What makes a good athlete makes a bad gambler.

Thanks for visiting this blog. My experience in competitive sports (amateur boxing) and my passion for preventing and treating problem gambling converge here. Periodically, I will highlight a different characteristic of competitive athletes, or aspect of competitive sports. These traits and concepts, I believe, are adaptive in one setting, but mal-adaptive in another. That is, what works in the ring, on the field, or on the course doesn’t work out so well at a poker table, slot machine, or in sports betting. I welcome comments and feedback. It’s an important time for athletes and problem gambling counselors/advocates. The repealing of PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) is opening up many states to legalized sports wagering. It makes sense, then, to discuss the potential impact on athletes, a group already at increased risk for problem gambling. Check out Nicasa’s site http://www.safersportsbetting.com to see strategies for non-disordered gambling, learn the signs of a potential problem, and explore the services we have to help. Free or low-cost gambling counseling is available at sites throughout Lake County, IL. Free workshops on athletes and gambling, as well as on gambling disorder in general, are available for any interested group. E-mail gamblingservices@nicasa.org to connect to counseling or inquire about a free workshop.

“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.” -Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

And they’re…….NOT safe!

What we are exposed to matters. Right now, sports wagering is so widely spoken about, advertised and engaged in that young people can’t help but notice. Some parents are betting on the sidelines of youth sports, and some are even helping their kids to place bets. What many people don’t realize is this: exposing young brains to gambling puts them at risk for developing a gambling problem. Research in brain development tells us that this is just like early exposure to alcohol and other substances. It hurts kids and can lead to a potentially fatal addictive disorder. Don’t think gambling disorder is deadly? Consider this: disordered gamblers have a suicide attempt rate higher than that of any other addictive disorder. So, let’s take this seriously. And remember that athletes are just one group at increased risk for disordered gambling. Adolescents are another. So, you can see why gambling and youth sports are a bad combination.

A recent campaign put out by Stop Predatory Gambling released these startling statistics:

Parents, coaches, teachers and other caring adults: if you choose to participate in sports wagering, don’t involve kids or teens. Enjoy sports in a way that focuses on the excitement and energy of the event, the players’ records, the punch stats, all that; not the odds, the over-under, or any of that.

In the rare event you see an ad for “responsible gambling” (see prior post for thoughts on this term), like for the NFL’s newly launched site responsibleplay.org, use it as a chance to highlight that some people are hurt by sports betting. The number and intensity of ads encouraging sports betting are really indicators of the amount of money to be lost, not won. After all, how much do you think it costs to run all those ads? The revenue generated from sports wagering is in the billions. Revenue = players’ losses. Enough is being lost on sports wagering already. Let’s not lose our kids, too!

Want a free workshop on teen gambling? Workshops are held by Zoom and available at no cost to Illinoisans. Just fill out this contact form. Not from Illinois but want to sit in on an Illinois-based event? No problem. Just fill out the form and we’ll let you know what’s available. We also can provide public awareness materials, like the flier shown below, to youth sports leagues and athletic departments. Let us know what you need and we’ll get it to you.

Also, please watch and share this short educational clip put together with some fantastic and brilliant volunteers from our Teen Problem Gambling Focus Group. Who better to teach about teen gambling than the teens themselves?!

Remember, don’t let sports betting get in the way of the game!

That’s Why the Lady is a Champ!

This workshop was recorded only briefly for a quick soundbite, and to allow Christy and participants to talk candidly. Please let me know if you’d like to discuss putting on another such event.

We recently had former WORLD CHAMPION boxer Christy Martin in to speak to the community about domestic violence, addiction, and her remarkable story of survival and resilience. Though gambling was not part of Christy’s story, she highlighted the reality that you never can know what someone is going through behind closed doors.

I remember as an amateur boxer coming up at the time she had reached the highest levels of success in professional women’s boxing, thinking that she had it all. I admired, and let’s be honest, envied, that she could train full-time and dedicate herself fully to the sport. After all, she lived and breathed boxing, with her coach also being her husband and manager. In her workshop with us, Christy stated “you all though I was on top of the world. But the world was really on top of me.” You see, it was all a façade. The more success in the ring Christy achieved, the more her husband and coach tightened his grip on every aspect of her life. From installing cameras throughout their home, to preventing her from being out of his sight long enough even to go to the salon. How else could he keep her from getting help, from letting people know that she was being abused and terrorized in her own home, that she had turned to drugs as an escape?

I look back and am ashamed at my petty envy of her situation. I imagine I would not have survived her circumstances, had I been in her shoes. The situation was truly that dire. It was life and death serious. She survived a brutal attack and attempted murder, recovered from her addiction, and now shares her story with others to shine the light on some very dark issues.

I heard in a song recently something like “you want to be great? Put the “e” after the “t” and add “ful.” We are forever GRATEFUL for Christy’s bravery, humility, and generosity. People who struggle with such issues behind closed doors are also in life or death circumstances. People with gambling disorder have a suicide attempt rate higher than that of ANY OTHER ADDICTION. So please don’t assume you know what someone’s life is like by what you see on the outside. I’ve seen gamblers whose beautiful homes are empty on the inside. No furniture; knickknacks; nothing. Everything pawned due to the never-ending loss-chasing. And to hit this idea home even further: another guest speaker (Ray, see screen shot below) recently shared that, at the height of his gambling addiction, he almost chose suicide when faced with not having money for presents for his children at the holidays.

This workshop was live and not recorded, to facilitate open dialogue. Workshop hosted in partnership with MAHA, the Midwest Asian Healthcare Association. Thanks, MAHA and Ray!

What’s our takeaway? Gambling disorder and other addictive disorders are potentially fatal. It’s imperative that we do everything we can to prevent them, that we help athletes and others who have increased risk learn about their specific vulnerability, and that we extend compassion and understanding to those who struggle. And let’s not forget GRATITUDE. To those, like Christy, and Ray, who share their stories so openly in the hopes that others can come into the light. Thanks to you and every other person that pays it forward to help others in similar circumstances. You are truly a GIFT.

If you would like to attend a workshop like one of those mentioned in this post, please contact me at gamblingservices@nicasa.org. We provide free workshops to any Illinois group to raise awareness of problem gambling.

I believe that we will win!

I recently attended some amateur boxing matches at the ONE Fitness Center in Elgin, IL. The announcer did a great job of getting the crowd pumped up. At one point, she led the crowd in chanting “I”, “I believe,” “I believe that,” “I believe that we will win.” Sometimes the energy we call upon to push through pain, to dig deep and keep fighting, is truly miraculous. But can we apply that same drive to fighting problem gambling, when we realize that gambling is hurting us? Yes, we can.

It can sometimes be easier to stay stuck in bad patterns. My coach used to correct us all the time. He said “practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Meaning, if you practice the wrong thing over and over again, you’re going to do that in the ring because you’ve ingrained that bad habit. I’ve seen people who get in the habit of dropping their hands, adjusting their headgear or cup, while hitting the bags and sparring. It gives them a couple of seconds to catch their breath and ease muscles that are burning. But what it also does is this. They drop their hands, adjust their headgear, cup or whatever in an actual match. Do you think their opponent thinks “oh, no problem. Just take care of that real quick. I’ll give you a sec.”? Heck no! They see their opening and go in for the K.O. punch.

So, back to my point. It can be hard to put down a behavior that’s become ingrained, even when we know we need to. Whether its alcohol, cocaine, over-eating, video gaming or gambling, those patterns can be hard to break. The good (no, great) news is this: you CAN fight problem gambling. To break these patterns, we need to establish new patterns. People and places and things that contribute to disordered gambling? Avoid these. Replace them with people, places, and things (and even thoughts) that are not compatible with gambling. Believe it or not, it can feel like running through water. For example: go to the gym when you would usually gamble; keep your phone turned off during sporting events you would usually use a sports wagering app during; tell yourself “I’ve decided not to gamble anymore, and I’m going to stick to it.” Over and over, and over again. Go to Gamblers Anonymous or SMART Recovery meetings to get support and advice from other people making changes in their lives. Slowly those new patterns take hold and get stronger. Old patterns are weakened and atrophy.

So, remember. Perfect practice makes perfect. Lay down some new pathways in your brain. Keep bobbing and weaving as unexpected turns come your way. Tell yourself: “I”, “I believe,” “I believe that,” “I believe that we will win.” You CAN fight problem gambling.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” -Mike Tyson

This is one life lesson gifted to us by “Iron” Mike Tyson. This holds true in the ring, on the court, and on the field. Going into a sporting event with a clear plan can definitely improve an athletes’ performance. But we also need to be able to adjust when the unexpected occurs and affects our plan. I had a match once when I just wasn’t landing my punches. I was tangling up and clinching with my opponent, something I really wasn’t accustomed to. Coming back to my corner, my coach said “your problem is we didn’t know she’s a southpaw, like you.” We had to quickly change my strategy and come up with a plan on how to move around the ring differently, what to throw and in what order, etc. I was able to come out on top to win the match.

The same lesson applies to gambling. If someone chooses to gamble, they had better have a plan. Gambling is inherently risky. There are ways to try and lower that risk. The term “responsible gambling” is what is most often used to describe ways to gamble in a “lower risk” way. But I want to take a quick minute to challenge that terminology.

To use the term responsible implies that those who don’t gamble in this way are irresponsible. But there are a lot of reasons someone might gamble in a disordered way, and it’s not about being irresponsible. For example: early exposure to gambling; being an athlete; medications that increase compulsive behaviors; family history; or coping with trauma or physical or emotional pain, can all contribute to disordered gambling. So, would we say that people who have difficulties with gambling due to some of these factors are irresponsible? No, we couldn’t in all fairness say that.

This doesn’t mean that people can’t gamble in an irresponsible way. Both disordered and non-disordered gamblers can do that. Is it irresponsible to gamble with money you need for bills? Yes, it is. Is it responsible to risk money you have on an outcome that is unknown, in the hopes of winning more money (that’s what gambling is, folks)? I’d really have to say it’s not.

So, let’s get past labeling people as responsible or irresponsible. Instead, let’s outline some of the behaviors that can lower someone’s risk, if they choose to gamble:

-setting dollar and time limits, and sticking to them

-using only money they can afford to lose (not money they need for bills, savings, or other obligations)

-not borrowing money (this includes not taking cash advances or loans, not pawning or selling items) in order to gamble or deal with financial problems caused by gambling

-not mixing gambling with alcohol or other substance use (which can alter memory and judgment)

-not gambling to escape personal problems

-not hiding your gambling or lying about your winnings/losses

-not chasing losses (returning later or another day to try to win back what you’ve lost)

-not letting gambling affect relationships, work or health

-knowing the signs of a possible problem, and getting help if these are noticed

Okay, so what about when that unexpected happens? Many “low-risk” gamblers have the potential to become disordered gamblers when circumstances change. Grief and loss can be one cause, especially when that person was someone they used to gamble with. People can actually gamble more as they grieve their loved one, in an effort to remember them and feel closer to them. People can also experience loss related to their health, or stages of their lives. When people’s bodies start to fail them, when they feel adrift after retiring from the workforce; these are high risk times for gambling to become disordered. And what about job loss, or other financial insecurity? Sometimes people will see gambling as their solution. And, unfortunately, the odds are not in their favor. Gambling can often lead to greater financial concerns. These are just some of the things that can happen that should have people re-evaluating their plans.

Listen to Mike. Expect the unexpected. Be ready to adjust course as needed. And for some people, that might mean taking a break from gambling while you sort out life’s left hooks.

As this blog seeks to highlight, athletes have some serious risks, and therefore should be even more cautious about bringing gambling into their lives. As we near Responsible Gaming Education Week September 19-25, 2021, Nicasa is offering free workshops for individuals, groups or organizations who want to learn more. Click Here to register.

“It’s Win or Learn, No Losses”

I heard that line in a song and it said a lot to me. Many athletes believe “if you’re not first, you’re last.” So, the idea of using competition as a growth experience, rather than an all or nothing success or failure can be foreign. I mentioned in an earlier post that I kind of tanked in this year’s CrossFit Open. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m working on finding the win in everything. Like, I got to educate other competitors about athletes and problem gambling just by participating in the event and wearing shirts and handing out giveaways that highlighted the topic or help for problem gambling. Social media posts helped spread the word further. So, can I swallow my pride and compete when I know I’ll be really low on the leaderboard, in part, to get out an important message? Yes, and I’ll count it as a win.
And on a related note, check out this article that talks about CrossFit as a viable support for those in addiction recovery. Anything with positive social connectedness can be a big asset in a recovery program. But for some recovering problem gamblers, it can also provide an outlet for a competitive streak that needs to be fed. Keep in mind, some gamblers need to find a way to quiet that part of themselves. Others will find a healthier alternative. Everyone’s path is different. If CrossFit sounds like an option for a gambler seeking recovery, my only caution is that workouts and competitions are, of course, sober events. That doesn’t mean some groups don’t hang out afterwards over a few beers. Just don’t be caught off guard, and know that many just choose not to participate in post-competition drinking. Also, if pain is a trigger for you (some people gamble in response to physical or emotional pain) have a plan in place to ease into the sport and soothe aches and pains in healthy ways.

Who’s In Your Corner?

I recently had a mediocre showing during the Crossfit Open (more on that in an upcoming post), a tournament open to Crossfitters across the globe. In the Open, participants complete standard competition workouts, submitting their scores online and seeing how they stack up on the “Leaderboard.” How does this apply to athletes and gambling? I’m getting there. If you’ve ever met a Crossfitter, you know we can’t go long without mentioning it. So humor me here. Anyway, sharing my less than impressive results with my sister, she went into full-on cheerleader mode, saying how awesome I did, how she brags about me still, and so on. I told her that she’s a great cheerleader, and she said “you know I’ve always been in your corner.” And that’s true. She used to braid my hair before every match (she was super fast and good at it, having learned out of necessity while in the U.S. Marine Corps), scream loudly and with much vulgarity from the crowd (also picked up in the Marines), and took care of me after rough matches or sparring sessions.

It leads to the question, who’s in the corner of the gamblers? When people start gambling, hoping for some recreation, for a quick getaway from personal stressors, to replace the excitement and sense of importance they experienced when training and competing in sports, who’s helping them to prepare? Coaches and training team members make sure athletes have the skills necessary to participate well in their sport. They teach the fundamentals. I remember one of my coaches making me throw nothing but a jab for hours on end, until I couldn’t life my arm any longer. But my jab was ON FIRE my next match! But, where is the training course for someone who is deciding to bring gambling into their life? With the stakes being so high, it’s a recipe for disaster to go into an activity like gambling without learning about responsible gambling strategies. Responsible gambling isn’t something that everyone is equipped to achieve. Some people just aren’t designed to participate minimally or safely. But if you don’t even know how? I don’t like those odds.

Next question: where are the safeguards for gamblers? Think about the gear that is provided to athletes to keep them as safe as possible from injury. In boxing, we wear bigger gloves in training than we do in matches, to protect our hands (and each other’s heads!), Vaseline on our skin to prevent our skin from tearing when hit, groin and kidney protection, mouthpiece, hand wraps…So what gear does a gambler get handed? In some cases, there is literally nothing. But there are some safeguards out there most people don’t know about. From online sportsbooks that offer pre-determined betting limits, time-out options, or other safety features, through self-exclusion and programs that block betting sites on electronic devices, there are some protections available. If a vendor of a gambling product has none of these, maybe beware, and go elsewhere. This would be like taking an unsanctioned fight, a backyard brawl, with no rules, no weight classes, no referee, no pre-fight physicals or post-fight exams. And anyone who puts together such an event has to be questioned as to why they think it’s okay to make money off of fighters with no concern for their short or long-term well-being.

If you choose to gamble, consider learning responsible gambling strategies before you start, looking into safeguards that might be available, and steering clear of any venues or products that have none. At Nicasa, we have a free workshop for Illinois residents over the age of 21 called Safer Sports Betting. This workshop doesn’t tell people HOW to sports bet. It won’t tell people TO sports bet. And it won’t tell people NOT to sports bet. It WILL advise of the risks involved, share safer sports betting (responsible gambling) strategies, discuss the kinds of safeguards available from some vendors of sports wagering products, and will first and foremost stress “Don’t let sports betting get in the way of the game.” If you are interested in attending, complete the form at this link: https://forms.gle/ghevZwmkwAGWr4RF6 Just want to learn more? Email me at info@nicasa.org. Messages come straight to my Inbox.

Lastly, who’s there to help a gambler if their original plan didn’t work out so well? If they end up getting hurt by gambling? In a boxer’s corner, there’s always someone there with an endswell, to reduce swelling in an eye that is swelling shut. There’s a cut man to quickly stop the bleeding if you get cut. There is always someone to help a fighter out of the ring after a match, win or lose. Your legs get really wobbly and more than one fighter has taken a tumble just getting out of the ring, forget what happened in the ring. And there’s a fight doctor on hand in case someone appears concussed or worse; to make that call on whether or not the match should be stopped for the safety of the fighter. Again, there is a great deal of variability in help being advertised, when you look at the different forms, and forums for gambling. Some casinos actually have trained counselors on hand to talk to players who might be in distress. Helpline information can be displayed prominently in some gambling establishments, and some employees might be trained to know the signs a player might be struggling, and how to intervene. (If you do choose to gamble, and you see no information about where to turn for help, you might reconsider that establishment or product. Just saying.) Help IS available in many states, but players don’t always know about it. In Illinois, there is a 24/7 hotline available by phone (1-800-GAMBLER) text (text ilgamb to 53342) or live chat (https://weknowthefeeling.org/). Don’t know where to turn for help in your state? Contact the National Hotline: Call 1-800-522-4700
Chat ncpgambling.org/chat
Text 1-800-522-4700

Am I a little Punchy, or…?

Is it possible that we’re already coming up on March again?! Maybe I’m a little punchy, but it seems like just a few months ago I encouraged all of you to get involved in raising awareness during Problem Gambling Awareness Month (PGAM). But my calendar tells me March is just around the corner again!

What can you do, as someone who cares about athletes and their risk for problem gambling? Well, I’ve got some ideas for you!

Register for our free Safer Sports Betting Workshop to learn more. The video below summarizes some of what we cover. Attend, and you’ll receive a free download of the featured song, “Don’t Look Down” by Ivan B.

Join our virtual book club and watch a live interview with the authors. –Spoiler Alert- One of our authors is a former professional athlete who is recovering from problem gambling and runs an incredible podcast and blog about his insights and experiences.

Add the PGAM graphic to your email signature.

Use social media to share Nicasa posts during PGAM.

Get screened as part of National Gambling Disorder Screening Day, at one of Nicasa’s confidential and virtual screening events.

Click Here to get more information about one or more of the above options.

If nothing else, just talk about this issue. People are suffering in silence. You never know who might be given hope just by hearing that there is help for problem gambling.

Choose Not to Lose

Whether or not to gamble is a personal decision for all of us to make. Many “choose not to lose” for a variety of reasons. They may be risk averse; the thought of risking their money is just not appealing to them. Some choose not to gamble because they, or someone they care about, are recovering from gambling disorder or another addictive disorder. There could be religious reasons, health reasons (yes, gambling can impact our health!), or any number of factors that lead to a person’s decision not to gamble. Whatever the rationale, we hope that anyone considering gambling will weigh their own unique risks, consider what affect sports betting could have on their love of sports and their teams and players, and make a plan to keep their gambling safe and fun (and revisit this, if things don’t go as planned!). Do you “choose not to lose? If so, feel free to comment, use the contact button, or email gamblingservices@nicasa.org to share your words and/or pictures. If you want us to post them for you, please indicate that in your message. Looking forward to your thoughts!  

Luck Be a Lady

Another trait competitive athletes have in common with problem gamblers is magical thinking. How many athletes believe rituals, talismans, facial hair or even lucky socks (they don’t change very often), can ensure a win? Likewise, problem gamblers believe they can influence outcomes by repeating specific actions, carrying lucky charms, betting on certain numbers… The fact is, no one truly believes that the cards in their hand will change because they knocked on their chips a specific number of times, or that the reels of a slot machine will land on triple 7’s if they utter a mantra before pulling the handle. At least, they don’t believe it on a conscious level. However, they often feel it. Luck seems to be something tangible, that can be influenced by our actions or even our needs. (How many times have you heard “mama needs a new pair of shoes”?!) Often, this belief is initiated or reinforced by an actual pairing of an object or action with a win (whether it be a sporting event or gambling episode). The person wore those socks and had a win. There. Connection made. This superstitious mindset, independent of mathematical odds or laws of physics, is very compelling. It makes sense, then, that someone who comes by that mindset naturally, that being a superstitious competitive athlete, has the potential to transfer these beliefs if they choose to gamble. Add to that, athletes don’t rely solely on luck. Without the skills required for their sport, they wouldn’t be achieving high levels of competition to begin with. This is why many athletes and former athletes are often drawn to forms of gambling that include a degree of skill. That strongly held identity of being a “winner” we already discussed, paired with a superstitious mindset, might further predispose a competitive athlete to gamble in a disordered way. It would be safer, then, for an athlete choosing to gamble to remember this mantra: “the house always wins.”

A Positive Mindset

This poem was shared with me, and it goes so much to the positive mindset many athletes pursue and achieve, that I thought I would share it. So much of what this blog focuses on is how athlete’s traits and behaviors can go awry outside of a sports setting. Here, an athlete’s internal struggle is highlighted in a positive and hopeful way. We all need a little of that right now, don’t we?!

“Thinking” -by Walter D. Wintle:

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins