News / Edmonton

Possible link between sports and substance abuse: University of Alberta study

Findings suggest coaches, parents and athletes should be more aware of the culture around sports.

New research from the University of Alberta suggests there could be a potential link between sports and substance abuse.

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.

Her subjects included a former gymnast, rower and martial artist, but a significant number had played team sports — especially hockey.

And a significant number were introduced to substance abuse by their sport's culture, she said.

“One fellow I spoke to said he didn’t drink or use marijuana when he joined the team, but the older guys did and it was part of them fitting in. Then they realized that when they became the older teammates, they were now setting the example for the younger guys. So it perpetuates."

In addition to those who were introduced to substance abuse, de Grace found some respondents who’d been forced to quit their sport because of addiction issues and those who’d started using because they’d had to quit their sport.

The story is less than black and white.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse recently found that sports programs can reduce substance abuse. The Centre surveyed sports programs that tried to educate kids about drugs — through things like peer-to-peer education, or counselling.

The report points out that since the majority of children do some sort of sport it’s an “optimal opportunity” to reach a broad swath of them, but added there needs to be more research in Canada about how to do it effectively.

De Grace's study is small  — just 21 people participated— meaning the sample size is far too small to draw large conclusions.

Still, she said it's enough to suggest that coaches, parents and athletes should be more aware of the culture around sports.

“I would like to see is at the adult and coaching level is more attention paid to the example set for younger kids. You think if you get your kids involved in sports you’re preventing substance abuse. But little do they know its taking place right then and there.”

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