When cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted this month that he systematically used banned substances to help him win races, he added his name to a dishearteningly long list of elite athletes who have turned to cheating to achieve fame and fortune. So, lately, we’ve been asking: “Why do athletes cheat?”
If you are or were an athlete and have experienced pressure to “enhance” your athletic performance, please share your story. (Your responses are confidential unless you explicitly give us permission to publish your story.)
Steve Portenga is well-poised to talk about the pressures athletes face. He’s a team psychologist for the U.S. track and field team and a professor at the University of Denver who specializes in sport and performance psychology. He shared some of his insights into the reasons athletes bend and break the rules.
What kinds of pressures do athletes face today?
There are probably two ways to look at that pressure. In a lot of Olympic sports, performing at a certain level really might mean the difference between being able to continue [in that sport] or not.
You might have the physical capability to compete for another four years, but if you can’t get a contract and get money to support yourself and your family, you might have to move on. That financial pressure is really a huge part of it for a lot of athletes [who turn to banned substances].
The other pressure that can permeate any level is when athletes have their identity and sense of self really intimately intertwined with their athletic performance. And you see this even with a lot of high school kids; their identity in school is “the golfers.” Everyone knows that they golf, everyone knows that they do well and so there can be this huge, huge pressure on them because they don’t really have much in their lives in terms of how they evaluate themselves outside of their athletic performance.
There are some people who just go all out [with performance-enhancing drugs] right from the very beginning, but a lot of athletes start out kind of small. They feel that their identity is threatened or they feel like they need to do something to maintain that sponsorship or that money or that income, so they might make one small move or decision and another small one and another small one and eventually they find that they’re in way over their heads.
”They might make one small move or decision and another small one and another small one and eventually they find that they’re in way over their heads.”
What conversations have you had with athletes about the pressures to perform — and to use banned substances?
Usually, [it's the athletes talking] about the pressures and considering [the doping] option as a fleeting idea of what it would be like, as opposed to [actually doing it].
Most of the athletes, when they get to that point, have very few people who they’ll talk to. They try to keep it very positive, very secretive. Oftentimes athletes are pretty good at rationalizing. You know: “If everyone else is doing it, I’m not cheating; I’m not gaining an unfair advantage, just leveling the playing field.” So then there’s no need to discuss what they’re doing with anyone else and, really, they don’t want to discuss it because they don’t want anyone to shatter that little story that they’ve been telling themselves.
“Really, they don’t want to discuss it because they don’t want anyone to shatter that little story that they’ve been telling themselves.”
How do you help athletes cope with this kind of pressure to perform?
It’s a big challenge. A lot of sports psychologists will try to use some pretty simple techniques to help them not think about it, to put it off to the side.
There’s the very real truth that if someone doesn’t perform at a certain level, his or her career may be over prematurely. Athletes have to find a way to acknowledge that and be able to live with it.
Leading up to the Olympic trials, a lot of my work was talking to athletes about this very topic. My goal was to make them know that if they didn’t make the team, they were going to be down and depressed for two months instead of three years. The goal wasn’t for it to not hurt. If it didn’t hurt, they didn’t have a chance of making it.
“My goal was to make them know that if they didn’t make the team, they were going to be down and depressed for two months instead of three years.”
So, feeling some performance pressure is necessary?
The idea is to put that striving and identity as an athlete into perspective, not to get rid of that potential pain [of failure], but to get to a point where a person feels like he or she can handle it.
A lot of conversations with athletes going into the Olympics were about sense of self and identity. Who loves you? Why do they love you? Who are you as a person? What’s really important to you in life? How does your sense of self-worth fit into that, to not have sports be the only thing?
If you feel that people only like you because of how you perform or you feel that’s the only way you have value as a person, it’s going to make the pressure build and the competition feel way more important than it really is. It almost feels life-and-death — but at some level you know it’s not, which is confusing, and that’s really the gateway to considering a lot of the performance-enhancing drugs. It’s not only your performance on the line; your self is on the line.
The most important thing in our lives is who we are. So if someone decides something about himself is being threatened, he’s going to marshal a lot of resources to be able to protect that. That can lead to wonderfully powerful things in a positive sense or it can be pretty debilitating in a negative sense.
“It’s not only your performance on the line; your self is on the line.”
How pervasive is doping in the Olympics?
It’s still there. I just got back from a sports performance clinic with a lot of our future Olympic athletes and coaches and had a couple of conversations about how London was MUCH cleaner than any other world championship or olympic games in the past.
I think we’ve really turned the corner, maybe more so in track and field than in other sports, though I think universally, it’s much better. But it’s not completely clean. There are still countries and federations that only test [during that sport's] season. They tell their athletes ahead of time, “Oh, we’re going to test.” Then they only test for certain things.
It’s interesting how some of these athletes in other countries are pretty open about their drug use.
“I think we’ve really turned the corner.”
I think the biggest challenge as we’re developing young athletes is to make sure there’s some balance in their identity and in their lives, that they don’t grow up thinking of themselves only as athletes, and that people will only like them and appreciate them and admire them as athletes.
If we can keep some sanity in how we view sports at young ages, we’re much less likely to have children grow up into athletes who are eager and willing to do something like that.
>> If you’ve ever experienced pressure to “enhance” your athletic performance, please help us cover this story by sharing your experience.