High school sports and substance use

high school sports and substance use

In the United States, drugs and alcohol continue to present serious consequences for teens. Most parents would assume their teen’s involvement in school athletics would offer a protective factor against exposure to alcohol, drugs and tobacco. Although research has shown an inverse relationship between illicit drugs and athletics, some studies continue to demonstrate that teens who participate in sports have higher involvement with alcohol in particular.

A study from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor using data from 6,000 study participants. Their findings highlighted that students who participated in team sports or general exercise were less likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or use illicit drugs in the last month. According to the data, about 38 percent of teens who didn’t exercise reported smoking cigarettes at some point in the past month and 23 percent had smoked marijuana. This is compared to 25-29 percent of frequent exercisers and athletes who had smoked cigarettes and 15-17 percent who smoked marijuana.

Contrastingly the data also showed that participation in team sports meant teens were actually more likely to drink frequently versus when they participated in individual sports. When comparing non-exercising teens with teens who participated in sports, the rates of alcohol use were 45 percent and 57 percent respectively. In addition, because the study followed students until age 25, it was found that the teens who reported frequent drinking in the first survey were the heavier drinkers throughout young adulthood.

The drawbacks of sports

The highest use of alcohol among youth athletes was found in the football programs. This may be attributed to the heavy advertising associated with professional football, during televised pro ball games and especially the Super Bowl. In the high school setting, football players often enjoy the highest social status position among the various high school sports. This may tie in with peer group influence or pack mentality, when players are present at social functions like post-game gatherings. Alcohol use may be fueled by the social aggrandizement related to football player status. Football players also used the most illegal substances, according to the study.

Stress may also influence substance use. Teen athletes are expected to juggle a full course load, daily practice and workouts, games or tournaments, and social life. It is suggested that the pressure to perform both on the athletic field and academically may contribute to the need for a relaxant such as alcohol.

There may be other explanations for higher alcohol use among teen athletes. The competitive nature of an athlete may spill over into drinking behaviors, including drinking games. Also, the inherent risk-taking personality that can define a successful athlete can be similarly expressed with risk-taking behaviors, such as participating in binge drinking or illegal drug use.

The researchers point out that where smoking cigarettes can cause a reduction in performance due to the respiratory effects of tobacco use and smoking marijuana has the effect of slowing reflexes, young athletes can typically rebound from alcohol, seeing no significant negative impact on their performance from it.

Regarding opioid use, there is some evidence that painkillers prescribed to teen players for sports-related injuries may contribute to an addiction. A recent study, also from the University of Michigan, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, suggests teen athletes have greater access to opioid painkillers. “Opioid medications are being misused by adolescents at increasingly higher rates in the new millennium,” said the study’s lead author, Philip Veliz.

While involvement in youth sports can be a protective factor in an adolescent’s life, it is not a silver bullet. In reality, too much pressure to perform and too many obligations to fulfill may contribute to a teen’s need to seek an outlet, which may end up being alcohol or drugs.

White River Academy, places an emphasis on character development in adolescent males with behavioral issues, offering life skills classes and community service-oriented programs to instill qualities that lead to a productive and successful life post-recovery. For questions about White River Academy or our treatment for substance use disorders, please call 866-520-0905.

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