Burnout Syndrome in Athletes

Burnout Syndrome in Athletes

Have you ever heard of Athlete Burnout Syndrome? In this article, we explain what it is, how to identify the elements that lead to that situation, and how to avoid it.

What is Burnout Syndrome?

Burnout Syndrome in sport is a state in which an athlete falls into a period of decay, both physically and mentally…

Literally, you’re burning out – or using up – all your physical and mental energy capacity

Of course, reaching this state is preceded by different symptoms at the level of physical and cognitive performance, warning signs we must be alert to in order to avoid reaching this point.

What is Burnout Syndrome

The term Burnout was coined more than 30 years ago, associated with a psycho-social process in the workplace, and over time it’s spread to other areas.

It is important to nuance two concepts that are often confused: Overtraining and Overload.

How does Burnout affect an athlete?

When we talk about overload, we’re refer to the accumulation of training stress that will lead to a short-term decrease in performance capacity, with or without related physiological and psychological symptoms.

In such a situation, restoring performance capacity may take days, or even weeks.

Taking into account Progressive Overload is a basic principle of training, and this overload must be programmed into a routine.

How does Burnout affect an athlete?

On the other hand, and a concept more related to Burnout syndrome, we have Overtraining.

In this case, the accumulation of stress at the physiological and psychological level entails a decrease in long-term performance, and in this case, the restoration of performance capacity can take weeks to months.

Symptoms in sport

Flippin (1981) conducted the first work on the subject in the field of sport, though since then a whole host of definitions have been formulated, mostly based on those already existing in the general theoretical framework proposed by other authors.

Flippin’s model was based on a three-dimensional perspective, in which the Burnout of the athlete supposes the manifestation of:

  • Emotional exhaustion;
  • Depersonalisation; and
  • Reduced personal accomplishment.

This indicates that it is closely related to the intrinsic motivating factor of the athlete.

In the field of sport, the main concern in the systematic study of this syndrome is its relationship with the abandonment of sport practice.

What causes Burnout syndrome with athletes?

Let’s see what we can find in relation to what elements are predictors of the syndrome to help us avoid reaching such a situation.

In this regard, studies (Garcés de los Fayos and Medina 2002, Pines et al. 1981) have focused on 3 symptom-predicting contexts close to the athlete:

  • Social-Family.
  • Sporting.
  • Personal (internal).

What Causes Burnout Syndrome to the Athlete

Regarding the consequences associated with Burnout in athletes, they’re determined by the relationship between the previous contexts and the intensity and frequency of the consequences.

The theoretical framework thus proposes 3 phases of development of the consequences of the syndrome:

  1. Enthusiasm and energy begins to diminish.
  2. Appearance of feelings of abandonment and distress (training is a stressor).
  3. Loss of confidence, self-esteem, alienation and abandonment.
Alongside this, the authors also establish 2 different groups of consequences: those related to behaviour and the level of motivation, and those related to physiological factors.

There is still a large gap on the topic in scientific literature, specifically on its development and evolution in the sports field, as there are few studies, and those that exist don’t have very large samples.

However, we did find 4 theoretical models that can help give us an overview of Burnout Syndrome in Athletes and how to prevent it:

Model 1 (Smith 1986):

This defines the Burnout of the athlete as a chronic stress in which the athlete perceives more risk than benefit in their sport and triggers such as: relationship with the coach, excessive competitive demands, little social and/or family support, high demands for time and energy, which will all result in the appearance of the Syndrome.

Model 2 (Silva 1990):

This author focuses their model on more physical factors related to training performance.

It states that the burnout is the product of excessive training (overtraining concept) and that the loads can have positive or negative effects.

How do you avoid burnout if you're an athlete?

The latter occurs when when work is down without the necessary adaptations in training.

Psychophysiological dysfunctions characterised by loss of concentration, propensity to injury, lack of sleep, altered nervous system, etc.

Model 3 (Schmidt and Stein 1991):

These authors establish the model following the criterion of sports commitment – a modulating variable of both psychological well-being and Burnout syndrome.

Model 4 (Coakley 1992):

This author’s proposal is based on the essence of the social processes that characterise sport. That is, it’s a series of social consequences that are the trigger for the syndrome.

How do you avoid burnout if you’re an athlete?

Accordingly, and related to motivational factors as well as our predisposition to commitment to sport (apart from training loads and lack of adaptation), self-assessment and knowledge are key in the process of recognising this effect.

The athlete’s own internal motivation to remain active, enthusiastic and energetic about their sport must take precedence over external motivational factors.

If the lack of intrinsic motivation, loss of commitment and/or lack of energy begin to appear, these are clear symptoms that something is happening.

To solve the issue, its important to communicate with the coach and/or technical team before assessing the environment to modify it to each specific case.

I recommend having a look at this article that I wrote about Athlete Mentality.


With this knowledge in mind, we can conclude that Burnout Syndrome in an athlete is focused more on the psycho-social factors of the athlete with regards to their activity; while on the other hand Overtraining Syndrome is related to the causes of a drop in performance resulting from an excess of training and poor assimilation of training loads.

Sometimes, establishing periods of disconnection and total recovery and decreasing workload in the competitive calendar are what’s needed in order to avoid reaching a point of chronic stress.

Bibliographic Sources:

  1. Carlin, M., & Garcés de los Fayos Ruiz, E. J. (2010). El síndrome de burnout: Evolución histórica desde el contexto laboral al ámbito deportivo. Anales de Psicología / Annals of Psychology, 26(1), 169–180.
  2. Zabala, M., & Cheung , Stephen S. (2018). La Ciencia del Ciclismo. El Nexo definitivo entre conocimiento y Rendimiento. Ediciones Tutor.

Related Entries

  • Everything you need to know about Overtraining. Click here.
  • Do you know what Rhabdomyolysis is? Visit this link to find out why you should plan your workout correctly.
  • We go over the Training Principles in this Post.
Review of Burnout Syndrome in Athletes

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About Isabel del Barrio
Isabel del Barrio
Isabel del Barrio really loves sport, demonstrating it from a very young age and sharing her enthusiasm and knowledge to this day
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