We all know sports are good for our bodies and help us learn important life lessons, but do we know about the impact of sports participation on decreasing the risk of teen substance abuse? Sports have you covered there too. The benefits of sports are numerous and can impact our lives in profound ways. This is not to say that just because you play a sport or are physically active you are suddenly no longer at risk for substance abuse. The relationship between sports participation and substance use is complex; however, studies do show a reduced risk in those who play sports versus those who do not.
There are many aspects to substance abuse and the areas we will focus on here are smoking, smokeless tobacco and illicit drug use. These particular forms of substance abuse have been studied and showed a lesser chance of being abused if the child participates in sports. When teen girls abuse substances there are a host of negative consequences that are damaging to their immediate and long-term health, safety and well-being. While sports it seems can have a buffering effect against some kinds of substance abuse, gender further complicates the equation but for our purposes we will focus on teenage girls.
At 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death for Americans. There are many factors that contribute to why a teenage girl may pick up smoking with the most prominent being if they have friends or family members who smoke, suffer from depression or low self-esteem or if they perceive smoking as a weight control strategy. Sports can help to counteract these factors by providing girls confidence in themselves and a strong body-image, as well as making girls more reluctant to smoke because it may compromise their athletic performance due to reductions in lung function.
In the Foundation’s research report ‘Her Life Depends On It III’, a national study of U.S. public high school students found organized sports participants were 22% less likely to smoke cigarettes and that the more heavily involved a girl is in sports the less likely she is to smoke. Sports help keep girls active and make them feel like a part of a team, which in turn can lead to a sense of responsibility towards others along with the desire to be their healthiest and perform their best.
Another substance widely abused by U.S. youth (12.8% of high school boys and 2.2% of high school girls ), is smokeless tobacco, also known as snuff, chew, dip, snus or “spit” tobacco. Smokeless tobacco seems to be one of the “few forms of substance use conventionally associated with athletic participation, partly as a result of corporate sponsorship of sporting events, such as auto racing and major league baseball.” This can give teens the sense that smokeless tobacco is acceptable because they see professionals in their sport using it, putting these teens at an elevated risk of trying or regularly using smokeless tobacco.
While female athletes report lower rates of having used smokeless tobacco than their male athlete peers, it is important that we make our girls aware of the risks of using smokeless tobacco and communicate openly with them. Sports can help foster this communication by providing comfortable scenarios to talk, such as car rides to games or practices, and providing a platform of trust.
Alcohol is a similar substance that falls into a tricky category as it still remains the long-standing drug of choice among teenage girls and yet, many studies find female athletes may be more likely than their non-athlete peers to engage in problem drinking.
Illicit drug use is especially of concern when it comes to substance abuse as it contributes to “escalating healthcare costs, loss of worker productivity, homelessness, school failure, vehicular accidents, crime, unintended pregnancies, and domestic violence.” One way sports helps prevent teens from using illicit drugs is simply the fear of being kicked off a team, not being allowed to play or losing a scholarship.
Sports provide tremendous benefits and can steer girls in the right direction. Through sports, girls gain a positive body image because they provide feelings of competence and a physical effect on the metabolism. Female athletes also report a higher self-esteem due to a higher satisfaction with their bodies, a greater feeling of self-worth and a sense of physical well-being. When girls participate in sports they are provided with a better knowledge of health risks because they are surrounded by other people, such as coaches, teammates and trainers, who are living healthily and can educate them.
Some research suggests that girls may be at a higher risk of illicit drug use than boys because they are more susceptible to social influences, such as partner, peer or parental drug use. This statistic changes though when girls participate in sports, showing lower rates of drug use by female athletes compared to their non-athlete peers. These girls involved in sports are seeking to maximize their athletic performance and have a strong support for healthy decision-making. By participating in athletics, girls are provided a framework for supervision of free time and involved in a network of individuals, such as coaches, teammates and health professionals, to who illicit drug use is disapproved of and not tolerated.
Sports give girls the tools to succeed throughout life, whether that is personally, academically or professionally. When girls participate in sports, they are given so much more than mental and physical health benefits, they are given a focus, taught to believe in themselves, introduced to a network of people, learn important morals and values and much more.
1. Staurowsky, E. J., DeSousa, M. J., Miller, K. E., Sabo, D., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., Veliz, P., Weaver, A., & Williams, N. (2015). Her Life Depends On It III: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.
2. Ibid., 63
3. Ibid., 64
4. Ibid., 65
6. Ibid., 67
8. Ibid., 69
10. Ibid., 70
Photo Credit: Brent Drinkut/The Star
According to the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS), there were over 40 million boys and girls participating in organized sports in 2008. With numbers like these, which continue to rise every year, it would certainly be of benefit to highlight the positives behind all this participation. This becomes especially important with the seemingly heavy media concentration on the opposing side of the fence where the negative tends to make a better news story.
As a current physical educator and former coach, national champion, and parent of two Division I athletes, the positive aspects of athletic sports participation is a focus having deep meaning for me. Yes, there is always the possibility, maybe even probability, of too much too soon and a misplaced emphasis on the "wrong" things like winning at all costs. However, these risks do not negate all the positives that can and do occur. And when athletes are exposed to the proper environment, and put forth proper amounts of effort and make good choices, you would be hard pressed to find anything that gives them the opportunity for holistic benefits that participating in competitive sports does.
These benefits, at least from my perspective, fall into all 3 of the following categories:
As a physical educator it is impossible to cover the benefits gained from sports participation without mentioning the fitness improvements achieved through training for and participating in athletic activities. In a society where obesity has become a major health issue the physical fitness advantages simply cannot be denied.
It is the mental and conceptual area that many use to support the importance of participation in competitive sports, something I wholeheartedly agree with. It is also the same area that some point to when behavior exhibited by some athletes does not seem to support what we believe they should be learning. As with anything, however, one can only get out of something what one puts in.
Additionally, with good coaches and good programs a positive code of ethical standards (PCES) is of major focus. It is something they most certainly support and work toward instilling in athletes under their direction.
When these two things come together, putting in high levels of effort and solid programs/coaches that encourage PCES, amazing things can happen. These amazing things all center on the abstract concepts revered by those without them and necessary for anyone wanting to become successful in sports, and, for that matter, in life as well. They include:
a. The CDSPH Principle:
A "coined" term from my forthcoming book Becoming a True Champion (seeking publication), it covers the essentials of commitment, discipline, sacrifice, priorities, and heart, all of which are necessary for success in competitive athletics.
Creating and setting goals is an integral part of being an athlete. They give direction and represent a place in the future where one wants to be. Without them one is just going through the motions.
c. Desire & Inner Will:
These attributes are essential in accomplishing the goals one sets. They become most evident when athletes are put in tough situations that require the actions of perseverance and determination. How bad one wants to accomplish one's goals will be directly proportional to the amount of desire they have to accomplish them.
d. Perseverance & Determination:
Competitive athletes are consistently involved in situations where they are challenged. This not only occurs on the competitive field of play but in the practice gym as well. When this happens, their level of perseverance and determination will be tested. The hope here is that they become stronger within over time.
e. Coping Skills:
No matter how good an athlete becomes there will always be times when they "fail." It is what one does after a failure, how they cope, that will determine future positive outcomes. Personally, I believe that a competitive athlete will learn more from their failures then they do from their successes, at least if they push forward using the positive coping skills that should come out of this process.
f. Character & Integrity:
These two attributes have long been associated with competitive sports, however, this has come under scrutiny in recent times. It is not that good character and integrity are automatically developed by participating in sports but rather are revealed through circumstances that normally arise in the competitive arena.
The hope is that through making the "right" choices the athlete develops a solid code of ethical standards they learn to follow, thus, supporting and developing strong character and integrity within.
g. Mindset for Success:
This particular attribute encompasses a host of different concepts. As a competitive athlete one will need to
1. develop good time management skills,
2. create strategies for improving their skill set,
3. build a strong sense of focus and concentration,
4. develop internal skills for handling pressure,
5. learn how to take calculated risks, and when not to,
6. and take responsibility for ones success or failure.
The category of mental/conceptual components are not meant to be complete or comprehensive but rather a list of many of the positive intrinsic (internal) benefits athletes can receive when the right environment is offered and the right choices are made.
They are certainly not automatic by any stretch of imagination just because one is an athlete and plays sports. It is, simply, the nature of competitive sports which gives athletes the opportunity to choose to develop strength in any or all of these areas.
There are some definite and, most assuredly, positive social benefits to sports participation that are easily overlooked by many. This holds true for all athletes whether they compete in individual and/or team sports and activities. These benefits center on concepts such as
Gaining a solid understanding of group dynamics and its role in the success and/or failure of a team is a common experience to all sports participants. Learning how to cooperate in a manner that is best for all and that enhances ones chances of accomplishment is of great value that goes way beyond the athletic field.
Working toward a common goal is an integral part of the sports experience for athletes. It is through this experience that some grow into leaders and others into strong supporters, both of which a team will need to be successful. Finding their role on a team is a similar experience to finding ones niche in life, a definite life experience for participants.
Participating in sports gives athletes the ability to develop tight and lasting friendships with others who have common interests. This is a valuable experience that usually leaves them with lasting life long memories.
When one takes a good look at the wide range of benefits available to those who participate competitively in sports, one cannot help but see how comprehensive they could be in the development of a well-rounded individual. The application of these attributes to one's life outside of sports is something few can argue with. At least that would seem to be the case, right?
Yet, this is not necessarily the perception of everyone, nor does what we see emphasized in the media support this view. Self-centered attitudes, promiscuous behavior, poor character choices, winning at all costs attitudes, and even illegal activities, centering on athletes, seem to dominate headlines.
So then, why is that the case? Is all that I have listed just a fantasy, something we truly wish to be true but isn't, or is there something else that has superseded the positive benefits competitive athletes "should" be getting? All important questions that will need to be addressed in order to put competitive sports participation back on a positive track.
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