How the Pressure to Excel in Athletics Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Article Contributed By: Lauren N. Hardy, MA – Athlete’s Recovery Clinical Team Member.

Site Description: Athlete’s Recovery is a leader in providing elite treatment for collegiate and professional athletes, both active and retired, who are struggling with addictions and mental health concerns. By implementing cutting-edge concepts, we provide a sports-like team environment that provides our athletes with the trust and safety required to successfully foster a healthy recovery process.


Athletes are under an Intense Amount of Stress

Many people do not realize the intense amount of stress that goes into becoming a respected athlete. When fans go to watch any type of sporting event, they are captivated by the level of skill, talent, and dedication that the players exhibit.

They enjoy the atmosphere of cheering for their favorite team or for their favorite athlete. They may believe that it is by natural talent alone that these athletes are able to excel so exceptionally. But while natural talent is definitely a key component, the road to athletic success encompasses much, much more.

Athletes feel a “Rush” from Competition that often times can be Addicting

The rush of competition is something that many athletes have described as being addicting. The feeling of being watched, respected, and sometimes even idolized, can be intoxicating.

However, along with a fierce sense of competition comes the development of high standards. Whether those high standards are set by coaches, teammates, parents, fans, oneself, or a combination of all, they will undoubtedly cause some athletes to become overly critical of themselves.

They may begin to obsess about minor mistakes that they make. They may begin to fear rejection and dissatisfaction from their coaches or teammates. They may become worried about letting their fans down. But, most importantly, there may exist an inherent fear of complete failure. When the minds of athletes become consumed with these kinds of negative recurring thoughts, they may begin to base their own self-worth on their ability to perform.

Pressure Athletes Endure often Leads to Burn-Out

As this pressure increases, the more quickly athletes may find themselves suffering from feelings of burn-out; of just wanting to walk away from it all [1]. Then they convince themselves that walking away is not an option.

So, in order to rid themselves of those feelings of being burnt out, and in order to put their fears of failure at rest, some athletes turn to the comfort of abusing substances.

Athletes Become Addicted to Narcotics such as Opiate Painkillers after a Sports Injury

Some substance abuse amongst athletes can begin innocently. As injuries commonly occur in every type of sport, so does the need for medication in order to help ease the pain caused by those injuries.

Prescription painkillers, which include narcotics such as:

  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Vicodin
  • Percocet

These drugs can be used to allow an athlete to continue to perform despite the presence of an injury [2]. However, these narcotics can be highly addictive.

They work to depress the nervous system and can result in feelings of euphoria and well-being. So not only are these substances helping to rid a person of his or her pain, but they may also be making him or her feel “high.” These feelings of euphoria and well-being can cause an increase in one’s self-esteem, resulting in the athlete no longer feeling the pressures that he or she may have previously been experiencing.

The longer that athletes take these painkillers, the more quickly their tolerance develops, leaving them to require greater amounts in order to continuously feel those same euphoric feelings and that same greater sense of self-worth.

Athletes Often Turn to Stimulants to Boost Performance

Another type of substance commonly abused by athletes are stimulants, which can include amphetamines (such as Adderall or Ritalin) and cocaine. The use of stimulants allows athletes to:

  • Stay alert
  • Maintain focus and aggressiveness
  • Reduce fatigue

Because athletes find themselves under pressure to perform at the utmost level of energy on a daily basis, it is not difficult to understand why the use of stimulants would be appealing.

By using these substances, athletes are able to get the burst of energy that they need while maintaining the focus required to perform at the best of their ability. However, the effects of stimulants do not typically last very long, causing the person using them to increase the frequency of the use.

For example, cocaine typically only lasts for a maximum of around 30 minutes and prescription stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, etc.) do not usually last longer than around 6-8 hours.

As the frequency in which one is using increases, so does the level of tolerance, resulting in an increased need or “craving” for the drug. This addiction can cause some athletes to feel as though they are unable to perform at all without the aid of some form of stimulant.

Alcohol Abuse and Other Relaxants

Other substances like relaxants (such as alcohol and beta-blockers) and diuretics can also become abused by athletes. Athletes whose sport requires them to maintain a certain weight may use diuretics in order to help ease the stress of doing so.

Other athletes may find that, because they are constantly flooded with thoughts of needing to excel, the only way that they can ease their minds is by using some form of relaxant.

The expectations that athletes face can be overwhelming, but treatment can help them find ways of coping without needing to use substances.

Bio: “How the Pressure to Excel in Athletics Can Lead to Substance Abuse” was written by Athlete’s Recovery clinical team member Lauren Hardy, M.A. Lauren has several years of experience in the treatment field as a research analyst at Vanderbilt University and has her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.