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Psychological factors associated with overtraining: implications for youth sport coaches.

With an ever-increasing sport conscious society, exercise has become a major industry. Standard daily workouts have led to accelerated training regimens to optimize peak performance Unfortunately, this concept has also enhanced the opportunity for overtraining and injury. Today, overtraining is fairly common among adult athletes (Silva, 1990). Fatigue, the inability to exceed former levels of performance, and a decreased ability to recover are typical symptoms of overtraining (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). Prior research has indicated that at least 64% of female and 66% of male elite distance runners had experienced some form of overtraining during their career (Morgan, O'Connor, Sparling & Pate, 1987). Overtraining occurs when the athlete, while stale, trains at high intensity (Counsilman, 1955). Recent studies have suggested that overtraining occurs in subtle and incremental stages and may lead to significant disturbance in somati chomeostasis. These incremental stages of overtraining include (a) overreaching, (b) overtraining, (c) staleness, (d) burnout, and (e) injury/withdrawal (Fry, Morton, & Keast, 1991; Kuipers & Keizer, 1988; Silva, 1990).

Psychologically, this chronic debilitating syndrome may impair an athlete during training or daily work, with signs of decreased concentration, increased anger, slowed mental function, and diminished self-esteem. These conditions, however, are not limited to mature adult athletes. Young athletes are continuously confronted with increasing expectations, often resulting in unrealistic demands on time and physical performance leading to early withdrawal from the sport environment. Therefore, the purpose of this review is to define physiological indices of overtraining, examine psychological factors involved with youth sports, and suggest corrective alternatives for coaches to avoid overtraining of young athletes.


Historically, overtraining has been defined in various ways. In the United States overtraining has been typically called staleness, while European programs utilize the most popular term overtraining (Fry et al., 1991 ; Griffith, 1926; Kereszty, 1971). This syndrome had been studied sporadically from the early nineteen hundreds (Griffith, 1926) but has recently received increased emphasis in contemporary sport research (Budgett, 1990; Dale & Weinberg, 1990; Fry et al., 1991; Fry et al., 1993; Hackney, Pearman, & Nowacki, 1990; Hooper, Mackinnon, Gordon, & Bachmann, 1992; Kuipers & Keizer, 1988; Lehmann, Foster, & Keul, 1993; Levin, 1991; Murphy, Fleck, Dudley, & Callister, 1990; Raglin, 1993; Rushall, 1990; Silva, 1990; Stachenfeld, Gleim, Nicholas, 1992; Stone, Keith, Kearney, Fleck, Wilson, & Triplett, 1991; Taylor, Daniel, Leith, & Burke, 1990; Veale, 1991; Williams, Tonymon, & Andersen, 1991).

"Overtraining" is best defined as a chronic syndrome where systemic function is disrupted lay tension, emotional instability, diminished concentration, distractibility, personality shifts, and apathy (Fry et al., 1991). Depression, loss of self-esteem, vulnerability to environmental stress, fear of competition, and ease in giving up are commonly observed (Fry et al., 1991). Overtraining may occur at any point in the competitive season (Silva, 1990) with systemic regeneration requiring up to three months for full recovery in some instances (Falsetti, Ryan, Burke, & Burke, 1983). The term overtraining is used to denote the overall symptomatology of a syndrome that encompasses both physiological and psychological manifestations.

Numerous other terms have been used to define excessive training techniques. Overload training, a primary technique used for conditioning athletes, is used to enhance an athlete's tolerance for actual sports stress by increasing the intensity, duration, and or frequency of training. Fry and colleagues (1991) related increased incremental training to greater performance. The objective of incremental overload is to displace or reset the homeostatic mechanisms of the body to facilitate, adaptation to training stress while allowing an appropriate regeneration or rest period (Counsilman, 1968; Matveyev, 1981). The degree of adaptation is dependent on the level of stress disruption (Bompa, 1983). In addition to reestablishing homeostasis, the athlete typically adapts to the imposed stress with greater tolerance (Bompa, 1983).

Supercompensation is the ability of an athlete to adapt to a new level of stress following appropriate overload and regeneration (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). This supercompensation may be observed through increased muscle glycogen stores (Astrand & Rodahl, 1977), but may also create a "valley of fatigue" when incomplete recovery of homeostasis is repetitively observed (Counsilman, 1968). Chronic nonregenerative fatigue is a clinical sign of overtraining (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). This is the corner stone of performance training and it is at this point in training where overtraining can either be incurred or deterred based on regeneration allowances of the coach and athlete.

In 1983, Falsetti indicated that "overreaching" referred to the initial overload of training, inducing a large stimulus for adaptation to achieve a peak fitness in preparation for competition. The outcome of overreaching produced an initial, brief decline in performance, followed by a recovery period of supercompensation and enhanced performance (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). In the overtraining syndrome, overreaching fails to produce supercompensation and in fact can contribute to even greater declines in performance without proper regeneration periods.

"Staleness" appears to be a psychological antecedent to overtraining (Silva, 1990). Staleness has been represented in the physiology literature as a failure to succeed or maintain a previously held physical performance standard (Fry et al., 1991). Yet staleness may also appear, although this has not been clearly delineated in overtraining research (Fry et al., 1991; Silva, 1990). Athletes have reported staleness as tolerable and indicate feeling stale 2.5 times during their college career (Silva, 1990), most frequently during mid to late season workouts. Staleness has been equated with monotony, too much training, lack of enthusiasm, physical fatigue, and conflict with coaches. A clear delineation between psychological and physiological staleness is important to more effectively diagnose and treat both mind and body disturbances induced through overtraining.

Unlike overtraining, burnout may occur from the middle to the end of a season. Characterized by physical fatigue, carelessness, and lack of desire (Silva, 1990), burnout is a byproduct of multiple exposure to excessive stress in a chronic phase of overtraining. The outcome is manifested as either a voluntary or involuntary (injury) withdrawal from training (Silva, 1990).

Physical Factors Associated With Overtraining

Physical disruption due to overtraining has complex and often confounding signs and symptoms (Raglin, 1993). Confounding physiological variables have included an increase in resting morning heart rate, commonly cited as an indicator that an athlete is training excessively. However, other studies have been unable to replicate this finding (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). These disruptions are generally assessed in terms of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system disorders (Fry et al, 1991; Kuipers & Keizer, 1988).

Parasympathetic Disorders

Parasympathetic disorders are harder to detect because they often appear to be normal responses to training (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). These signs as shown on Table 1 include lower resting pulse, quicker return of heart rate to pre-exercise levels, decreased lactate during rest, maximal plasma lactate during exercise, and lowered blood [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] pressure (Barron, Noakes, Levy, Smith & Millar, 1985; Costill, 1986; Fry et al., 1991; Israel, 1976; Kindermann, 1986; Noakes, 1986).

Researchers support the idea that the inability to detect parasympathetic overtraining causes a delay in positive identification. Differential diagnosis include an extended period of recovery and/or decline in performance. These effects are generally observed in endurance trained athletes (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). A classic symptom of parasympathetic disturbance is phlegmatic behavior. This behavior is most commonly manifested in healthy athletes by apathy or depression (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988).

Sympathetic Responses

Typical sympathetic responses include increases in heart rate and blood pressure during training (Dressendorfer, Wade, & Scaff, 1985). These are often considered symptoms of arousal and connote an increased fight or flight response as often cited from Selye's classic stress model. Other researchers have supported these findings (Astrand & Rodahl, 1977; Kirwan et al., 1988; & Stray-Gundersen, Videman & Snell, 1986). Sympathetic signs and symptoms of overtraining are generally observed in anaerobic or strength work (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). These signs generally include increased blood pressure, increased incidence of infection, decreased power output, and retarded recovery following exercise (Costill, 1986; Falsetti, 1983; Israel, 1976; Kereszty, 1971).

Psychological Factors Associated With Overtraining

Psychological factors associated with overtraining have been extensively researched. In a summary of ten years of research involving college swimmers, Morgan and colleagues (1987a) have reported that overtraining is consistently associated with mood disturbances (Raglin, 1993). The most consistent psychometric findings have been observed using the Profile of Mood States (POMS, McNair, Lorr, & Droppleman, 1971), which assesses relevant levels of emotional shifts in tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue and confusion. As overtraining progresses to a greater chronicity, the deterioration of positive moods and the increase of negative moods are clearly shown by the POMS. This often shows an iceberg or dose response effect in all the subscales of the POMS except the tension index (Raglin, 1993). This inventory has proven to be more consistent in defining overtraining as opposed to physiological markers (Urhausen & Kindermann, 1989). Fifty-six sport-related studies from 1975 to 1988 have used the POMS with generally consistent reproducibility (LeUnes, Hayward, & Daiss, 1988).

Psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining defined from POMS research are show on Table 2. Other psychological factors which effect overtraining include stress, and susceptible personality characteristics (Feigley, 1984; Meyers, LeUnes, Elledge, Tolson, & Sterling, 1992 b; Morgan, 1984; Raglin, 1993).


A normal facet of daily life, stress is defined as an asynchrony between change within an individual and change within the environment (Chiroboga, 1982). This asynchrony is concretely apparent in sport as performance is the external reflection of balance between the individual and the environment. Excessive stress may be detrimental to performance culminating in greater psychological strain on the athlete. In overtraining research, stress is primarily viewed as a summation of several factors including life stress, amount of social support, decrease of coping skills, locus of control, and emotional expression (Anthony, 1991; Budgett, 1990; Hardy & Riehl, 1988; Miller, Vaughn & Miller, 1990; Smith, Scott, O'Fallon & Young, 1990; Smith, Smoll & Ptacek, 1990; Veale, 1991).

The stress-injury link to negative life stress has been investigated and helps provide coaches with a new direction to explain why some athletes, may be more vulnerable to injury at different times of the season (Smith, Smoll, & Ptacek, 1990). Negative life stress has accounted for as much as 30% of the observed injury variance when assessing injury vulnerability (Smith, Smoll, & Ptacek, 1990). The subsequent stress following an injury or performance decline does not facilitate regeneration, further contributing to the overtraining syndrome. Excessive life stress is associated with an increased vulnerability to injury for two possible reasons. First, attentional disruption may occur causing less vigilance to environmental cues. Secondly, increased muscle tension may effect fluidity of movement resulting in predisposition to injury (Smith, Smoll & Ptacek, 1990).

Social support and coping skills may also effect how athletic stress is reconciled and has been investigated through the stress-injury model (Hardy & Riehl, 1988; Smith, Smoll & Ptacek, 1990). Lack of appropriate social support and coping skills has led to staleness and eventual burnout (Falsetti, 1983; Feigly, 1984; Smith, Smoll & Ptacek, 1990). Examples include the underdeveloped coping skills of some children who participate in sports, and the potential for alienation to occur at elite levels of competition due to travel and practice time away from friends. Severity of injury has not been determined using indices of social support/coping skill although a statistically significant correlation was drawn when subjects who were low in both social support and coping skills were assessed for injuries. Results suggested that as high as 47 to 55 percent of athletes who score low in both are more likely to suffer injuries (Smith, Smoll & Ptacek, 1990).

The perceived power/control an athlete has over her/his sport performance is known as the locus of control (Levenson, 1981). Much of the learned helplessness research would suggest that a perceived external locus of control (coaches, parents, or peers) would lead to lack of internal motivation in some individuals and thus a greater potential for withdrawal or burnout (Cohen, 1988; Compas, 1987; Garmezy & Rutter, 1983; Johnson, 1986; Smith, Johnson, & Sarason, 1978; Smith et al., 1990). Furthermore, Smith and colleagues (1990) suggest that athletes with social support, sensation seeking motivation, and internal locus of control are able to reduce their stress outcome association and have a reduced potential for injury.

With children who are interested in excelling in sports, emotions will arise that are difficult to adjust to. These emotions are often linked to performance. Several researchers have pointed to unexpressed feelings particularly anger, as being the most destructive factor to psychological performance,(Falsetti, 1983; Feigely, 1984; Smith, Scott, O'Fallon, & Young, 1990). Research has suggested that unexpressed anger at coaches, parents, or other athletes may lead to greater incidence of burnout (Dale & Weinburg, 1990; Micheli, Kassabian, Grace, Kirkpatrick & LeChabrier, 1982; Smith et al., 1990; Stachenfeld et al., 1992).

Personality Characteristics

Personality characteristics represent an important psychological factor in overtraining because individual perceptions of stress vary greatly (Weinberg, Gould, & Jackson, 1979). An examination of these personality characteristics reveal that elite performing athletes tend to have increased motivation (Meyers, Sterling, Bourgeois, Treadwell, & LeUnes, 1994). Increased determination of athletes may increase the susceptibility to overtraining due to the greater potential for fatigue and subsequent performance decline.

Depression is another important personality component that is susceptible to overtraining. Some potential depression mechanisms in response to excessive training may include excessive stress and constant negative feedback on performance by coaches (Miller et al., 1990). This in turn, lowers self-esteem and facilitates a cyclical downward spiral of self-efficacy. Depression has been associated with chronic fatigue encountered with overtraining (Counsilman, 1955).

Cognitive Processes

Impaired cognitive processes have been reported in cases of psychological burn-out and overtraining (Barron et al., 1985; Feigley, 1984). Signs have included difficulty concentrating at work and training, increased internal and external distractibility, decreased ability to deal with large amounts of information, decreased ability to narrow focus, and decreased feelings of self-esteem (Fry et al., 1991).

A component of fatigue, as viewed by several researchers, is boredom (Silva, 1990). The taxing demands of physical training cause subsequent decreases in blood glucose (Barron et al., 1985). As systemic glucose declines, brain function is slowed and nervous reaction is decreased potentially explaining the possible connection between psychological function and physical demand (Costill, 1986).

Further evidence suggests that there may be a separation between cognitive strategies used by successful and unsuccessful athletes as measured by the Sports Inventory for Pain (SIP, Meyers et al., 1994). The SIP scale assesses an athletes potential for coping with pain and assesses somatospatial components of competition. Subscales include coping, cognition, catastrophizing, avoidance, and body awareness. Two important variables have proven to be cognitive awareness (COG) and body awareness (BOD) of the athletes (Meyers et al., 1992a). In rodeo athletes, the need for cognitive strategies while dealing with the inevitable pain of getting bucked off of a horse or the somatosensory awareness of where the body may be in relation to the animal may also be a vital link to understanding psychological skills necessary in various traditional sports (Meyers et al., 1992b). Application of the SIP to athletes involved in contact sports such as football and wrestling would be interesting to further assess the relationship between cognitive appraisal and subsequent overtraining.

Implications for Youth Sport Coaches

Some key points to consider when coaching youth sports include experience of the athlete, prior performance standards, previous history of injury, expectations from the coach and athlete her/himself, current life stress of the athlete, time limitations of coaching, social interaction of the team, and current level of training fatigue (LeUnes & Nation, 1989). Understanding the psychological factors of overtraining are important so that coaches may establish a check list to aid in monitoring individual and/or team stress, identify athletes that may be susceptible to overtraining, and assist in assessing where performance is declining, or why conflicts with athletes are becoming more prevalent (Hardy & Riehl, 1988; Rushall, 1990). This presents a challenge to youth sport coaches as time may be limited to organizational and management issues. However, the need to closely look at individual performance development and time for quality assessment is essential for coaches and trainers to further provide a positive experience through sports.

Attention to physical factors is critically important. Evidence indicates that overtraining syndrome is a function of training volume (Lehmann, Baumgartl, & Wieseneck, 1992; Lehmann, Foster, & Keul, 1993). Tapering of workouts to lessen psychological and physiological stress have been suggested to aid in the supercompensation process during overreaching and regeneration (Bompa, 1983; Fry et al., 1991). If staleness is present, and tapering fails to improve performance, burnout, withdrawal, or injury may result (Feigley, 1984; Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). If burnout is evident, then complete versus facilitative rest may be necessary.

Rest and regeneration time are essential to the successful performance of athletes and should be seriously considered when working with any sport population. The catabolic nature of training is evident when looking at cortisol levels (Barron et al., 1985). Catabolism is the breaking down process of amino acids in the muscle to facilitate energy for training. During stressful training cortisol, which facilitates catabolism, is increased; however with proper rest, cortisol concentrations return to normal. When stress is imposed before cortisol has time to return to resting levels a greater degree of cortisol activity is observed (Davies & Few, 1973; Davis, Gass & Bassett, 1981; Farrell, Garthwaite & Gustafson, 1983). Mood changes may also be evident when rest time is not appropriate. Certainly other factors could facilitate mood alterations; however, if a relatively constant state of mood is established, then changes may be suggestive of staleness. Once staleness occurs, training should be tapered and rest or regeneration time should be assessed, psychological diversions should be provided, and social interaction should be facilitated.

A diverse psychological training experience is essential for alertness and recuperation for sports. Otherwise staleness and complacency may become road blocks to peak performance (Kuipers & Keizer, 1988). Some suggestions for stress management techniques include relaxation training, imagery, cognitive strategies such as self-affirmations, and emphasis on positive feedback. Realistic establishment of public and personal goals could help avert staleness. Goals, however, must be mutually agreeable to the athlete, coach, and parents with regular recognition and updates (LeUnes & Nation, 1989). These techniques may require additional time but can benefit athletic performance significantly. Providing social interaction is an important component of why children play sports. This allows for mental regeneration. The monotony of stressful training often induce symptoms of staleness; however, occasional breaks ease the strain (Silva, 1990). Typically, time allotments need to be established for social interaction during training. In addition, extracurricular social interaction with teammates outside of practice provides a necessary medium for children to relax from the rigors of emotionally and physically taxing sports.

Periodization is the systematic planning of exercises, intensities, durations, and frequencies of a training routine (Fry et al., 1991). Coaches can organize a general schema of training through a macrocycle which encompasses an entire month, year, or career of a team or individual, or a microcycle, consisting of weekly, daily, or hourly scheduling of training. This allows coaches to track progression and recession in their athletes' training, enhances organization, add purpose to training, and is a well established paradigm of current sport conditioning (Bompa, 1983; Fry et al., 1991).

Screening for certain psychological characteristics by coaches should enhance the efficacy of a youth sports program. An important consideration, however, is the time allotment for testing. Test days can be scheduled during extended periods of rest and regeneration or before seasonal demands increase. Furthermore, testing may provide feedback for parents and athletes concerning improvements, and also to reaffirm hard work. When choosing a battery of tests, a coach must be realistic about the usefulness of the information, time constraints of record collection, and subsequent data analysis.

A choice of what time of season to test the athletes is also a salient issue. Some psychological inventories which could be taken during the preseason period include the Psychological Skills Inventory for Sports (PSIS; Mahoney, Gabriel, & Perkins, 1987), SIP, (Meyers, 1994; Meyers et al., 1992a) and the Training Distress Scale (TDS; Raglin, 1993). These inventories will help coaches in determining the most effective strategies to combat staleness and burnout in training. Hardy (1988) has also suggested a Athletic Life Experience Survey (ALES) which aids in assessing life stress and is significantly predictive of athletic injuries. Preliminary application of this test appears to exhibit acceptable reliability. The length of this test (70 items) would suggest that this application be used periodically, as opposed to every day (Hardy et al., 1988). An effective post-exercise measure is the POMS which is a 65-item mood state assessment tool that has been utilized in several sports (LeUnes et al., 1988). This measure is also the most widely used tool in the psychological assessment of overtraining (Raglin, 1993). It's weekly application, however, may be tedious for coaches with time constraints.

Perhaps the most applicable measure for youth sport coaches would be the Daily Analysis of Life Demands for Athletes (DALDA). This inventory assesses stressful training response, optimal stress, external stressors, preliminary features of overtraining, reactions to travel fatigue, and peaking indicators (Rushall, 1990).

Future considerations could compare measures of mood states, cognitive strategies and personality characteristics to form a composite score to rank athlete's potential levels of burnout and staleness. This approach would avoid the potential for too much dependence on any single inventory such as the POMS (Murphy et al., 1990). Murphy and colleagues (1990) have shown multiple measures to be a useful way to assess the psychological variables of overtraining, and Meyers and colleagues (1992a, 1992b) have suggested that this could provide a useful delineation between successful and unsuccessful athlete.

Dietary considerations for athletes could effect sport performance and further hinder the psychological regeneration needed for adequate adjustment to physical overload. Sherman and Maglischo (1991) suggest that carbohydrate intake should be monitored to avoid listless and apathetic behavior. The coach should work in tandem with parents to understand the dietary needs of individual athletes and appropriate nutritional demands of the particular sport.


The purpose of this review was to define physiological indices of overtraining, examine psychological factors involved with youth sports, and suggest corrective alternatives for coaches to avoid overtraining of young athletes. The body of literature which has addressed overtraining has primarily been physiological. Factors involved with overtraining have included parasympathetic and sympathetic system changes. The consistency of these findings, however, have been suspect and difficult to differentiate from normal training response. Identification of psychological factors, however, have been more consistent and have yielded some interesting applications in the areas of stress, cognitive strategies, and personality characteristics susceptible to overtraining.

Overtraining can be avoided by providing a clear system of rewards and scheduling. Constant attention to realistic training schedules, implementing psychological testing, and monitoring dietary intake can alleviate the potential for staleness and burnout (Fry et al., 1991). These suggestions require careful consideration by coaches for useful applications within their own sport situation. Often coaches have limited time and finances to implement elaborate screening programs or lengthy periodization schedules. However, the syndromes associated with chronic training will cause lack of enjoyment for the participants and a failure of desired effects for coaches. With increased effort, a coach can provide a structured sport program that enhances the total sports experience of young athletes.


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Psychological Symptoms of Overtraining (Fry et al., 1991; Kuipers & Keizer, 1988; Silva, 1990)


1. Tension 2. Drawness 3. Emotional instability 4. Difficulty concentrating at work and training 5. Increased internal and external distractibility 6. Decreased ability to deal with large amounts of information 7. Changes in Personality 8. General apathy


1. Feelings of depression 2. Decreased self-esteem/worsening feelings of self 3. Sensitive to environmental and emotional stress 4. Fear of competition 5. Hesitant to control challenges
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Author:Hollander, Daniel B.; Meyers, Michael C.; LeUnes, Arnold
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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