Are Athletes More Vulnerable to Addiction?

By Crystal Ponti 03/15/17

Physical activity and a healthy lifestyle often go together, but there’s also a dark side to athletic participation: substance addiction.

A woman, mid-stride, running on a path into sunlight.
“It’s a problem that is way more common than people realize."

Joe Putignano knew he was different from the other kids at his elementary school. As his classmates paid attention, absorbing the lessons and their teacher’s words, Putignano let his mind wander. But it wasn’t lunch or video games that consumed his thoughts. All Putignano could think about was gymnastics. “I’d take my pencil and pretend the desk was the floor mat at the Olympics. I’d tumble with the pencil and my mom would get calls all the time,” he says.

With his sights set on the Olympics only a handful of years later, Putignano seemed like a well-adjusted gymnast destined for stardom. His dreams were unfortunately overshadowed by something even more tempting than his quest for gold: drugs.

Physical activity and a healthy lifestyle often go together, but there’s also a dark side to athletic participation: substance addiction. For Putignano, that darkness would derail his Olympic pursuit and nearly take his life. And his story is not all that unusual. Addiction affects the lives of countless athletes.

“It’s a problem that is way more common than people realize,” says Dr. Kristin Anderson, a psychologist in private practice in Houston working with couples and individuals, and specializing in sports psychology for athletes.

Laurie de Grace, a master's graduate of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, arrived at the same conclusion while performing her thesis research on sports and addiction. The mother of a recovering addict and a lifelong recreational athlete, de Grace was initially intrigued by the use of physical activity in the treatment of addiction. Then she made a surprising discovery.

“As I started doing the background research and lit reviews, I found that the connection between sport and substance addiction was not really clear,” she explains. “The only thing that was obvious and seemed to have a true connection was alcohol with sport, particularly where binge drinking is applied, and that athletes tend to binge drink more than non-athletes.”

When looking at other substances, she found no real pattern. Rather than trying to find that link or prescribe physical activity to treat, de Grace shifted gears. She wanted to learn more about the experiences people had in their sport, along with the development of their substance addiction. The study, which was conducted in coordination with the University of Alberta, included a total of 21 participants: 7 people who had between 3 and 29 years of sobriety, 13 people in a residential addiction treatment program, and one counselor.

Participants were grouped according to their sport backgrounds as 1) limited sport backgrounds, 2) recreational sports, 3) competitive athletes, or 4) competitive athletes whose sport was terminated, and they were interviewed. The findings showed that the prevalence of substance abuse in some sports communities creates a greater risk of addictions for people already vulnerable to them.

The most common risk factor for athletes, which aligns with the general population, is a family history of addiction. Athletes might also be vulnerable because of a history of abuse or trauma, or certain psychological characteristics such as a need to fit in, or insecurity. As de Grace found when speaking with a sample in her study, some athletes come into sports with these pre-existing risk factors. There are also people involved in team sports, particularly competitive athletes who remained in their sports well into their teens, who were more likely to adopt the norms of the team—with baseball and hockey most frequently mentioned. They did everything they could to fit in, including drinking alcohol and taking illicit substances, which eventually led to their addiction.

In another sample, study participants reported being positively influenced by their athletic participation. They developed an addiction when they suddenly lost their sport. This was most often the case in those who participated in individual and high-aerobic sports like dance, gymnastics, and rowing. Without their sport, they lost a very important goal and didn’t have a way to cope with the loss. “They lost their sense of purpose,” explains de Grace, “and regardless of how many years had gone by, they’re still devastated by the loss of that goal that was so important to them in their youth.”

Putignano says perfectionism persists in individual sports like gymnastics, which puts tremendous pressure on athletes. “We get a score that everyone sees. You are judged. Everyone can see your defects in character and your mistakes—which creates this need for perfectionism,” he says.

Pain plays a role in addiction too. “You’re in agony when you do sports. Everyone is in pain and sweaty, the days are long, there’s discipline… It’s painful, it’s not always fun,” Putignano explains. Many athletes take prescription painkillers, which can lead to addiction and progress to other substances.

There’s also a celebration aspect to sport. In de Grace’s study, one individual pointed out that from a very young age he watched hockey players drink from the Stanley Cup when they won. He recalls the connection between sport and alcohol, and from that point on, the two went together. For him, and many hockey players, alcohol was a gateway to other drugs, including cocaine.

The support system surrounding athletes is often broken. Coaches and team owners sometimes fuel a player’s addiction or ignore that there is a substance abuse problem present. One of the hockey players de Grace spoke with indicated it was the team owner who was very encouraging of his behavior. The owner would often make offers to the team, “If you win this or if you fight this person, you’ll get $500,” or reward them in other questionable ways. After winning a particularly important game, he brought flats of beer and drugs onto the team bus.

In school environments, participants reported that teachers often coached the teams and many would just turn a blind eye. “They might bench them, but they didn’t tell the parents and they didn’t report to the school that substances were being abused,” says de Grace. With traveling teams who stayed at hotels, kids frequently saw coaches and parents drinking together, while they swam in the pools. They observed that behavior and then tied it to the sport culture.

A few athletes in the study felt hyper-competitive, even though they were not among the best players on their team. They would do anything to fit in, but the coaches were hard on them. When they reflect on their past histories, they realize the coaches were not supportive. The uncaring attitudes made them feel worse about themselves and their behaviors went in the wrong direction.

When Putignano was competing, there was very little education on sport and substance abuse. No one knew that athletic participation could create behavioral patterns for addiction later on. He also lacked a support network and wonders if he would have traveled down the same road if one had been present.

Despite his struggles, he believes sport is still an excellent treatment for addiction. In fact, it’s how he got clean. “The same energy that makes you an addict, is the same one that can make you an Olympian. It’s also the same one that will get you in recovery,” he says. Physical activity releases endorphins, and the daily exercise helped improve his self-esteem and outlook. After returning to gymnastics, he landed a spot in Cirque du Soleil as Crystal Man and appeared on Broadway.

The challenge of athletes returning to their sport is finding a healthy environment, de Grace notes. Several people in her study opted out of returning to their main sport, even on a recreational level, just because of the connection.

Putignano urges athletes, especially young athletes, to look beyond their sport. “This is going to sound weird, but it’s not that important. If we could see the whole picture and not just the moment in sport, we’d understand that we take things way too seriously.”

Dr. Anderson suggests more education and awareness to minimize frequency of abuse and addiction in sport. “We often think athletes are so healthy that they don't need this kind of support. That is a myth.”

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Crystal Ponti is a science, health, and technology reporter from Downeast Maine. She has written for the The Washington Post, The New York Post, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and Salon. Follow her on Twitter @crystalponti.