The term drop-out has two meanings. In elite sport, drop-out refers to a premature termination of a sport career before the athlete could reach individual peak performance level. Drop-out is a typical phenomenon among athletes in childhood and adolescence. Therefore, the (young) age of the athlete may be regarded as an important evidence for premature drop-out. In contrast, career termination after reaching peak performance is called retirement. Typically retired athletes are older than drop-outs in the same sport.
In recreation and sport, drop-out means ending one’s participation, for example in a club or a fitness center. In health-related sport, drop-out means leaving an exercise or rehab program before the end of that program—for whatever reason. In this sense, drop-out may happen at every age and is characterized by concluding any supervised physical activity. Different from elite sport, participants are not pursuing a sport career with the goal of peak performance. In this entry, the focus will be on the first meaning.
Drop-out can be considered from the viewpoint of the sport system and the athlete. From the viewpoint of the sport system, drop-out may be regarded as a nonnormative transition that could be avoided if only the athlete had been more motivated and had been better supported by the environment. Therefore, drop-out is considered a loss of talents and, economically speaking, a lost investment. From the viewpoint of the athlete, drop-out may be a source of regret and negative feelings, which would then accompany the transition to a career outside elite sport. Therefore, research studies and applied sport psychology alike are concerned with the reasons for drop-out, its prevention, and athletes’ coping efforts. Dropout is regarded as a complex phenomenon with a multicausal history. It may result from a deliberate decision of the athlete, for example, after seeing no future in sport due to no performance increases. But on the other hand, it may result from a forced decision because of a career-ending injury. Research shows that it makes a difference for an athlete if the decision for drop-out happens to be voluntary or involuntary. Very often, athletes make an easier transition to the postcareer if they see it as the result of a voluntary retreat that they had planned for.
Which are the most often mentioned reasons for drop-out in elite sport? As noted earlier, there is always a multitude of reasons. Most often, young athletes feel no longer able to combine school education with the high demands of sport training and competitions. They therefore finish their career in order to give priority to their education. Also, young athletes may realize that they lack the potential to make it to the top and perceive any further investment into their career as a waste of time. This feeling may be heightened by performance slumps—particularly during or after puberty—and by motivational crises, particularly after injuries. In addition, coaches may be regarded as being no longer supportive, and athletes would feel forced to leave the training group on the whole. And last, but not least, financial support—particularly from the sport system—may be withdrawn.
There exists not only a multitude of reasons for drop-out but also a multitude of reactions. Athletes who plan their postcareer tend to make a smooth transition and to feel happy with their new life. They see the end of their sport career as a necessary and even positive consequence for their further development. In these cases, drop-out can lead to positive feelings like relief and happiness, which are helpful for leading a new life. But if athletes perceive their drop-out as a critical life event this may cause problems, which the athletes have to cope with. This feeling results more often from involuntary than voluntary drop-out. In these cases, drop-out can lead to negative feelings and even a crisis.
Apart from the reasons for drop-out mentioned above, former athletes who terminated their career prematurely seem to lack volitional and motivational qualities and they often perceive less social support or too much pressure from parents and coaches than active athletes. Some authors even speculate that coaches play a decisive role in the drop-out decision process.
Athletes thus could be better prepared against drop-out by their being helped to cope with the dual demands of sport and school or education. Special sport schools can be a solution, but also any other systematic support system. Also, coaches should have a positive attitude toward the athlete’s pursuing a dual career. If athletes have problems in handling the consequences of drop-out, it would be helpful to have sport psychologists and mentors—former elite athletes in particular—teach the drop-outs how to overcome sadness and regrets and how to cope with the new demands of the postcareer.
- Alfermann, D. (2000). Causes and consequences of sport career termination. In D. Lavallee & P. Wylleman (Eds.), Career transitions in sport: International perspectives (pp. 45–58). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
- Bussmann, G., & Alfermann, D. (1994). Drop-out and the female athlete. In D. Hackfort (Ed.), Psycho-social issues and interventions in elite sport (pp. 90–128). Frankfurt, Germany: Lang.
- Butcher, J., Lindner, K. J., Koenraad, J., & Johns, D. P. (2002). Withdrawal from competitive youth sport: A retrospective ten-year study. Journal of Sport Behavior, 25, 145–163.
- Fraser-Thomas, J., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2008). Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 645–662. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2007.08.003