'Win at all costs' a recipe for failure

Coaching young athletes to enjoy their development rather than focusing on winning at all costs reduces the risk of burnout, according to research.

Victoria University Institute of Sport, Exercise & Active Living researcher Thomas Curran said athletes' passion for their sport took one of two forms: 'harmonious passion', where the drive for success is not all-consuming, and comes from a place of want rather than need; and 'obsessive passion', where the drive for success is all-consuming and comes from a place of need rather than want.

His study of 173 elite junior English soccer players seeking club contracts in a high pressure academy environment found variability in levels of key burnout symptoms, namely reduced accomplishment, exhaustion and diminished interest.

"We expected the variability in burnout but interestingly those with a harmonious passion for sport seemed to cope much better with the high pressure of an academy environment by exhibiting more resiliency to burnout than those with an obsessive passion," he said.

Mr Curran said players with a harmonious passion derive more satisfaction from sport because they are able to maintain control over their situation and abilities. As a result, they report lower levels of burnout particularly under pressure.

"One way to safeguard our talented junior athletes from such high levels of burnout, then, is to foster a love of sport that is process-oriented and balanced rather than outcome-oriented and compulsive," he said.

Practical ways for parents and coaches to endorse harmonious passion include not placing conditions on praise.

"By praising children only when they succeed, and withholding encouragement when they fail, children only feel worthy when they encounter success and sense they have let people down when they fail. Praise should have an informational component and be unconditional for harmonious passion to develop," he said.

"Young athletes need to be in it for themselves and have some say in their training and approach to the game so they have a sense of ownership over their participation."

Mr Curran said it was also important to encourage kids to see the value of effort over simply the value of winning so they could deal more healthily with adversity later on in their development.

"You want to foster harmonious passion as early as possible because once a passion is set within a child's identity, it can be very difficult to change," he said. "As our results indicate, fostering a harmonious passion at an early age may be critical to how resilient our junior athletes are in avoiding burnout when they reach elite status."

The study, which Mr Curran conducted in collaboration with York St John University in the UK, has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences.

See all news