What Do We Tell Our Kids About Athletes And Performance-Enhancing Substances? - MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

What Do We Tell Our Kids About Athletes And Performance-Enhancing Substances?


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Topics: Addiction & Substance Misuse

Lance Armstrong…Sammy Sosa…Mark McGwire…and now Ryan Braun.

These athletes share an awful lot in common.  They’re all celebrated professional sports stars.  They’re all now, and always have been, amazing athletes.  And, they have all fallen hard from the exalted pedestals upon which we seem intent on placing them.

Armstrong, Sosa, McGwire and Braun all used performance-enhancing drugs.  How do you tell your kids that their sports heroes are no longer heroes?  Do the stars stop being heroes to your kids?  How do you tell an 8-year-old that the homeruns that Sammy Sosa hit are somehow not real?  They sure looked real when the made their way out of the park all those times…

A common question thus rears its head for fans and, even more importantly, for the parents of young fans: What do we tell our kids when their idols fall from perceived grace?

We can use the ongoing issue of performance-enhancing substances as a primer for these discussions.  In fact, this is a more complicated issue than it may at first appear.  After all, we tend as a culture to have a binary view of our athletes.  Spend five minutes on Sports Radio, and you’ll get that message. Athletes are either gods, or they’re bums.  There isn’t a whole lot in between.

In fact, developmentally, we tend to view the professional athletes in our world with the cognitive level of an 8-year-old.  An 8-year-old looks at the rules of kickball and sees one of two conclusions: the rules are either entirely right, or completely wrong.  It isn’t until around age 11 or 12 that our children develop the capacity to hold two or more opposing notions in their heads.

However, we can start to teach these more nuanced cognitive skills to our 8-year-olds right now.  The job of a parent is to set the developmental bar just a bit higher than where their kids currently sit; that’s how we help them grow up.

If we stick to our simplified ways, we lose a valuable opportunity to display our more mature capacity for complex thought.  Our kids need to see us think carefully about these issues.  Professional athletes might seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but there exists a good deal of data that our athletes influence us in countless and profound ways.  Just look at the positive regard Magic Johnson garnered when he announced that he was HIV+.  With that one announcement, an entire generation of kids became more tolerant of a previously highly discriminated against disease.  Don’t take lightly the impact that our gladiators have on the minds of the public.

In fact, I don’t think this is anything we parents don’t already know.  However, I do think it is something we parents often forget.  If we feel compelled to complicate the thinking of our children when they complete a social studies project at school, then we ought to feel that same compulsion when our kids talk to us about their fallen sports heroes.  In a broader sense, this allows us to model the avoidance of the knee-jerk response that nonstop media coverage and screaming online commentaries engender.  Modeling calm and cool thinking with regard to disappointing news involving our sports heroes can’t help but to prepare us and our children to remain calm when we’re legitimately threatened.  In other words, Sammy Sosa is not going to hurt your kid, but knee-jerk thinking will.

Here’s one way to start—pursue this line of inquiry:

Because Sammy Sosa took performance-enhancing drugs, does that mean he didn’t hit all those homeruns?  How do we define a homerun?  Is it simply a ball hit out of the park, or is it a ball hit out of the park by someone who took drugs to power the force of the bat?  Ask these questions directly and honestly, and see what your 8-year-old does with the answer.  This kind of inquiry, of course, sets the stage for an even more complex line of reasoning.

Are glasses performance-enhancing?  What about a brace on your ankle if you’ve recently sprained it? What about genetics, for goodness sakes?  I mean no offense to my parents, but I certainly did not inherit from them any great skill at hitting a baseball.  I could work for the rest of my life on trying to dunk a basketball, and it just plain won’t happen.  But, there are kids I knew who could dunk when they were thirteen.

I wouldn’t box your kids in on these issues.  Yes, it is against the rules of major league baseball to take performance enhancers, and it is for that reason that we do not see Mark McGwire in the Hall of Fame.  This fits nicely with an 8-year-old’s sense of rules, and in no way are you going to condone taking these substances.

But why not, as one kid asked me?  Why not take the performance enhancers?  If everyone else is taking them, shouldn’t we all be allowed?

Well, no, because they’re dangerous. That’s what you can say.  That’s a concept an 8-year-old can understand.  Taking those performance enhancers is like playing in traffic.

You can say that we as a culture like to value our athletes, but we value our health even more.  We do not, or at least should not, put a homerun in a place where it matters more than our lives.  Countless sports movies have exactly this dilemma on full display, and as your child gets older, you can use these movies as discussion points.  The man who plays with a broken back in Any Given Sunday…the young quarterback who takes an extra shot of medicine in his knee in North Dallas Forty…these movies are the subject of a different blog, but you can use these stories to generate thoughtful discussions.

In fact, that’s really what this is all about.  Calm heads must prevail.  Complicate your thinking.  Talk to your kids from multiple points of view.  And don’t worry—you’re not condoning alleged, or proven bad behavior.  If anything, you’ll be modeling the balanced thinking that you’ll be proud your kid displays as these things happen.  After all, judging from the news these days, these events aren’t going to go away any time soon.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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