team tends to decrease their involvement in swimming. Their friends want them to hang out and not spend so much time swimming.

If these guys have practice at 5am or 7am on weekends, they just can't do the things that other kids do. Maybe their friends from school don't understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Obviously there is peer pressure involved there to do other things.

Self Pressure. In addition to outside sources of pressure, another second-order theme common to most of the interviews was that of pressure swimmers impose on themselves. Coaches made comments suggesting that the pressure kids put on themselves leads to them being overly motivated and burnout prone. As one coach noted, "Some kids are high maintenance, meaning you have got to always be watching them and giving them positive feedback and you build them up more than you break them down, because they are already hard on themselves."

Another source of self-pressure is from the jealousy or feelings of inadequacy that results from peer comparisons. The pressure not to be outdone by other swimmers can lead to an increased drive to train and perform well and in some cases unrealistic performance expectations. At times, this can lead not only to feelings of exhaustion, but also athletes becoming frustrated with their performances and feeling resentment toward the sport.

Swimmer Entrapment as a Cause of Burnout

Swimmer entrapment was defined as athletes feeling forced to participate in sport. These feelings arise from swimmers' perceptions that they no longer have control of their swim program and that there are other aspects of their personal identity that they would like to develop.

Loss of control is reflected by two main factors: loss of choice of whether or not to participate and a decreased sense of ownership within the program. "If swimmers feel like they are in control and it is their decision, then I think burnout is less likely." Coaches also highlighted that there is a "fine line between being supportive and not letting the child have a whole lot of say in what is going on." Coaches felt that burnout could be prevented if athletes not only have a choice as to whether they participate in swimming, but also have a sense of say and input regarding their training levels once involved in swimming. "I was always very very clear about letting them know that if this is not what you want to do, then don't do it." Another echoed the importance of ownership, "Deciding that you want to do it for yourself--you're past burnout, because it is then your consciously chosen activity."

The coaches also recognized that athletes may have chosen to swim, but later feel less control over their swim involvement because of coach and parent influence.

If there is an athlete who starts to swim because they want to swim and then starts to enjoy a level of success with it, and then all of a sudden, a parent or a coach says, 'well you can do this if you just do this more,' then I think that can be a situation where they're not longer doing it because they want to do it, they're doing it because someone else wants them to do it

A second aspect to the feelings of swimmer entrapment has to do with the athlete's identity development and life balance issues. If swimmers have more facets to their personal identity than just swimming they are less likely to burnout. "I think as we look at national teams, I think a lot of those kids that make those teams are pretty well rounded individuals."

For that reason many coaches noted encouraging their swimmers to do things outside of swimming. "I can tell you that and most coaches can tell you that the kids really [who] really succeed have a really good balance of family, religion-they have spirituality-, [and academics]. Everything is in balance."

Coaches also recognized that athletes who center their lives on swimming are prone to burnout. "If [swimming] is demanding all their time, it's demanding everything they do, everything that is part of their life is centered around [swimming]. Many of them can't deal with that and shouldn't have to deal with that in my opinion." Another coach mentioned, "I've got some brainwashed kids. They absolutely feel that if they miss a morning practice that their life is through. That is not right. That is not reality. That is not life." "Far too many people treat it as life, and it is not life, it's sport." Another coached echoed these sentiments:

Burnout is a kid who has gone to too many practices, was too focused and narrow in what they do, and hasn't really experienced much of life. Then when they get to a certain point that they decide, "Wow there is something other than swimming."

Coaches noted how focusing too much on swimming can lead to feelings of powerlessness and resentment of the sport. "You just feel the whole time that you are missing out on something and a resentment builds up toward your sport because you have sacrificed a lot." A singular focus on swimming is particularly problematic when the athlete develops negative self-perceptions.

Self-esteem is out the window, times have plateaued, and it is no longer fun. So you take all of that and mix it in with a little social - I don't have a boyfriend, I have no life, I have never gone out for a school play, I have never done anything. All I have done is swim.

Reduced Pressure on the Swimmer as Prevention of Burnout

The third-order theme of reduced pressure. on the athlete focuses on the various support structures for athletes and how coaches try to actively reduce pressure on athletes. All coaches mentioned each of the support structures for swimmers and a variety of strategies to reduce pressure on athletes.

Support Structures for the Swimmer. All coaches emphasized that support structures are important for preventing burnout. These support structures include support from the coach, team, and parents, as well as recognition of achievements. The importance of parent, coach, and teammate support is summed up by the following quote: "A swimmer more or less will burn out if their support group falls apart. Their support group is their peers-who they swim with, their parents, and the coach. That is it, those three entities."

One strategy coaches used to be supportive was through the use of listening skills. "I am a lot more willing to take the time and listen to the kids, to see what they think, to get feedback from them." In addition, coaches also recognized the need to care for the person and not just the swimmer. "I do think that when kids burnout, they think all you care about is their swimming. I think you need to make them feel like they're more than just a swimmer to you."

Coaches also recognized the importance of team friendships, cohesion, and support.

For example:

I tend to keep kids with their age group. I tend not to push them ahead even when they are very talented for a couple of reasons. We focus on the social aspect of it. We have a lot of team activities where we try to get them to make friends within their age groups so they want to come to practice. And then when we ask them to come eight or nine times a week when they are 15, then their friends are here and so they want to be here.


We have regular goal setting sessions throughout the season. Kids bring 3 X 5 cards with their goals written on them. We sit in a circle and everybody tells what they want to do, what they are going to do, and how they are going to do it. That reinforces their commitment. It gains support within the group. Makes them feel good. Makes every one realize where they are coming from so that we are all closer to being on the same wavelength. That is probably the most important thing that I do [to prevent burnout].

A number of coaches cited the need for team activities outside of practice. Team activities, ranging from bagel breakfasts to trips abroad, makes participation more exciting and builds strong team cohesion.

Coaches mentioned that continued parent support and commitment, as well as recognition, were important in preventing burnout. However, they also mentioned that key changes occur in the recognition of achievement as swimmers progress in the sport. When swimmers first competing they receive lots of rewards, partly due to frequent and small meets and partly to the constant improvement these athletes experience. However, when swimmers get into the more burnout-prone ages of 12 through 15 years old, this support structure disintegrates. They may not be competing as much or at least not peaking for many meets during a season. In addition, the competition becomes stiffer, which prevents the athletes from receiving as many accolades and as much attention as they did earlier in their careers. A number of coaches also noted that parents tend to be less enthusiastic about their child's accomplishments after the child has been competing for a number of years. As a result, parent support may wane during this period. In ad dition, swimmers may not receive as much recognition as their peers in sports outside of swimming. Simultaneously, swimming demands a greater time commitment for the swimmer to stay competitive. This coinciding lack of recognition and increased demands on the swimmer fails to validate the efforts that athletes have been putting into training. As a result, athletes may perceive that they are not going anywhere in swimming (e.g., reduced sense of accomplishment) and begin to question why they are swimming (e.g., swim devaluation).

Supportive Program Structure. Another aspect of reducing pressure stems from how a team's training program is structured. Coaches interviewed were excited to share the steps that they take within their training programs to prevent burnout. These aspects include creating a supportive training environment, keeping the program exciting, educating both the parents and the swimmers about what to expect from their swimming experiences.

Creating a supportive training environment was an extremely salient aspect of burnout prevention for these coaches. One focus of creating a supportive program is emphasizing technique training for youth. The idea is that if swimmers are taught good technique and not pushed into high training loads before they are 12 years old, they will be more likely to enjoy increased training loads as they age and be less susceptible to burnout. Another aspect of creating a supportive training environment was to focus on self-improvement rather than outcomes.

Numerous coaches also cited the need to be flexible and give athletes time off from training to keep them from feeling over saturated from swimming. The notion of flexibility coincides with the raw data theme emphasizing long-term swimmer involvement. Coaches emphasized that short-term improvement is not the primary goal; rather, long-term improvement is the central focus of the program. For example, one coach mentioned he wanted improvement to be gradual opposed to dramatic at first and then leading to a performance plateau. Another mentioned he takes a long-term focus because he'd "like his swimmers to come out with the same love and respect for the sport" he has. Other coaches reiterated the importance of a long term focus in stating "Right now, in the US, we probably have 12 and under that are going to eight practices a week--come on. Lets think about that in the true spectrum of what is really important. You know that is probably too much."

I think the way the coaching system is set up encourages coaches to have successful I 0-year-olds, and break national records. To break a national 10-year-old record, you have got to be swimming exorbitant amounts of yards. And if you look at the national records of 10 0-year-olds, most of those did not make it to swimming in college. So I think if your goal is to be in this long term and really love the sport then the goals really shouldn't be to break national records as a 10-year-old. Those things aren't consistent.

In addition to flexibility and a long-term focus, coaches also described several other techniques they employ to stave off burnout. Examples of training techniques include having athletes set realistic but challenging goals and through techniques such as training periodization cross training, and emphasizing training quality over quantity (e.g., lower training distance).

Keeping the program exciting was a very important part of program design for these coaches. Of the factors mentioned, the most frequently mentioned was keeping the program fun. This theme encompassed the fundamental idea that swimmers are not going to burnout if the program is fun. Coaches also recognized that swimmer's concept of fun change over time.

As you get older, your definition of fun becomes much more sophisticated. When you are little, having fun is winning, playing games, being entertained by the activity. When you get older, completing a breakthrough set of 20 X 100's on a new descending interval and coming up with a new average is fun, because it is success.

Ultimately the term fun and success become synonymous.

They also recognized that other sources of fun were important. Coaches mentioned including fun activities within swim practice such as occasionally playing games. Aligned with that is the idea of breaking the monotony of swimming laps. This includes varying the work-outs, changing between distance and sprint sets, and inserting competitions into practice.

Got to have a lot of variety in what you do and how you approach your practices. We do something different everyday all season. And I spend a lot of time doing that. It takes two or three hours every afternoon to put together a plan for that night and the next morning.

Another coach mentioned:

I try and mix things up. Rather than just back and forth where all they do is look at the bottom of the pool all day, there are a lot of really good workout techniques that you can do that aren't necessarily just swimming laps back and forth.

Finally, another coach stressed the importance of keeping swim training fun and interesting.

Keep it interesting by doing variations of sets and getting them to try new things, playing games, whatever it takes-things like that, experimenting with stuff like that really will keep them interested in what they are doing. Keeping them wanting to learn more, wanting to swim faster, wanting them to stay with it.

Other aspects of keeping the program exciting were to build swimmer enthusiasm and to challenge the swimmer. For example, one coach mentioned that he needed to act enthusiastic to keep the swimmers excited. In addition to building enthusiasm, coaches emphasized the importance of keeping the program challenging. If not, "they get bored, they need something different, they need new challenges."

In addition to keeping the program exciting, another recurrent theme was educating both parents and swimmers about what they can expect from participation in a competitive swim program. "Again, it is education. To know what to expect at all levels. The early maturer, the average person, to the late maturer." Coaches also emphasized the importance of educating the swimmer not only on the required commitment, but also specific training techniques. This education is necessary so the athletes know what to expect and that by mid-season they may be fatigued both physically and mentally. The hope is that if swimmers expect intense training, then they will be mentally ready for it and be less susceptible to burnout. Finally, coaches also emphasized the importance of educating parents about the commitment that will be required of them to support their child's participation.

In summary, coaches' views on burnout causes and prevention converged with sport theory and research on burnout. Similar to a stress perspective on burnout, coaches recognized that a variety of stressors stemming from personal and environmental factors might cause burnout (e.g., training demands, self-pressure, pressure from others, social support...) and reducing the amount of stress athletes experience can help stave off burnout. Although not as prevalent as stress related factors, coaches also related burnout to Coakley's (1992) contention that burnout is linked to control and identity issues.

It is interesting to note through the use of pronouns, that coaches often saw other individuals (e.g., parents, other coaches) as the causes of burnout and themselves as using preventive strategies to prevent burnout. Although coaches observe burnout, it would also be very beneficial to study athletes who experienced burnout to develop an increased understanding of the burnout experience.

Integrating coaches' experiential knowledge with the academic knowledge base on burnout emphasizes the importance of emotional/physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation, coupled with signs of physical withdrawal from sport as key components of athlete burnout. One way to view these dimensions in the context of defining burnout is that a reduced sense of accomplishment, sport resentment, and exhaustion are more psychological symptoms that result in the behavioral symptoms reflected by the dimension of withdrawal. In other words, feelings of exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation (defining signs and symptoms) may lead to a withdrawal from sport (consequence of burnout). By themselves, signs of physical withdrawal do not necessarily reflect burnout. Athletes can physically withdraw without experiencing burnout. However, withdrawal from sport is more symptomatic of burnout when it is in combination with other psychological signs.


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Address Correspondences To: Tom Raedeke, Dept. of EXSS, 151 Minges Coliseum East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858. E-mail: raedeket@mail.ecu.edu Phone: (252) 328-0005
Figure 1

Defining Aspects of Burnout

Raw Data Theme                      1st Order

Giving excuses                      Withdrawal from Training
Change in attendance/arriving late
 to practice
Going through motions
Change in normal behavior

Isolation from teammates            Withdrawal from Teammates
Aggressive behavior

Plateau                             Lack of Improvement
Physical maturity

Unrealistic expectations            Diminished Sense of Progress
Diminished rewards
Peer comparisons

Detachment                          Devaluation of Swimming

Physical fatigue                    Exhaustion
Emotional fatigue

Raw Data Theme                      2nd Order

Giving excuses                      Withdrawal
Change in attendance/arriving late
 to practice
Going through motions
Change in normal behavior

Isolation from teammates
Aggressive behavior

Plateau                             Reduced Sense
Physical maturity                   of Accomplishment

Unrealistic expectations
Diminished rewards
Peer comparisons


Physical fatigue
Emotional fatigue
Figure 2

Factors Leading and Preventing Burnout

Raw Data Theme                    1st Order          2nd Order

Excessive parental pressure       Parent Pressure    External Sources
Parent acting as a coach                             of Pressure
Parent living vicariously
through child

Pressure from coach

Pressure to win

Overstraining stress

Pressure from friends
 outside of swimming

Pressure on self                  Self-Pressure      Internal Sources
Peer comparisons                  of Pressure

Swimmer choice                    Control in         Swimmer
Perceived control                 Program            Entrapment
 of participation

Multidimensional personality      Personal Identity
Self-perception                   Development

Listening skills/                 Support From       Support
 Positive feedback                Coach              Structures
Coach supporting athlete                             for the Swimmer
Interactions with teammates       Teammate
Team cohesion                     Support
Team support

Parent commitment                 Parent Support
Support from parents


Emphasizing technique             Supportive         Supportive
Emphasizing improvement           Training           Program
Time off                          Environment        Structure
Emphasizing long term
Goal setting
Preventative training techniques

Keep the program fun              Keep the
Break practice monotony           Program
Build swimmer enthusiasm          Exciting
Challenge the swimmer

Education about expectations

Raw Data Theme                    3rd Order

Excessive parental pressure       Causes of Burnout
Parent acting as a coach
Parent living vicariously
through child

Pressure from coach

Pressure to win

Overstraining stress

Pressure from friends
 outside of swimming

Pressure on self
Peer comparisons

Swimmer choice
Perceived control
 of participation

Multidimensional personality

Listening skills/                 Preventative
 Positive feedback                Strategies
Coach supporting athlete
Interactions with teammates
Team cohesion
Team support

Parent commitment
Support from parents


Emphasizing technique
Emphasizing improvement
Time off
Emphasizing long term
Goal setting
Preventative training techniques

Keep the program fun
Break practice monotony
Build swimmer enthusiasm
Challenge the swimmer

Education about expectations
Table 1

Frequency Data for Each Higher-Order Theme Under Defining Aspects of

Withdrawal from swimming              12
         withdrawal from training     12
         withdrawal from teammates     6
Reduced sense of accomplishment       13
        lack of improvement           12
        diminished sense of progress  11
Devaluation of swimming               10
        detachment                     7
        resentment                     6
Exhaustion                            11
        emotional fatigue              4
        physical fatigue               7

Note. Total number of coaches = 13
Table 2

Frequency Data for Each Higher-Order Theme Under Factors Leading to and
Preventing Burnout

Pressires on the Swimmer             13
  outside pressures on the swimmer   13
    parent pressure                  13
    pressure from coach              12
    pressure to win                  12
    overtraining stress              10
    pressure from friends outside    10
     of swimming
    pressure on self                 10
  swimmer entrapment                 12
    control in program                8
    personal identify development    12
Reduced Pressure On The Swimmer
  support structures for the swimmr  13
    support from coach               12
    team support                     12
    support from parents             11
    recognition                       7
  supportive program structure       13
    supportive training environmen   12
    keeping the program exciting     13
    education about expectations      7
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