By Joel H. Fish
The Steroid Era in baseball is supposedly over, but in the past year 18 professional baseball players failed drug tests. Meanwhile, 21 professional football players have missed time because of taking banned supplements. The Lance Armstrong story continues to shed light on the intricate way that drugs have been used in the sport of cycling in recent years.
As a follow up to the 2012 London Olympics, 21 athletes have been provisionally suspended for failed drug tests. Various studies of American high school athletes estimate that 5.9 percent of boys and 4.6 percent of girls have used anabolic steroids to help them build muscle.
What's going on here? Sport psychology looks at the motivation of why athletes take performance enhancing drugs and supplements. Even with the consequences that athletes face these days, why do a percentage of athletes still take the risk of breaking the rules? Why is it that both male and female athletes of all ages continue to be willing to risk the physical damage that can result to their bodies long-term for the possible short-term gain of improved performance?
Money and fame are the obvious short-term answers, and for some athletes these may indeed be the only answers. I would suggest, though, that for other athletes different reasons apply. For example, in our culture being #1 has never been more important and affords an athlete a great deal of prestige, status, and power.
Athletes are the most popular heroes for boys through high school. We are bombarded by ESPN and other media with winning being defined as success, and second place being defined as losing. It may be nostalgic to think that in the 60s, 70s, and 80s it "didn't matter whether you won or lost, it was how you played the game." At present, however, Vince Lombardi's "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" has become the dominant philosophy that is shaping the attitudes of athletes of all ages and skill levels.
In my experience, the pressure to win, to be successful, and the desire to obtain all of the status and prestige that goes along with it is what motivates a number of athletes to take the risks that come along with choosing to take performance enhancing supplements and drugs.
Two other psychological reasons that athletes take performance enhancing supplements and drugs:
"Other athletes are doing it, so I have to keep up."
The fear that "If I don't do this someone else who is will get an edge on me."
These beliefs are often used by athletes to justify acting in ways that may achieve short-term gains, even though there can be severe consequences if caught.
As fans, when an athlete fails a drug test, this may put us in a position where we have to react to a fallen hero. For example, Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies recently tested positive for Adderall, and he will be suspended for the first 25 games of the 2013 baseball season. There may be more information that comes out about this story but for now, parents may need to talk to their children about how it feels to have a hero disappoint them. This becomes another opportunity for all of us to recognize that our athletes are not machines and robots, but are human after all.
In addition, it gives parents an opportunity to talk with their children about what the traits and values are of true heroes who may be in their lives and why heroes can also be found in different walks of life other than sports–like teachers, the postman, and maybe the person who lives next door.
We all know that the behavior is not logical. We need to continue to educate ourselves on the physical dangers of performance enhancing supplements and drugs, and to also understand the psychological reasons why athletes may go down this road. If we do so, we stand a better chance of making healthy lifestyle choices as well as competing in an honest, healthy manner.