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How to prevent "dropout" in competitive sport
by Gaby Bussmann
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.
stresses and strains at school, university and at work
missing free time
conflicts in the athletic environment: with coaches, club, the training group and officials
lack of support by the family
lack of or inadequate motivation
low social mobility
a critical attitude toward competitive sport.
Stresses and strains caused by school, job or professional education
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
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)
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
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:
"Is there anything which
you don't like in training?"
"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."
"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
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.
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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permission of "Leistungssport"
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