The Psychology of Long-Term Elite Performance: Reducing Burnout in Sports

The Psychology of Long-Term Elite Performance: Reducing Burnout in Sports

There is a lot that goes into elite level performance… years of training, competition, successes, failures, injuries, sacrifices, social pressures, high expectations, the list goes on. All of these variables and more can compound over time and lead to burnout.

We’ve all seen some of our favorite athletes retire, not because of a lack of success, but because they lost the love, passion and motivation that had driven them to reach their goals to begin with.

Even with all the fame, fortunes, praise and status there is a lot more that goes into the psyche of an elite athlete that is able to sustain longevity through their career. In this article we will define burnout, discuss the psychological factors that support reduced burnout risk and analyze the research around the topic.

Defining Burn-Out, Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Before we dive into the research around the topic of burnout, it is important that we define some commonly used terms seen in the literature and the field of sports psychology.


Psycho-emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment. Simply put, burnout is when an athlete experiences overwhelming exhaustion from training and competition, resents or completely loses interest in the game, and experiences lower achievement than previously demonstrated.

Intrinsic Motivation:

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for the pleasure, passion and satisfaction derived from engaging in the activity.

Extrinsic Motivation:

Extrinsic motivation involves completing a task or exhibiting a behavior because of outside causes such as avoiding punishment or receiving a reward.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

What’s The Research Say?

There has been a mound of research in sports psychology compounding over the years looking into intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and burnout in sports at various ages and levels. From youth, high school, college and now to elite sports; the evidence is very strong in one specific direction… intrinsic motivation (and its subsequent factors of self-determination) has a strong negative relationship with burnout.

Specifically, a 2018 systematic review assessing 72 study looking at burnout in elite athletes found there was a 100% negative association between burnout and intrinsic motivation, assessed through the self-determined index (a psychological questionnaire). Simply put, this means that athletes who identified with having high intrinsic motivation had significantly lower risk of burnout.

2 man talking

The Driver Of Intrinsic Motivation: Self-Determination Theory

Now knowing and seeing the value of intrinsic motivation, let’s unpack what goes into supporting intrinsic motivation.

One of the main psychological theories that has been demonstrated to support the fostering of intrinsic motivation is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT looks at how activities and environments support an individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If these three qualities are high the activity fosters the most volitional and high quality forms of intrinsic motivation and engagement in said activities. This includes enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are seen in the field of psychology as the three basic human psychological needs… but what are they exactly?


The ability to be a decision maker in the process, have a say of what the action steps might be and have a feeling of control.


An adequate IQ/knowledge of the activity, or the ability to execute an activity successfully and efficiently.


A sense of belonging to a group of individuals or like-minded people and feeling connected with the others around you.

If these three psychological needs are met, in turn an athlete will have a high self-determined index, leading to higher intrinsic motivation and decreased risk of burnout.

Motivation chart

Closing Remarks:

Intrinsic motivation is extremely important and can be seen as a protective mechanism for drastically decreasing the risk of burnout. This includes a passion for the process, competitions and feeling that your three main psychological needs are being fulfilled.

Erik Jernstrom

Director of Sports Performance @ EForce

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