Burnout among Adolescent Athletes: A Personal Failure or Social Problem?

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Jay Coakley University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

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Most explanations of burnout among young athletes identify chronic, excessive stress as the cause. Strategies for preventing burnout emphasize techniques that help athletes control stress and adjust to the conditions of sport participation. However, informal interviews with 15 adolescent athletes identified as cases of burnout suggest that the roots of burnout are grounded in the social organization of high performance sport; these roots are tied to identity and control issues. The model developed in this paper conceptualizes burnout as a social problem grounded in forms of social organization that constrain identity development during adolescence and prevent young athletes from having meaningful control over their lives. This model is intended as an alternative to more widely used stress-based models of burnout. Recommendations for preventing burnout call for changes in the social organization of high performance sport, changes in the way sport experiences are integrated into the lives of young athletes, and changes in the structure and dynamics of relationships between athletes and their significant others.

This Presidential Address was presented at the annual conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Milwaukee, November 8, 1991.

Jay Coakley is with the Sociology Department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, CO 80933-7150.

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