The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

From Steroids to SSRIS: What Do We Really Mean By "Performance-Enhancement?"

Should we broaden the definition of "performance-enhancing" drugs?

Much hay has been made in the past few months over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, but the question remains: what makes a drug performance-enhancing?

According to the World Anti-Doping Code, three substance categories govern the chemistry of cheating—1) It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance 2) It represents a potential or actual health risk 3) It is contrary to the spirit of sport—with a score of two-out-of-three being enough to earn a drug a place on the dreaded Prohibited List.


But what does it mean to “enhance sport performance?” Talk to most professional athletes and you’ll find them in agreement: the mental aspects of the game are significantly more important than the physical aspects. How important? Well, in Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Marty Shottenheimer, the winningest coach in the history of football, says that 75 percent of all the mistakes made in the NFL draft would be eliminated if someone could develop a psychological test to measure how incoming players deal with three pressures: a) more adoration and recognition than they’ve ever received before b) more unsupervised time than they’ve ever had in their lives c) more money than they’ve ever had in their lives.”

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And Shottenheimer’s list is only one set of psychological factors. There are others, with mood foremost among them. In fact, in the past twenty years, there have been hundreds of studies done by hundreds of researchers linking a positive emotional state to superior athletic performance. Everyone from volleyball players to basketball stars to tennis players to cross country runners have been tested and with few exceptions more happiness equals more winning. And more happiness is now available in pill form.

Which brings us to Ricky Williams. In 1999, the New Orleans’ Saints traded eleven draft choices for a chance to select the star University of Texas running back. Williams, if the rumors were to be believed, would revolutionize the position, bringing glory and championships to a team sorely in need. Instead, he merely destroyed the team. How bad was Williams? Three years later he was traded away to Miami for draft picks. In Florida, he finally lived up to the hype. In his first year as a Dolphin, Williams rushed for a league-leading 1,853 yards and made the Pro Bowl. So startling was his turn-around that rumors of drug abuse soon followed. And those rumors were true. Williams was taking drugs. He was strung out on the antidepressant Paxil.

And he’s not the only one. Athlete depression has long been a closet issue, but with the big money to be made in the antidepressant market, that issue is being forced into the open. Along these lines, it is GlaxoSmithKline who manufactures Paxil and it is Glaxo who hired legendary Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw to be their spokesman (he is currently touring the country on "The Terry Bradshaw Depression Tour”). So while no hard numbers exist, we can assume that a healthy portion of the ten million Americans taking their daily dose belong in the pro-athlete category. And all of these legally-obtained SSRIs are boosting their performance on the field (how this boost is occurring will be a topic for my next blog), right alongside their mood off of it.

Which raises another question: If steroids ruin careers, why does no one have a problem with Prozac Nation making the team?

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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