By Dr Jason Mazanov MAPS
Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW@ADFA

Exploring the role of performance enhancing drugs (PED) in sport gives performance psychology an opportunity to look into its ‘dark side'. The psychology of the use of PED in sport moves away from traditional performance psychology aimed at helping people fulfil their potential, to preventing a performance enhancing behaviour. What motivates an athlete to use PED given the high stakes of being caught? The obvious answer is ‘to win', which more likely reflects factors like economic incentives (prize and sponsorship money) and social pressures (national gold medal expectations). However, winning is unlikely to be a complete explanation.

One would expect robust debate about the psychology of PED use in sport. Somewhat surprisingly psychology is yet to grapple with this issue. A review of the social psychology of drugs in sport commissioned by the World Anti Doping Agency (Backhouse, McKenna, Robinson, & Atkin, 2007) used 139 references, of which only a proportion related to psychology (the remainder were epidemiological or tangentially relevant). While the research is scant, Australian psychology has made some major contributions.

A very brief history of performance enhancing drugs (PED) in sport

PED have been documented in sport since the ancient Olympics. The revival of the modern Olympics coincided with increasing interest in the measurement, pharmacology and psychology of performance (Hoberman, 1992). Innovations with PED began accelerating through World War Two and the ensuing Cold War, most (in)famously the East German Olympic teams. Managing PED in sport came to a head after several athlete deaths in the 1960s, giving rise to the Olympic movement's anti-doping policy that has been used ever since. The strength of anti-doping has been consolidated with the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Code. The Code defines the framework for administering anti-doping through an annually updated list of prohibited substances and methods. 

Notable Australian research into PED use in sport

Anshel (1991) reviewed a range of factors identified through personal interactions with coaches and athletes to provide advice on intervening in PED behaviour based on cognitive (e.g., show concern or discuss ethics) and behavioural (e.g., assist with boredom or goal setting) perspectives. While a useful foundation to build testable grounded theory, the anecdotal nature of the research gives little insight into the underlying psychology. To this author's knowledge, a grounded theory based on Anshel's or other work founded on interactions with coaches and athletes is yet to be formulated.

Donovan, Egger, Kapernick and Mendoza (2002) used principles from social cognition to conceptualise a model for an athlete's decision to use PED. The model explores the effect appraisals of threat, benefit, morality and legitimacy have on attitudes and intentions and subsequent compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code. Importantly, other influences such as reference groups (e.g., coaches), athlete personality, and the affordability and availability of PED are explicitly included in the model. Research on the validity of this elegant model is part of an Australian Research Council Grant that is yet to be reported.

Strelan and Boeckman's (2003) model is based on an application of deterrence theory, explaining athletes' PED use in terms of criminal behaviour. The model posits an athlete's decision to use PED as the consequence of an analysis of deterrents (e.g., sanctions) relative to benefits (e.g., sponsorship) moderated by situational factors (e.g., type of drug or perceived prevalence). The only empirical test of this theory uses AFL players (Strelan & Boeckman, 2006) and shows the model has merit as an explanation of the psychology underlying an athlete's decision making on PED use.

Working towards a psychology of PED use

Developing a psychology of PED use is an opportunity for basic and applied research to work together towards rigorous grounded theory that explains something of human behaviour. Australian research into the psychology of PED use is an excellent starting point. The experience of practising performance and sports psychologists could greatly inform the development of a psychology of PED use among athletes. The key is to tap into that experience and report it so we can learn more about what people are willing to do excel. However, there are two key issues those working towards a psychology of PED use need to keep in mind.

One of the biggest barriers to PED research is the absence of an epidemiology that defines a reliable dependent variable. Put simply, there is no reliable evidence about the prevalence of PED use among athletes of any level (Kayser, Mauron, & Miah, 2007). Of significant concern for psychology is the absence of a psychometrically valid self-report mechanism (Yesalis, Kopstein, & Bahrke, 2001). Perhaps psychology can help address this issue with some rigorous practitioner-based research, finding out prevalence estimates from those helping athletes reach peak performance.

The second issue is that elite athletes are only one group of people to whom PED use models apply. The psychological work outlined above focuses on elite (Olympic or professional) athletes' PED use in high stakes competitions. The psychology of PED use at the elite level may be very different to the psychology at the nonprofessional level. A psychology of non-elite PED use could provide insight into the aetiology of elite athlete PED use. The Victorian Government (2006) has made some progress on this issue with the release of a discussion paper on non-elite athlete PED use.

While models for performance enhancement in elite athletes might be limited to sporting contexts, a model explaining performance enhancement behaviours among ‘weekend warriors' might have more relevance for more common contexts (Mazanov, in press). For example, such a model may explain why some people pursue cosmetic surgery enhancements, why some company directors engage in illegal behaviour to boost share performance, or why some students use cognition enhancers. Conversely, research in these fields may help shed light on why some athletes use PED.


Exploring the use of PED by athletes is a fertile field for performance psychology to plough. There is scope to think about performance psychology in a non-traditional way by looking at whether the factors that promote performance enhancing behaviour are also those which help prevent certain performance enhancing behaviours. Further, in the absence of well defined models there is an opportunity to bring to light an area where very little of the psychology is understood. Bringing light to the ‘dark side' of performance psychology may help the sub discipline to explain a little bit more about what drives humans to aspire and excel.

The debate about PED in sport

The anti-doping policy establishes a norm of being against the use of PED in sport. The primary argument against PED in sport stated in the World Anti Doping Code is that they are fundamentally contrary to the ‘spirit of sport'. The arguments for PED in sport typically rebut the arguments against. Those against PED in sport are attempting to protect the integrity of sport. Those for PED in sport say inclusion makes no difference to the integrity of sport. Psychology needs to remain objectively dispassionate about this debate and concentrate on the psychological science underlying the issue. 

Arguments against PED in sport
Arguments for PED in sport
  • Makes competition unfair
  • Competitions are unfair on an economic basis (e.g., access to sport science)
  • Introduces unnecessary health risks
  • Participation alone increases health risks
  • Makes athletes technological rather than natural competitors
  • Athletes are already technological (e.g., shark skin swim suits or Paralympian prosthetics)



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Anshel, M. H. (1991) Causes for drug use in sport: A survey of intercollegiate athletes. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 14, 283-307.

Backhouse, S., McKenna, J., Robinson, S., & Atkin, A. (2007). Attitudes, Behaviours, Knowledge and Education - Drugs in Sport: Past, Present and Future. World Anti-Doping Agency, Canada.

Donovan, R. J., Egger, G., Kapernick, V., & Mendoza, J. (2002). A conceptual framework for achieving performance enhancing drug compliance in sport. Sports Medicine, 32(4), 269-284.

Hoberman, J. M. (1992). Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanisation of Sport. USA: Free Press.

Kayser, B., Mauron, A., & Miah, A. (2007). Current anti-doping policy: A critical appraisal. BMC Medical Ethics, 8:2. (doi:10.1186/1472-6939-8-2).

Mazanov, J. (Ed) (in press, Accepted 16 November 2007). Towards a Social Science of Drugs in Sport. Sport in Society, Special Issue.

Strelan, P., & Boeckmann, R. J. (2003). A new model for understanding performance enhancing drug use by elite athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 176-183.

Strelan, P. & Boeckmann, R. J. (2006). Why drug testing in elite sport does not work: Perceptual deterrence theory and the role of personal moral beliefs. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(12), 2909-2934.

Victorian Government (2006). Towards a New Approach to Deterring Doping in Sport. Sport and Recreation Victoria, Australia.

Yesalis, C. E., Kopstein, A. N., & Bahrke, M. S. (2001). Difficulties in estimating the prevalence of drug use among athletes. In W. Wilson & E. Derse (Eds), Doping in Elite Sport: The Politics of Drugs in the Olympic Movement. (pp. 43-62). USA: Human Kinetics.