The Sober Living AZ Blog

Addiction in Athletics

Posted on 03/26/20: Addiction Prevention

Usually, when we think of athletics, we think “healthy”, “strong”, “driven”, etc. However, unfortunately, athletics and sports are rife with addiction, which doesn’t quite fit the picture most people have created within their minds. But if you are a current or former athlete yourself, you know just how much the love of the game can consume your life — and sometimes this verges into unhealthy territory. This commitment and drive increase tenfold for serious and professional athletes who train almost daily. It can become all-consuming. These athletes eat, sleep, and breathe their sport. But when one is so focused, so dedicated to athletics that it becomes their entire livelihood, it opens them up to the risk of crashing and burning — hard.

When one thinks about the term “athlete”, the image of peak human health and fitness may come to mind. These people make a career out of being in shape and valuing their physical wellbeing, so they must be the last group of people who’d risk using illicit substances… right? 

It’s this mentality that causes a lot of suffering to go unnoticed and untreated because surprisingly, current and former athletes are some of the most at-risk individuals when it comes to addiction. The high standards and immense pressure to perform during an athlete’s career may even lead to them turning to illicit substances early on, effectively causing them to spiral. 

The Link Between Athletes and Substance Abuse

There is a connection between athletes and addiction due to the unique and unforgiving demands of a sports career. A lot of athletes deal with mounting pressures and extreme stress, which we know is linked directly to addiction. Here are some common factors that make an athlete more susceptible to developing an addiction:

Genetic predisposition or family history. An athlete can be at risk of substance abuse if he/she has a personal or family history of substance abuse or mental illness, or both. 

Pressure to perform. A lot of professional athletes are under immense pressure to not only outdo their competition but continually improve their personal best as well. This never-ending cycle of needing to push themselves to outperform not only others but themselves may lead them to performance-enhancing drugs to keep up.

Stress. Some athletes take drugs to relieve the emotional and mental stress that comes from a life on and off the field, ring, court, or track — and even life after retirement. 

Accessibility. The popularity and wealth that comes with being a professional athlete means easier access to harmful substances. Unfortunately, many celebrities are pulled into this world of drugs and alcohol, and athletes are no exception. 

Mental health issues. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reported that there is a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances” and that mental health disorder patients make up 38 percent of alcohol, 44 percent of cocaine, and 40 percent of cigarette consumption, and around 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse. Mental illness and substance abuse disorders together are referred to as co-occurring disorders, which means that one may have been brought on by the other but both play a role in exacerbating each other. In other words, if the mental illness goes untreated and gets worse, the substance abuse disorder will likely catch up in an effort to cope, and vice versa. 

Injuries. The longer an athlete takes to recover from an injury, the more difficult it can be to get back on top of their career. For this reason, athletes take drugs to speed up healing time after an injury. Unfortunately, this can lead to addiction quicker than it leads to recovery.

Most Common Drugs Abused by Athletes

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are especially used by bodybuilders to reduce body weight, cut down fats, and increase muscle mass. 

The drugs work this way because they are derived from testosterone, the male hormone that produces the sexual characteristics in men. Anabolic steroids have legal medical uses but they are not meant to be used in sports. This unethical use of anabolic steroids to improve performance can lead to negative side effects, and in the event that the user decides to quit taking them, painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are worsened if the use of these drugs was unregulated and an athlete makes an attempt to stop cold turkey. Athletes who withdraw from steroids experience mood swings, cravings for more steroids, insomnia, fatigue, and a strong desire to continue taking the drugs even when they know the consequences are dire.

The effects of steroids present differently (yet equally detrimentally) between the biological sexes. Male athletes who use anabolic steroids might suffer from erectile dysfunction and even develop shrunken testicles and enlarged breasts because this drug manipulates the production of testosterone in the body. Female athletes who take anabolic steroids risk developing body hair, shrunken breasts, and a deeper voice due to the loss of estrogen. It can also cause an irregular menstrual cycle for women. 


Amphetamine and dextroamphetamine are consumed by a large number of athletes. The main reason they take it is to excite their central nervous system for higher levels of energy, increased mental alertness, aggression, and lowered fatigue.

Adderall is used in treating ADHD and narcolepsy, but it can also be abused because it increases mental focus and awareness, which are coveted by athletes as necessary ingredients to succeeding in sports. It makes the user feel more energetic and alert, hijacking the reward system of the brain and rewriting the neural pathways to make the user want more.

The side effects of Adderall and other stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine are sleep disorders, anxiety, and several mood swings that are unpredictable. When you stop using these drugs, you will experience withdrawal symptoms such as muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and psychological problems like depression. 


Probably one of the most widely abused substances out there, alcohol is a very prominent figure in the world of addiction. Since this substance is legal everywhere for anyone 21 and over (in the U.S.), it is easily accessible and relatively affordable. The fact that it is so widely used and universally accepted means people everywhere could easily fall into alcohol addiction. When it comes to athletes, alcohol is a very prominent substance. After victories, teams and athletes may be enticed with the idea of going out to a bar or party to celebrate. If someone abstains from alcohol, peer influence could play a key role in their temptation. If their peers start saying stuff like, “come on, one drink won’t hurt!” or encourage them to take shots as part of a team celebration, these kinds of behaviors could easily lead someone to abuse. This substance can be found at stores, parties, bars, etc. it’s pretty much everywhere. There have been many athletes that have struggled with alcohol abuse, such as Brett Favre, Johnny Manzel, Michael Phelps have all struggled with alcohol abuse.


Narcotics are taken by athletes to help them cope with the physical pains that come along with their profession. These drugs are so strong and powerful that they artificially numb the pain of athletes instead of allowing their bodies to recover. They are also highly addictive.


Abuse of prescription painkillers increase the likelihood for a person to turn to heroin, but this advice isn’t usually heeded, as many athletes are under pressure to play through pain. Painkillers and heroin (opioids) are highly addictive and have ruined many lives and careers of athletes young and old, current and retired.

Addiction Recovery Options for Athletes

Recovery is completely possible for current and former athletes struggling with addiction. Some may benefit from a 12-Step program, and one-on-one counseling is also extremely helpful. There are different forms of psychotherapy in use in addiction treatment dealing with retired athletes, including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, motivational interviewing therapy, and interpersonal therapy.

With the right treatment and support, an athlete suffering from addiction can recover fully and return to his/her profession. With the tools and coping skills they learn during treatment, their emotional well-being and performance will continuously improve while they continue excelling in their sports career.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact Sober Living of AZ now to get the help you need. Sober Living offers an acclaimed recovery environment that merges upscale and luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare. Call us now at 602-737-2458.

Content for Scottsdale Recovery Center and Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers created by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.

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