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Study Reveals High Levels of Burnout Among Norwegian Student-Athletes

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Significant mental health issues are present among student-athletes in Norwegian lower secondary sport schools, according to a recent study by researchers at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. The study, which Milla Saarinen and colleagues led, examined the prevalence of school burnout, sport burnout, self-esteem issues, and psychological distress among young athletes. The findings suggest that female students, older students, and those engaged in individual sports are particularly at risk.

The study, which was published in the journal BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, was conducted in the autumn of 2023 and involved 642 student-athletes aged 12 to 14 from eight lower secondary sport schools across Norway. These schools aim to support dual-career paths, allowing students to excel in both academics and sports. However, the demands of balancing these two commitments appear to be taking a toll on students’ mental health.

The researchers found that more than one-third of the student-athletes reported severe school burnout symptoms. This rate is significantly higher than the approximately 10% prevalence found in general adolescent populations in other Nordic countries. Chronic fatigue from too much schoolwork, a pessimistic outlook on education, and feelings of inadequacy are characteristics of school burnout. These symptoms can lead to serious mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

The study found notable differences in mental health outcomes based on gender and age. Female student-athletes were significantly more likely to experience severe sport burnout, low self-esteem, and high psychological distress compared to their male counterparts. This aligns with existing research suggesting that young women may face greater pressures to perform well in both sports and academics, increasing their vulnerability to mental health issues.

Older students, particularly those in higher school grades, were more likely to report severe burnout in both school and sports. The transition to upper secondary education often involves increased academic and athletic demands, which can exacerbate stress and burnout symptoms. This trend highlights the need for targeted support for older student-athletes as they navigate these heightened pressures.

Another significant finding of the study was the difference in psychological distress between student-athletes involved in individual sports versus team sports. Those participating in individual sports, such as cross-country skiing or athletics, were more likely to report high levels of psychological distress. This may be due to the unique pressures of individual sports, where athletes often bear the burden of performance solely on themselves, without the shared responsibility and support found in team sports.

The results of this study have important implications for the structure and support systems within lower secondary sport schools. The high levels of burnout and psychological distress among student-athletes indicate a need for these schools to reassess how they balance academic and athletic demands. Ensuring that student-athletes do not face excessive pressures that exceed their coping resources is crucial.

One practical approach could involve restructuring daily schedules to allow for adequate rest and recovery time. Schools should also emphasise the importance of education, helping student-athletes see the value of their academic achievements alongside their sporting successes. Fostering strong communication and coordination between students, teachers, and coaches can help identify and address mental health issues early.

While this study provides valuable insights, it also highlights the need for further research. Longitudinal studies tracking the mental health of student-athletes over time would provide a deeper understanding of how these challenges evolve. Investigating other factors, such as parental expectations and support, could offer a more comprehensive picture of the pressures faced by young athletes.

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