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How coaches can protect players from doping risk
The fight to keep sport clean and fair has never been more intense, with anti-doping agencies working overtime to clamp down on the cheats.
But the heat of competition and rewards for success have never been greater, either. This is creating pressure on athletes to cut corners in their physique building or turn to substances for those crucial marginal gains.
We spoke to Tammy Hanson, education manager for USADA [US Anti-Doping Agency], about the work the organization is doing to catch the miscreants – and what role coaches can play in preventing players from falling into a damaging doping spiral.
WSC: Tell us more about USADA and the work you do with soccer players in the United States.
TH: “USADA is recognized by the US Congress. We’re the independent non-profit organization charged with managing the anti-doping program for all sport national governing bodies, including US Soccer.
“We oversee athlete education, drug reference, medical exemptions, Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), in- and out-of- competition testing as well as the results management process.
“The elite education team is responsible for ensuring athletes and their support personnel are aware of the rights and responsibilities within drug testing, but also the importance of competing clean.
“USADA’s mission is to stand with athletes, champion their right to clean sport, inspire true and healthy sport and promote the integrity of sport.
“We do it working directly with US Soccer – both the women’s and men’s teams – and various levels of athletes, whether through our youth program, TrueSport, or through USADA’s testing program.”
“The biggest threat to soccer players is the uneducated use of dietary supplements”
WSC: What are the biggest threats to clean sport that young soccer players should be aware of? Are there any prohibited substances found more often in soccer than other sports?
TH: “The biggest threats to soccer players include the uneducated use of dietary supplements, and the win-at-all-costs mentality some sport cultures can breed.
“When it comes to dietary supplements, young athletes and families often assume that if a product is on a store shelf, it’s safe for them to use and are surprised when they find out it’s not mandatory to disclose the ingredients within the product. So if they’re not educating themselves on those products, that can be pretty risky.
“Also, we tend to have this immense desire to win, but at what cost? It increases pressure on athletes to cut corners, and can pose a risk to their safety and wellbeing.
“Social pressures, whether perceived or real, are part of the threat. If an athlete feels inadequate because their friends all say they’re too skinny, or they don’t have enough muscle mass, they may start to lean on alternative means of ‘fixing’ themselves.
“So, as a coach, using empowering and positive language and focusing on skills rather than on outcomes can relieve some of those existing social pressures.”
WSC: Are athletes progressing from youth to adult soccer more vulnerable to prohibited substances? At what age should coaches start educating players?
TH: “We believe coaches should start educating athletes early and often. But we want them to meet the athlete where they’re at. So, talking to a five-year-old player about protein supplements might not be the way to go because that’s going to go way over their head.
“But if you start a conversation with them around shortcuts, cutting corners or cheating, and what the consequences might be for their team, you’re starting to shape their understanding of the anti-doping world.
“That way, when they’re older – at middle school or early high school – and we start to have some of those other conversations about performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), they already have these values of remaining authentic and upholding integrity.”
WSC: What advice would you give for young female athletes when it comes to anti- doping education? Are there any substances which may be particularly attractive to female players, perhaps for things unrelated to sport, like body image?
TH: “There are a lot of substances that athletes might want to take to improve their body image. Quite a few of those are prohibited – a lot of diuretics, for example.
“We really encourage coaches to create a culture where they’re encouraging athletes to learn from our TrueSport body image lesson, which gives them really good tips on how to have conversations with athletes about how they view their bodies. Establishing a positive relationship with their body is really important to long-term results, as well.
“If an athlete can make a commitment to treating themselves with kindness, pampering their body with nourishing foods, wearing comfortable clothing, having good hygiene routines, getting appropriate exercise and rest and recovery.
“These are things that are going to naturally make athletes feel better about their bodies, and they won’t feel they need to turn to a specific miracle drug or pill.”
WSC: What tips would you give to coaches who are looking to support and educate their athletes around anti-doping?
TH: “Coaches need to be knowledgeable themselves and keep up-to-date on clean sport education.
“Creating a positive clean sport culture is really important, too – keeping the conversations at the forefront of practices, team meetings or dinners, asking athletes
questions about their personal understanding of and experiences with some of the topics, and opening it up for discussion.
“So rather than just lecturing the athletes on what to do, maybe they can ask the athletes how they’re feeling about a specific topic?
“It can be influential if, as a group, the team decides there are certain behaviours they want to embody or make a commitment that PEDs are just not something they’re going to do. There’s a lot more buy-in than if a coach just tells them not to utilize PEDs.
“USADA also offers many resources for coaches and athletes to get up to speed on important information and how to address some of those difficult topics.”
WSC: What are the key things coaches should remind athletes about, in terms of how they can check supplements they take?
TH: “It depends on the level. For athletes who are starting to really excel, one of the earliest things they can get in the habit of is checking medications they take – anything that goes in their eyes, ears, mouth, nose, or skin – at Global DRO [Drug Reference Online].
“Coaches need to be knowledgeable and keep up with clean sport education.”
“It takes less than 30 seconds and just getting in that habit will really help them once they are subject to testing, understanding why the things they’re taking might be prohibited, or filing for a TUE if something they’re taking is prohibited and they need to take it.
“But it’s also about educating themselves, parents and athletes on the risks of dietary supplements. Players must make sure, if they decide to utilize supplements, they’ve tried a food-first approach, and that it’s NSF Certified for Sport, that they understand why they’re taking it, what’s in it and who’s making it.”
WSC: What should coaches advise athletes or other coaches to do if they have a suspicion of doping going on within their team or maybe another team?
TH: “If an athlete is subject to drug testing, then we encourage the coach to utilize our Play Clean tip line, because we would need to do some specific target testing.
“But if it’s a youth athlete who might not be subject to testing yet, we have TrueSport experts. One of them, Nadia Kyba, is a registered social worker.
“She would suggest a coach start taking a trauma-informed approach to the conversation with the athlete, and perhaps even the parent – asking what led the athlete to make that decision – so those core issues can be addressed.
“But certainly if the athlete is subject to testing, we would want to make sure that’s information we’re aware of.”
WSC: Finally, where can coaches go for more support information and education? And where can they send their players for more information as well?
TH: “We have a lot of really great resources. I always encourage people to go to the usada.org or TrueSport.org websites.
“I also encourage coaches, parents, and athletes to follow our social media channels, because those not only give a bunch of great tips, but there are different nutritional pieces on there.
“We also have our ‘Asking for a Friend’ feature, which is a clip that basically talks through some of those questions you might not want to ask.
“So the website and our social media channels are two really great places for coaches to continue to get content to talk to their athletes about.” WSC