For 40 years, athletes have been getting bigger, stronger and faster. Through hard work, diet, exercise – and in some cases steroid or supplement use – all young athletes see are the final results.
The pressure to improve speed, strength and endurance has filtered down to high school students and even younger, leading some developing athletes to turn to chemical help and the possibility of longterm devastating physical and psychological effects.
Dr. Linn Goldberg of the Oregon Health and Science University spoke Wednesday to a group of high school coaches and youth football commissioners at the NFL/USA Football Youth Summit in Canton, Ohio, regarding this issue. He oversees two programs designed to promote substance abuse prevention and health promotion for high school athletic teams.
The ATLAS (Athletes Training & Learning to Avoid Steroids) and ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternatives) programs are peer-led, gender specific programs developed by Goldberg and his research team as an alternative to steroid prevention lectures and “scare-tactic handouts” traditionally used by schools.
In 2003-04, the Center for Disease Control reported that one in 16 U.S. high school students admitted to using anabolic and androgenic steroids – more than 50 times the total combined number of athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and 2008 Beijing Olympics. And those were just the ones who admitted to it.
Goldberg’s approach is to promote the benefits of healthy choices. The ATLAS and ATHENA programs aim to educate student-athletes in a setting they have chosen to be a part of – sports teams.
“Your athletes want to be there. They have common goals. They work with each other,” Goldberg said. “Coaches are an important authority figure, and during the season you probably spend more face time with your athletes than their parents do.”
Goldberg said teams already have a natural bond that promotes education. Sports teams also are naturally gender-specific, and girls and boys have different reasons they use drugs and engage in different types of behavior. While boys may want to use steroids to increase size and strength, girls are often pressured to practice unhealthy diets and use supplements to improve their body image.
“Lectures to students just don’t work. Scare tactics emphasizing the terrible effects of drugs without saying that they will do anything positive won’t work. … It makes kids want to try them themselves,” Goldberg said. “We still spend $100 million to $150 million dollars a year on media campaigns to prevent drug use. ‘Just say no’ campaigns don’t work. Pamphlets don’t work. And drug testing does not work.”
Goldberg noted that a National Institute of Health study found that drug testing did nothing to deter illegal steroid or supplement use. In fact, the numbers in many cases went up.
“If your schools are thinking about drug testing as a deterrent, forget about it,” Goldberg said.
Peer-led interactive instruction in a team setting does work, Goldberg said.
The ATLAS and ATHENA programs divide teams into squads overseen by coaches for eight to 10 weeks, educating athletes on nutrition, strength training and the effects of steroids, alcohol, supplements and illicit drugs on performance.
More than 35,000 student-athletes have participated in the programs to date, Goldberg said. Results have shown a 50 percent drop in new anabolic steroid use, decreased use of diet pills and improved nutrition and exercise behaviors. Drinking and driving occurrences or riding in a car with a drinking driver also decreased.
Ryan Bishop, head football coach at Kaysville (Utah) Davis High School agreed that drug use in high schools is a serious issue.
“People are always looking for an edge, and even sometimes the kids know steroids are wrong but it’s the parents who are looking to give their children an edge,” Bishop said.
Side effects from drug use also struck the coaches in the crowd at the Youth Summit as an important piece of drug and nutrition education.
And while many supplements are legal to buy, that doesn’t mean they come without the chance of negative consequences.
“I used Creatine while in high school, and while it made me stronger, faster and helped me heal quicker, I always had backaches,” said Bryan Gilmore, a former NFL player and current youth football coach in Chandler, Ariz. “I didn’t know until later that it builds up in your kidneys and it’s really hard to flush it out of you.
“If you have a balanced diet and eat right, it does everything you want the steroids and supplements to do.”