Sports Culture and Addiction: Is There a Link?

Sports Culture and Addiction: Is There a Link?
March 9, 2017 Elysia L. Richardson
In Addiction
sports culture

The risk of athletes developing an alcohol or drug addiction may run higher in sports culture, suggests a University of Alberta study recently published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Laurie de Grace, a master’s graduate of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the university, along with her colleagues, studied the role that physical activity and sport play in the development of substance abuse and addiction.

According to the study, the use of alcohol and drugs in the sports culture of some communities can lead some athletes to use drugs and/or alcohol, particularly those who are already susceptible to addiction.

“… What we found is with addiction, the more risks that are present, the greater likelihood it is going to develop,” de Grace said in a University of Alberta article about the study. “Sport, it appears, has the potential to increase the risk factors.”

Those risk factors include low self-esteem, having a highly competitive personality, or being a part of a family with a history of addiction or mental illness. Another risk factor is taking prescription drugs while recovering from a sports-related injury, a reality for many athletes.

Twenty-one participants were interviewed for the small study, all of whom are former athletes in various stages of addiction recovery. They played a variety of individual and team sports, including gymnastics, martial arts, and dance, though most were former hockey players.

The group included professional athletes and recreational athletes who played sports as children but stopped in high school because of substance abuse.

Drinking, drugging to deal with pressures

Abusing alcohol and drugs to deal with high-pressure situations was common in participants, the study found. The pressure to fit in with teammates as well as perform under physical demands led many to using substances to cope. De Grace also found some participants were introduced to drinking and drugging by their teammates, and in some cases, those teammates were older.

She told MetroNews.ca site, “One fellow I spoke to said he didn’t drink or use marijuana when he joined the team, but the older guys did and it was part of them fitting in. Then they realized that when they became the older teammates, they were now setting the example for the younger guys. So it perpetuates.”

Interviews with participants also uncovered that some of them were forced to quit their sport because their drinking and drugging had spiraled out of control while others’ addiction issues started when they stopped playing.

“It was when [athletes] lost their sport, for one reason or another, that seemed to be the trigger that really set off the abuse of substance and the addiction developed,” de Grace told CBC News.

What does this mean for young student athletes?

The findings of De Grace’s study raise the question about what they could mean for children’s sports programs and whether parents, coaches, and young athletes and others should be concerned.

While the study is small in scale, what it could say about the use of drugs and alcohol by athletes, including student-athletes, is important.

The NCAA website features an article from the Sport Science Institute that profiles the effects of mood-altering substances among college students, particularly student-athletes, which are susceptible to the college effect of on-campus use of drugs and alcohol.

“Student-athletes, compared with other students on campus, report higher rates of heavy episodic drinking, sometimes referred to as ‘binge drinking’ (defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men),” the article said. “Even more disturbing is that one in five male student-athletes who use alcohol report drinking 10 or more drinks in an outing when they drink.”

De Grace told MetroNews.ca that while the study’s sample size is far too small in scale to draw large conclusions, she thinks the findings can raise awareness about sports culture, even among those with children participating in the sports.

“[What] I would like to see … at the adult and coaching level is more attention paid to the example set for younger kids. You think if you get your kids involved in sports you’re preventing substance abuse. But little do they know it’s taking place right then and there,” de Grace told the publication.

Drug use signs to look for in sports culture

The NCAA has listed some signs and symptoms of problematic substance abuse and addiction among athletes on its website. They include:

Alcohol

Irresponsible behavior regarding commitments or responsibilities to school, sport and relationships
Alcohol consumption in situations that are dangerous to themselves and others

Stimulant-type substances (such as amphetamines, cocaine, ephedrine, and ADHD medication)

  • Appetite loss
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Shakiness
  • Rapid speech or movements
  • Difficulty sitting still

Marijuana

  • Red eyes
  • Lethargy
  • Apathy

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