Sports May Exacerbate Addiction Risks, Study Says

By Keri Blakinger 02/15/17

In some cases, it was leaving sports—due to injury or being cut from a team—that sparked an addiction.

Men playing basketball

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, new research out of the University of Alberta finds that athletes may be at a higher risk of developing substance addiction. 

Researcher Laurie de Grace stumbled upon the possibility when she set out to examine the role that physical activity plays in the development of 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 press release. “Sport, it appears, has the potential to increase the risk factors.”

Instead of trying to find athletes with an addiction background, de Grace approached the study from the opposite direction, seeking out recovering addicts and asking them about their sports background.

She found that in general, the athletes' competitive nature carried into other areas of their lives—even addiction. “They wanted to be the best at whatever they did, so if that meant being the best heroin user, that’s what they did,” de Grace said. 

Aside from their tough competitive streak, athletes’ forays into addiction were also exacerbated by certain sports environments. “The cultures are quite machismo and the pressures on the young people are quite high,” said Alex Clark, a professor who helped model the study. “Coaches turn a blind eye and some actively encourage the teamship that’s based on a work-hard, play-hard culture.” 

Some athletes recalled drinking along with older teammates; one study participant recounted watching the owner of his junior hockey team load flats of beer onto the team bus. In some cases, it was leaving sports—due to injury or being cut from a team—that sparked an addiction.

The small-scale study, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, included interviewing 21 participants—a mixed group of men and women with three to 29 years of sobriety, people in early recovery, and one counselor at an inpatient treatment center in western Canada. 

The study participants included recreational athletes all the way up to elite sports players and professionals. Best-represented were team athletes, particularly hockey players. Some individual sports—including gymnastics and martial arts—were included in the study as well. 

Although a number of participants came into sports with backgrounds that could predispose them to addiction, researchers concluded their athletic endeavors may have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities.

“Several participants entered sport with multiple risk factors, including a family history of addiction, and then the sport context created new and additional risks increasing the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction,” the researchers concluded

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.