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Action needed to address schoolboy doping vulnerability

Leeds Beckett University experts have called for collective action to reduce the risk of intentional and inadvertent doping in schoolboys after a study has revealed a lack of awareness of harms and risks associated with supplement use.

Rugby scrum

Research led by Leeds Beckett shows that 95 per cent of schoolboys reported the use of at least one sports food or supplement in their lifetime, with 82 per cent reporting use in the last three months. Sports drinks were most commonly consumed, followed by energy drinks. Nearly 39 per cent had used protein supplements in the last three months and some schoolboys spent up to £25 a month on supplements. The use of pre-workouts and fat burners was also noted, but to a lesser degree.

This is the first in-depth study to explore schoolboy supplement use behaviours and doping vulnerability. It raises concerns as schoolboys are turning to potentially harmful supplements and using unreliable sources - such as the internet and peers - to guide their use.

Schoolboys also shared the perception that “bigger is better” in the sport of rugby and conveyed pressure to put on weight and muscle to secure their place on the team. Beyond performance and selection pressures, players also pointed to bulking up to boost confidence, particularly when going into tackles on the rugby pitch.

The study also found evidence of teachers and coaches encouraging supplement use in schools and noted a lack of knowledge and understanding amongst influential social agents.

In total, 771 schoolboys from 42 English counties and 135 teachers and coaches from schools and colleges across England took part in the survey, with one-to-one interviews carried out with 25 schoolboys and five teachers.

Of the schoolboys, 53 per cent were rugby union players, 32 per cent other athletic males and 14 per cent did not take part in any sport for their school, college or local club. The majority of those surveyed who take part in sport competed at school or club level.

The study highlighted several differences between the rugby union players and those who participated in other sports, which may enhance their vulnerability to doping. Schoolboy rugby union players reported a greater drive for muscularity than other athletic males, were more likely to be using protein and pre-workout supplements and weight training – behaviours which have previously been associated with a heightened risk of doping.

According to the research, 58 per cent of schoolboys and nearly 50 per cent of teachers surveyed appraised the use of banned substances as a serious issue in school that needed attention.

Professor Susan Backhouse, of Leeds Beckett’s Carnegie School of Sport, led the research, which was commissioned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

She said: “For the first time, this study looked at the complex interplay of factors that impact on supplement use behaviours and doping risk.

“Nutritional supplement use was found to go hand-in-glove with regular gym attendance and the interviews pointed to ‘the gym’ as a doping-risk environment, where substance use is embedded within a social and cultural system.

“Peers often endorse acting or looking a certain way and young men often corresponded to secure ‘membership’ in the social group that an athletic community can represent.

“This, combined with a lack of knowledge on supplement usage, can encourage misuse of nutritional supplements, which can lead to detrimental side-effects in this maturing population.

“Our findings point to schoolboy rugby union being a fertile ground for progression from habitual use of permitted performance enhancing strategies to prohibited substance use.

“During the interviews, schoolboys spoke of an implicit and explicit reinforcement of size matters, and the physicality of the game was found to drive behaviour. For example, schoolboys spoke on the transition into the gym environment. It was here that some of the schoolboys came into contact with anabolic steroid users and banned substances were on offer.”

The research found that schoolboys - who face sanctions if found guilty of doping - and their teachers believed that education on nutritional supplements and banned substances should be compulsory in schools.

Professor Backhouse said: “The findings of this study strengthen our call to take action on the dopogenic environment. This is the sum of influences produced by the surroundings, opportunities and conditions that promote anti-doping rule violations.

“Rugby union players’ drive for muscularity could be associated with the demands of playing a physical sport such as rugby and exaggerated by the norms that exist within the game, and their training environments.

“Whilst an individual’s behaviour is guided by their desire to enhance themselves, it is also driven by what is perceived to be ‘normal’ or what is perceived to be expected of them.

 “These steps might involve using permitted nutritional supplements, but in some cases, it might involve using banned performance-enhancing drugs.”

Professor Backhouse added: “We need to shift our anti-doping efforts upstream and work preventatively, addressing the root causes of intentional and inadvertent doping.

"Programmes that focus on fear tactics are likely to be regarded as unbalanced – and therefore biased – and may inadvertently encourage future use. Young men can be inherently curious, willing to experiment and unable to fully estimate the risk of such behaviours. We also should avoid being alarmist and seek to confirm the findings of this study through further research.

 “Multifaceted education programmes should be embedded within schools so that schoolboys understand the significance of a balanced diet and a ‘food first’ approach, the functional alternatives to supplement use and the importance of a carefully planned and monitored strength and conditioning programme.

 “At the same time, the programme should include the development of cooking skills to ensure that a ‘food first’ approach can be achieved.

“The RFU should work in partnership with schools and academies to engage parents in education and training initiatives, so that they can help support a “food first” approach at home.

 “The RFU also needs to be reflective and challenging of its own role in proactively addressing the risk of doping in the sport by examining the environmental triggers that ‘size matters’. For example, the messages that the organisation may be cascading through promotional materials and mascots would be a good place to start.

“It should also consider its position on reporting doping when it pertains to U18’s, and in partnership with schools, review current policy and practice.

 “The RFU are taking the lead in developing an evidence-informed strategy to prevent doping in the game and I hope the necessary resources and support will follow to ensure this strategy can be delivered effectively.”

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