Teens may experiment with steroids to build muscle and perform at higher levels in athletics, but they may be unaware of the dangers to their physical and mental health.

Why Do High School Athletes Use Steroids?

High school athletes sometimes face tremendous pressure to perform. This can sprout from pressure to succeed for coaches, parents and teammates. Social media impacts teens in profound ways, too. If a teenager is serious about their athletic career past high school, these pressures around them grow even stronger.

College Athletic Scholarships

Colleges offer admission and generous athletic scholarships to talented and prolific high school athletes. But the competition is fierce. A student’s athletic performance in high school can have an enormous impact on getting into the schools they want — which can impact the rest of their lives, as well.

High school junior Sally is a promising distance swimmer, and her coach has been telling her that she could be Summer Olympics material if she keeps practicing and improving. A key to getting there, however, is to make it onto a swim team at a prestigious university. Sally knows she needs to impress recruiters if she is going to be accepted into the college of her choice. Her current distance time is not quite good enough for her desired school, but if she fails to get accepted, she could lose out on her Olympic dreams.

It’s in these cutthroat, desperate scenarios that Sally and other teens often seek out athletic improvement through steroid use. The problem is that there are hundreds of other students across the country who are also aiming to dive into the Olympic pools with thousands of cameras flashing from the stands. Where they perform in thr future depends on how they perform now. That’s where the “edge” kicks in — the drive to outshine other students who have a similar athletic make-up. For teens looking to get that edge, doping is often the shortcut.

High School Popularity

In high school social strata, being an athlete is inherently different than being a star athlete. The attention from peers, coaches and media is amplified for the athletes whose stat lines jump out from the box scores. While it’s safe to say that the level of overall scrutiny also increases as a high school athlete gains more attention, it often pales in comparison to the status a child can receive among their peers.

Jimmy, who is a linebacker on his high school football team. His statistics are good, but he knows that Tom’s are better. Tom is burlier, faster, and gets a great deal of respect from his classmates and fellow athletes. Jimmy wishes he could play like Tom, and would give almost anything to be able to do so. When he hears that using anabolic steroids can help boost his strength, Jimmy’s intrigued about how they can help his own performance.

Teen Body Image

Steroid and growth hormone use tend to promote a muscular appearance in users. Teens with body image issues are especially vulnerable to the appeal of steroids. Societal expectations leave high school athletes desiring to look brawny — for sports, for dates and for confidence. Even if your teenager is not genetically predisposed to the strapping appearance they desire, steroids are an shortcut to achieving the look. In many cases, a teenager may supplement their workout routine with steroid use, effectively amplifying their body mass in an unhealthy way.

Influence of Professional Athletes

World Anti-Doping Agency Director General David Howman says that one of his primary concerns is that children are using steroids on their journey to professional status in the sports world. Howman believes that teen athletes are driven by what they see star athletes earn and the status they achieve.

Steroid use in professional sports is a bigger deal than we may think. Studies have suggested that upwards of 10% of famous athletes may be using steroids. For burgeoning high school athletes, these pros are their role models, their heroes and their idols. If the people they’re looking up to are using performance-enhancing drugs to get ahead, why shouldn’t it start in high school? It’s a classic case of “monkey see, monkey do.”

For example, New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez admitted to the Drug Enforcement Agency that he used steroids to boost his abilities. When this information was released in 2013, it sent a shockwave through the nation. Rodriguez — known in pop culture as A-Rod — publicly denied his steroid usage, but confirmed it in a sworn testimony. The story leaked, damning A-Rod in the public eye, but providing validation for aspiring athletes that steroids were the means to reach the pinnacles of their respective sports. In fact, the same drug clinic owner who provided A-Rod with steroids admitted to having distributed performance-enhancing drugs to high school athletes as well.

Among high-profile athletes who’ve been caught cheating, A-Rod is only a drop in the bucket. Decorated and former seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was stripped of all of his medals in 2012 following a retroactive investigation, which found that he had been doping while racing. In 2016, tennis star Maria Sharapova confessed that she tested positive for steroids at a recent major tournament, leading to her suspension from the sport and the loss of her promotional relationship with Nike.

Although these consequences are not desirable, high school athletes may still be willing to risk getting caught if they believe steroids will enable them to play at a higher level, just like their heroes. For many, steroids can help them get where they want to go despite the eventual consequences — if they get caught at all. It’s just a risk many are willing to take.

How Many High School Athletes Use Steroids?

Due to lax drug testing regulations at the non-professional level, it’s unclear how many high school athletes use steroids. However, prominent steroids researcher Dr. Charles Yesalis and sports psychologist Dr. Michael S. Bahrke write: “Most studies report that 3–12% of adolescent males admit to using [anabolic steroids] at some time during their life. Among adolescent females, studies find that 1–2% report having used steroids.”

Steroid Testing in High School

Only about 20% of U.S. high schools drug test their athletes. In schools that do not offer drug tests, detection can be tricky. When the Dallas News conducted a four-month investigation into drug use in high school sports, journalists found that coaches tend to keep silent — even when they suspect steroid abuse in their students — for fear of lawsuits from irate parents. When students do not fear being tested, they are free to use whatever drugs they think will help them improve their game.

Boys vs. Girls

Steroid use is generally viewed as a male issue, but this is simply not true. About one-third of high school steroid users are female. Both male and female athletes wish for a competitive edge in their sport and are sometimes willing to risk the negative effects of steroids. Also, though teen boys are often more prone to wanting a brawnier appearance, teenage girls are not exempt from the desire to look muscular and toned.

Consequences of Steroid Use in High School Athletes

In addition to the many risks of steroids, there is also a long list of emotional difficulties that can result from steroid use.

Loss of Playing Privileges

In 2014, 16-year-old weightlifter Chika Amalaha was stripped of her Olympic gold medal after she tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. She was banned from the Olympics for two years, causing her to miss out on two prime athletic years of her life that she can never get back.

Whether it’s high school or the Olympics, the devastation of getting kicked off a sports team can be crushing. Some high schools have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to steroid use in sports, so if your child is caught using these drugs, the harsh reality is that they may wind up being forced off their team, effectively putting a damper on their long-term athletic dreams.

Academic and Social Consequences of Steroid Use

Getting kicked off a high school sports team for a drug-related offense may impact your teen’s chances of obtaining an athletic scholarship to college.

With the loss of sports also comes a loss of identity for many teens. Friendships and bonds are forged within huddles and within locker rooms. Disconnecting a teenager from the comforts of that sports bubble — keeping them from practicing and playing with their teammates — can make friendships fizzle. Often, this means your child will miss out on the critical peer support they need during an already difficult time.

Co-Occurring Addictions

The rigorous schedule required by organized sports provides an outlet for teens who might otherwise need some guidance in their free time. Without that structure, kids might tend to find destructive ways to pass the time. When subsequent teen alcohol abuse or drug abuse leads to dependencies on the substances, only a substance abuse treatment plan may be able to help.

How To Tell If Your Teen Athlete Is Using Steroids

Often, sudden bursts of improvement in athletic ability is unrelated to your teenager’s natural physical growth and development. Sometimes, these improvements are natural. If you believe there’s an underlying drug problem at work, it’s important to remain calm and know how to confront someone with a drug problem.

If your teen’s dramatic athletic improvements run parallel to a cutthroat, “win-at-all-costs” attitude, accompanied by increased aggression, severe acne (especially on the back), a bulkier build and more time spent at the gym, then they may be using steroids. It’s important to recognize the signs.

Steroid usage has been linked to risky behaviors in teens, so it is cause for your concern if you notice your child engaging in unsafe driving, physical fighting, carrying a weapon, suicidal actions or other extreme behaviors that are usually unlike your child.

How To Help

If you suspect your teen has been using steroids, begin by talking to them. Their health, education and future depend on your patience and understanding. If you cannot get through to your child by your own efforts, then you may want to talk to your teen’s coach and guidance counselor. Depending upon the severity of the issue, a drug rehab program may be necessary.

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent options for treating teen steroid use and addiction. A drug rehab counselor will be able to help you determine a proper path to treatment. Above all, no matter how upset you are, remember that there is always hope for a drug problem.

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Editor – Gretchen Koebbe
Gretchen Koebbe is a writing and reading specialist based out of Detroit. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.