Using professional athletes to discourage high school athletes from taking performance enhancing steroids has little or no effect, while relying on the influence of peers has far more impact, according to a kinesiology researcher who recently authored a paper on the subject.
“When we think of interventions to persuade kids to stay away from drugs, we think we should use role models, that we should have a professional athlete such as Peyton Manning saying ‘Hey kids, don’t use steroids, they’re wrong, they’re bad for you,’” said Julian Woolf. “Our study says that using role models or aspirational others is really of little benefit. What we really need to do to send that message is to do it via similar others, kids their own age, their friends and teammates.”
In a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Sport Management, Dr. Woolf describes a World Anti-Doping Agency funded study in which more than 400 male high school baseball, football and basketball players in Iowa and Illinois were surveyed to better understand what factors would influence their intentions to use steroids.
He analyzed the subject in the context of the theory of normative social behaviour, which states that the relationship between descriptive norms, or your perception of the prevalence of a behavior, is moderated by a number of factors, including injunctive norms – what you believe others’ expectations are of you – outcome expectations, and group identity.
The subject was also studied in terms of the participants’ proximal networks, which refers to the proximity of an influential person’s relative closeness or distance to the subject. The results, Woolf said, demonstrate that the intention to use steroids among the participants was low, but those closest to the participant have far more influence on their behaviour.
“In terms of descriptive norms, they do have an influence on their intention to use steroids,” he said. “That is, if they believe their friends are using at a higher rate, then they’re more likely to use. However the strength of that relationship goes down in magnitude the further out you go. So, friends have a much bigger impact than professional athletes.”
The results, he said, have important implications for sport managers and policy makers trying to ensure that steroid use among high school athletes doesn’t increase.
“What we really need to focus on is what’s closest to home,” he said. “That’s what’s going to have an impact.”