Recreational drugs refer to substances that are not used by athletes for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance. The health-related risks of such drugs are well known, and concern about such risks, fear of a failed drug test, and performance-related concerns are reasons many athletes choose not to use them. Nonetheless, issues associated with recreational drug use among athletes are often expressed in the scientific and popular press.
Several studies have compared athletes against non-athletes regarding prevalence rates of recreational drug use, with athletes usually reporting somewhat less use. For example, rates of past-year and past-30-day marijuana use among U.S. college athletes are approximately 23% and 10%, respectively, whereas rates among the general U.S. college student population are approximately 33% and 18%, respectively. Similarly, approximately 4% of the general college student population report past-year cocaine use, compared to approximately 2% of college athletes. Studies among adolescent athletes across several countries have revealed a similar pattern of findings, with those participating in sport less likely to use drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and psychedelics. Few studies have examined recreational drug use among professional or other elite athletes, but the existing evidence also suggests lower prevalence rates compared with the general population. Researchers have not yet addressed the rates of recreational drug use disorders (i.e., substance abuse or dependence) among athletes.
Reasons for Recreational Drug Use
Even though rates of recreational drug use among athletes tend to be relatively low, it is nonetheless important to understand why it is that some athletes use such substances. A significant number of athletes do use illicit recreational drugs, and it is a virtual certainty that some will eventually experience considerable negative consequences as a result of their drug use. Further, many sport governing bodies provide severe sanctions for documented recreational drug use, so athletes who engage in any recreational drug use may be putting their athletic careers at risk.
It is likely that much recreational drug use and/ or abuse among athletes can be explained by universal risk factors such as poor impulse control, lack of alternative coping strategies, high sensitivity to the rewarding effects of recreational drugs, family history of substance abuse, genetic or biological risk factors, or an environmental context that promotes drug use. Over the years, scholars have speculated about sport-related risk factors for substance use, such as excessive stress associated with balancing athletic and other demands, enhanced social opportunities associated with being an athlete, and individual characteristics that promote both an attraction to sport and risk for substance use (e.g., high sensation seeking). It may also be the case that some athletes perceive that recreational drugs provide a performance-enhancing function (e.g., believing marijuana use will result in relaxation prior to a competition), which could increase the likelihood of use. To date, though, research on sport-specific risk factors for substance use is lacking, so the degree to which such factors do in fact impact an athlete’s decision to use recreational drugs is unknown.
Preventing and Treating Recreational Drug Use
Over the past 20 years, a number of intervention strategies have been shown to be effective at either preventing or reducing substance use. These strategies represent a diverse array of approaches, including the following:
- Treatments focusing on facilitating the 12-step process
- Cognitive behavioral treatments that seek to modify thoughts and behaviors that promote substance use
- Motivational interviewing approaches that seek to resolve ambivalence about changing substance use behaviors
- Contingency management treatments that provide incentives for avoiding substance use
- Family-based therapy and prevention programs
- Life-skills prevention programs that focus on assertiveness training and healthy coping strategies
Studies have not examined the efficacy of these types of programs at reducing recreational drug use specifically among athletes. Researchers have shown that some of these programs are efficacious at reducing alcohol use among athletes and may therefore be promising strategies for impacting drug use as well. There is also evidence to suggest that regular drug testing with subsequent consequences for positive screens can have some impact at limiting substance use.
Education-only approaches, whose primary goal involves enhancing the recipients’ knowledge regarding the dangers of drug use, is a strategy shown to be ineffective at preventing substance use. Unfortunately, this is the most commonly used “prevention” strategy in most sporting environments. For example, most U.S. college athletes are mandated to receive educational information about alcohol and other drugs, and such programs are also commonly implemented at the youth sport level. It is unlikely that these education-only programs impact the substance use habits of the athletes who participate in them.
Although athletes tend to be less likely than others to use recreational illicit drugs, such use does occur among athletes and can result in significant personal and athletics-related consequences. A number of intervention and prevention strategies exist for those who experience problems with recreational drugs, although the effects of such strategies have rarely been assessed specifically among athletes.
- Dutra, L., Stathopoulou, G., Basen, S. L., Leyro, T. M., Powers, M. B., & Otto, M. W. (2008). A metaanalytic review for psychosocial interventions for substance use disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 179–187.
- Martens, M. P., Dams-O’Connor, K., & Kilmer, J. (2007). Alcohol and drug abuse among athletes: Prevalence, etiology, and interventions. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 859–878). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2012). National study of substance use trends among NCAA college student–athletes. Indianapolis, IN: Author. Retrieved from http://www.ncaapublications.com/ productdownloads/SAHS09.pdf
- Peretti-Watel, P., & Lorente, F. O. (2004). Cannabis use, sport practice and other leisure activities at the end of adolescence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 73, 251–257.
- Thomas, J. O., Dunn, M., Swift, W., & Burns, L. (2010). Elite athletes’ perceptions of the effects of illicit drug use on athletic performance. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 20, 189–192.