Sporting endeavour medicates athletes
Michael Phelps is about to contest his fifth Olympic Games. For the first time, the world’s most celebrated Olympian will also co-captain the US Swim Squad. Phelps is a controversial celebrity who has struggled with cannabis and alcohol issues. He revealed in ‘ESPN The Magazine’ that “all the Olympic medals in the world couldn’t ease his pain and instead, made life more complicated.”
Emotional pain is not limited to the social and emotional issues one experiences in life. Nor the very real pressures of being an elite athlete. For many, it is also part of their biology. Elite athletes, like Phelps, are wired to be in the world in a different way. Many of them talk about self-medicating with alcohol and recreational drugs. However, few of them fully understand the self-medicating role sport has in their lives. The athlete’s drug of choice is exercise.
Phelps says he has a diagnosis for Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.) This is a dopamine deficient medical condition that leads to hyperactivity, impulsivity and makes focus and concentration in the classroom difficult.
On the plus side, the hyperactivity experienced by athletes with ADHD contributes to their high work ethic and drive. Former world marathon champion Robert de Castella said it this way; “thank goodness half the world are hyperactive or nothing would get done.”
The hours of exercise our athletes do naturally increases serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. A combination that provides a sense of calm. Many athletes will tell you they experience a period of emotional tranquility post training. Take away their exercise (and in cases like Phelps) and the less helpful symptoms of underlying conditions such as ADHD are heightened.
Cannabis and alcohol may be another way of soothing agitation. Interacting with other neurochemicals in the brain, slowing down breathing and heart rate and reducing anxiety. This need for emotional relief can be seductive for athletes who are feeling emotionally distressed. However, when they wear off their agitation is likely to be worse.
Athletes struggling with depression or low mood – as is often the case when they are injured, cut from teams or when they retire – may be attracted to stimulant drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy. These drugs speed up the central nervous system, increasing alertness and confidence. They may be used in an effort to reproduce the high that normally comes with competitive elite sport.
Recreational drugs have their negative side effects so why it is that some individuals choose recreational drugs over supervised medication and counselling?
Former Olympic Champion swimmer John Konrads explained his drug of choice this way.
“Alcohol provides instant relief / gratification. It generates an alternative state of mind and a way to escape from, or avoid, stress. Medication on the other hand, brings you back to normal. But once you get there, you have to deal with the problems in your life that you have been avoiding.”
“Some people are not ready or do not feel equipped to deal with those issues so they keep drinking to avoid what they are too fearful to face.”
Only by continuing to have the conversation and provide the education can our athletes better understand their own motivations. With reflection and awareness they are more empowered to make different choices on how to cope with the stresses of competition, injury and life after sport.