The results of a new study from the University of Alberta have found that there is a “strong relationship” between high-level (more intense) participation in sports and addiction. Laurie de Grace, the study’s author, found that a significant number of athletes were involved in binge drinking.
Ms. de Grace, who was pursuing a Master’s degree in the Faculty of Physical Education, originally planned to study the relationship that physical activity and participation in sports plays in developing a substance abuse issue. She had been forewarned that this may prove difficult, since physical activity seems to be linked with good mental health.
Some Sports Participation and Addiction Linked
Instead, Ms. de Grace discovered that the more risk factors that are present for a person, the more likely they are to become an addict. Participating in sports appears to have both the benefit of steering young people away from substance abuse if done as fun recreation and exercise, but it also has the potential to increase the increase the risk of addiction when taken to extreme levels with more stress and pressure.
For her research, de Grace chose to conduct interviews with people in recovery. Nearly all of them had some type of background in sport. She divided the participants into categories based on their level of participation in athletics. Specific groups in the study were recreational athletes, those who had played sports as children but who had dropped out in high school, and elite athletes.
Several sports were represented in the study, such as martial arts, rowing, gymnastics and dance. Most of the participants had competed in team sports like hockey, however.
Sports Culture May Fuel Addiction in Some Athletes
The research found that sports culture supports an attitude of machismo. The pressures on young athletes to perform is very high. Coaches may ignore drug and alcohol use, while some of them even encourage young people to adopt a lifestyle with a theme of, “Work hard, play hard.”
Some young players may start drinking to feel that they are part of the team, and model their behavior on older, more experienced players. Drinking has become intertwined with sports culture. We see winning teams filling trophies with champagne and celebrating in their locker room with alcohol after a big game.
Participating in sports is a healthy activity, and clearly not everyone who joins a sports team in their youth will become an addict. For those people who already have a number of risk factors for addiction, being in an environment where they are exposed to triggers for addiction could put them at higher risk. It would be tremendously difficult to be repeatedly exposed to that type of behavior and not take part in the drinking or drug use as well, at least to some level. We can prevent some of these problems from occurring by trying to provide better tools for young people to deal with pressure, such as mindfulness practices or various forms of non-harmful stress relief.