Athletes need to beat reliance on drugs

Testing: With steroids ruled out, players must find other sources of muscle, focus and confidence.

April 20, 2003|By Peter Dopkin | Peter Dopkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Spring training was marred by the ephedrine-related death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

And now a new season is upon us and already story lines such as the Orioles' dismal start and their inability to score are draped across the sports page and are rapidly shaping this 2003 season.

However, the old issues surrounding anabolic steroid use in Major League Baseball still have the power to cast a cloud over the future of the sport. In addition to the allegations made last summer by Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti, former Oriole and now Yankee pitcher David Wells claims in his new book that "25 to 40 percent" of major leaguers used steroids. This ever-present issue won't seem to go away for Commissioner Bud Selig, the Baseball Players Association, and the fans.

Anabolic steroids are drugs similar to male hormones. Male hormones have androgenic and anabolic effects. Androgenic effects are changes in sexual characteristics, such as voice changes, hair growth on the face and genitals, shrinking of the testicles, and increased aggressiveness. Anabolic effects of male hormones include accelerated growth of muscle, bone, and red blood cells, as well as enhanced neural conduction.

Another frequent effect of steroids is a "psychosomatic state" characterized by feelings of well being, euphoria and tolerance to stress.

In almost every aspect of life success breeds confidence, and nowhere is this more apparent than in sports. Athletes at every age try to discover what gives them an edge over opponents.

Unfortunately, many athletes feel the need to find their edge elsewhere. Former Most Valuable Player Award winners Canseco and Caminiti looked to another resource to gain their confidence - anabolic steroids - and as they have said, they are not alone.

During the 2002 season the sport was rocked by confessions from these two stars. "At first I felt like a cheater. But I looked around, and everybody was doing it," Caminiti told Sports Illustrated. Canseco claimed 85 percent of major leaguers take steroids. In an interview with Fox Sports Net Canseco said, "There would be no basebal1 left if they drug-tested everyone." He added, "It has completely restructured the game as we know it. That's why guys are hitting 50 or 60 or 75 home runs."

This is the psychology of life and sport. What can I do to gain the advantage? We have grown up believing in rally caps, lucky T-shirts, favorite socks, eating Fruit Loops, and even breathing out of a particular eyelid (Bull Durham) - all because we believe that in the end this will make the difference between success and failure.

However, as sports become more competitive it's not as simple as just winning and losing. The stakes for success become greater as athletes fight for scholarships, playing time, draft positions, and ultimately multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts. Both amateur and professional athletes spend hour after hour in the weight room, and watching films of themselves and their opponents to gain an extra edge and the confidence needed to not only succeed, but to excel.

Anabolic steroids without question help increase muscle and make athletes faster, and thus enhance confidence. "Confidence is everything," says Lew Lyon a sports physiologist at Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital. "It is a variable that feeds on itself. It is a consideration of self-efficacy. Confidence is also something that can be your downfall - it can make you overly arrogant."

The psychological effects of steroids may be greater than the physical effects. The increased confidence enables athletes to be more focused. It allows a hitter to tune out 45,000 screaming fans and see only the ball as it is released from the pitcher's hand, or a pitcher to see only the catcher's mitt. Because steroids increase confidence, they also increase focus and performance.

Charles Maher, sports psychologist for the Cleveland Indians and New York Jets, believes that "Players on steroids can focus more because they are more confident. And there is a group of major league players who will do anything to enhance their confidence."

Sports at a high level are heavily based on repetition. Whether it is a baseball player, a golfer and the swing, or a basketball player and the jump shot, it is the ability to play without thinking about the mechanics that allows an athlete to excel.

"Everything is autonomic," says Lyon. In other words, if a ballplayer is thinking about how to swing or pitch he cannot focus on hitting or making the pitch. A batter practices his swing time and time again so that he can focus on the task at hand and not the basic elements of the game. When a player's confidence is diminished, he is unable to perform at the level expected.

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