How Perfectionism Leads to Athlete Burnout
Setting high goals is great, but how you deal with falling short determines how long you’re willing to keep chasing them
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Overtraining syndrome is one of the great mysteries of modern sports science. No one is exactly sure what goes wrong or how to fix it. But there’s a general consensus about what causes it: too much training, not enough recovery. It’s basically a math problem, and if the dawning age of sports technology ever delivers a perfect way of measuring training load and recovery status, we’ll one day be able to balance the books and eliminate overtraining for good.
At least, that’s the theory. But sports psychologists have been studying a parallel condition they call athlete burnout since at least the 1980s, which carries some different assumptions. In this view, burnout is influenced not just by the physical stress of training and competition, but by the athlete’s perception of their ability to meet the demands placed on them. Burnout isn’t exactly the same as overtraining, but there’s plenty of overlap: chronic exhaustion, a drop in performance, and in many cases a decision to eventually walk away from the sport. This perspective doesn’t get as much attention among athletes—which makes a new paper in the European Journal of Sport Science worth exploring.
The study, from a group at York St. John University in Britain led by Luke Olsson, looks at the links between perfectionism and burnout in a sample of 190 competitive athletes ranging from university to international level. The new hook compared to previous research on this topic is that they also explore whether having a perfectionist coach makes athletes more likely to burn out (spoiler: it does)—but to me, as someone who hadn’t encountered that previous research, the study was most interesting as a general introduction to the concept of athlete burnout and the role that personality traits might play in it.
Let’s start with some definitions. Athlete burnout, Olsson explains, is a psychological syndrome with three planks: emotional and physical exhaustion; a reduced sense of accomplishment; and more negative feelings about your sport. There’s lots of debate about what causes it, but a common view is that it results from the chronic stress of feeling that the load placed on you—hard training, competitive expectations, other aspects of life—is more than you can handle.
This is why personality traits matter: to some extent, you’re the one who decides what demands to put on yourself. Even the demands that others place on you will be filtered through your perceptions of what they expect. And your level of self-belief will influence how well you think you can handle those demands.
Perfectionism, too, has (in one widely used definition) three key elements. One is how you see yourself: “I put pressure on myself to perform perfectly.” The second is how you think others see you: “People always expect me to perform perfectly.” And the third is how you see others: “I am never satisfied with the performance of others.” The first two are presumably most relevant to the risk of burnout for athletes; the third, you’d expect, is most relevant in coaches.
For the study, athletes in 19 different sports including track, tennis, and golf who trained an average of just over ten hours per week filled out a set of questionnaires on burnout and perfectionism. The perfectionism questionnaires were modified to focus specifically on athletic performance, and one of them was modified to assess how the athletes perceived the perfectionism of their coaches, with whom they’d been working for an average of 3.4 years. Then the researchers did a bunch of statistical analysis to figure out which facets of perfectionism, if any, predicted the various elements of burnout.
For the athletes, socially prescribed perfectionism—how you think others see you—was the best predictor of feeling elements of burnout. This was expected, and consistent with previous research. Self-oriented perfectionism—what you expect of yourself—was also linked to some elements of burnout. This may seem obvious, but in previous research it’s been the expectations of others, rather than of yourself, that seem most problematic.
In fact, self-oriented perfectionism seems to be a double-edged sword. Setting high goals and holding yourself to high standards can have lots of positive effects; it’s beating yourself up when you fall short of those standards that is most associated with negative outcomes like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Some researchers distinguish between “perfectionist strivings,” characterized by the pursuit of ambitious goals, and “perfectionist concerns,” which focuses on obsessing over the ways in which you fall short. You can guess which category is better for both performance and happiness. (For example, I wrote about a previous study in which collegiate cross-country runners with high levels of perfectionist concerns were 17 times more likely get injured.)
Athletes who felt their coaches had perfectionist expectations of others were also more vulnerable to burnout. Since the coaches weren’t surveyed directly, you might wonder if that perception is as much about the athletes as the coaches. After all, you’d expect athletes who score high on socially prescribed perfectionism (“People always expect me to perform perfectly”) to assume that their coaches expect them to perform perfectly. But the statistical analysis confirmed that there were two separate effects: perfectionist coaches raise the risk of burnout regardless of the athlete’s personal characteristics.
There’s actually a very large and complex body of literature on perfectionism, both in sports and in other areas like academic performance, which I’m just scratching the surface of here. Olsson and his colleagues point to mindfulness, self-compassion, and cognitive behavioral therapy as approaches that have been shown to help rein in the negative sides of perfectionism. The big takeaway for me is the idea that burnout isn’t just something that happens when you do too much—and I suspect the same thing is true of overtraining. There’s no objective threshold that defines “too much.” The stresses of training, and of life, are partly a function of how you respond to them.
For more Sweat Science, join me on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check out my book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.