Prince, Rebecca Jane (2020) Investigating the Risky Behaviours of Athletes. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This exploratory study investigates the issues surrounding athlete risky behaviour, an area which has been neglected previously. The term ‘risky behaviour’ refers to any behaviours which incur an unfavourable, and often harmful, risk including both illegal and legal behaviours (Trimpop, 1994; Turner, McClure & Pirozzo, 2004). Elite athletes can receive unabated amounts of media coverage for both on-field performances and behaviours outside of the sporting environment. Consequently, they have the potential to reach wide audiences and influence the general population, including aspiring athletes, and can be considered role models. Due to the lack of openly accessible statistical data, it is currently unknown which types of risky behaviours are the most common and problematic within the elite athlete population. Additionally, the issue has been long-standing, yet little is known about whether occurrences of athlete risky behaviour are actually more frequent than those in the general population, or whether it is the celebrity athlete status combined with the volume of media reports which creates the illusion of heightened rates. Furthermore, although studied in adolescent and collegiate athlete samples, there is a lack of previous work which has identified the influences or predictors of elite athlete risky behaviour. The thesis aims to address these issues and provide an exploratory view of these issues, whilst providing the foundations for the development of a new type of future research.

The first empirical chapter addresses the deficiency in publicly accessible statistical data regarding the most commonly occurring problem behaviours. A database was created based on historical cases of elite athlete offending and risky behaviours and a Smallest Space Analysis (SSA) was conducted. Three behavioural themes were identified. Sexual Behaviours was the most common amongst the sample, with ‘Sexual Offences by a Single Perpetrator’ present in almost half of the sample. Additive Behaviours, and Violent Behaviour were the second and third frequent behavioural themes. The findings provide recommendations for the behaviours which should be given priority when devising interventions to reduce and prevent risky behaviours in the elite athlete population.

The work then moves on to make comparisons between athletes and the general population with regards to general risk-taking tendencies. Moreover, the study compares the levels of each of the personal predictor characteristics of risk-taking, which were identified in previous research, in each population. Finally, the associations between these predictor characteristics and levels of risk-taking in each population were examined. Data was collected through an online questionnaire. It was found that the athlete population had significantly higher tendencies to engage in general risk-taking than the general population, particularly male athletes. Male athletes also scored significantly higher for many of the predictor characteristics such as sexual sensation-seeking, masculinity, psychopathy, and aggression alcohol expectancies. The associations between predictor characteristics and general risk-taking are discussed. The results suggest the possibility that environmental factors may also contribute to and influence heightened risk-taking tendencies in athletes. The findings support the results of the of Study One and highlight the need for the development of educational interventions regarding alcohol use outcomes and management of personal characteristics, such as aggression and sensation-seeking.

The final study comprises of qualitative semi-structured interviews with a sample of athletes. This was done to provide support for and develop knowledge from the findings of the previous studies further. The study also aimed to explore the influences of athlete risky behaviours further, taking into consideration environmental factors which were not investigated earlier in the thesis. A thematic analysis was conducted on the interview transcripts and five main themes emerged from the data: impact of athletic involvement, athlete identities, athlete risky behaviour, factors which increase athlete risky behaviour, and factors which inhibit athlete risky behaviour. The findings support outputs from Study One and Two whilst providing additional insight into the issues surrounding athletic involvement and athlete risky behaviour, particularly regarding environmental influences. The findings offer a variety of practical implications, for example, encouraging increase fair play values and taking steps to reduce hyper-masculinity within the sporting environment.

The implications are discussed further, alongside limitations of the work. These include, but are not limited to, the development of educational interventions, increased player welfare services, and the need for positive role models. To date, literature has predominantly focused on adolescent and collegiate athlete risky behaviours. The difficulty in accessing such a unique sample may have previously impeded the development of research into the behaviours of the elite athlete population. However, this exploratory research offers an insight into the issues within the population and future research would be beneficial to advance knowledge into the area further. Striving to reduce athlete risky behaviour may benefit athletes themselves, sporting bodies and practitioners, potential victims of risky behaviour, and the image of sport, as well as, aspiring athletes and the general population who may replicate elite athlete behaviour through social learning.

FINAL THESIS - Prince.pdf - Accepted Version
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