The psychology of doping: latest research

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Attending a sports psychology conference this week I was drawn to a symposium on the latest doping research. It seems hard not to be fascinated by the psychology behind doping; what is the trigger point to starting, how are some athletes able to resist it when others around them dope? How does it impact their performance mentally; an additional boost in knowing they should be faster, or damaging due to anxiety and fear of being caught? Does the testing and fear of testing have a performance or training impact? So many questions in a subject that has previously been clothed in silence. Questions which, for a long time, have not been answered. Now a group at Leeds Beckett University, lead by Susan Backhouse have started to delve much deeper, using qualitative research to understand and capture the lived experience of athletes and support personnel in relation to doping. Four of the pieces presented are summarised here:

Faye Didymus interviewed 10 high level Rugby players about their stressful experiences, their coping resources, and their use of chemical assistance. Half of the participants suggested that they had used, or considered using, banned substances to cope with chronic stressors such as injury, pressure to perform and pressure to increase muscle mass particularly if their personal and social coping resources had been depleted and if they appraised the stressors negatively.

Kelsey Erickson used interviews with 28 student athletes to understand the role of those around them in shaping their moral beliefs on doping in sport. Positively, the athletes stated that the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sport is ‘wrong’ and ‘cheating.’ This stance seemed to have come from parents and coaches, with the parents being most important in childhood and early adolescence and the coach influence becoming stronger in later adolescence.

Lisa Whitaker worked with a professional team athlete to understand his perspectives on doping. She found that the athlete was aware of players who were using, or rumoured to be using, a prohibited substance, and he himself had had a coach suggest he should use it. This made him angry as he believed he had been denied sporting success (both in terms of making teams and maintaining contracts) because of the cheating behaviour of his peers and felt helpless as he could do nothing about it. The athlete had considered doping but his father had highlighted how anxious this was likely to make him which may actually harm his performance so he chose not to. Whitaker concluded that athletes can develop a willingness to dope from stressors, pressures and others doing it but family can provide protective support and key life skills like self-control and resilience.

Laurie Patterson interviewed 12 rugby and football coaches to look at their roles in anti-doping. She found they were supportive of anti-doping but not willing to lead on it. They were doing it but didn’t know they had formal guidelines and when they heard the formal guidelines thought they were doable but not realistic. They were also fearful about getting it wrong so always tried to bring in an expert rather than tackling things themselves. She found the coaches were very protective of their own sport and their clubs and their players and said that if they found something going on they would deal with it ‘in house’.

From this research it seems the next steps for doping officials to consider would be:

  • To work to understand the links between psychological stress and chemical assistance in rugby so that coping interventions focusing on chronic stressors (such as injury) can be designed and players can be educated effectively.
  • To target athlete support networks (especially parents and coaches) with anti-doping education and interventions such as signposting support mechanisms, providing accurate prevalence info, providing more guidance, showing how anti-doping activities can tie into performance and to increase coaches’ confidence by developing applied knowledge and skills.

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