Coaches: How To Identify Substance Abuse Among Athletes

Substance Abuse Among Athletes - Addiction Hope

Contributor: RiverWoods Behavioral Health System clinical team member Kathryn Taylor, MA, LPC/MHSP

Substance abuse among athletes is not a new thing. Some athletes take drugs to cope with the stress of the desire to perform well on the court or field. Certain drugs, such as steroids or human growth hormones, can be taken to improve performance. Other substances, such as prescription painkillers, are taken to mask pain so that an athlete can play despite having an injury.

Some athletes take stimulants, marijuana, or benzodiazepines to try to self-treat undiagnosed mental illnesses. Newer drugs known as “blood boosters,” such as a treatment drug for anemia, are abused in order to train harder. Of course, there is also the social scene of teammate interaction, which all too often includes drinking alcohol and/or recreational drug abuse. [1]

Athletes’ Desire To Take Performance-Enhancing Drugs

In a survey of 198 Olympic athletes, 195 responded that they would abuse drugs if they knew they would not get caught and they would win. Shockingly, half kept the same answer when asked if they would do so even if they were guaranteed death within 5 years after winning. [2]

Most major sports organizations have strict policies against performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes are not ignorant to the consequences of being caught using these drugs. As a coach, it is important to do more than warn against substance abuse among athletes and advising about the consequences. It is better to also be aware of the causes for abuse, the potential danger signs that an athlete may be headed towards drug abuse, and the ability to detect it if it has begun.

Drug screening is the most obvious way to prevent and detect drug abuse among athletes. Random urine testing is allowed in some team sports as a deterrent to gaming the system. Some argue, however, that this does not fight against attitudes that lead to addiction and, in reality, does little to prevent addictive habits.

When Substance Abuse Among Athletes May Be On The Horizon

Coach Talking To Young Football Player - Addiction HopeA prescription can lead to abuse. Encouraging an athlete who is receiving treatment for a sports injury or other malady to keep his or her medications in a secure place will keep other team members from accessing such drugs.

The athlete ought to be aware that it is illegal to share his or her prescriptions with teammates under any circumstances. The coach should establish clear communication and let the member who is receiving treatment know that he or she ought to approach the staff immediately if a teammate has inquiring about partaking in the prescription drugs.

Team members who seem otherwise clean-cut may easily fall into prescription drug abuse. Personal distress can be an indicator that drug abuse is lurking on the horizon for an athlete. Perhaps an event has occurred in the athlete’s life and he or she is unsure of where to turn for assistance to get past the emotional turmoil.

If a coach is well-informed about the day-to-day well-being of his athletes, he will be able to make sure there is an expert around who can provide emotional guidance outside of the team life. If suicide is mentioned even casually by an athlete, this should be addressed immediately.

Spotting Physical Signs Of Substance Abuse Among Athletes

Coaches should be alert to pick up on complaints of dizziness, frequent headaches, drowsiness or confusion. Sharp changes in performance (either positive or negative) are often the most noticed symptom of drug abuse. Digestive symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress (including diarrhea, vomiting and constipation) are not without some medical explanation.

Other physical signs of drug abuse include

  • Flushed skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Visible anxiety
  • Difficulty staying focused
  • Finding paraphernalia or other objects that often accompany drug use

None of these signs ought to be taken lightly.

If an athlete’s mood drastically changes within a short period of time and for no apparent reason, there may be reason to further investigate drug abuse. Substance abusers lose interest in things that used to deeply matter to them. Falling into such a mood is more common than the occasional blues. A coach should be familiar enough with the mood types and personalities of each team member that he or she can note significant highs or lows.

Getting Treatment For Substance Abuse

While it can be difficult or awkward to approach a person about drug abuse concerns, the consequences of not doing so and paying the penalty are higher. While substance abuse can end a career forever, addiction treatment can turn things around.

Treatment shouldn’t take a qualified athlete off of the field. There are treatment programs that work with athletes and individuals who must keep up endurance or strength training for their careers.


[1]: Reardon, C., Creado, S. (2014). Drug abuse in athletes. Substance Abuse Rehabilitation, 5, 95-105. Retrieved from on 1/20/16.
[2]: Douglas, S. (2013, Jan 22.) Choose Performance-Enhancing Hugs: The Health Fundamentals of Doping. The Atlantic. Retrieved from on 1/20/16.

About the Author:

This blog was written by RiverWoods Behavioral Health System clinical team member Kathryn Taylor, MA, LPC/MHSP. Kathryn has several years of experience working in dual diagnosis addiction treatment, women’s issues and trauma treatment as a licensed mental health counselor.

Site Description:

Riverwoods Behavioral Health is a leader in providing a comprehensive continuum of psychiatric, substance abuse, and behavioral healthcare services for children, adolescents, older adults, and seniors in Texarkana and its surrounding communities. Riverview offers specialized programming designed to meet the sensitive needs of adolescents who are struggling to move past the challenges that they face at this point in their lives and grow to meet their full potential. Devoted to providing a safe and nurturing environment for adolescents as they overcome their addiction to drugs, Riverwoods Behavioral Health makes it their sole mission to help patients discover the strength that lies within them while developing the tools needed to move forward towards a happy, healthy, and sober future.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 6, 2014
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 6, 2021
Published on

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.