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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

“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
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!

Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.

It can be nerve-racking waiting for a decision. The seconds seem like hours when you are waiting to see who’s hand is going to be raised in triumph: yours, or that of your opponent’s. There will always be the chance that things don’t go your way, that the judges didn’t see what you think they should have seen, that points you should have been awarded somehow went to your opponent. How will the match be called? Hard to say. My coach always said “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.” Meaning: put them down; end it by knockout, and there will be no question who won. Likewise, when it comes to problem gambling, we might shake our heads and say “I hope they do something about this.” But who are “they?” If you are worried about what is being done in your community to prevent problem gambling, or to get those who develop problems connected to help, there are a lot of options that require only a little effort. March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month (PGAM). It’s a great time to think about ways to increase public awareness of gambling disorder and the help that is available. I recently competed in an athletic event and wore a t-shirt designed to educate athletes about our increased risk for problem gambling. I also gave away t-shirts and information cards to some of the other participants, in order to help spread the word.

This is just one example of some of the things we can do to help. Whether or not our communities are prepared to prevent and address problem gambling? Not something we want to leave to chance. Consider some of the ideas below:

  • write a letter or e-mail to your community leaders asking them about their efforts to prevent and address problem gambling. Cite what you know about the gambling available in your community, and the importance of all aspects of the community coming together to prevent any unintended social costs of problem gambling.
  • reach out to your local gambling counseling program and seeing what they need. Do they have brochures you can keep in the lobby at your place of business? Do they have an awareness event you could share fliers for, sponsor or contribute to? Do they need help getting information out about their services? We are so fortunate to have a volunteer at our program that helps organize data from outreach events and send mailings out to groups we hope to connect to, in order to provide public awareness materials. This has been immeasurably helpful. Can you offer your organizational skills similarly? Who knows how you can help?!
  • offer up your space for a support meeting
  • host a public awareness event
  • Print out and post information on problem gambling (check out http://www.ncpgambling.org as a starting point) and local help
  • add the Problem Gambling Awareness Month image (below) to your email signature line
  • discourage underage play. Most people don’t know that letting kids gamble (ex. giving them lottery tickets, placing a bet for them at the track, or a sporting event) increases their chance of developing a gambling problem. So, tell them. (But tell them nicely. We don’t know something until we do!)
  • Can’t think of anything? E-mail gamblingservices@nicasa.org, and we can brainstorm. Thanks for reading.

“I Coulda Been a Contender”

When an athlete has a career-ending injury, a good deal of emotional and psychological distress can result. Years and even decades later, the athlete imagines what titles they could have won, if only they hadn’t gotten hurt. If only the doctors had just cleared them to play. If only… So what can a competitive athlete do to feel on top of the world again? We’ve already established that so much of an athlete’s identity is wrapped up in their career. If they are no longer an athlete, then what are they? All of the adrenaline and excitement that came with training and competing comes to an abrupt end. How can that be replaced or replicated? So many aspects of their lives had been put on hold: attending to their families and other important relationships, developing alternate career opportunities or job skills; etc. How are they supposed to immediately take on the responsibilities they were exempt from as they focused on training? After a career-ending injury, we have someone who’s identity and confidence has been stripped, who went from a level of intense sensations and gratification to none, and who suddenly has a great deal of unexpected stress. All of this, without their usual way of coping (training and competing) being available to them. This can be a recipe for disaster, should the athlete turn to gambling as a means of coping, of reaching previously enjoyed levels of excitement, of feeling like they’re still important. It isn’t easy, but all athletic careers come to an end. Whether this be expected and over time, or swiftly with a career-ending injury, it is important for the athlete to be cautious about engaging in gambling, substance use, or other potentially risky behaviors at this time. Adding gambling problems onto an already challenging period is just not worth the risk.

Dont Call it a Comeback…

It’s not uncommon for athletes to “lace up the gloves” long after they’ve past their prime. I’m middle-aged. But if I’m 100% honest, I think I’ve still got one last fight in me. And I truly think I could win. Gambling like an athlete means you can stay away for years, but decide you’ve got one more left in you. You attempt to relive the glory days, remembering your past wins. Research has shown that memories that are salient, or meaningful, are remembered for longer and more clearly than those that aren’t. Guess what? Wins have been found to be more salient than losses. So, if someone looks back on their gambling career, they think they did much better than they probably did. The wins stand out. The losses? Not so much. Unfortunately, like some athletes who left the safety and nostalgia of retirement, a return to gambling for some can be a spectacular fail. Athletes often have a “go big or go home” mentality. Gambling like an athlete could mean damage and destruction in just one night of play.

Adrenaline and tolerance

When talking about the link between competitive sports and problem gambling, the adrenaline-rush that can be part of an athlete’s experience is often brought up. We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high” and have seen some pretty impressive feats of athleticism that may be due, in part, to the athlete getting a boost of adrenaline at the right moment. Adrenaline is a neat thing, and can flood the body during a “fight or flight” situation. It can increase one’s speed, strength, mental acuity, and more. It makes sense that, if you’re about to be hit by a bus (or, let’s say, a linebacker), all of these functions might come in handy. If this same phenomenon happens in a sporting event, amazing things can happen. The experience can be intense, as well as intensely rewarding. A sense of euphoria can occur.

And like other “intoxicating” experiences, the feeling can sometimes wear off over time. It takes more and more to feel the same level of excitement. We see this with alcohol and with other substances of abuse. Over time and exposure, tolerance increases, and more of the substance is required to get the same affect. With gambling, this looks a little different. For some, it’s a matter of increasing the amount they bet in order to feel the same. Someone who played $10 a hand on Blackjack might start playing $25 or $50 a hand. A Bingo player might go from managing 1 or 2 cards at a time to filling their whole table with cards. The way people bet might also reflect a tolerance response. For example, a poker player might start “playing blind,” or betting without seeing their hand, in order to increase their excitement level.

What does this have to do with athletes? Athletes who frequently experience that runner’s high, may need to “up the ante” to replicate a feeling they have become accustomed to. A good gambler bets only what they can afford to lose. They don’t increase the amount they bet in order to keep the adrenaline flowing.