Drop-out Meaning

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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