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Literature review regarding factors behind sports withdrawal

Before addressing the literature of sports withdrawal it is important to understand the operational definitions for the term “withdrawal” and the difference between dropout and burnout. Maslach & Jackson (1984) viewed burnout as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishments, commonly known as overtraining syndrome; similarly Smith (1986) describes burnout as a psychological, emotional and physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable activity as a result of excessive stress. Due to the variations in definitions for burnout it is difficult to specifically define the term burnout. Although burnout and dropout are distinguished by focusing on chronic stress, it is credible that an athlete can withdraw from sport because of chronic stress but they are not experiencing burnout. When distinguishing between the two definitions it is essential to remember that burnout is associated with stress and its psychological, emotional and physical strain on sports performance, whereas dropping out results from a change of interests or value reorientation, (Smith & Eli, 2007).

Athletes have been classified into three categories, (1) a participant who can be described as an athlete who is currently taking part in a sport, (2) a nonparticipant who is seen as an athlete who is not involved in a sporting activity and (3) a dropout which describes an athlete as someone who has withdrawn from a particular activity (Weiss & Petlichkoff, 1989). These categories and definitions have been seen as being too broad and do not allow for the distinction between individuals, (Gould, Feltz & Weiss, 1985., Klint & Weiss, 1986., Petlichkoff, 1988., Sapp & Haubenstricker, 1978).

Robinson and Carron, (1982) for instance suggested that withdrawal should be looked at on a continuum of involvement. They proposed three categories for the stages of involvement, (1) starter – an athlete who always participates in the activity; (2) dropout – an athlete who had withdrawn from their activity and (3) survivor – an athlete who was in the team but did not compete in competitions. The results showed that throughout the season there were significant differences between the three categories in regards to their participation orientations, the perception of their opportunities within the team and their perceived competence. Therefore suggesting the need for further understanding of the athlete’s motives to participate which will then further develop an understanding into why an athlete may withdraw.

Ewing & Seefeldt (1996) note that within the studies into sports withdrawal little is known about the detail of the sport, the level played at and the duration of their participation. Butcher, Lindner & Johns, (2008) took this into consideration with their creation of the sports participation profile for each of the dropout athletes, the profile looked at the:

length of participation in the dropped sport

participation in other sports during the withdrawal process

The sports participated in after dropping out.

The athletes which had dropped out were recognised by four different types:


low level participant,

high level participant and


These groups were determined by the length of time spent playing the sport, the competitive level achieved and the amount of time spent in training and competition. Results showed that there were distinct differences between each of the four types in relation to their patterns and reasons for withdrawal. Therefore it proposes that greater understanding of withdrawal can be achieved by addressing the level and experience of the withdrawn athlete.

Another consideration in the sports withdrawal process is whether the athlete has a choice in the decision to drop out. Klint & Weiss suggested that there were three types of dropouts:

(1) The reluctant dropout is someone who is forced to withdraw due to injury or the finances involved in the sporting process,

(2) The voluntary dropout is described as an athlete who is interested in sampling new opportunities in other sports but was not necessarily unhappy in their current sport, and finally

(3) The resistant dropout for whom the costs of playing outweighed the benefits of the sport.

The evidence presented in this section indicates that there is a need for more appropriate definitions for athletes that withdraw. Such definitions should be able to differentiate among individual athletes into which factors are most likely to influence their decision to withdraw. It is possible to say that more consideration must be taken into understanding whether dropping out of sport is under the individual’s control.

Theoretical Underpinning

A considerable amount of research was conducted during the 1970’s and 1980’s where the focus was identifying the motives behind sports participation and withdrawal, (Weiss, Ferrer & Caja, 2002). The majority of this literature was descriptive in nature and extremely helpful in providing an empirical basis for the examination of the phenomena from a theoretical perspective. There are three major theoretical frameworks that have been used to examine the phenomenon of sports withdrawal, specifically Harter’s (1981) competence motivation theory, Nicholls (1984) achievement orientation theory, and Smith’s (1986) model of sport withdrawal. To provide a basic framework for the present study two of these theories have been identified as important along with an additional insight into Thibaut & Kelly, (1959) Social Exchange Theory. The chosen theories were deemed important to this study as previous research has discovered similar and appropriate findings in relation to sports withdrawal whilst using these theories as a foundation to their study, (Ewing, 1981. Smith, 1986. Duda, 1981. Feltz & Petlichkoff, 1983. Burton & Martens, 1986 & Gibbons & Bushakra, 1989).

Achievement Orientation Theory

The Achievement Orientation Theory which refers to persistence in sport with relation to three orientations. Ability Orientations refers to the athlete participating in the sport to demonstrate their high ability usually by winning, Task Orientation is where the athlete performs as well as possible regardless of competitive outcome and Social Approval Orientation is where the participants seek social approval from significant others by exerting maximum effort. Ewing (1981) conducted a study on 452 (14-15) year olds, where results supported this theory as social and ability orientations emerged in the results. Results showed that the participants involved in sport displayed social approval orientation whereas the dropouts displayed ability orientation. Understanding an athlete’s orientation can provide a greater insight into the motives for withdrawal, as it helps explain the athletes thoughts and feelings in regards to the performance itself and the approval received, if the approval they want is not being received the athlete’s needs are not being met, therefore the possibility of withdrawal increases. For example if a socially orientated athlete is not receiving social approval from their coach, teammates or peers they may think about not pursuing this sport anymore as their needs are not being met. If ability orientated athlete’s are not being played consistently then it is likely that they are not being satisfied as they are not able to demonstrate their ability on the pitch or have the chance to be part of a winning team. Therefore as cited in Gould (1987); Ewing (1981) explained that the socially orientated participants continued to play sport because it gave them the opportunity to gain social support from peers, teammates, parents and coaches, if this support was stopped, withdrawal could occur.

Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory views withdrawal from sport as something that occurs when an athlete measures the benefits they gain from sport alongside what it is costing them. The theory proposes that the athlete will weigh up the benefits they are getting from playing the sport against the input of effort which is required and the sacrifices which are ultimately made (Linder et, al. 1991). From an athlete’s point of view these costs may include material consequences such as money and trophies as well the psychological goals which comprise of the achievement of goals, competence and mastery (Smith, 1986).

Smith (1986) uses the social exchange framework which was originally developed by Thibaut and Kelly (1959) to examine the withdrawal process. The theory examines how dropping out of sport occurs when costs outweigh the benefits. However it is not fully acceptable to explain dropout through a rewards minus costs formula, as the decision to participate can be mediated by the individuals minimum comparison level which is the lowest criterion the athlete uses to decide whether the activity is satisfying. It is possible that the athlete may stay involved in sport even though the costs outweigh the benefits as there may not be alternative opportunities available at the time, (Smith & Eli, 2007). The reason this theory has been selected is because it focuses on several important factors which may influence withdrawal. The theory looks at the rewards, benefits and psychological goals, therefore taking into account the internal and external focuses of the athlete. Along with the athlete’s perception of their rewards and whether they see these rewards as important to their continued participation.

Competence Motivation Theory

The next theory to be examined is the Competence Motivation Theory, Linder et, al. (1991) states that this theory explains that the success of mastery attempts will cause innate pleasure and feelings of efficacy, these mastery attempts will in turn increase or sustain the motivation which aids further and higher competencies. The theory was developed by Harter (1978) where it predicted that children are motivated to experience a competence and mastery feeling which in turn leads to a desire to demonstrate and acquire new skills. When these new skills are gained, perceived competence will increase along with motivation, while at the same time the incentive to pursue new situations occur. Therefore to relate the theory to withdrawal the participants who have lower perceived competence are more likely to withdraw, as they do not see themselves as being successful in their performances due to the lack of new skills being acquired, which in turn may decrease motivation to attend training or matches. If the athlete does not feel competent in a sporting situation then the likelihood of them wanting to return to this domain is small as seen in fig ?

Mastery Attempts


Main underlying factors of withdrawal

Personal and Environmental

Gould (1987) has regarded Robinson and Carron‘s (1982) Interactionist framework as one of the most highly regarded studies which has examined dropout from sport. It has been seen as the best designed study due to its consideration of personal and environmental factors which included motives for withdrawal such as self esteem, motivation, sportsmanship, group cohesion and competitive trait anxiety, (Smith & Eli, 2007). The study looked at 98 high school American footballers who were placed in three groups; (starters, dropouts and survivors). The results which were displayed supported the framework as both personal and environmental factors were found between the groups. The main motives which arose were that they felt they were not part of the team, low enjoyment levels, lack of support from parents, along with attributing a poor performance to ability and an autocratic coach. Gould (1987) sees this study as being one of the most highly regarded studies and goes on further to say that in order to understand the phenomenon of dropout an Interactionist framework should be adopted.

Conflicts of interests

One of the most common factors of withdrawal which has been identified throughout the withdrawal literature is “conflicts of interests” and “having other things to do”. Gould et al. (1982) looked at the dropout rates of swimmers aged 10-18 years. A scope of reasons for dropping out were provided such as having other things to do at the time, the enjoyment was not existent, as well as thinking they were not as good as they wanted to be, dislike of the coach and pressure of the sport. Due to these findings researchers concluded that conflicts of interests were the most important and common factor to dropout with (84%). In a later study by Burton and Martens (1986) which examined dropout from wrestling results showed that wrestlers saw having other things to do as the common denominator for dropout. Similarly Klint & Weiss (1986) in their study with gymnasts found that the main factors for withdrawing were not having enough fun, there were other things to do and they did not like the pressure. Sefton & Fry (1981) in their study with former swimmers saw similar results but the findings were more specific where they had withdrawn from swimming because of conflicts with other activities. Suggestions for this slight difference in results could be due to the age range of the participants (6-22) years old, this allows for a huge fluctuation in the reasons for withdrawal due to the amount of transitions a child will experience through the years, such as studies, puberty and interests.

Staying along the lines of the transitions an athlete faces, a more recent study conducted in youth sport (Butcher, Lindner & Johns, 2008) looked at the different motives for withdrawal between amateur and elite performers aged 13-15 years. The results revealed that the elite withdrew their commitment due to too much pressure to perform well, injury, personal commitments and extra commitments outside of their sport. Whereas, the amateur performers were more concerned with peer influences and perceived competence. A limitation exists in this study as in some cases there may be a transition from junior to senior sports at this age group, which may mean that the early stages of moving to a senior team may be daunting and pressurising for a child. Although the results do have similarities with other studies it is important to look at the limitations of the studies to fully understand the position of the child when the study was conducted. Although it may be valuable to point out that this study was conducted over a ten year period which suggests that the results were consistent throughout the years for these key motives for withdrawal to have arisen.

Coaching Relationship

More recently coach influence has been a recognised motive for withdrawal, showing that coaches have an influence on youth sport experiences (Smoll & Smith, 2002). Typically, coaches who provide poor social support (i.e., pressure, unrealistic expectations, lack of empathy, lack of confidence in athlete) and lead with an autocratic style have been associated with negative outcomes such as negative attitudes towards coaches, decreased motivation, dropout, and burnout (e.g., Gould et al., 1996; Pelletier, Fortier, Vallerand, & Briere, 2001; Price &Weiss, 2000). Augustini & Trabal, (1994) conducted a study on youth withdrawal from French boxing, where the coaches were criticised for their relationship with the athlete’s. Athletes who had stopped boxing were seen to have problems with their coach, reasons arose such as; too authoritarian, disagreeable and a lack of respect from their coach. To agree with these findings Thomas, Cote & Deakin (2007) investigated 10 dropout and 10 engaged swimmers where they found that the primary reasons for dropout were the limited one to one coaching and an unsupportive coach. Due to the reputation and successes of UWIC sports teams it is expected that there is a high level of coaching available to the athletes, therefore it is interesting to know whether the coaching has any bearing on the reasons why athletes withdraw from sport at UWIC.

Perceived competence

Results from previous studies have found that an athlete’s perception of their competence is stronger when they receive more opportunities to “demonstrate competence in an achievement domain” (Horn, 2008, p, 121). Petlichkoff (1993a, 1993b) conducted a study on high school teams where results showed that the starters on the team were higher in perceived physical competence than the substitutes. Weiss and Frazer (1995) looked more specifically at the stages of the season of a high school basketball team, results showed that the enjoyment, competence and success levels had decreased in the substitutes during the middle of the season and the end of season. Future implications for this area of the research should seek to focus on the playing time of the withdrawn athlete and how often they were a substitute or substituted during their time in the sport. This would therefore provide essential information into whether the amount of time on the pitch is causing the athlete to withdraw due to the lack of competence in their playing capability. Therefore this may offer support that perception of competence is higher in athletes who play more often and who are given the opportunity to demonstrate their competence.

Conflicting views arose with research conducted by Klint & Weiss (1987) who examined the relationship between perceived competence and the motives for withdrawal. Klint & Weiss (1987) suggested that a dropout athlete may be lower in perceived physical competence but may view perceived social acceptance as more important to their continued participation, where team attachment and friendship are an essential part of their continuation in the sport. Research has supported this hypothesis (Ryckman & Hamel, 1993) where athletes higher in perceived physical ability cited skill improvement as more important. These findings therefore can explain the discrepancies in the results relevant to perceived competence and participation status. It can therefore be suggested that understanding what type of acceptance an athlete requires to feel competent in their performance is important to understanding the motives for withdrawal.

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