Skip to content

Recognizing Toxic Sport Relationships

Recognizing Toxic Sport Relationships by JoAnne Barbieri for Run Tri Bike

Endurance athletes push their physical and mental boundaries as they train to achieve their goals.  Although endurance athletes need to be dedicated and committed to their sport and training, they need to evaluate their relationship with their sport and ensure it is healthy.  Many athletes have experienced a toxic relationship with their sport, which can weigh on them both mentally and physically.  Athletes must explore the signs of an unhealthy relationship which will help them in recognizing toxic sport relationships.

The Thin Line: Healthy vs. Toxic Sport Relationships

There are several signs to recognize an athlete’s toxic relationship with their sport.  Some of these signs include performance obsession, neglecting some aspects of their life, not taking care of their physical and mental health, burnout, self-criticism, and loss of enjoyment.  Learn more about these symptoms and ways to reconnect with sport below. 

1.  Performance Obsession

An unhealthy obsession with performance indicates a toxic relationship with a sport.  For example, setting goals and improving specific performance skills is essential, but when that focus takes over an athlete’s life, the athlete might suffer.  If an athlete becomes obsessed with race times, personal records, and race statistics and notices that their mood and attitude are based on their results or that regardless of the results, they feel that they’re not doing good enough, it might be time to evaluate.  

2.  Neglecting Certain Elements of Life

As performance obsession increases, athletes might neglect other important aspects of their lives, including friends and family.  This toxic relationship with the sport could lead athletes to develop excessively demanding training schedules that consume their time and energy, leaving little left over for relationships.  This imbalance can be a struggle, not only for the athlete but also for their loved ones.

3.  Not Taking Care of Physical and Mental Health

As training demands increase, many endurance athletes are challenged with pushing their minds and bodies to the max.  This could make the athlete feel they are supposed to push through even when tired.  Although there might be points during their training where they are pushing themselves, endurance athletes need to pay attention to the importance of self-care to offset the likelihood of overtraining.  

4.  Injuries and Burnout

As stress builds throughout a training schedule, there is always the likelihood of an endurance athlete becoming injured.  But, when endurance athletes are not taking proper care of their bodies, they could be at the possibility of experiencing increased injuries.  Becoming injured can lead to additional frustration and toxicity.  Burnout can also occur when an athlete needs to incorporate the proper balance of rest and recovery alongside their training demands. Burnout impacts an athlete through them becoming both physically and mentally exhausted, which can affect how they view the rest of their training.  

5.  Self-Criticism

When endurance athletes feel off balance with their connection to their sport, they can get caught up in self-criticism.  Many times, this self-criticism is also accompanied by feelings of guilt.  The athlete might not feel that they are competent enough to be successful in meeting performance demands, which can decrease self-esteem and continue to build a toxic relationship with sport.  

6.  Loss of Enjoyment

Endurance athletes should find a sense of enjoyment in their sport.  If they notice that they’re becoming unmotivated or feel like training is an obligation, these could be signs that they’re starting to view their connection to the sport as a burden.  This sense of dread could cause an athlete to experience disconnection from their sport, leading to a toxic relationship.

Reconnect and Reignite: Rekindling Your Passion for Sports

Overall, endurance athletes must become self-aware in assessing their relationship with sport.  Focusing on developing and maintaining a healthy work-life-sport balance is extremely important.  This mindset will assist athletes as they prioritize certain training elements such as rest, recovery, and self-care modalities.  When athletes encounter toxicity in their relationships in sports, they must reconnect with themselves. Recognizing toxic sport relationships will allow them to rekindle their initial passion for the sport.  Sports should be an enjoyable part of an athlete’s life instead of becoming the element that dominates them.


Dr JoAnne Bullard Run Tri Bike Magazine Doctor of Sport and Performance Psychology

JoAnne Bullard is a Doctor of Sport and Performance Psychology and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. She is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

She serves as a tenured Associate Professor at Rowan University and is the owner of Absolute Fitness, LLC.  Her goal is to provide a holistically applied approach for clients through performance psychology consulting. She has experience working with athletes of all ages, including endurance athletes, in individual and group sessions.  Her research areas include mindfulness, performance anxiety, goal setting, coping strategies, and mental well-being of athletes.

She has completed five marathons, numerous half-marathons, and is always looking for her next race.