“Keeping the Olympic Flame Burning”: Protecting Athletes from Burnout in Sport

Editor: Sylvain Laborde
Editorial Assistant:
Maren Flottmann, Jakob Kaiser

This article has also been translated into French.

Athlete burnout is a growing concern in sport, particularly among elite athletes who compete at the highest level, such as the Olympic Games. It is characterized by the symptoms of physical and emotional exhaustion, a reduced sense of athletic accomplishment, and sport devaluation. The present article will explore its causes and consequences. It also aims to guide the creation of effective strategies for preventing and mitigating burnout in elite athletes who will compete during the Olympic Games.

During the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, athletes from around the world will compete in their respective disciplines. For these individuals, the event is the culmination of years of rigorous training and competition. These years are likely not without their difficulties, however. Elite athletes face constant pressures (selection and deselection) and dangers (career ending injuries). These pressures can cause athletes to develop motivational and wellbeing issues, one of the most prominent of which is burnout. As an example, Simone Biles, 24, who has won seven Olympic medals, including four golds, battled mental health issues during the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020.

Image 1: Olympic and Paralympic Games are the culmination of years of rigorous training and competitionImage 1: Olympic and Paralympic Games are the culmination of years of rigorous training and competition

In the last twenty years, sport psychology has researched burnout extensively. Researchers have made significant contributions to uncovering its alarming impact on athletes' mental and physical well-being [1]. This includes increased depression, anxiety, and injuries [2]. It has therefore become critical to understand the prevalence of this syndrome. This knowledge is pivotal in developing strategies to prevent or lessen the detrimental effects on athletes' health, ensuring their well-being as they pursue excellence and an Olympic medal.

How is athlete burnout characterized among elite athletes?

Experts have been studying athlete burnout for several decades. Burnout occurs when an athlete feels tired and emotionally drained from training and competing, leading to a loss of interest in their sport and a feeling of not achieving much, no matter how hard they try. In order to understand burnout in athletes, drawing on the job burnout literature, the following definition was proposed: burnout is a syndrome characterized by lasting physical and emotional exhaustion, a diminished sense of accomplishment, and a devaluation of sport [3]. An Olympic athlete may experience constant physical and emotional fatigue, even after rest and recovery. This feeling can be described as the energy put into training and competing evaporating without yielding tangible results. Doubts about their abilities may arise, despite past successes and recognition. The athlete may feel that their training and efforts are never enough, causing past achievements to lose their value or meaning. Athletes may lose interest in competition and training, feeling disconnected from their sport and questioning its significance.

Where does athlete burnout come from?

Image 2: An Olympic athlete may experience constant physical and emotional fatigueImage 2: An Olympic athlete may experience constant physical and emotional fatigue

In view of these negative consequences, various models have attempted to identify factors associated with burnout. These include stress appraisal [4], sport-centered identity [5], commitment [3], and motivation [6]. The factors causing burnout can be compared to puzzle pieces, with each model providing insights into different aspects of the burnout problem.

The cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout focuses on how athletes perceive and react to stress [4]. For instance, two athletes may face the same challenging training schedule especially during the preparation for the Olympic Games, but one may view it as a motivating challenge, while the other may perceive it as overwhelming and stressful. Athletes who consistently view their sporting challenges negatively are more likely to experience burnout. According to the sport-centered identity model [5], athletes who lack a well-rounded identity beyond their sport face a higher risk of burnout. For instance, if an Olympic athlete's entire identity and self-worth are tied to their athletic performance, a bad day or an injury during the Olympic Games can be perceived as a threat to their very identity. The sport commitment model examines how an athlete's commitment – or their sense of obligation to the sport – plays a role in burnout [3]. Playing a sport because of love is different from feeling obligated to play, even when it's no longer enjoyable. This feeling of being trapped in the sport can lead to burnout. The motivational model [6] examines the athlete's motivation for playing their sport. Is it driven by internal passion and enjoyment (intrinsic motivation) or external pressures such as scholarships, expectations, or fame (extrinsic motivation)? Self-determination theory [7] suggests that athletes who have satisfied needs for autonomy, competence, affiliation, and who are primarily motivated by intrinsic factors are less likely to experience burnout. This is because they play the sport because they genuinely love it, rather than solely for the gold medal it may bring.

In order to summarize the research, an integrative model of athlete burnout has been proposed [8]. The model highlights that burnout may occur when athletes have to balance sports with other life commitments such as school and work, and when they face pressure from coaches, teammates, and family members. Additionally, not getting enough rest or recovery time is also identified as a risk factor for burnout. Too much training or peaking too early can also lead to burnout. This is particularly true for Olympic athletes who often have to face these challenges. Recent reviews have confirmed the relationships in this model. The model also identifies early warning signs of burnout, including loss of intrinsic motivation in the sport, frustration with lack of results, decreased performance, and mood swings. The model helps us understand that athlete burnout is not just about being tired. It is also about dealing with multiple stressors and not having enough time to recharge and recover. Recognizing these signs early can prevent burnout and keep athletes healthy and happy in their sports while performing at the highest level. This is of almost importance due to the negative consequences of burnout [9].

Which strategies can be useful to prevent it?

Many researchers believe that more needs to be done to prevent burnout in sport. In the context of sport, only five studies have been conducted to test interventions aimed at reducing burnout [10]. These included helping athletes plan and control their actions [11], encouraging them to feel grateful [12], providing mindfulness training [13, 14], and using self-determination theory [15]. All these studies found that these strategies could have potential in reducing burnout among Olympic athletes, however these results have to be considered with caution as these studies have poor design (e.g., no control group and a limited number of participants).

Thus, there is limited evidence from sport on the most effective ways to prevent burnout. Given that a large body of work exists in other contexts, it may be beneficial to examine meta-analyses of studies from other fields. These studies have shown that individual-level interventions can reduce burnout symptoms approximately 35% of the time [1]. While these methods have their merits, they do not always achieve the desired outcome. Among the individual therapies, the most successful therapies are based on cognitive-based, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing thought processes to promote more adaptive behaviors, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which centers on maintaining a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. 

Image 3: One of the most successful therapies is the Mindfulness-Based Stress ReductionImage 3: One of the most successful therapies is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Organizational-level interventions have a higher success rate, with about 86% effectiveness [1]. The winning strategies involve adjusting workloads by reducing work hours or shift length, and improving teamwork and communication. The interventions were primarily tested among physicians and demonstrated great promise. However, it is uncertain whether they would be equally effective in other sectors, such as sports.

When individual and organizational interventions were combined, their effectiveness varied somewhat, with positive results observed in approximately 57% of cases [1]. The combination included stress management methods and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, which targets irrational beliefs. Additionally, organizational interventions were used. It is interesting to note that these combined strategies were found to be most effective for mental health providers, but less effective for physicians.


Olympic athletes are at high risk of burnout and there is still much to learn about the best ways to intervene. Self-determination-based, cognitive-based, and mindfulness-based individual interventions, as well as organizational strategies that focus on enhancing teamwork and communication, may be the way forward. Insights from both inside and outside the sports context can be drawn upon. These recommendations aim to establish the basis for creating sports-specific strategies. They will assist those in the sporting world in effectively identifying, preventing, and alleviating burnout among athletes.

Image 4: SummaryImage 4: Summary



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[4] Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal Of Sport Psychology, 8(1), 36‑50. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

[5] Coakley, J. (1992). Burnout Among Adolescent Athletes: A Personal Failure or Social Problem? Sociology of Sport Journal, 9(3), 271‑285. https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.9.3.271

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[7] Deci & Ryan, 2000 - Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The" what" and" why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

[8] Gustafsson, H., Kenttä, G., & Hassmén, P. (2011). Athlete burnout: An integrated model and future research directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(1), 3‑24. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2010.541927

[9] Gustafsson, H., DeFreese, J. D., & Madigan, D. J. (2017). Athlete burnout: Review and recommendations. Current opinion in psychology, 16, 109-113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.05.002

[10] Madigan, D. J. (2021). Diagnosing problems, prescribing solutions, and advancing athlete burnout research. In Z. Zenko & L. Jones (Éds.), Essentials of exercise and sport psychology: An open access textbook (p. 664‑682). Society for Transparency, Openness, and Replication in Kinesiology. https://doi.org/10.51224/B1028

[11] Dubuc-Charbonneau, N., & Durand-Bush, N. (2015). Moving to action: The effects of a self-regulation intervention on the stress, burnout, well-being, and self-regulation capacity levels of university student-athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1123/jcsp.2014-0036

[12] Gabana, N. T., Steinfeldt, J., Wong, Y. J., Chung, Y. B., & Svetina, D. (2018). Attitude of Gratitude: Exploring the Implementation of a Gratitude Intervention with College Athletes, 31(3), 273‑284. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2018.1498956

[13] Moen, F., Abrahamsen, F. E., & Furrer, Phillip. (2015). The Effects from Mindfulness Training on Norwegian Junior elite Athletes in Sport. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences, 27(2), 99‑114.

[14] Moen, F., & Wells, A. (2016). Can the Attention Training Technique Reduce Burnout in Junior Elite Athletes? International Journal of Coaching Science, 10(1), 53‑64.

[15] Langan, E., Toner, J., Blake, C., & Lonsdale, C. (2015). Testing the Effects of a Self-Determination Theory-Based Intervention with Youth Gaelic Football Coaches on Athlete Motivation and Burnout. The Sport Psychologist, 29(4), 293‑301. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2013-0107


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