Problem Gambling – A barrier to high performance

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For the second week of #PGAM2022, we're taking a deeper look into the performance risk associated with gambling disorder, investigating how a preoccupation with bets leads to individuals taking their eyes off their daily work.

Nowhere is under-performance in greater public view than in the lives of professional athletes, where a player's bad day will potentially be analysed in great depth by fans, broadcasters and sponsors... but it the root cause potentially something hidden from view? Our head of delivery (professional sport), Mark Potter, draws on his own personal experience as a former professional rugby union player...

The evolution of elite sport over the last 10-15 years has been extraordinary. No longer can natural ability alone be the sole driver for an athlete to achieve their peak. Sports science, technology and data capture has become so vital that individuals, teams, and organizations are only too happy to invest vast sums of money to achieve excellence and ultimately trophies and championships.

Almost all reputable literature on what it takes to achieve high-performance will point to traits such as these, as noted in an article entitled ‘7 Traits of Super-Elite Athletes’:

• Supreme Concentration. Truly great athletes have an almost innate ability to get into the zone when they need to.

• Commitment to Excellence.

• Desire and Motivation.

• Goal Setting.

• Positive Mind-state and Optimism.

• Confidence and Self-Belief.

• High-Quality Relationships and Support.

Modern day athletes are monitored and tested daily, from sleep patterns, resting heart rates, physical outputs, and nutritional intake to ensure they are in the best possible place to achieve high performance. To show the desired traits set out above, athletes must aspire to live a healthy and balanced life outside of their sport, both physically and mentally and anything that may have the ability to knock this pursuit of excellence off track, needs to be highlighted and addressed, so as the athlete does not deviate away from their goal of achieving high-performance.

Enter gambling!

From the outside looking in, gambling is a pastime enjoyed by millions of people around the world and is, in the main played for fun and enjoyment. However, for a growing number, gambling can have devastating effects on both the individual and their wider group of family, friends and colleagues. It is in fact suggested that for every person suffering from a gambling disorder, it affects up to ten other people within their circles.

Research has shown that athletes are up to four times more likely to suffer from gambling harm than the general population. This, therefore, begs the question as to why that may be. As we know, athletes are supremely competitive beings and have an innate desire to be successful. If you transfer this competitive edge into gambling, then the desire and will to win (or not be defeated) can be hugely harmful.

As an ex-athlete and disordered gambler, I know only too well the impact gambling had on my life, relationships, career, and athletic performance. From a personal perspective and once I had begun a relationship with gambling, the fact that I was involved in sport led me to believe that I had a significant advantage when placing bets and could use that knowledge to win big, then later, when I had to deal with the adversity of a long-term injury, gambling allowed me to fill the void that was missing through lack of competition.

Gambling very much replicated the buzz and adrenaline of competing, and after experiencing a big win at a young age, this only accelerated my need to bet bigger and more often, leading firstly to harmful behaviours such as loss chasing, but latterly a loss of career and subsequent suicide attempt.

Looking back, a lack of education and awareness around the risks attached to gambling was a big driver in my descent to addiction. I always assumed that I would be able to win my way out of debt, again, linked to a naturally competitive edge due to my athletic background.

As a young athlete, I dreamed of reaching the top, however gambling played a significant part in ensuring that never happened. Trying to balance an athletic career, alongside a gambling disorder proved to be an impossible task as it brought about stress, worry, lack of sleep, poor diet and generally poor mental health and low levels of concentration. When looking at all the traits an athlete needs to achieve high-performance, the negative affects brought about by my relationship with gambling ensured that this was never possible.

To further support the notion of gambling being a barrier to high performance, former professional footballer for English Championship club Reading, Scott Davies, highlights:

“My performance was affected in many ways during my days of gambling. Looking back at the way I lived my life; it was not conducive for a successful football career.

"There were times I spent sleeping in my car at service stations, in lay-bys or round the back of the stadium where my car was out of site. Waking up in the morning having not eaten or slept properly was damaging my performance and career as a professional.

"One thing that was a big part of my routine was staying awake for hours on end, betting on world sports throughout the night, sports that I had no clue about. My phone being half a foot in front of my face trying to master horse racing in Thailand or a tennis match in Brazil.

"This had significant consequences when it came to training the next morning, being exhausted, lethargic and most of all the feeling of guilt that I was letting myself down.

"Arguably the most dangerous part for me though was betting on matches that I participated in. I knew I had debts and credit cards to pay off and needed money quickly. I had convinced myself that there was no better thing to do than to bet on a match that I could affect.

"Lumping on my team to lose, ambling about the pitch on a Saturday at 3pm hoping that we would concede knowing full well that by 5pm my betting account would be credited with my winnings. I was willing to run that risk as my love for gambling had taken over and my love for football was diminishing.”

It is clear from both my own and Scott’s experiences, that our athletic performances were severely impacted in a negative and detrimental way due to suffering from a gambling disorder. Considering the metrics set out at the beginning of this article suggest concentration, commitment, motivation, and a positive mind state are key to high performance, then it is easy to see why an athlete suffering from a gambling disorder is so unlikely to succeed.

This can be further echoed by former disordered gambler and now certified mental performance coach Mike Huber, who works with young athletes to help them achieve their goals and reach high performance.

“While there isn’t a ton of research specifically linking gambling behaviors to sport performance, there is evidence to suggest that individuals with gambling disorder can have differences in their attention, learning, and decision-making, and not for their benefit," he states, citing research from Potenza (2014).

"Athletes typically use two dimensions of attention while performing: width and attention. Width refers shifting focus from broad (e.g., scanning the pitch) to narrow (e.g., focusing on striking a point on the ball). Direction refers to shifting focus from internal (e.g., thinking, strategizing) to external (e.g., executing, reacting).

"As a former problem gambler, I know that gambling often forces attention to be internal because of the constant worry, strategizing, and crisis management that goes along with such behaviour. Gambling is likely to be a distraction that most athletes cannot afford.”

There are now, unfortunately, an ever-growing number of athletes who are coming out in the public domain to suggest that gambling had a negative impact on their lives and their athletic performance throughout their careers. Our hope is that clubs, leagues, organizations, and individuals involved in elite sport are proactive in engaging with education and awareness programs, become more aware of these significant risks, make better and more informed choices, and ensure that gambling is not the reason that they do not reach their potential.

Given these risks associated and the increased exposure of gambling due to the legalization of sports wagering across many US states, EPIC Risk Management are delighted to be working with the NCAA on a multi-year partnership to ensure their student athletes are educated and protected against the detrimental effects that gambling and sports betting integrity can have. Player protection has never been more important.