Background/aims - Athletes who choose to engage in contact sports do so with the knowledge that participation will bring pain in the form of contact with others, injury, and from exertion. Whilst athletes who play contact sports have been shown to have higher pain tolerance than those who do not, it is unclear whether this is a result of habituation over time, or as a result of individual differences at the outset. The aim was to compare pain responses over an athletic season in athletes who participated in contact sport and those who disengaged from it.Methods - One hundred and two new contact athletes completed measures of cold and ischaemic pain tolerance, perceived pain intensity, pain bothersomeness, pain coping styles and attendance at the start, middle (4 months) and end (8 months) of their season. The athletes were drawn from martial arts, rugby and American football. Cluster analysis placed 47 athletes into a participating category and 55 into a non-participating cluster.Results - Participating athletes had higher ischaemic pain tolerance at the start (r = 0.27, p = 0.05), middle (r = 0.41, p <0.0001) and end of the season (r = 0.57, p <0.0001) compared to non-participating athletes. In addition participating athletes were more tolerant to cold pain at the end of the season (r = 0.39, p <0.0001), compared to non-participating athletes. Participating athletes also exhibited higher direct coping, catastrophized less about injury pain and also found contact pain to be less bothersome physically and psychologically compared to non-participating athletes. Participating athletes were more tolerant of ischaemic pain at the end of the season compared to the start (r = 0.28, p = 0.04). Conversely non-participating athletes became significantly less tolerant to both pain stimuli by the end of the season (cold pressor; r = 0.54, p <0.0001; ischaemia; r = 0.43, p = 0.006). Pain intensity as measured by a visual analogue scale did not change over the season for both groups.Conclusions - Those who cease participation in contact sports become less pain tolerant of experimental pain, possibly a result of catastrophizing. The results suggest that athletes who commit to contact sports find pain less bothersome over time, possibly as a result of experience and learning to cope with pain. Athletes who continue to participate in contact sports have a higher pain tolerance, report less bothersomeness and have higher direct coping than those who drop out. In addition, tolerance to ischaemic pain increased over the season for participating athletes.Implications - Having a low pain tolerance should not prevent athletes from taking part in contact sports, as pain becomes less bothersome in athletes who adhere to such activities. Participating in contact sports may result in maintained cold pain tolerance, increased ischaemic pain tolerance, reduced catastrophizing and better coping skills. Coaches can therefore work with athletes to develop pain coping strategies to aid adherence to contact sports.