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The Dark Side of Sports

  • Jason Whitney

There are many benefits to participating in team sports, including:

∙ Better academic performance in student athletes;

∙ Building important social skills like teamwork and leadership;

∙ Improved self­esteem;

∙ Stress reduction, and,

∙ The many obvious health benefits including better weight management, and the

tendency to make better health decisions throughout life. [1]

However, despite the many positive effects of sports participation, there is also a dark

side – especially in sports where the stakes are high.

The Dark Side of Sports

Because sports are such a big part of life, people often endow them with a lot of weight and importance. For many ­­ athletes, coaches and spectators alike ­­ sports are more than just games, they are directly linked to their self­esteem, and even to their future success. Because of this, it’s possible for sports and sports participation to become something negative, leading athletes to do negative and dangerous things to remain competitive. Some of these dangerous and negative things include substance abuse, playing through serious injuries, and developing eating disorders.

Substance Abuse

Performance enhancing drugs are a hot­button issue in many professional sports, and there are very few sports that have not had issues with the practice known as doping. Professional athletes aren’t the only ones using these drugs, however. The Mayo Clinic indicates that one in 20 teenagers has reported using steroids and other performance- enhancing drugs. [2]

But performance enhancing drugs aren’t the only problem. Cocaine, amphetamines and narcotics use has also been reported among athletes, to help them play through pain, injuries, and fatigue. [3] Additionally, athletes who experience serious injuries could develop a dependence on the pain­killers used to treat their injuries, and can even “graduate” to other opiate drugs like heroin.

Playing Through Injuries

Athletes are often under a lot of pressure to perform, even if it means playing through pain and injuries. Even if the athlete does not resort to drugs to make that happen, he is still putting himself at risk. Pain is a signal that something is wrong and ignoring those signals can make whatever is wrong worse. The same goes for playing through injuries. Repeated stress prevents the injury from healing properly and can lead to chronic, and even career­ending, issues later on. Additionally, if the athlete does resort to pain killers and amphetamines to play through the pain, these drugs are not only addictive but they can also dull the pain response to the point that the athlete does immediate and irreparable damage by continuing to play.

Developing Eating Disorders

Some sports have weight classes, which means athletes need to remain within a certain weight range to compete. Other sports have a strong emphasis on physical appearance. For many of these athletes, the weight requirements, or appearance expectations associated with their sport could lead them to developing disordered eating patterns in an effort to achieve what might be unnatural for their bodies – especially if they are pressured by coaches or sports organizations. [4] Take the case of Taylor Townsend:

In 2014, the United States Tennis Association refused to fund her travel to the U.S. Open because of her weight. This despite the fact that, at 16, Townsend was the number­one ranked junior in the world. She had also won both the singles title in the 2012 Australian Open, and the doubles title at Wimbledon. She ended up paying her own way to the U.S. Open, where she made the quarterfinals in the singles, and won the doubles. She also went on to become the first American ITF Junior Girls Champion since 1992. [5]

If an elite athlete with a series of documented wins on her record can be subjected to pressure, and possibly prevented from playing, because if her size, imagine the pressure that other athletes must feel to adhere to a specific physical appearance regardless of their skill or ability.

Some athletes might drop their disordered eating habits once they stop playing their sport, but others can continue these practices for life. Additionally, while much of the focus is on eating disorders in women, male athletes are just as likely to develop eating disorders that can continue long after they have stopped playing.

Conclusion

This is not to say that sports are inherently bad, or that everyone who participates in sports will develop a drug problem, eating disorder, or long­term health issue. In fact, sports participation is a positive thing for many professional and amateur athletes. However, we should not ignore pressure and stress to perform and compete that many athletes face, which can all increase the risk of developing a drug or alcohol problem and other issues.

It is also a good idea for the parents, friends, and other loved ones to be aware of the signs and symptoms of issues like drug abuse and eating disorders, so that they can intervene and get the athlete help before it is too late.

Resources:

1.  Women’s and Children’s Hospital: Benefits of Sports: http://www.muhealth.org/services/pediatrics/conditions/adolescent-medicine/benefits-of-sports/

2.  Mayo Clinic: Performance-enhancing dugs and teen athletes: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/performance-enhancing-drugs/art-20046620

3.  Futures of Palm Beach: Exercise and Recovery: http://www.futuresofpalmbeach.com/dual-diagnosis-treatment/sports-addiction/

4.  NEDA: Athletes and Eating Disorders: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/athletes-and-eating-disorders

5.  Forbes: Serena Williams, Taylor Townsend and the Problem with American Tennis: http://www.forbes.com/sites/allenstjohn/2014/08/26/serena-williams-taylor-townsend-and-the-problem-with-american-tennis/

 

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