Reversing The Trend: Performance Enhancement Abuse In Athletes

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Some 5 percent of middle and high school students have used anabolic steroids to put on muscle, according to a recent study in Minnesota, health journalist Genevra Pittman reports in her article, “One In 20 Youth Has Used Steroids To Bulk Up: Study,” on

“In addition to steroid use, more than one-third of boys and one-fifth of girls in the study said they had used protein powder or shakes to gain muscle mass, and between 5 and 10 percent used non-steroid muscle-enhancing substances, such as creatine.”

The problem with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is primarily due to the mixed messages youth receive from different sources. Warning messages from coaches and athletic directors are countered by peer pressure, the drive to succeed and remain competitive, and confusion over what constitutes “performance enhancing” substances.

Perhaps the most dangerous element to the PED epidemic is a coach who turns a blind eye to substance abuse. Winning is not worth endangering student athletes’ lives. A Master’s Degree in Coaching Education can give future coaches a better understanding of the long-term effects that come from PEDs, as well as an arsenal of teaching tactics they can use to recognize abuse early, treat abusers appropriately, and keep the rest of their team informed about the dangers involved.

The Dangers And Types Of Performance Enhancing Drugs

Most people immediately think about anabolic steroids when they hear the term “performance enhancer.” But steroids are just one of many substances athletes use to gain an edge on the field.

“Drug abuse occurs in all sports at most levels of competition,” write athletic authorities Claudia L. Reardon and Shane Creado in “Drug Abuse In Athletes” on the National Institutes of Health website.

“Athletic life may lead to drug abuse for a number of reasons, including for performance enhancement, to self-treat otherwise untreated mental illness, and to deal with stressors, such as pressure to perform, injuries, physical pain, and retirement from sport.”

PEDs include androgens (which increase testosterone levels), growth hormones, stimulants, nutritional supplements, beta antagonists and beta-blockers, methods that increase oxygen transport (including blood transfusions), and other recreational and controlled prescription drugs.

Competition is rarely more pronounced than it is in athletic competition. “Even those who capture gold medals confront their athletic mortality quickly, their careers constantly threatened by injuries and younger opponents and teammates,” reporters Michael Janofsky and Peeter Alfano explain in their article, “Victory At Any Cost: Drug Pressure Growing” for The New York Times.

“Although steroids are banned by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, and other sports bodies, the prevailing opinion is that these federations and leagues sometimes privately wink at users.”

Even seemingly harmless performance enhancers, including caffeine, energy drinks, and protein bars or shakes, can set a precedent for the use of substances to increase one’s athletic performance. If high school athletes are encouraged to chug an energy drink before a game, they could easily be at risk for trying other, more dangerous drugs, according to sports writer Laura Smith’ in “Caffeine & Athletic Performance” on

Recognizing And Treating Performance Enhancing Drug Use

Coaches should always be looking for warning signs that their athletes are potentially doping with PEDs. A coach who is intimately familiar with the moods and demeanors of each of his students will be more likely to notice when a player’s mood changes drastically for no apparent reason.

“Coaches should be alert to pick up on complaints of dizziness, frequent headaches, drowsiness, or confusion,” says behavioral health specialist Kathryn Taylor, MA, in her blog contribution, “Coaches: How To Identify Substance Abuse Among Athletes,” on “Sharp changes in performance (either positive of negative) are often the most noticed symptom of drug abuse.”

Taylor goes on to highlight other potential warning signs of substance abuse, including flushed skin, dilated pupils, slurred speech, visible anxiety, difficulty staying focused, and possessing paraphernalia associated with drug use.

Strength and conditioning specialist Dave Ellis says sudden changes in body weight can also be a good indicator that an athlete may be using PEDs. “When I see an athlete add more than 5 percent of their body weight in an off-season (from a previous high), I typically start to look for secondary signs of use of PEDs,” Ellis writes in “Performance Enhancement Awareness” on

“A formerly muscular athlete who has lost lean mass due to injury might make large gains as they bounce back from the de-conditioning that occurs when they can’t load a muscle, but when a healthy athlete starts to make five-, six-, even seven-percent increases in lean mass during the off-season you can’t rule out the issue of PEDs.”

Once PED abuse has been established, certain treatment approaches tend to work well on athletes, many of whom may be receiving treatment against their will. Motivational interviewing has proven to have some success in this arena.

Reardon and Creado define motivational interviewing as an empathetic, non-confrontational type of therapy. Counselors can help athletes discover discrepancies between where they want to go after sports and the effects PEDs will have on those goals. They can bring up alternative approaches to enhancing performance without drugs without insisting upon them. Finally, therapy should attempt to lead each patient to a state of self-efficiency.

Some athletes, again according to Reardon and Creado, may also need to pursue addiction therapy, especially when strong stimulants such as amphetamines or narcotic painkillers have become a problem. For such students, 12-step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and group therapy can yield positive results.

Ohio University’s Online Master Of Coaching Education Program

The dangers of PEDs can be seen at every level of athletic competition, and coaches need to be aware of the problem and trained in how to handle athletes who engage in PED usage.

Ohio University excels at preparing coaches for positions ranging from middle school athletics departments to college. Graduates of Ohio University’s online MCE program learn to increase athletic performance among athletes, as well as the technical and leadership skills required to coach a sports team.

MCE coursework includes management, leadership, and finance for coaches; injury prevention; performance and conditioning; ethics and diversity; and risk management. Learn more about Ohio University’s online coaching education master’s degree, visit the program page today.

Recommended Readings:

How to Improve 5 Aspects of Player Development
10 Stress Management Techniques for Sport Coaches
Coaching Skills: The Importance of Observational Analysis


Coaches: How To Identify Substance Abuse Among Athletes