How Athletes Avoid Burnouts

Recently, I interviewed two very successful athletes, both in college and at master-level rowing from Sacramento, California.

During our conversation, the question came up about their reasons for getting up early in the morning and continuing to practice all these years. Much of the credit was given to the reward of doing very well in competition.

However, they also mentioned that it isn't always easy.There are days when they would rather sleep in, but for the fear of being jokingly labeled a "sissy" they continue to practice together. Although, the primary reason they show up each morning to prepare for an upcoming race is simple—they enjoy it.

This follows the recent publication by Medicine in Science in Sport & Exercise (by the American College of Sports Medicine) on the relationship between motivation and athlete burnout. The authors wanted to explore what drives an athlete to continue to participate and compete in sports, while others end up with undesired consequences that include injuries, illness, or ultimately dropping out.

What are the reasons why an athlete drops out and/or develops negative feelings toward their sport?

Athlete burnout can include emotional and physical exhaustion, loss of interest in the sport, and "reduced sense of accomplishment" in both skill and competition. The authors referred to a previously described "self-determination" theory, and noted their current data predicts why and who will succumb to burnout by studying athlete motivation from pre-season, early in the season, and post season.

Lonsdale and Hodge describe the theory of internally regulated behavior patterns that range from high self-determination (also known as intrinsic motivation) to low self-determination (also known as extrinsic motivation—athletes feeling obligated to take part in order to validate their self-worth) or amotivation (as in going through the motions).

Those athletes who are amotivated to participate in a sport, who have no desire to win or improve their skills, are most likely to display signs of burnout and give up.

The authors speculated that those who are amotivated also includes athletes who have participated in a sport for a long time and were subjected to external pressures such as high demand from coaches or teammates.

The results of this study confirmed that an individual's sense of self is the biggest determinate of motivation. Similar to the master rowers described earlier in this article, high intrinsic (internal) motivation describes an individual who participates in an activity because they enjoy doing it.

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