Playing sports and addiction – the risk factors

Playing sports and addiction – the risk factors


Answer this question


True or false:  Playing sports and physical activity go hand in hand with excellent mental health.   What would you say?


One recent study found the opposite of what you might think.   Researchers found that sport has the great potential to increase risk factors for addiction. Of course, social acceptance plays a huge role, but the 'normalization' of drugs and alcohol in sports is also a factor.  


Work hard, play hard. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm in sport culture.  Coaches often turn a blind eye to substance abuse to encourage a 'unified' team.  


Risk factors for addiction in competitive sports


The following is risk factors for addiction in competitive sports that you should know of:


  • A family history: Pre-existing risk factors such as a family history of alcohol or drug abuse are among the most common risk factors for addiction in athletes.   (This aligns with the trend in the  general population.)    A history of trauma and abuse and an athlete who feels insecure from the start, makes such people much more likely to fall into addiction.   


  • Hyper-competitiveness: Sportspeople often want to be the best in what they do – on all levels.   If it means also being the best drinker on the team, that is what a person would do.  


  • Fitting in: Some of the sport 'addicts' reported that they would do anything to fit in, especially when they had to deal with unsupportive coaches.  They did not feel good about themselves, which made them do things like drinking or taking illicit drugs, which in turn led to active addiction.


  • The athlete cannot participate anymore.   Athletes being cut from the team or losing the ability to play due to injury can start to wallow in negativity.   They develop an addiction when they lose their sport.   The research found that this is prevalent in highly competitive individual sports such as gymnastics or dance.   When these athletes lose a vital goal in their lives, they often can’t cope with the loss.


  • The role of pain:Playing a sport requires long days and sometimes agony.   The discipline is painful and not always fun. As a result, many athletes start to take painkillers, which can pave the way for addiction.


  • The celebration aspect of sport.Athletes see the connection between alcohol and sport from a young age.  Winning must be celebrated by drinking!  In turn, alcohol is often a gateway drug for other substances.



A vulnerable period in life


The things happening in sports teams.


It is well documented that people over 21 years old are less likely to develop a substance abuse problem.   


So, teens are especially vulnerable in high school, where there are a bunch of things going on that can contribute to problems later in life.




Be aware


Our regular readers would know that education is a huge part of the mission of Largest Heart.   Now that we know that high school and college sports participation can create behavioral patterns for addiction, we can advocate for support networks and the play of sports in healthy settings.  


Teens should know to look beyond their sport.   No, we are not weird!   Try to see the whole picture and not just the moment in sport.   Sport is not that important that you need to throw your life away.   The frequency of substance abuse in sport needs to be addressed and minimized.   


And remember, athletes are not always ‘healthy.’ They need support too.