Life Health

Playing competitive sports may be linked to substance abuse: University of Alberta researcher

By Clare Clancy

Laurie de Grace, a former University of Alberta student, interviewed 21 people for her research on how elite athletes may be at a higher risk for substance abuse. (Larry Wong)

Laurie de Grace, a former University of Alberta student, interviewed 21 people for her research on how elite athletes may be at a higher risk for substance abuse. (Larry Wong)

edmonton - 

Athletes who compete at an elite level may be at greater risk of substance abuse, says a University of Alberta researcher.

Laurie de Grace, who has interviewed 21 people recovering from addiction, wants to raise awareness about the potential link between athleticism and the use of drugs and alcohol.

“I was really surprised by the large number of people who had a substantial sports background," she said.

Her research, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, focused on athletes who had played sports including hockey, rowing and baseball.

"Teen sports are notorious for a lot of use of drugs and alcohol and binge-drinking," she said, noting that she found the use of cocaine in athletic circles more common than she initially believed.

"(It's surprising) that they could mask it for so long ... that they could perform at a high level while still using."

"It seemed when there was a predisposition and when they found themselves in an environment where drugs and alcohol were available … the addictions would develop."

Study participants were mainly men, ranging from 28 to 60 years old, and the bulk of them had started using substances during their youth.

"They were dabbling at 14 or 15 years old," she said.

In 2013, a team of researchers from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) presented results of a literature review that looked at the effects of non-professional sport on substance abuse prevention from ages 10 to 24. The findings suggested sports programs might prevent illicit drug use but there was also a link with increased alcohol consumption. Researchers found a lack of Canadian studies on the subject.

A sub-group of de Grace's interviewees had been forced to stop competing in their sport due to injury. For one man who had been a competitive rower in high school, this led to an increased consumption of alcohol.

"He was so emotional at the loss of this sport," de Grace said. "We should be watching for the kid that seems to be trying too hard ... making sure they have other things in their life."

De Grace said she wants parents and coaches to be aware that enrolling teenagers into competitive sports doesn't necessarily equate to healthy living. 

"It's the awareness that (being in sports) is not a deterrent to bad behaviour," she said.

She noted that drugs and alcohol are associated with sporting events in general.

"Things like the Stanley Cup, where they fill the cup with champagne … part of it’s culture, but everything in moderation," she said.

cclancy@postmedia.com

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