Athletes and Substance Use

~4 min read

Many athletes learn early on in their competitive careers that it’s worth making sacrifices to succeed in their sport, from waking up at the crack of dawn to missing friends’ birthday parties for morning practices and competitions. While the benefits associated with a competitive nature are plenty, this drive combined with the pressure to succeed, coping with injuries, or facing a difficult transition can cause athletes to seek relief and escape in substances. For some athletes, what starts as casual and controlled alcohol and drug use can lead to substance use disorder (formerly recognized as ‘substance abuse’) or addiction.

Substance use disorder and addiction are complicated issues, and especially in college, substance use and binge drinking are common and even encouraged behaviors. Based on research from the NCAA, student-athletes experience higher rates of heavy episodic drinking, “binge drinking,” than their non-athlete peers. Despite the prevalence of substance use disorders, it can be tough to spot when someone is struggling. Some student-athletes try to keep their substance use secretive to avoid drawing attention to their behavior. Some might not realize anything’s wrong because people around them are drinking heavily, it feels normal or expected to participate, and/or they believe it’s something they’ll kick as soon as they graduate. The misunderstanding that you can’t develop a substance use disorder or addiction while in college can keep athletes who are struggling from seeking help. Being aware of the signs and symptoms associated with substance use disorder can help you spot when you or your teammate might need support.

Symptoms and Warning Signs

The following are warning signs that someone might be struggling with their substance use (American Addiction Centers):

  • They talk about stopping their substance use but don’t follow through.
  • They lie about their substance use.
  • They are regularly getting drunk or using drugs.
  • They are becoming increasingly isolated and/or using drugs alone.
  • Most of their social activities involve drinking or using drugs.
  • They are experiencing memory loss or blackouts due to substance use and have a hard time remembering what happened the night before.
  • They seem increasingly irritable or depressed.
  • They are spending a significant amount of time recovering from the effects of drugs or alcohol.
  • They have an increased tolerance for alcohol or drugs.
  • They are unable to moderate their drug use.

Substance use is a complex issue, and you or your teammate do not need to experience all of these symptoms before seeking help – the earlier you reach out, the better. If you are concerned about, frustrated with, or curious about changing your substance use, it is worth reaching out to a doctor and/or mental health professional.

Types of Substances and Warning Signs

The main types of substances athletes use include alcohol, performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and artificial energy. While general warning signs including behavioral, emotional, or psychological changes might seem like obvious changes to note, specific warning signs can help you recognize when and with what type of substance someone might be struggling. Note that this is not an exhaustive list but rather some of the common substances and side effects.

Alcohol – Warning signs: Being irresponsible regarding commitments or responsibilities to school, sport and relationships, Consuming alcohol in situations that are dangerous to themselves and others (NCAA).

Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) – Anabolic steroids (often users of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs), Androstenedione, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), Erythropoietin, Diuretics, Creatine, Stimulants. Warning signs: Severe mood swings, Depression, Violent tendencies, Increased aggressiveness, Changes in body build (muscle growth, rapid weight gain, development of upper body), Increased acne (Mayo Clinic).

Artificial energy – Amphetamine, Cocaine, Ephedra, Caffeine. Warning signs: Shakiness, Rapid speech or movements, Difficulty sitting still, Difficulty concentrating, Lack of appetite, Sleep disturbance, Irritability (NCAA).

Marijuana/weed – Warning signs: Red eyes, Lethargy, Apathy, Anxiety, Nervous or paranoid behavior, Slowed or poor coordination, Slowed reaction time, Memory impairment, Lack of motivation (NCAA).

High-Risk Times

Understanding when athletes are more susceptible to developing substance use disorders can help us provide support to those who are currently going through a tough time and also prevent others from struggling. Based on research conducted by the Gateway Foundation, those with mood and anxiety disorders are “twice as likely to struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD), and people with SUDs are about twice as likely as those without to have a mood or anxiety disorder.” Athletes might take to substances to alleviate symptoms of underlying mental health challenges. However, substance use ends up exacerbating the challenges they are trying to avoid/curb/keep at bay. In general, transitions are tricky times and can set an athlete who is predisposed to addiction down a tough path.

Injuries, especially head injuries and concussions, are incredibly difficult to deal with as an athlete, especially when an athlete’s identity is tied closely to their ability to play. Athletes might use painkillers to cope with their injuries, and these substances can serve as a gateway to other drugs. Athletes might also use painkillers to get through practice out of fear of being labeled as “injury prone” or out of fear of having their career end if they speak up about their injuries. Athletes can develop tolerance to painkillers and need to use more and more in order to feel the same amount of relief. 

Off-season and retirement are particularly difficult times for athletes. The upheaval in routine, identity, and community can feel jarring and leave athletes struggling to find structure and fulfillment. Additionally, athletes are accustomed to the dopamine rush associated with exercising. When they leave sport, they might miss/have a tough time replicating this feeling, and, as a result, turn to drugs as a substitute (Michael’s House).

Athletes facing changes in their practice schedules and competition seasons due to COVID-19 are susceptible to many of the same challenges that athletes facing injuries, off-seasons, and retirements struggle with. More student-athletes are struggling with their mental health over the pandemic, and the lower activity levels, canceled seasons, as well as decreased sense of community might cause athletes to seek relief in substances.

Support & Treatment

Seeking support for yourself or a teammate who is concerned about substance use requires help from a medical professional. The American Addiction Centers suggests treatment by providers trained to treat the medical, psychological, and performance aspects of this condition. While you can’t force someone to seek help, you can let them know you’re there to support them and guide them to resources and treatment once they feel ready. Free resources, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and school counseling centers, are available and great options for those looking for affordable and effective support options. 

To help someone in recovery, educate yourself on the substance use disorders and the specific substance they were using, show your support by lending a listening ear or offering to drive them to treatment, and gather resources to share with them when they are ready to seek treatment (Gateway Foundation). By consistently checking-in and letting them know you’re there for them, you are reminding them that they are not alone and that there is hope. Supporting someone in recovery can feel like a lot of responsibility, so make sure you’re taking care of yourself, too. Joining a support group for those with loved ones with a substance use disorder can be a great option. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are free support groups for friends and family members supporting a loved one with drinking and drug challenges, and Alateen is a free support group for young people (13-18) with a friend or family member struggling with a substance use disorder. Due to Covid-19, these resources are offering online options for meetings, making them even more accessible.

Whether you’re concerned about your own substance use or the substance use of a teammate or loved one, know that there are resources and support available and you don’t have to go through this alone.

Free Treatment and Support Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous




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