a href="#p261" target="_self"> (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008) . Sampling unit consisted of all stressors the participating athletes provided. Athletes were treated as recording units. Stressors were treated as content unit. For open coding, all content units were extracted, sighted and carefully read. In the second step, all content units were re-read and analyzed regarding overlapping, respectively similar, stressors. For grouping, all stressors were clustered into 17 subcategories (level b). In the next step, these 17 subcategories were grouped inductively into three main categories (level a), which had to be thematically fitting. Main categories were developed in order to gather different locations of main stressors. These three main categories were developed out of the data and carefully defined in the following step. Next, all athletes were rated into one of the three main categories according their stated main stressor by two raters. Rating was referred to the recording units in contrast to content units and therefore provided for each participant a categorization into one main category allowing a following analysis with distinct factor levels. Participants without any stressors provided were categorized into the category no stressor (NS). The inter-rater reliability was good with Cohen’s κ = 0.86. After the rating, stressors rated differently (n = 7) were discussed and categorized by both raters together.

Analyses of Variance (ANOVAs) were conducted for testing possible connections between the categories of stressors with chronic stress and depression. The stress-categories served as independent variables whereas depression, chronic stress and intentions of dropout served as dependent variables. As multiple ANOVAs were conducted, the problem of family wise error rate was accounted by setting alpha at α < 0.01. Post-hoc analyses of significant group differences within the independent variable were performed by Tukey’s honest significance test (Tukey’s HSD). In addition, effect sizes were calculated for significant differences. Validity of main stressors was tested by its connection to intentions of dropout. As the single-item question lacks psychometric values and therefore did not meet criteria for parametrical testing, Kruskal-Wallis One-Way Analysis of Variance was conducted. Following group differences were performed by a Wilcoxon Rank Sum Test, using pairwise comparisons with Bonferroni correction for adjusting alpha.

3. Results

The analysis of the open ended question (Table 1) resulted in 17 subcategories (level b) and three main categories (level a): Double burden (DB), sport specific demands (SSD) (physiological and psychological) and condi

Table 1. Structure and overview over the heading categories and subcategories.

tions (C). The category DB was found to describe subcategories (level b), which illustrated stressors due to con- flicting interests and responsibilities besides being an athlete. Demands such as educating themselves in school or university, having an own family or keeping up with other hobbies along with their main sports were considered as stressors in this category. Examples for this category are “not enough time for my family”, “clash of training and school” or “no time for hobbies and friends”. The category SSD represents physiological and psychological stressors in the context of sports and is directly linked to being an athlete. Physiological stressors were related to heavy exercise loads, injuries or bad performance levels, which is illustrated by examples like “not in shape for multiple weeks” or “multiple injuries”. In the psychological aspect of the category, major stressors concerning psychological difficulties relating to high pressure to perform well, mental stress, fear of failure or motivational difficulties were named (i.e. “the pressure to always succeed is too much”). The category C represents stressors related to disadvantageous or unfavorable structures within the sport. Stressors like finances or problems with sponsoring, lack of support in the team or conflicts and lack of appreciation would fall into this category. Examples are “lack of support from my teammates” or “financial insecurities due to insufficient sponsoring”.

Results of the content analyses-ratings are displayed in Table 2, indicating equal distributions for the categories DB (n = 30) and SSD (n = 30) and fewer ratings in the category C (n = 15). In addition, the category NS was frequent with n = 59. Results for the three ANOVAs for analyzing possible connections between the three main categories with depressive symptoms, chronic stress and intentions of dropout are shown in Table 2. Results show significant main effects across the four categories for depression (F(3, 130) = 3.95; p < 0.01), chronic stress (F(3, 130) = 9.60; p < 0.001), and intentions of dropout (χ²(3) = 74.19; p < 0.001). Post-hoc analyses for intentions of dropout showed significant differences between the groups NS with DB, SSD and C (all p < 0.001). For depression, significant differences were found between the groups NS and SSD (p < 0.01). Effect size for mean differences was moderate to strong with Cohens δ = 0.78. Regarding chronic stress, significant differences were found between the groups SSD and NS (p < 0.001; δ = 1.15), as well as tendencies between the groups NS and C (p = 0.016), and NS and DB (p = 0.049). No differences were found between the three stressor categories with respect to chronic stress, depressive symptoms or intentions of dropout.

4. Discussion

The present study was conducted to explore major stressors in elite athletes and its possible connection to depressive symptoms and chronic stress. Content analysis of open ended questions concerning major stressors led to three main categories: Double burden (DB) due to challenges of combining the career of an athlete with other duties, sport specific demands (SSD) such as heavy exercise loads, psychological pressure or failure, and conditions (C), which are referred to as stress through unfavorable structures within the team or organization. Further analyses revealed effects for chronic stress and depressive symptoms. Especially athletes with major stressors in the category SSD, representing psychological and physiological challenges in the context of sport, were found to have higher scores in depression and chronic stress. Firstly, the results of the content analysis and secondly, the found effects for chronic stress and depression will be discussed in the following.

Table 2. Results from content analysis rating for sample size, means and ANOVA for chronic stress, depression and inte- tions of dropout.

Note: Categories abbreviations DB = Double Burden, SSD = Sport Specific Demands, C = Conditions, NS = No Stressor. **p < 0.001, *p < 0.01.

4.1. Major Stressors in Elite Athletes

The process of abstraction throughout content analysis led to a further characterization of the three found categories. By describing the categories throughout location of the inherent stressors, SSD are located within the athlete (intra athletic). Stressors within this category are directly linked to possible physiological and psychological issues athletes have to deal with. In contrast, the category C is related to stressors located in the direct surrounding of athletes (e.g. in their teams, organization). Furthermore, the category DB represents stressors which result from the private life or through the conflict between the multiple roles of an athlete. Therefore, stressors in this category can be considered stressors with relation to the whole life of a person and are not merely bound to athletic or sports related aspects.

A categorization of stressors by Hanton et al. (2005) led to a differentiation between competitive and organizational stressors. The authors concluded that athletes experience and recall more demands related to competition. As the present results indicate few stressors in the category C and more in the category SSD one might draw equal conclusions. However, in this study athletes provided also several stressors regarding conflicts between sports and private life (DB) which are clearly not competition related. Other comparable classifications have their origin in research on dropout. Enoksen (2011) provides an overview about several causes of dropouts in the literature, including (1) training and performance factors; (2) education and work obligations; (3) motivational aspects; (4) social environment and (5) choice of other sport activities and interests. The author in particular underlines reasons due to injuries, performance stagnation, educational demands and lack of motivation as highly relevant factors (Enoksen, 2011) . Similarities with the category DB especially appear regarding the second factor: education and work obligations. This is not surprising, as the major stressors in this study were linked to intentions of dropout. In addition, goal of the study was to link major stressors with chronic stress and depressive symptoms. Therefore, comparisons with other conceptual frameworks and categories are difficult and should be interpreted carefully.

4.2. Stressors, Chronic Stress and Depressive Symptoms

Regarding levels of chronic stress, effects were found for the category SSD along with tendencies for both other categories. This indicates that the stated stressors are associated with experiences of chronic stress among elite athletes. This effect validates the open ended question, as the study’s goal was to explore main stressor with a chronic character. In detail, especially stressors within the athlete (psychological and physiological) are connected to higher levels of chronic stress. This effect was also seen for depressive symptoms. Here, the category SSD also accounted for the effect between major stressors and depressive symptoms with a moderate to strong effect size. Taken together, the present results indicate that mainly stressors linked to sport specific psychological and physiological demands of an athlete are related to negative experiences like chronic stress or depressive symptoms.

The present results clearly do not allow underestimating other, more sport distal stressors in an athlete’s life. However, considering psychological aspects of the three categories might lead to testable assumptions for further research on this topic. One such possible psychological assumption in this regard lies in the different location of stressors within the three major categories. SSD, for example, represent stressors directly linked to athletes. Therefore, stressors within this category might have an impact on important aspects of an athlete’s identity. Following this assumption, stressors within the category C might be relevant for athletes, too. However, as they are not directly involved, athletes have the opportunity to make other persons or circumstances accountable for the current stress. Concerning the category DB, one might expect an equally heavy impact on athletes, as aspects like education, relationship or family seem also highly important. However, having various aspects in one’s life offers also the opportunity to have reinforcements by others. Therefore, difficulties in one aspect could be compensated throughout positive other aspects.

Other findings on specific events in an athlete’s life such as injury (Appaneal et al., 2009) or failure (Hammond, Gialloreto, Kubas, & Davis, 2013) clearly indicate towards the importance of sport specific mechanisms for depression in athletes. However, not only single events but chronic stressors should be considered following the present results. Therefore, chronic stress and stressors seem to play an important role. Nevertheless, episodes like injuries, failure or overtraining might have an even longer and therefore chronic impact on an athlete’s health than the event itself. To answer this question research would need to evaluate long-term effects of such factors.

The found effects in the present study regarding the location of important stressors for athletes can be viewed from a practical perspective, too. Here, the specific aspects of sports in sport psychological counseling and psychotherapy can be taken into consideration. The results indicate that clearly sport related challenges (e.g. overwhelming demands of training, pressure to perform well) are connected to stress and depression. Unfortunately, little is known on clinical issues in elite athletes such as depression (Wolanin, Gross, & Hong, 2015) and therefore on sport specific mechanisms in development and therapy of psychological disorders. Thus, practitioners in the field of clinical sport psychology (sport psychologists and therapists) would benefit of a better understanding in this intersection.

4.3. Limitations

The present study is explorative in its nature and therefore does not test specific assumptions based on theories. Consequently, all results cannot be seen as empirical evidences and should rather be regarded as insight, which further research can base testable assumptions on. The found major stressor categories have to be interpreted with care, as they were developed inductively by qualitative research methods. Furthermore, findings are constrained by the research design. Sample characteristics such as size, nationality, or sport discipline can limit external validity of the present results. Furthermore, causal implications cannot be drawn by the explorative, cross-sectional design of the study. However, following research on chronic stress or depression in athletes could possibly benefit by considering sport related challenges and stressors and therefore conduct studies to test causal assumptions. In addition, this study focused merely on negative outcomes and therefore on possible negative influences (stressors). As discussed above, there also might be positive aspects related with the found stressful topics for elite athletes (e.g. reinforcement by family or school). Furthermore, other individual resources (e.g. support system, self-confidence) are possibly influencing experiences of stress and depression in a positive manner. Although not explored in the present study, such aspects might be valuable for further research.

5. Conclusion

The present study explored major stressors in elite athletes and found three main categories for sources of stress: double burden, sport specific demands and conditions. Major stressors seemed to be located in various, different aspects of an athlete’s life. Thus, athletes may face different challenges during their careers and stress may origin from the daily training, the interaction with coaches and teammate, but also from conflicting interests regarding the career and private life. Further analysis showed connections between the stressors and experiences of chronic stress as well as with depressive syndromes in elite athletes. Especially stressors related to sport specific demands seemed accountable for this effect. Therefore, further knowledge on sport specific mechanisms regarding outcomes such as depression and stress is needed. Research on depression and other general psychological health issues could possibly benefit by taking such sport specific aspects (e.g. performance pressure, exercise loads, etc.) into greater consideration.

Cite this paper

InsaNixdorf,RaphaelFrank,JürgenBeckmann, (2015) An Explorative Study on Major Stressors and Its Connection to Depression and Chronic Stress among German Elite Athletes. Advances in Physical Education,05,255-262. doi: 10.4236/ape.2015.54030


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1Participants of the present study came from an online study in 2011 (Nixdorf et al., 2013) . The goal of this study was to find prevalence rates and associations for depression in elite athletes. Within this online questionnaire the authors collected the present qualitative data on major stressors.

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