Several years ago, my organization conducted a survey of young athletes and found that a jaw-dropping 3 percent admitted they were using steroids.
These are children 12 years old and younger. It’s one of the scariest numbers I’ve seen. And it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) recently came out with a study--“What Sport Means in America: A Study of Sport’s Role in Society”--and some of the numbers certainly have my attention. And they should have yours, too.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
The study found that Americans rank the use of performance-enhancing drugs as the most serious problem facing sport today. It’s easy to see why.
Think of all of the parents around the country--and, unfortunately, I’m sure there are some in your youth programs who fit this description--who are filling children’s heads with the message that if they don’t get bigger, faster, and stronger, there is little chance of grabbing a college scholarship or landing that hefty professional contract someday.
It is certainly no secret that there are many parents who simply turn their backs on the fact that children are putting HGH, steroids, and other illegal substances into their bodies to enhance their on-field performance.
It’s all about surviving in today’s whatever-it-takes-to-win atmosphere that sadly hovers around so many youth sports programs.
The USADA study found that two-thirds of Americans agree that sports overemphasizes the importance of winning, and two-fifths (41 percent) of those who report personally bending or breaking the rules say they were motivated by their desire to be a winner.
Furthermore, the study found that despite adults’ disdain for cheating, about one in five (20 percent) admit to having bent or broken the rules in a sport, and nearly half say they know someone who has done the same.
Cheating is most common among sports volunteers (36 percent), sports participants (34 percent), and male parents of children ages eight to 17 (31 percent).
So it’s fairly clear where children are getting this idea that they must do anything possible--even if it includes ingesting substances that likely will ravage their bodies--to succeed and make Mom and Dad proud.
Time To Step Up
Is this an issue for recreation professionals?
Let’s put it this way: Organized, out-of-school youth-sports programs represent the largest segment of today’s sports-playing population, so someone overseeing youth sports in a community needs to speak out and be at the forefront of this issue. And that’s you. Take a look at what you are doing to make sure that steroids don’t ruin a child’s life in your program.
A great place to start is with volunteer coaches. The USADA study found that coaches rank as the number-one positive influence on youth involved in sports. Coaches can be difference-makers in whether a child chooses to pop pills and stick needles--or opt for good, old-fashioned hard work and practice--to see results.
As someone who oversees youth-sports programming, you have to remind coaches to stress to their players that steroids are never the answer.
And you have your work cut out for you.
Research shows that 40 percent of 12th graders say it is easy to find steroids. Plus, steroids are in play for all sports--and both genders. Young girls are the fastest-growing group of new users.
Not only are steroids a health issue, but they are an ethics issue, too. You’ve heard me say that sports are the “outdoor classroom” of life, and it is crucial that today’s young athletes don’t step from the playing field into adulthood believing it’s OK to cheat to get ahead.
The USADA study found that adults overwhelmingly agree that sports can teach children valuable life lessons.
Now it’s just up to you to help make sure those lessons are positive and healthy ones.
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at email@example.com or (800) 729-2057.