How to prevent "dropout" in competitive sport

by Gaby Bussmann

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Gaby Bussmann is a multiple German Champion over 400m (PB: 49.75) and 800m (PB: 1:58.7 7), Bronze medallist in the 4x400m relay at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles 1984, silver medallist in the 4x400m relay at the European Championships in Stuttgart in 1986, fourth place in the 400m at the World Championships in Helsinki in 1983 and in the 800m at the European Championships in 7986.

Gaby Bussmann is psychologist and works at the Olympic Training Centre in Dortmund, Germany as a career consultant


    In this article dropouts are defined as those athletes who have terminated their athletic career prematurely, i.e. before they have reached their full potential. In the years that follow once an athlete has matured, a further increase in dropout rates is to be expected because top-level sport is characterized by even greater demands.
    High-performance athletes are involved in a wide network of social relationships: athletics on the one hand and school, education, study, job, family, peer group, partner, leisure time and the public on the other hand. Even the sub-system of sport on its own is so heterogeneous that athletes are confronted with a multitude of tasks which are not always easy to coordinate. The competitive athlete must, for example, reconcile the demands made by their club, by the federation and by sponsors. Almost simultaneously they are confronted with stresses and strains in their environment outside sport so that they automatically face multiple pressures leading to considerable problems and conflicts. In other words, the competitive athletes face a situation characterized by steadily increasing psychological and social demands.

Gymboss Timers

    To simultaneously develop a career in competitive sport and a commitment to education and work is not as easy today as it still was a few years ago (cf. Hackfort/Holz/Schlattmann 1989 and Holz 1987). This challenge will become more difficult in the future because the international competition calendar is getting tougher and tougher. It has been a long time since top- level sport was a secondary consideration. A career in competitive sport is only possible if this is a long and target-oriented build-up, which is characterized by tight time structures (as determined by the competition calendar, training, training camps and competition cycles, regeneration measures, etc.). Competitive sport now represents a complex mix of factors, and the reasons for dropout are equally complex.
    The analysis of the available literature (cf. Bussmann 1995, Kroger 1986, and Singer 1992) shows that there is not one single reason for dropout. Instead each case is caused by a combination of different factors. This means that the dropout phenomenon can only be understood as a multifaceted concept event. From the athlete's point of view both internal and external factors can be effective. Sporting performance must be understood as a result of the interaction of a variety of factors which can be separated only in theory and which have not yet been completely clarified scientifically (cf. Kroger 1986). An exact identification of causes in the form of a "catalogue of priorities" (Letzelter 1978, 114) is not yet possible. However, there are a number of predictors which can be categorized as supporting or inhibiting performance in a "direct" or "indirect" way.
    When identifying the main features constellations of the dropout problem it is particularly noticeable that some stress factors which can obviously lead to a premature termination of one's career basically apply
to all athletes, including those athletes who do not give up their career. These factors are primarily professional strains, the impossibility to plan one's time as one wants to, and injuries. For the dropouts these factors obviously interact with other unfavourable factors, primarily very subjective conditions and an unfavourable social environment. It may also be assumed that there is a difference between the dropouts and the athletes who continue their career as far as the subjective estimation of stress, management resources and the motivating values of competitive sport are concerned (cf. Gabler 1981).
    On the basis of an extensive analysis of the available literature (cf. Bussmann 1995, 27n.) the following factors can be regarded as decisive for the termination of one's career - and vice versa - for continuing one's competitive career:

Stresses and strains caused by school, job or professional education

    The compatibility of the double strain caused by education or work on the one hand and participation in competitive sport on the other hand is a big problem for athletes. Almost all competitive athletes have achieved a significantly higher level of education than the general population. For example, no less than 51% of the German A- and B-squad athletes of 1986/87 had gained the "Abitur" (a school-leaving certificate qualifying them for university entrance) (cf. Holz/Friedrich 1988). 83% of the first sample of female track and field athletes (N=51) examined by the author were in possession of the "Abitur" while 17% had a school-leaving certificate from the "Realschule" (a secondary school not qualifying for university entrance) (cf. Bussmann 1995).
    Basic work for a later professional career normally takes place in the same phase of life in which it is necessary to devote a lot of time to training and competition in many sports. Thus the time of optimal training and peak performances in top-level sport often coincides with the phases of school and/or higher education and starting a professional career. Therefore the reason for dropout most often mentioned is the time problel1) which occurs when trying to coordinate school/study / job and competitive sport (cf. Gabler 1981, Kroger 1986, Sack 1980, and Singer 1992). Correspondingly numerous authors point out that favourable conditions, which take into account the athlete's individual needs as well as the strains he or she encounters in school and at work, have a significant influence on the athlete staying and developing in competitive sport (cf. Gabler 1981, and Hahn 1985).
    It is certainly easier to plan and calculate the development of performance and to reduce the risk of dropout if the conditions outside sport (such as school and job/higher education) are included when planning the individual career.


    Numerous studies indicate the increasing frequency of injuries which, in combination with the resulting performance stagnation can lead to a premature termination of one's career (cf. Abraham 1986, Bussmann 1995, Kroger 1986, Sack 1980, and Singer 1992). When analysing injuries the complexity of the various causes is conspicuous. Andresen/Kroger (1981) are of the opinion that training methods (e.g. too early specialisation, one-sided conditioning and insufficient warm-up), training organisation (e.g. surface conditions and training materials) and internal causes (such as faulty sensorimotor regulations, fat metabolism disorders and hormonal disorders) are the main causes of a high injury rate.
    According to Kroger (1986) every fourth athlete is of the opinion that injuries have decisively contributed to his or her dropout from competitive sport. In the athletes examined by the author almost all athletes report a high number of injuries (the high rate of stress fractures is especially noticeable). Injuries are obviously so important that several quantitative measures need to be added. Firstly the total number of injuries (per athlete) up to the investigation in the year 1989 was added, and secondly each injury was weighted according to its severity and the resulting impairment in competitive sport participation as assessed by an experienced sport physician.
    With both the dropouts and the athletes continuing their career reporting a high number of injuries, two further measures were added for the comparison between the two groups. This was on the one hand the weighted value of the injury mentioned last and on the other hand the weighted sum of the injuries of the last three active years. According to the reports by the dropouts (in the interviews) the injury suffered last was especially severe because it resulted in the termination of the career.
    The statistical examination of the two group values shows that neither the sum total of the injuries nor the injury suffered last differs between the two groups. Although the values tend to move into the same direction the statistics are not significant. These findings support the thesis that the causes of dropout cannot just be explained by physical factors (i.e. injuries) the psychological element is important too. Obviously the dropouts differ from the non- dropouts with regard to their assessment of the degree of severity and their prediction of the likelihood of overcoming the injury rather than the injury itself. However, injury is a very real factor and can be used to explain and justify the premature termination of one's career to others (cf. Bussmann 1995).
    Certainly as far as the dropout risk is concerned, the injury factor must always be examined. Moreover, the athlete should be adequately supported during the process of overcoming an injury.




Conflict of interests: Competitive sport - free time

    Ever since top-level sport changed from being of secondary importance it is hardly surprising that, from many athletes' point of view, the required commitment to competitive sport causes conflict with other leisure-time activities. That is why for many athletes this conflict is the decisive reason for the premature termination of their career (cf. Abraham 1986, Holz 1988b, Sack 1980, and Singer 1992). "The realization of so far underdeveloped interests and abilities and the urge to open up new areas of work and leisure time for oneself and to cultivate intensive social contacts or to build up a relationship is a central reason for terminating one's career ..." (Abraham 1986, 128).
    It is important that conflicts in this area should be discussed with the athletes and attempts at a solution should be worked on.

Conflicts in the athletic environment: Coaches, club, training group and officials

    Numerous studies clearly show the great significance of the relationship between the athlete, his or her coach, club and officials for prematurely ending or continuing one's competitive sporting career (ct. Abraham
1986, Bussmann 1995, Gabler 1981, Holl 1988b, Kroger 1986, Sack 1980, and Singer 1992)

    In this context the coaches play an extremely decisive role in the competitive development of their athlete, and their supporting or inhibiting influence cannot be estimated too highly. The coach is not only responsible for a successful career in competitive sport but he or she may also be responsible for the termination of a career. Gabler (1981) in his investigation of high level swimmers, for example, arrives at the conclusion that conflicts with the coaches and club officials are among the main reasons for dropout. However, according to his opinion, the finally decisive factor leading to dropout is the interaction between the different people involved. "For example, great stresses in school can lead to a stag- nation in performances. This, on the other hand, can provoke conflicts with the coach, contribute to tensions in the training group and finally lead to the statement 'I was simply fed up with sport" (Gabler 1981,140).
    Abraham (1986) showed in her investigation that in modern rhythmic gymnastics the authoritarian behaviour of the coaches and officials, as well as their lack of openness and readiness to discuss things, are important reasons for gymnasts terminating their career. "The gymnasts are getting more and more sensitive to the quarrels of their 'superiors', their sometimes fairly egotistic success orientation and the tense atmosphere in general. The gymnasts see themselves as powerless in the face of these problems, and eventually the most courageous and radical way to solve the problem is to get away from this situation" (Abraham 1986, 125).
    Investigations within team sports (cf. Kroger 1986, and Singer 1992) corroborate these findings. The 228 young team handball players questioned by Singer (1992) show that dropouts mainly criticize the human and social qualities of the coach. "It can be cautiously assumed that players are likely to terminate their career when they perceive the technical character and especially the human qualities of their coach as negative" (Singer 1992, 334). Vice versa this also means that a positive relationship with the coach and a socially supportive and harmonious climate can promote an athlete's career. The author's studies of female track and field athletes show that particularly good relationships between athlete and coach has a positive effect on the performers career.  
    In the following paragraphs some exemplary statements from interviews with track and field athletes are presented:


    Interviewer: "Is there anything which you don't like in training?"

    First athlete: "Yes, perhaps especially with my coach. When doing running training it seems as if a button is pressed and then off it goes. But we aren't machines, are we. One has the feeling of the pressure being very high. Run, run, run, the human element is ignored. This really disturbs me."

    Interviewer: "Who has especially helped you?"

    Second athlete: "Well, in the first place there is always the coach, he is really behind everything. However, I think that this year it is a bit different because I'm lucky that I have a coach and that it is the coach who has always been with me. There are other athletes whose situation is much worse. I am really quite satisfied, even though I sometimes get angry that he is not as often there as in the past. I can't rely on him as much as in the past."

    The most important partnership in competitive sport is that between athlete and coach. Correspondingly no less than 74% of the female athletes and 57% of the male athletes estimate the coach's share in the athletic success as high or very high (cf. Holz/Friedrich 1988). The expectations on the coaches are correspondingly complex and do not only concern his or her concrete performance support but his or her pedagogical and psychological support, too. As mentioned above, Hahn (1985) points out that in the course of a long-term and adequate build-up of performance and motivation the coach must also consider every factor outside sport, to guarantee that the athlete's performance development can be planned and calculated (cf. Bussmann 1996).
    Apart from this aforementioned requirement it can be stated that a socially supportive and harmonious climate is central to a successful career in competitive sport. The pedagogical and psychological qualification of the coach is of the utmost importance and should therefore have a correspondingly high value in coach education.



Missing support by the family

    The attitude of parents to competitive sport and their support has a decisive effect on the child's sporting career (cf. Gabler 1998, Kroger 1986, Sack 1980, and Singer 1992). Both parents and brothers and sisters, too, who have had their own experiences in competitive sport can counsel and support the young competitive athlete. There is a greater acceptance of one another if everyone involved has experienced an athlete's way of life. Singer (1992), for example, states that the negative attitude of the family towards competitive sport means less support to the athlete, which can lead to his or her dropout from competitive sport.
    It is essential that the family situation is taken into account. Missing support by the family can lead to the decision to terminate one's career too early.

Motivation problems

    Gabler (1981) holds that the motivational personality characteristics are an important reason for "individual athletes remaining active in competitive sport for a longer time and for being more successful than other athletes" (1981, 144). He mentions the following characteristics: a high and very success-oriented performance motivation, a medium and realistic aspiration level and a pronounced self-responsibility in terms of internal attribution styles. Gabler states that self confidence and a realistic estimation of the possibility of success stimulates the athlete to be successful and helps them to cope with failures and to continue in competitive sport. On the other hand, a high fear of failure results in an athlete's premature termination of their career because they are not able to adequately cope with defeat. This leads to an increase in the readiness to stop training.
    The dropouts interviewed by the author showed that (unlike the athletes who continued their sport) they regarded the com- petition situation as a pressure to perform rather than as a challenge. They reported more problems during the warm up process prior to a competition, and their ability to cope with failures was very poor. In addition to this they showed less patience and persistence in performance situations and a higher and more consistent anxiety at the beginning of their career.
    To guarantee a successful career in competitive sport and to prevent dropouts coaches should have a basic knowledge of performance motivation in general and of the respective athlete's motivation in particular.

Fields of conflict: Social mobility and criticism leveled at competitive sport

    Holz (1988), Singer (1992), and Treutlein/Stork (1976) and others found a reduced social mobility in the dropouts. "Young talents who compete for a club far away from big cities and main traffic routes mostly do not have the necessary social mobility. They do not reach their optimal performance level without supporting measures being offered by their federations" (Treutlein/Stork 1976, 422). The studies by Kaminski/Maer/Ruoff (1984), Mayer (1989), Sack (1980), and Singer (1992) indicate that the dropouts see more disadvantages than advantages in competitive sport. Without doubt the athlete's social adaptability and attitude toward competitive sport is of great significance in the premature termination of one's career and every possible support must be given by every individual or organisation involved.


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Reproduced with permission of "Leistungssport"

Published in IAAF New Studies in Athletics 1.99


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