While there is no identified cause of substance use disorder (SUD), several identified risk factors can lead to it. Some risk factors are genetic, biological, environmental, or sociological. Combinations of risk factors will increase a person’s likelihood of developing SUD.
Environmental risk factors can include cultural or economic factors. For instance, the culture and environment of competitive sports put athletes at a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder.
The History of Athletes Doping in Sports
While the term wasn’t officially coined until the 1960s, “doping” in sports dates back to the Greeks and Romans. Gladiators and racehorses would consume substances to increase strength, speed, and endurance or to reduce pain. This was considered a normal part of the sporting event. Some doping methods included mushrooms, plants, and mixtures of herbs and wine.
In 1904 doping nearly killed Olympic marathon runner Thomas Hicks. At this point, doping was part of coaches’ strategies for winning Olympic medals. Various combinations of strychnine, heroin, cocaine, and caffeine increased athletic performance. Many teams had their secret formula. Over the years, substances used for doping have changed from amphetamines to male hormones and steroids. In 1928 the International Athletics Federation (IAF) banned doping in athletic competitions, but it wasn’t until 1967 that a list of prohibited doping substances was compiled. The first anti-doping tests weren’t implemented until the 1972 Munich Olympics.
What Puts Athletes at Risk for Substance Use?
With a long history of substance use in sports, it’s not a mystery that athletes are at a greater risk for developing SUD. The more competitive the sport, the higher the risk of substance use. Many people experience pressure to dope in sports from high school to college. It’s a pressure that follows many athletes to professional leagues. Some professional sports, such as gymnastics and ice skating, recruit teenagers whose brains are still developing, specifically regarding impulse control. This puts them at an even higher risk of developing SUD.
Pressure to Perform, Fear of Failure
One of the many reasons competitive athletes are at a higher risk for developing SUD is the overwhelming pressure to perform successfully. Competitive athletes face pressures to perform by spectators, coaches, and peers’ expectations. This pressure may increase the better the player and the team is. Intense pressures of high performance can cause athletes to develop a great fear of failure.
Fear of failure may cause some athletes to turn to performance-enhancing drugs to improve their short-term physical abilities. Athletes also might use substances to numb stressful emotions before a big game to prevent them from becoming distracted. For student-athletes, this pressure to succeed might extend to their academic studies or even social performances. Juggling social activities, practices, and academics can be overwhelming. If student-athletes feel unable to maintain these aspects of their life, they might resort to taking stimulants or other substances that they believe will make it easier to manage their schedules.
Subjection to Scrutiny
Many competitive athletes are public figures. Athletes on college sports teams, in the Olympics, or even on high school teams lend themselves to scrutiny from the public. This can be more invasive than just their athletic performance. Athletes are expected to be positive role models, which causes spectators to watch their actions more carefully. Making mistakes in and out of their competitive play can have more severe consequences than for the average person.
This can confuse an athlete’s sense of self as they try to distinguish between being a performative role model and identifying a personal sense of self. A lack of identity can lead to emotion dysregulation and distress, which an athlete might try to manage with substance use.
The culture of any particular sport can cause an athlete to feel pressure to use substances. Some sports or sports teams within a sport may have a higher culture of substance use than others. This might be due to the athletic ability required of the athlete and the anti-doping rules enforced in the sport. Athletes might be pressured by their peers or coaches to take performance-enhancing drugs. Depending on the sport, recreational substance use may play a role in the sport’s culture. The more a person is exposed to substance use, the higher the risk of developing SUD.
These pressures can lead athletes to push themselves past their bodies’ natural limitations. When meeting other people’s expectations becomes a person’s hyper-focused goal, it’s easy to ignore the signs that they are pushing themselves too hard. This can lead athletes to use substances to mitigate experienced pain from injuries so they can continue to compete in their sport. Using substances to mitigate pain often delays treatment of the injury, causing it to have potentially long-lasting effects on the person’s body.
Preventative Measures for Athletes
The best method of prevention for substance use among athletes is education. Coaches must take the responsibility to educate their athletes about the dangers of doping in sports. They must take an active role to discourage the use of substances for performance enhancement. Coaches can do this by:
- Clearly expressing and reinforcing the consequences of substance use
- Helping athletes (especially young ones) develop appropriate decision-making skills
- Creating a safe space for athletes to talk about their fears and concerns regarding both substance use and the pressures of being an athlete
- Developing meaningful relationships with payers
Athletes are at a greater risk for developing substance use disorder because of the pressures that are placed upon them to strive for perfection. Restoration Recovery Centers understands that there are different aspects of people’s lives that drive them to use substances. Our mental health professionals are eager to work with you to create a treatment plan that will help you identify personal triggers and develop coping tools that will help you manage your substance and mental health symptoms. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call (888) 290-0925 to learn how Restoration Recovery Centers can help you restore your life’s purpose and heal from addiction.