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Should We Be Concerned About Doping In Youth Sport?

The simple answer is YES!


Doping takes place at all levels of sport. Research suggests that adolescents’ use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) typically ranges from 1 to 5% although estimates from studies focusing specifically on anabolic androgenic steroids are higher (approximately 11%).

Why are kids doping?

There are a number of reasons why young athletes may turn to PEDs:

1)      To enhance their performance

2)      To modify their appearance (e.g., lose weight, gain mass)

3)      To cope with pressure (e.g., pressure from others, pressure to perform)

4)      To cope with periods of instability (e.g., suffering an injury, team selection)

Adolescents’ vulnerability to doping is also dependent on a number of factors, including their gender, attitudes and perceptions. For example:

  • PED use is more common among boys than girls and typically boys have more positive attitudes towards doping than girls.
  • Boys tend to believe PEDs will improve their sports performance and physical appearance more than girls.
  • In general, adolescents have greater intentions to dope if they have positive attitudes towards doping (they don’t think it’s wrong) and believe that their coaches, parents friends will approve of them using PEDs.  

Research also suggests that adolescent athletes have limited knowledge when it comes to doping, particularly with regards to which substances and methods are prohibited. So, even if they don’t have the intention or disposition to seek out and use PEDs, they may still be vulnerable to inadvertent doping.

What is inadvertent doping?

Inadvertent doping is when an athlete ingests a performance enhancing drug without knowing or intending to do so. This can happen in a number of ways including:

1) using a substance (e.g., a medication) and being unaware that it is prohibited or

2) using a product (e.g., a nutritional supplement) that unknowingly contains a banned substance.

Using medications as a young athlete.

Athletes are first and foremost people and there are times when people feel unwell or need to use medication.

For example, when people are experiencing symptoms from a common cold or flu, they will often turn to over-the-counter cold and flu remedies. However, for athletes, this can mean putting themselves at risk of inadvertent doping.

Some common over-the-counter medications that people use on a day-to-day basis

contain substances which appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List (e.g., pseudoephedrine).

If an athlete were to use one of these products and then be asked to undertake a drugs test, they could be at risk of producing a positive test and then face a doping ban. Any athlete can be tested at any time, therefore it is important for all athletes to be mindful of what they are putting into their body, but it is particularly important for those competing at higher levels who may be more likely to get tested. This applies to junior sport as well as adults.

How can athletes minimise the risks of using medications?

GlobalDRO is a tool that can be used by athletes (and parents/coaches) to minimise the risk of using a medication that contains a banned substance. GlobalDRO can be used to check medications bought in the UK, US, Australia, Japan, Switzerland and Canada only. This tool can be used to search for specific medications (e.g., Sudafed) or ingredients contained within a product (e.g., pseudoephedrine).

You should encourage your athletes to use GlobalDRO to check any medication carefully before use and also keep a record of the search reference number from the search that they conducted. It is also good to get your athletes into a habit of telling other people that they are athletes (e.g., doctor, physiotherapist) and have to abide by the anti-doping rules.

Using nutritional supplements

Young athletes are still developing and the long-term effects of adolescents using nutritional supplements are unknown. Experts suggest that adolescents should refrain from using nutritional supplements unless there is a medical need and their use is monitored.

Using nutritional supplements to compensate

for a poor diet is not recommended.

One of the reasons for this is that nutritional supplements are seen as foodstuffs and are therefore not regulated. Unlike medications, which have to be proven safe to be sold, nutritional supplements have to be proven unsafe to be removed from sale.

As a result, there are a number of risks associated with the use of nutritional supplements:

  • Products may contain unlisted ingredients or doses of ingredients that exceed the amounts listed on the label. This raises concerns for using nutritional supplements including potential side effects from the overconsumption of products/ingredients or the ingestion of potentially harmful substances.
  • Nutritional supplements may have been contaminated, either during the manufacturing process (from using machinery that is used to make banned substances) or from the dishonest practices of manufacturers (e.g., adding active ingredients not on the label).

If an athlete unintentionally ingests a banned substance by using a nutritional supplement, they could be facing a four-year ban from sport.

How can athletes minimise the risks of using nutritional supplements?

No nutritional supplement can be 100% guaranteed to be free from banned substances.

In fact, research suggests that one in five supplements are contaminated and contain a banned substance. As a result, experts recommend that athletes adopt a ‘food first’ approach, whereby they look to fulfil their nutrition needs by making changes to their diet.

If after an athlete has made changes to their diet and they are still keen to pursue the use of nutritional supplements, they should seek guidance from an expert (e.g., nutritionist) to assess their need and any benefits they could get from using nutritional supplements.

If an athlete is adamant about using a nutritional supplement, they can minimise the risk via Informed Sport. Informed Sport is a website that shows which supplements have undergone risk minimisation processes such as batch testing and checks into how they are produced. There is less risk with using products that have undergone these processes than buying supplements that haven’t undergone checks, but there is still no guarantee that the product is free from banned substances. It is important to highlight that only certain products from certain brands are tested rather than the whole range. Equally, athletes need to buy from the same batch of a product that has been tested to minimise the risk.

What can we do to prevent young athletes from inadvertent doping?

In relation to medications, it is important to encourage athletes to:

TELL everyone they are an athlete (e.g., doctor, physiotherapist, friends, parents) and have to abide by the anti-doping rules

CHECK all medications before use on GlobalDRO and carry out regular checks on medications that are used frequently

ASK for help if they are unsure about a GlobalDRO result

In relation to nutritional supplements, it is important to encourage athletes to:

ASSESS THE NEED. Before using nutritional supplements, an athlete should look to optimise their diet, training and lifestyle. If at this point an athlete feels they need to use nutritional supplements, they should seek advice from an expert (e.g., nutritionist) to help assess the need.

ASSESS THE RISK. Supplements are unregulated and there are no guarantees that any supplement is 100% free from banned substances. However, an athlete can minimise the risks by using Informed Sport to identify supplements that have been batch tested and undergone a risk minimisation process.

ASSESS THE CONSEQUENCES. Many athletes have tested positive for a banned substance due to nutritional supplement use. Even if ingesting the banned substance was unintentional, it would still result in a ban from all sport for up to four years. 

So to go back to the original question, YES, as coaches and parents we should be concerned about doping in youth sport.

But rather than turn a blind eye or be scared of it, there is a lot we can do to educate ourselves and our kids and to minimise young people’s disposition to use PEDs or the chance of them being caught doping inadvertently.

You can follow Lisa @lisa_badders


Lisa is a Research Officer at Leeds Beckett University in England. She is also a qualified Level 2 badminton coach with experience in coaching badminton at the youth level. Lisa’s research interests centre around behaviour change and doping prevention. Specifically, she is interested in the psychosocial factors influencing performance and image enhancement in sport and athletes’ willingness to dope. You can follow Lisa at @lisa_badders