Push to be perfect burns out young athletes

U. LEEDS (UK) — Young athletes who feel they must be perfect to please others are vulnerable to burnout, according to a study of junior footballers in the UK.

Researchers say some youngsters in professional football academies are showing signs of chronic stress, exhaustion, and disillusion with their sport at an early age, according to a study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The study explored the relationship between different types of perfectionism and burnout among 167 junior male footballers in eight academies and centers of excellence attached to English professional clubs and found that up to a quarter of the boys reported sometimes experiencing symptoms of burnout, while about one percent reported experiencing certain symptoms frequently.


Players who reported perceived pressures from others, a fear of making mistakes, and other external pressures were at the most risk from burnout. Non-perfectionists and players who displayed perfectionism driven by their own high standards were significantly less vulnerable.

“What we see among the athletes showing symptoms of burnout is emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense that they are not achieving, and a sense of devaluation of the sport,” says Andrew Hill, lecturer in sports and exercise science at the University of Leeds.

“Even though they might originally enjoy their sport and be emotionally invested in it, they eventually become disaffected. Participation can be very stressful.”

Many professional football clubs recruit children as young as eight years old and cut unwanted players annually until they reach 12. Youngsters then sign two-year registrations and must survive culls at the age of 14 and 16 before getting a three-year contract.

“It can be harsh. At its worst, we are talking about an environment that can develop, foster, and maintain a mindset where athletes are wholly invested into the idea of being the next David Beckham,” Hill says. “In fact, of the estimated 10,000 athletes involved in youth football at any one time, less than one percent is thought to make it as a professional footballer.

“Perfectionism can be a potent energizing force but can also carry significant costs for athletes when things don’t go well. Reports of psychological difficulties and interpersonal problems, for example, are not uncommon among athletes who describe themselves as perfectionists,” he says.

“We need sport to be a positive experience for all participants,” Hill says. “Sport can be used as a vehicle to develop life skills, a sense of self-esteem, and quality relationships with others, but we know it can lead to disaffection, poor moral decision making, and make people feel miserable about themselves. There is nothing necessarily positive about sport. It is about the environment that is created.”

“Perfectionists are stuck in a self-defeating cycle. They are overly dependent on personal accomplishment as a means of establishing a sense of self-esteem but are always dissatisfied with their efforts. Even success can be problematic because they simply become more demanding until they inevitably experience failure.”

Source: University of Leeds