Psyched Online

Drugs And Sports: Who Getting High?

by Paul Schienberg, Ph.D. & Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

Illicit drug use is a huge problem in communities all over the United States. Although sports usually works as a protective factor from the initiation into drug use, even athletes can fall under their dark spell. Coaches, agents. team-mates, friends and family members must be educated in the signs and symptoms of addiction because the longer that use is allowed to continue, the more difficult it is to break the habit.

Communication regarding the use of substances by families, schools, and teams is key in preventing the initiation of drug use. However, since substance use goes hand in hand with hiding and lying, the people around the athlete need to be sensitive to various aspects of an athlete’s life. Surprisingly, studies have shown that coaches and parents often lack knowledge about their players’ attitudes and feelings regarding substance use.

Although parents and coaches alike exert a powerful influence in athlete’s lives, they are sometimes hesitant to touch upon certain subjects – like drugs. As a first line of defense, it is important that they be aware of the warning signs that suggest illicit drug use by athletes. Essentially, the warning signs of drug use can be broken down into four categories: physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. You should intervene when you notice significant changes in some or all of these areas. It is important to examine each one of these more closely, so let’s focus on the signs of abuse!

Physical Signs

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is specially true when it comes to discerning substance use. Believe what you see – not what you hear. Looking at athletes with a critical eye can tell you a lot about who is involved in illicit drug use. Below are some thigns that you should make note of when you see your athletes.

Four out of the five senses offer tell tale signs of substance abuse. Drugs can create a significant reactivity to touch, smell, sound, and light. Go ahead, touch them and listen for complaints. Don’t be shy about it. Are they complaining about things that you simply do not smell? Are they listening to music at a volume that is too loud? Too soft? Remember that the eyes are the gateway into the mind, so look into their eyes. Do you see bloodshot eyes? Are the white parts clear? Are there dark circles underneath? Are the pupils normal in size? If they appear dilated, ask.

Another indicator of drug or alcohol addictions is frequent complaints of being too hot or too cold when others feel comfortable. Athletes under the influence cannot maintain normal body temperature. “I’m freezing my butt off.” “It’s so hot in here, I can’t stop sweating!” Certain types of drugs effect metabolism such that under minor exertion, individuals sweat profusely. Watch athletes in the locker room for signs that an athlete may be perspiring heavily.

Finally, chronic fatigue is another side effect of certain illicit drug use. Unusually large amounts of sleep, yawning, nodding out in class, lateness to school, etc. are behaviors not to be ignored. Although there may be other reasons for this, such as illness, persistent chronic fatigue with no other rational explanation can be a warning sign of illicit drug use.

Behavioral Signs

What you are looking for here are actions, both verbal and non-verbal. At times these are readily obvious, others they are more subtle. Many of them are intertwined so it is important to take a step back and get a general picture. Look at the forest not the trees.

First and foremost, drug users engage in irresponsible actions that let others down. Promises that are made are not kept. Chores go undone. Notes from school don’t get passed onto the parents. Showing up late or not at all for practice. Borrowing money and delaying paying it back or not paying it back at all. This last one is particularly important because drug and alcohol use is expensive. Basic bills may go unpaid resulting in shut off of utility services, memberships are cancelled, refrigerators are empty. Highly motivated students demonstrate significant disinterest in their classes when substance abuse is activated and as a result grades may drop substantially

Secretive behaviors that don’t make sense on the surface are another warning sign. Doors may be closed or locked when they are usually open. Phone calls occur out of parents’ ear shot or sight. Names are left out of social activities. Even though teenagers can be normally secretive, very general descriptions of day and evening activities without details are offered by substance abusers. “Do I have to tell you everything?” is a response offered by many substance using individuals.

Lack of social contact with others is also common for a variety of reasons. The athlete finds himself isolated from team-mates, friends, and family members. Long-term friendships are dropped. The athlete may get into more conflicts with significant people in his life. These incidents lead quickly to verbal aggression and violence. Perhaps they are unable to participate in certain activities due to the costs that are involved. Friends may assume that things are fine and that the athlete is simply busy with other responsibilities. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is a very dangerous tendency that we all have. New friends may appear. Due to social pressures, the new group effects changes of clothing, hair, and language. Because drug and alcohol use reduces anxiety, inhibitions are removed and the result is a greater frequency of high-risk taking behaviors.

Emotional Signs

Some athletes have a low tolerance for certain emotions. Drugs and alcohol may be used as a way of coping with the pressure that they feel on the field and off. Substances are used as a buffer. This is referred to as self-medication since drugs are used for their numbing effect. Another problem is that the substances themselves may result in certain emotions. The athlete exhibits large mood swings such that small events trigger large emotional reactions. In short, they are irritable, edgy and impatient. Episodes of depression are frequent and unexplainable. Although normally affectionate, supportive and empathetic people, they become insensitive to the needs of others. This can be observed in coldness shown towards teammates, coaches, siblings, and the media. They appear to be indifferent to the need for cooperation in-group activities. When trying to communicate with an athlete under the influence, you may feel like there is no one “home.” He or she is unmoved by serious performance problems and there is less tolerance for a coach trying to provide instruction.

Cognitive Signs

The thoughts that an individual is having provides valuable information about their mental state. It is so important to push an athlete who you suspect is taking substances to discuss what they are thinking. By doing this you will gain valuable insight into how their mind is working. If you can’t follow the conversation, do not think it is your problem. It may be that the athlete is not able to string logical thoughts together. This could be a sign of disordered thinking that goes along with substance abuse. Simple instructions or communications don’t seem to be understood by an athlete under the influence. They may also be forgetful. It could be that the memory part of the brain is not functioning properly or because of the short attention span created by substances. Finally, denial of a problem may continue even after you present information to the contrary. They may exhibit paranoia, “You’re out to get me!” Typically, this is communicated with hostility.


Rarely do athletes who are struggling with substance abuse admit, without coaxing, that they are in trouble. It takes great alertness, knowledge, caring and courage by significant others to bring the issue into the light. The longer that the problem is allowed to go on, the more difficult it becomes to stop using. Substance abuse problems create an ever- widening circle of negative impact on groups and individuals. Information can help break through our desire to deny there is problem going on in the people we care about and are dependent on. Physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive signs can tip us off about individuals who are using substances. Once a change is noticed, action must be taken immediately. We can either become part of the problem or the solution.