What Makes a Drug Performance Enhancing?

An article on the Psychology Today blog by Steven Kotler asked the question, “what makes a drug performance-enhancing?” It cites the WADA rules for banning performance enhancing drugs.

According to the World Anti-Doping Code, three substance categories govern the chemistry of cheating—1) It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance 2) It represents a potential or actual health risk 3) It is contrary to the spirit of sport—with a score of two-out-of-three being enough to earn a drug a place on the dreaded Prohibited List.

But Kotler points out that the anti-doping code still doesn’t have any clear definition of what exactly “enhances performance.”  Most people think about the physical aspects of performance-enhancing drugs, but the author asserts that the mental aspects of performance are significantly more important than the physical aspects of performance.  Then it would stand to reason that drugs affecting brain chemistry and mental aspects would have the most pronounced effects on performance.

In fact, in the past twenty years, there have been hundreds of studies done by hundreds of researchers linking a positive emotional state to superior athletic performance. Everyone from volleyball players to basketball stars to tennis players to cross country runners have been tested and with few exceptions more happiness equals more winning. And more happiness is now available in pill form.

The author suggests that former Longhorn star Ricky Williams was a bust as a first-round draft pick in 1999 only to have a breakout year in 2002 after he starting using the performance enhancing drug Paxil.

Which brings us to Ricky Williams. In 1999, the New Orleans’ Saints traded eleven draft choices for a chance to select the star University of Texas running back. Williams, if the rumors were to be believed, would revolutionize the position, bringing glory and championships to a team sorely in need. Instead, he merely destroyed the team. How bad was Williams? Three years later he was traded away to Miami for draft picks. In Florida, he finally lived up to the hype. In his first year as a Dolphin, Williams rushed for a league-leading 1,853 yards and made the Pro Bowl. So startling was his turn-around that rumors of drug abuse soon followed. And those rumors were true. Williams was taking drugs. He was strung out on the antidepressant Paxil.

The author does not offer an explanation of what happened to Ricky Williams in 2004 or 2006.

But the question remains. Do SSRI’s and other psychoactive medications have performance enhancing effects? If so, are they measurable? Where do the therapeutic effects end and the performance enhancing effects begin?

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