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Inside The Mind Of An Athlete, Part 3: Sexual Behavior Among Athletes

Mario Tama / Staff

In 2013, ESPN the Magazine reported that ever since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, organizers of the Summer and Winter Games have ordered 100,000 condoms for the Olympic Village. Sam Alipour interviewed 23 athletes, almost all of whom believed that hookup culture was an integral part of the Olympic experience. "Athletes are extremists," US Women’s Soccer star Hope Solo told Alipour.  "When they're training, it's laser focus. When they go out for a drink, it's 20 drinks. With a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you want to build memories, whether it's sexual, partying or on the field. I've seen people having sex right out in the open. On the grass, between buildings, people are getting down and dirty." Added a member of the US Men’s shooting team, “I’ve never witnessed so much debauchery in my entire life.”

Some people might think nothing of the frequent trysts between Olympians, believing that such behavior is just what happens when you put a bunch of attractive men and women together for a few weeks in a high pressure environment. But all too often, athletes can get carried away with their pursuit of pleasure and the only natural high that can biologically and psychologically exceed the thrill of competition. Indeed, one clinical study suggests that sexual climax is comparable with the feeling a heroin user experiences when the drug hits his or her bloodstream.

To explain how the natural high from sex can take over an athlete’s brain, we turned to Dr. Todd Bowman, associate professor of counseling at Indiana Wesleyan University and director of the SATP Institute, which equips social workers, psychologists and counselors to treat sexual addiction:

“When someone engages regularly in high intensity sexual activity, dopamine starts cannibalizing the synapses typically used for other neurotransmitters like oxytocin, which is related to touch, trust and emotional connection,” Bowman said. “Dopamine is a ‘cheap’ hormone that our brains produce easily, but the addicted brain needs more and more to get the same feeling. Dopamine is not just associated with sexual pleasure, but also with movement; it is the “go” neurotransmitter. So in a way, athletes’ brains may be more prone to develop addictions, including sexual addiction.”

What happens when athletes start recklessly pursuing the heroin-like high that sex delivers to supplement the dopamine and adrenalin rush they get from competition? They can sometimes cross the boundaries of acceptable behavior and careen into criminal activity. As a Sports Illustrated story recently stated, “In the last six months, there have been charges of sexual assault against prominent athletes at Florida State, Michigan, Vanderbilt and now Oregon... college athletics is awash with sexual assault scandals.” It’s not just aggressive sexual behavior that athletes seem more prone to than non-athletes, but also pornography addiction, promiscuity and adultery.

“At practice and in games, athletes are held accountable by their coaches and referees, and if they break the rules there are specific consequences,” Bowman said. “The problem is that off the field it’s an unregulated environment, and that’s where athletes can channel their aggression and energy into negative behavior cycles that are hard to break. We’re in a culture that glorifies athletes and so we’re often unwilling to punish them when they do misbehave outside the lines.”

One of the factors contributing to this lack of off-field accountability is isolation. Though we live in a society that seems extremely well connected in terms of online interaction and social media, the reality is that many of us are more isolated than ever before, favoring Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers” over meaningful interaction. Bowman believes that athletes are more isolated than many other demographic groups, even though they are surrounded by teammates, coaches and fans, and that this contributes to addictive sexual behavior.

“Even in team sports, athletes are rewarded based on individual performance, so they’re competing against teammates as well as their opponents,” Bowman said. “This means that some withdraw emotionally, leading to them sleeping around or indulging in pornography to meet their emotional needs. Maintaining strong connections with friends, family and mentors can help prevent this.”

If an athlete suspects that they are succumbing to sexual addiction, how can they know for sure? While there is no objective or physiological test, Bowman suggests going 30 days without sexual gratification. If you find it easy to do this, you’re likely fine, but if it becomes a struggle or a craving for sex starts to take over, you need to seek help, Bowman believes. And that means not trying to go it alone.

“Addictions to non-synthetic (endogenous) dopamine stimulators such as sex, gambling, and eating are treatable, but usually only if the person can find a counselor and accountability partners to help them through,” Bowman said. “Left unaddressed, the behavior will spiral out of control.”

Brain scans have shown that many athletes have above-average activity in their brain stem, which controls balance, stress response and other factors crucial to athletic performance. However, these same athletes also have trained their brains to decrease activity in the pre-frontal cortex. In sporting activity, this is an advantage as this cortex’s analytical thinking can lead to over-thinking and even ‘choking’ in pressure moments. But in non-competitive situations, pre-frontal cortex override can be an issue because this area of the brain also manages relationships, impulse control and self-regulation.

“The problem is that when athletes shut off the valve of emotion to help them perform reflexively, like Neymar at the World Cup, they sometimes don’t know how to re-open it,” Bowman said. “Often they either stay emotionally unresponsive, or are overcome by a flood of emotion. Either extreme can contribute to destructive sexual activity.”

So what can athletes do to better manage emotions during the transition between their competitive mindset and mental approach to everyday life, without using sex to ‘medicate’ themselves?

Paying attention to paying attention is a great way for athletes to keep their emotions in check off the field.

“Engaging in low-stimulation activities such as meditation, prayer, reading and walking can help athletes bring their pre-frontal cortex back online,” Bowman said. “Practicing what UCLA’s Dan Seigel calls ‘paying attention to paying attention’ is a great way for athletes to keep their emotions in check off the field.”

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