Athlete psychosocial health is a topic of both conceptual and practical importance, with outcomes of athlete burnout and well-being receiving recent attention.1–3 Guided by stress-based theory,4,5 athlete burnout and well-being have been examined as key outcomes of sport-based stress. This conceptual model has been expanded to include both environmental factors (ie, social perceptions) and individual traits (ie, emotional intelligence).1,2 Specifically, the effect of social perceptions on athlete burnout and well-being outcomes may be influenced by individual athlete traits.
Athlete burnout is a cognitive-affective syndrome characterized by dimensions (ie, symptoms) of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and sport devaluation.6 Psychological well-being (referred to throughout as well-being) is depicted as a global appraisal of emotion and life satisfaction.7 American collegiate sport represents a physically and mentally demanding environment8 where further understanding of antecedents of athlete psychological outcomes has important implications for burnout deterrence and well-being promotion. Ultimately, enhanced understanding of the mechanisms underlying athlete psychological health will aid practitioners in shaping training environments to promote well-being and protect against burnout symptoms for athletes.
Guided by extant theory,5 athlete perceptions of the sport-based social environment, both positive (eg, social support) and negative (eg, conflict), have been shown to be important antecedents of athlete psychological health outcomes. Positive sport-based social interactions such as teammate or coach social support have been shown to be negatively associated with athlete burnout and positively associated with well-being in athlete populations through the use of both cross-sectional and longitudinal research designs.1,2,9,10 Furthermore, negative social interactions (eg, social intrusion, failure to provide help, insensitive behaviors, or rejection) have been shown to be positively associated with burnout and negatively associated with well-being in collegiate athlete populations using similar study designs.2,11 Despite extant efforts, continued research is needed that examines traits that may shape athletes' responses to the dynamic sport-based social environment relative to important athlete psychological health and well-being outcomes.12 The aforementioned stress-based theory5 supports this need.
One specific trait with the potential to shape athlete psychological health outcomes is emotional intelligence.13 Emotional intelligence is defined as an individual's ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions.14 Sport scientists have identified facets of emotional intelligence as important to sport performance and stress management.15–17 Emotional intelligence also represents an important trait to consider relative to linking sport-based social interactions with athlete burnout and well-being. Specifically, differing levels of trait emotional intelligence have the potential to affect associations of social interactions with athlete burnout and well-being.13 This may occur as a result of heightened attention to or understanding of the occurrence of positive or negative social interactions with social actors in sport (eg, team-mates, coaches, and parents). Accordingly, emotional intelligence merits investigation as a potential moderator of associations of athlete social interactions perceptions with outcomes of burnout and well-being.
Guided by extant theory, researchers have established seminal knowledge on linking sport-based social interactions with athlete psychological outcomes, including burnout and well-being.18,19 However, the effect of key moderators of these important relationships between social interactions and psychological health outcomes, such as trait emotional intelligence, remain unknown. To address this important knowledge gap, the purpose of the current study was to examine associations among athlete perceptions of trait emotional intelligence, social interactions, burnout, and well-being. It was hypothesized that emotional intelligence would moderate the associations of positive and negative social interactions with athlete burnout and well-being outcomes, respectively.
A convenience sample of collegiate athletes was recruited from an American university. There were 86 participants, of whom 33 (40%) were collegiate varsity athletes and 49 (60%; 4 non-specified) were club athletes (mean age = 20.2 ± 1.5 years). Most participants were self-identifying female (59, 70%), with the remaining comprising males (25, 30%) and 2 non-specified. Hispanic or Latino ethnicity was affirmed by 3 (3.5%) participants. Most participants self-identified as white (75, 87.2%), whereas the remaining participants self-identified as black or African American (2, 2.3%), more than one race (3, 3.5%), Asian (2, 2.3%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (1, 1.2%), unknown/other (1, 1.2%), or non-specified (2, 2.3%). Participants reported playing their current sport for an average of 9.5 ± 5.4 years and being with their current team for 2.4 ± 1.6 years. Reported sports included diving, gymnastics, lacrosse, swimming, wresting, handball, softball, basketball, rugby, cheerleading, tennis, triathlon, or non-specified.
Demographics. Participants were asked to report their age, gender, ethnicity, race, years playing their current sport, years playing on their current team, and sport.
Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence was measured with the 33-item Assessing Emotions Scale.20 Participants responded to items on a 5-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Example items included “I am aware of my emotions as I experience them” and “Other people find it easy to confide in me.” Scores on all items were summed to calculate an overall emotional intelligence score. This measure has exhibited acceptable reliability and validity in athlete populations.21 Internal consistency reliability of scores in the current study were found to be acceptable (α = .87).
Social Interactions. Positive and negative social interactions were measured with the 24-item measure of Positive and Negative Social Exchanges.22 Participants indicated their degree of satisfaction (with positive social interactions) and bother (with negative social interactions) on a 4-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from 1 (not at all satisfied/bothered) to 4 (very satisfied/bothered). Example items included “How satisfied were you in the last month when someone provided you with aid and assistance” (positive) and “How bothered were you in the last month when someone interfered or meddled in your personal matters” (negative). Scores on the 12 positive and 12 negative items were aggregated to calculate overall scores. This measure has exhibited acceptable reliability and validity in athlete populations.2 Internal consistency reliability of scores in the current study were found to be acceptable (α = .89 to .97).
Athlete Burnout. Athlete burnout was measured with the 15-item Athlete Burnout Questionnaire.23 Participants indicated their self-reported perceptions of burnout dimensions of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation on a 5-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (very often). Example items included “I'm not into sport like I used to be” and “I feel overly tired from my sport participation.” Scores on corresponding items were averaged to create dimensional burnout scores. Scores on all items were also aggregated to create a global burnout score. This measure has exhibited acceptable reliability and validity in collegiate athlete populations.9,23,24 Internal consistency reliability of scores in the current study were found to be acceptable for global burnout (α = .92) and burnout dimensions (α = .85 to .94).
Well-Being. Well-being was measured with the 5-item Satisfaction with Life scale.25 Participants indicated their degree of life satisfaction on a 7-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Example items included “In most ways my life is close to ideal” and “I am satisfied with my life.” Scores on all items were aggregated to calculate an overall well-being score. This measure has exhibited acceptable reliability and validity in athlete populations.2 Internal consistency reliability of scores in the current study were found to be acceptable (α = .84).
Study procedures were approved by an ethical review board and were consistent with American Psychological Association standards. Participants completed valid and reliable online assessments of demographic information and study variables during their competitive seasons. The survey provided an explanation of the voluntary nature of participation. Consenting participants completed measures assessing their perceptions of emotional intelligence, positive and negative social interactions, athlete burnout, and well-being. Study measures were presented in the same order for all participants. Participants were informed that there were no correct answers, that they could skip any question they did not feel comfortable answering, and that their answers were anonymous.
Study variables were calculated and screened according to best practice guidelines.26 One case was missing data on the positive social interactions variables and was removed listwise from study analyses. Accordingly, correlational analyses were conducted using all 86 cases, whereas regressional analyses included 85 cases. No other missing data or univariate or multivariate outliers were identified. Descriptive statistics were calculated for all study variables, including means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses were conducted to test study hypotheses regarding relationships among emotional intelligence, social perceptions, and outcomes of athlete burnout and well-being. This technique is best suited to answer study questions of moderation by examining interactions among independent variables (emotional intelligence and social interactions) and their associations with the dependent variables (athlete burnout and well-being) via interaction terms.
All variables were mean centered prior to the creation of interaction terms requisite of a moderation analysis.26 Emotional intelligence and positive and negative social interactions were entered in the first step of the regression analysis. Consistent with best practice, interaction terms were entered in the second step of the regression to test potential moderation/interaction effects of predictor variables on study outcomes.27 The a priori value for significance was set at a P value of less than .05 for all statistical tests. SPSS software (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL) was used for all analyses. Any significant interactions were plotted via established guidelines.27 A post-hoc power analysis suggested that for the current multiple regression models with five predictors (three independent variables, two interaction terms) and an observed R2 of .20 to .38, a sample size of 85 would yield a power to detect significant effects of .9505 to .9997.
Descriptive statistics appear in Table 1. Participants reported low to moderate levels of global burnout and its associated dimensions of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and sport devaluation, as well as negative social interactions relative to response set options. Additionally, participants reported moderate to high levels of emotional intelligence, positive social interactions, and well-being. Overall, most bivariate correlations among study variables were statistically significant and in the expected magnitude and direction. Of note, emotional intelligence was not found to be significantly associated with negative social interactions or the burnout dimensions of emotional and physical exhaustion or sport devaluation. Negative social interactions was also not found to be significantly associated with positive social interactions or the burn-out dimension of exhaustion. Finally, well-being was not significantly associated with negative social interactions, global burnout, or any individual burnout dimension.
Descriptive Statistics for Study Variables (N = 86)
Positive social interactions and negative social interactions were significantly associated with global burn-out in the first step of the analysis. In the second step, a significant change in R2 was found, demonstrating a significant moderation effect (Table 2). Moreover, both the emotional intelligence–positive social interactions and emotional intelligence–negative social interactions interaction terms were significantly associated with the outcome. Accordingly, interaction (rather than main) effects are most appropriately interpreted (Figure 1). Collectively, this model accounted for 38% of the variance in global athlete burnout. Largely, similar results were found for all burnout dimensions with the notable exception of exhaustion only being significantly associated with the main effect predictor of negative social interactions. Reduced accomplishment and sport devaluation were also not significantly associated with the emotional intelligence–negative social interactions interaction term, although reduced accomplishment trended toward significance (P = .050). Thus, main effects are most appropriately interpreted for exhaustion, whereas interaction terms are most appropriately interpreted for reduced accomplishment and sport devaluation. Collectively, these models explained 20%, 30%, and 34% of the variance in the burnout dimensions of exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and sport devaluation, respectively. For well-being, emotional intelligence was the only variable found to be significantly associated with well-being in the first step of the analysis. In the second step, no significant change in R2 was found nor were any of the respective interaction terms found to be significantly associated with the outcome. Accordingly, main effects are most appropriately interpreted. Collectively, this model accounted for 25% of the variance in athlete well-being.
Hierarchical Linear Regression Analyses Assessing the Associations of Emotional Intelligence and Social Interaction Variables With Athlete Burnout and Well-Being (N = 85)
Interaction effect on (A) positive and (B) negative social interactions and emotional intelligence on athlete burnout. Athlete burnout was assessed using a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 5.
This study examined associations among trait emotional intelligence, social interactions, and the athlete psychological health outcomes of burnout and well-being. Study results partially supported our primary hypothesis because moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the effect of social interactions were found for athlete burnout, but not athlete well-being. Alternatively, for well-being specifically, emotional intelligence was found to be the only significant main effect predictor of this outcome. These results have important empirical and practical implications described below.
Moderation effects for burnout merit consideration. Current findings suggest that athletes with lower emotional intelligence may be predisposed to have a less protective effect of positive social interactions on burn-out and a stronger negative association of negative social interactions with global burnout. This is consistent with global and sport-based conceptualizations of emotional intelligence13 and suggests that empirically supported associations of social interactions with perceptions related to athlete burnout may be affected by this important trait. Consistent with the broad knowledge base on athlete burnout, it is customary to consider whether individual burnout dimensions display similar associations with outcomes of interest as the global construct.23 In the current study, dimensional burnout results support study findings with the primary exception of a lack of moderation supported for the exhaustion dimension. This is consistent with previous research identifying exhaustion as a burnout dimension, which may act independently of others.28 Future research may benefit from further probing regarding whether the burnout dimension of exhaustion is less strongly associated with the combination of athlete perceptions of emotional intelligence and social interactions than the global burnout construct, or the other burnout dimensions. Ultimately, emotional intelligence is showcased in the current athlete sample as an important burnout antecedent and merits consideration in future work, including studies using longitudinal research designs.
No moderation effects were found for well-being; however, emotional intelligence was showcased as an important positive predictor of athlete well-being in the current sample. Importantly, this adaptive trait has been showcased as an important predictor of athletic performance.21 To our knowledge, this is the first study to highlight its influence on sport-based well-being. Accordingly, emotional intelligence necessitates further investigation as a key factor to target in interventions designed to enhance the well-being outcomes of collegiate athletes rather than use solely within interventions designed with a singular performance enhancement focus.
Results support continued emotional intelligence research in sport because current findings suggest possible differences in the way emotional intelligence is associated with adaptive (well-being) and maladaptive (burn-out) psychological outcomes. Currently, the amount of variance explained in burnout and well-being was small to moderate at best.28 Thus, future research is needed to not only potentially replicate study findings, but also foster further understanding of the practical significance of showcased study effects. Such work is ripe for future consideration in larger samples of athletes as a means to replicate and extend the current study findings. Future work should also examine the association of emotional intelligence with other important psychological outcomes such as psychological stress and resilience.29,30 Further, researchers interested in emotional intelligence in sport should also be cognizant of critiques of the construct itself, including concerns with construct clarity, a continued need for theoretical development, and potential cultural issues associated with emotional intelligence salience.31
Practical implications of the study findings also merit discussion. Emotional intelligence can be a focus of interventions designed to deter athlete burnout and promote well-being. That said, such interventions require comprehensive design, development, and evaluation and may consider both trait and state conceptualization of the construct. Myriad conceptual frameworks on emotional intelligence exist that could aid in such efforts.13 Using a trait perspective, emotional intelligence could be accounted for in interventions that target outcomes of performance enhancement or improved social relations in sport because individuals high in emotional intelligence have the potential to benefit from such interventions uniquely. Moreover, social scientists have also conceptualized emotional intelligence as a construct with the potential to be developed (ie, state approach).32 Research in education supports that social and emotional skills and behaviors can be improved via targeted intervention.33 However, research on emotional intelligence in a sport context is still developing.21 Moving forward, the development of sport-based emotional intelligence may aid athletes in more effectively interacting with important sport-based social actors (eg, coaches or athletic trainers) as a way to increase positive social interactions and influence well-being.
Study limitations have important implications for future research. First, study participants comprised a small, homogeneous sample of collegiate varsity and club athletes. For this reason, results should be interpreted cautiously and the generalizability of current interpretations is limited in scope. Accordingly, these pilot findings warrant further research in larger, more diverse athlete samples, including samples varying in age, sport type, and level. Second, the overall psychological health and well-being of the current athletes sampled was relatively high, characterized by relatively low burnout and relatively high well-being. Consistent with the “healthy worker effect”34 germane to burnout research, the generalizability of study findings to athletes experiencing high levels of burnout and/or low levels of well-being is unknown. Thus, future research should target athletes with less adaptive psychological outcome profiles via targeted sampling or case study methodologies.3,35 Third, common method variance is a limitation common to survey studies. Future work would benefit from triangulating athlete perceptions with data from other sport-based social agents (ie, coaches or clinicians). Finally, the current study is limited to trait emotional intelligence, whereas it may also be conceptualized as a state construct.32 Examination of both conceptualizations of emotional intelligence represents a key future research direction.
Implications for Clinical Practice
Although further replication of study findings is necessary, study results do suggest multiple potential benefits of higher levels of emotional intelligence to the psychological outcomes of collegiate athletes. If continued research supports the current findings, then novel interventions should consider the emotional intelligence of individual athlete participants as a means to enhance social interactions, deter burnout, and promote well-being in collegiate sport. Such work has the potential to support athlete health, but could also aid the work of sports medicine clinicians. A recent National Athletic Trainers' Association statement focused on the importance of athlete psychological health as an important component of a holistic professional practice paradigm.36 In the future, greater understanding of the emotional intelligence of athletes may aid athletic trainers in their important role as caretakers of athlete health and well-being.
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Descriptive Statistics for Study Variables (N = 86)
|Positive social interactions||.28a||.97|
|Negative social interactions||−.08||−.05||.89|
|Global athlete burnout||−.26b||−.28a||.43a||.92|
|Emotional and physical exhaustion||−.19||−.18||.35a||.80a||.94|
|Mean ± standard deviation||128.48 ± 12.64||3.15 ± .69||2.06 ± .67||2.62 ± .82||2.84 ± 1.06||2.60 ± .85||2.42 ± 1.06||5.27 ± 1.09|
Hierarchical Linear Regression Analyses Assessing the Associations of Emotional Intelligence and Social Interaction Variables With Athlete Burnout and Well-Being (N = 85)
|Step 1: F(3,81)||.28a||.17b||.22a||.22a||.24a|
| Emotional intelligence||−.16||−.14||−.23c||−.08||.41a|
| Positive social interactions||−.22c||−.13||−.22c||−.20||.17|
| Negative social interactions||.41a||.34b||.28b||.39a||−.01|
|Step 2: F(5,79)||.10b||.03||.08c||.12b||.01|
| Emotional intelligence||−.20c||−.16||−.26c||−.10||.40a|
| Positive social interactions||−.24c||−.14||−.24c||−.23c||.18|
| Negative social interactions||.40a||.34b||.27b||.39a||−.01|
| Emotional intelligence × positive social interactions||.28b||.12||.23c||.34a||−.02|
| Emotional intelligence × negative social interactions||.18c||.15||.19d||.12||.09|