Competitive high school sports linked to problem gambling, Israeli researchers find

“The drive to win underpins both gambling behavior and competitive sport,” researcher says.

Baseball practice (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
Baseball practice
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
The positive characteristics of being energetic and competitive that cause teenagers – both boys and girls – to join sports teams put them at higher risk for problem gambling, according to a new Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University study just published in The American Journal of Addictions.
According to the study – headed by TAU social work lecturer Dr. Belle Gavriel-Fried and student Idit Sherpsky, with BIU’s Dr. Israel Bronstein – the participation of male high school pupils in competitive sports is associated with problem gambling and gambling frequency, while female pupils on sports teams are at a higher risk of gambling frequency.
Many with high energy levels and above-average IQs may develop unreasonable expectations, extreme competitiveness and distorted optimism, which are often the very traits that characterize competing athletes.
“The drive to win underpins both gambling behavior and competitive sport,” said Gavriel-Fried. "Most of the research within this area has been conducted on university athletes, but we wanted to dig deeper, find out whether the link between gambling and physical activities began earlier – before other co-factors emerge – and we found out that, in fact, it does.”
For the study, the researchers asked 316 high school pupils aged 14 to 19 and equally divided by gender from four Israeli high schools to fill out questionnaires to establish their involvement in sports and their gambling habits. “Intensive exercise” was assessed on a frequency rating scale. “Competitiveness” was rated by the number of competitive sports engaged in over the previous year, including varsity or junior varsity sports and other extracurricular programs.
They found a significant difference between teens involved in intense cardiovascular activity for the sake of exercise alone and those participating in competitive sports. Members of the second group were more often engaged in regulated lotteries and scratch cards, gambling on other sporting events, poker and other card games.
“Studies conducted on college-age athletes in relation to gambling might be misleading, because the university environment itself has been found to promote risk behavior,” said Gavriel-Fried. “Here we made a distinction between youths involved in competitive sport and those involved in intensive exercise. The objective of competitive sports is to win as a team, whereas the objective of intensive exercise is to maintain your health and fitness.
“There was a clear difference between the two groups. We hope that this study will redirect high schools to integrate gambling prevention programs for youths involved in competitive sports – to avoid sticking ‘healthy heads in sick beds,’ so to speak.”
Due to their competitiveness, athletes as young as 14 should pay closer attention to the risks involved in “harmless” gambling practices, such as card games, the researchers advised. “For competitive athletes, there is an intrinsic impulse embedded within to win, at all costs. This underpins gambling behavior as well,” said Gavriel-Fried, who is currently researching high-risk behavior and addictions.