Surprising link between athletics and addiction

Work-hard, play-hard culture may put elite athletes at higher risk of substance abuse.

In a latest development, a study has revealed that work-hard, play-hard culture may put elite athletes at higher risk of substance abuse. After all, sport and physical activity go hand in hand with good mental health; or so conventional wisdom would suggest.

Laurie de Grace set out to interview people recovering from substance abuse for her master’s research with the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation; and found unexpected things.

“I was surprised by the number of participants that I had that had a strong sports background,” de Grace said.

In a paper published this month in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, she wrote that the prevalence of substance abuse in some sports communities creates a greater risk of addictions for people already vulnerable to them.

She categorized the participants based on their level of sport engagement, from recreational athletes to those who played sports as youngsters but dropped out in high school; often because of drugs and alcohol; to the largest group, elite athletes.

Though a full spectrum of sports was represented in the study; including gymnastics, martial arts, rowing and dance, most participants competed in team sports, hockey in particular.

“The cultures are quite machismo and the pressures on the young people are quite high,” said Alex Clark, professor in the Faculty of Nursing, who helped to model the study. “Coaches turn a blind eye and some actively encourage the teamship that’s based on a work-hard, play-hard culture.”

“There is a vulnerable period of life that seems to correspond with an elite performance level in high school when there are a bunch of things going on that can contribute to problems later in life,” she said, adding she was surprised about the extent to which drugs and alcohol were available to underage kids playing sports.

“That is definitely a context where we can take more control of what is happening with teams and how they are behaving and engaging with the rest of the community.” Concluded de Grace.

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