Growing Relationship Between Youth Athletes and Substance Abuse Cause of Concern for Parents

As a 10-year-old carving throughout the smooth ice, making goals just as frequently as forming a new friendship, Andrew Magee, now 23-years-old, would have never expected his passion to result in addiction.

Playing youth hockey through the city of Plymouth, he said, was relatively stress-free, but the pressure grew as he did. During high school, he said there was a combination of athletic, academic and social pressures that began to take a toll on him as hockey got more competitive and attending college after graduation became a priority.

“There was peer pressure at times to drink or smoke and go to parties after games, but we all were having fun,” Magee said.

After being prescribed a painkiller for a torn groin and meniscus and being exposed to opiates several times through peers, he said he became an opiate addict midway through his high school career, which led to a heroin addiction.

“The painkillers helped initially, but were really unnecessary because physical rehab for months is what got me back on the ice and healed,” Magee said. “It’s been a tough lesson that taught me some humility and that choices now can and will affect your future.”

While Magee’s high school hockey experience may be shocking to some, he is not alone. According to recent research, the relationship between substance abuse and youth athletes is rising.

Philip Veliz, Research Assistant Professor, found that athletes in contact sports are more likely to engage in different types of substances — one of them being with painkillers. His research, which was published in The American Journal on Addictions in January, also found that there is now a stronger correlation between substance use and eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade athletes in contact sports than in the past, and this relationship is steadily increasing over time.

This is a cause of concern for parents, particularly Jodi Blitz-Hayes, who has two young daughters, one being a 15-year-old who plays soccer for Canton High School.

“Kids are still in that impulsive stage when they are teenagers, and they don’t understand the consequences of their actions and how it will affect them as adults. Another thing is that they don’t always have the guts to say no to peer pressure, so they can be swayed into doing things because their entire team is doing it or their best friends are doing it,” Blitz-Hayes said. “So as parents, we have to build them up and teach them about good choices and consequences of poor choices.”

The dangers of substance abuse have been ingrained into Blitz-Hayes’ children since they were little due to their father’s drug abuse and death, which resulted from prescription drug abuse. Her advice to young athletes who engage in substance abuse is to seek early intervention and to find a supportive group of friends.

“They need to be honest with themselves and their families and find people who they can confide in and that they trust to have open and honest relationships with so that they can grow as individuals, students, and athletes,” Blitz-Hayes said.

Professionals have pointed out that more research is needed to understand substance abuse prevention amongst athletes.

Carol Boyd, Collegiate Professor of Nursing, has led and assisted various studies related to substance abuse and adolescents, including opioid anesthetics and heroin, for over 10 years. From her experience, she has found drugs and alcohol are readily available, there is not a way to treat addictions effectively and there is lack of drug policy.

“Cigarettes are available, alcohol is available, caffeine is available and stimulants are very easy to get,” Boyd said. “Opioid anesthetics are available, and marijuana is available — I can smell it in the halls.”

Veliz believes that, while substances are accessible, addiction is prompted by stress and peer pressure.

“The greatest pressure is trying to live up to a standard of being perfect,” Veliz said. He speaks from experience as a high school and college wrestler. “As a male athlete, your identity hinges on those adequate performances on the playing field, and you feel that you will lose those connections and social relationships if you perform poorly. It is a lot of pressure, and sometimes you do experience a lot of stress, and that can lead to substance abuse.”

It should be noted that involvement in youth sports have shown to have many positive outcomes, Veliz said, such as discipline, increased confidence, support systems and better academic performance.

Athletes Connected, a mental health initiative by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Depression Center and the Athletic Department, found that coaches have a crucial role to play in student athlete help-seeking, and athletes are most comfortable discussing mental health issues with their teammates. If mental health conditions are a contributor to substance abuse in athletes, teams and sports organizations should make these issues a priority, according to the Athletes Connected Final Report.

Brandon Sparks, University of Michigan Rugby Football Club Head Coach, said that educating his players and building a relationship with them is important. He also said that teammates have a responsibility to not be enablers and to be aware of warning signs of substance abuse in athletes.

While Sparks said the culture within his team is positive in regards to teammates taking care of each other and players being responsible students and athletes, he is planning a new initiative to start in 2017, which was inspired by actions taken by Saracens, a professional rugby team based in England. This will involve lifestyle coaching to help the team be successful adults on and off the field and address drug and alcohol abuse and awareness, Sparks said.

Sparks said he hopes other contact sports teams will adopt similar strategies to help combat the growing relationship between youth athletes and substance abuse.

“We want to create awareness, but we also want to create solutions for any problems that might arise for athletes in all sports,” Sparks said.

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About laurenlukens

University of Michigan

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