Leveling the playing field: Morality lessons for athletes can reduce doping

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — The use of steroids and other banned substances in sports to gain an unfair advantage is nothing new. Despite this, regulators have struggled to control this dishonest practice for a long, long time. Most solutions to this problem have focused on stringent testing policies, but a new study suggests education is the solution. Researchers at the University of Birmingham say specialized programs can convince elite athletes not to use unfair performance enhancers if it appeals to their senses of morality and reminds them of the risks of using these substances.

For this research, study authors developed two distinct athlete education programs. The first focused on all the immorality of “doping,” and the second centered more on the health risks posed by the use of banned substances.

The British team tested these initiatives on athletes from from Greece and the United Kingdom. Researchers say both variations appear to be equally effective at curbing the use of performance enhancing drugs over a six-month time period.

“We must take action to reduce doping in sport -evidence suggests that banned substances are being used at alarming levels, particularly among elite athletes, where over 50% of competitors may be using these drugs based on some estimates,” says Dr. Maria Kavussanu, from the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, in a university release.

Convincing athletes that doping is wrong

“Our research group is the first to develop and evaluate an intervention focusing on moral variables and compare it with an educational intervention of equal duration. Both programs were effective in reducing doping likelihood in two countries – effects which were sustained six months after the interventions finished,” Kavussanu continues.

The moral intervention targets three specific elements considered to play a role in doping: moral identity (honesty, fairness), moral disengagement (clearing one’s conscience of responsibility), and moral atmosphere (“How would my teammates react to me doping?”). During this program, researchers asked athletes to consider the varying types of success and which variety means more — winning at all costs or doing the best you can. The program also covered the importance of honesty and fairness. Specifically, it focused on how doping undermines all that.

Additionally, the study asked athletes to ponder why and how so many athletes are able to justify cheating to themselves. The program addressed specific athletes who have had their medals and accomplishments taken away after their doping practices came to light.

Winning clean is good for your health

Meanwhile, the educational intervention focused more on enlightening athletes on the dangers of these substances, the importance of healthy nutrition, and whistle-blowing. This portion of the study examined the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and it’s extensive role in identifying doping offenders.

“Our findings suggest that alongside their typical content such as providing information about the harms of banned substances, anti-doping education programs should consider targeting moral variables,” Dr. Kavussanu notes. “That the two interventions produced sustained changes across the UK and Greece suggests that they contained highly effective elements that cut across cultures and are relevant to athletes from different countries.”

The study appears in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

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