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Melanie Johnson , M.A.
Melanie Johnson , M.A.

Can The Adrenaline Rush From Sports Become An Addiction?

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We have all met people with so-called “Type A” personalities: driven, competitive people who believe they can do a better job at work, coaches who believes that their way is the only way, and live to prove it on the field, the court, or the stadium, and, yes, sports parents who are determined to prove that their child is the next sports superstar.  What motivates such people is a need which can become addictive, so much so that there are those who suggest that adrenaline/epinephrine addiction should be considered in the DSM (the manual classifying mental disorders) as an addiction, alongside addiction to illegal drugs. 

The problem is that, having pushed our children's need to compete and win - and the surge of adrenaline it creates - parents may be creating a craving for that adrenialine rush which makes it hard, when the season is over for young athletes to slow down and relax.  Perhaps this explains why, for many kids, driven by Type-A, adrenaline-fueled parents, there is no off-season, not only because the kids demand the "drug" of competition, but because year-round competition meets the parents’ needs as well.

I believe that many issues in society are related for this need for constant gratification and having a chance to compete in some way.  Take, for example, the recent disclosure that a former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator handed out bounties to players for injuring opponents so seriously that they were unable to return to the game, or, worse, needed to leave the field on a golf cart.  Knowing that they had played hard within the rules wasn't enough; they needed the extra "high" from knowing that they had just "earned" a financial reward for knocking a player out of the game.  It is the same kind of need for an extra thrill, excitement or adrenaline rush that motivates pro athletes like Mike Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, and a whole host of baseball players to engage in a variety of non-normative behavior - dog fighting, alleged sexual abuse, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs -  all to some extent or another related to competing, all sharing the common denominator that such behavior made the player feel good, got him "high", gave him a  “rush.” 

Every day when our kids compete, especially as elite athletes, they experience that same rush. It is something any parent who was an athlete understands and remembers.  But what about when our kids are finished competing, and no longer experiencing the “rushes” that come from sports (what the introduction to the old ABC show, Wide World of Sports, used to call the "thrill of victory"?  The need for such stimulation doesn't simply go away.  To be sure, it can be channeled in a variety of ways - into schoolwork or a job for instance - but not for all.  I think it is important for parents to find ways to teach kids alternative ways to derive pleasure, including developing an appreciation for the calmness and serenity of relaxing.  

As a sport parent with a Type A personality, I know it is something I need to  work on, both for myself and my children.  My advice is to look for negative behaviors that spill over outside the sphere of sports and talk with your child about how relaxing does not mean being “lazy” or getting out of an exercise or practice regimen.  If we do not address this behavior, we may be raising children for an unhappy future, when the wins they achieved in sports are not an everyday occurrence, for a life in which they end up always searching to re-live their “glory days”; raising kids who haven't developed an appreciation for what I call “small victories”.  There may not be trophies and adoring fans, but there can be a sense of accomplishment that does not center around a chemical response, but rather an emotional response.   It means that, as parents, we also need to learn how to relax, before we succumb to vicarious thrill-seeking or negative coaching techniques.