The result yielded two themes and three categories (Table 2). The components of the themes are found in all three categories.
The first theme, “Desire for and concerns about money”, points to recurring references to money, whether as a motivation to gamble, an interpretation of gambling problems, or reason for accepting gambling company sponsorship. It was not the scarcity of money that was a driving force, but rather a mixture of money as a reward and as something that strengthens one’s position, and this was found both at the individual level and when talking about the club. The second theme, “In the shadow of performance”, captures the underlying feeling of constant evaluation and need to perform. Not only the athletes were aware of this, but the coaches were also part of this world of evaluation and performance. Even gambling was partly seen as performance: “being good at gambling” was performance and to win money was to succeed, i.e., perform well. The lack of measurable success was a security threat, as one might lose one’s job, the club might lose matches, or sponsors might leave. Having to admit to a gambling problem was often described as a security threat and a collapse of the idea of being good at gambling.
To Gamble or not Gamble
The most common respondents’ explanations of why they gamble were “the thrill” and “the importance of winning money”. However, in line with previous studies of social networks, the social context was found to be important in generating and sustaining gambling (Hing and Gainsbury 2013; Reith and Dobbie 2011). Descriptions that capture the social context constitute the basis of the results, which is why we begin by depicting them.
Social Beings and Social Time
Regardless of age and position, respondents said that gambling had always been part of their sports environment. Some respondents did not gamble themselves, others gambled and had done so for many years, while still others no longer gambled.
The gambling sometimes started with teammates talking about money and the conversations often started with the same group of athletes. I happened that the conversations about gambling sometimes ceased when those athletes moved to another club. The respondents, both those who were young athletes at the time of the interview and those looking back on when they were younger, talked about being inspired by older athletes and those who seemed to win a lot of money:
But if someone comes into the locker room and says he won 500,000 or has bet 50,000 on a match. Then you listen carefully: What match did you play? … and so on. And so it happens over a long period. Obviously, you may think at some point, “Damn, I’ll just try it too”. (IP 7, 24 years).
The talk and sometimes the planning of gambling were part of solidifying a community. The gamblers mainly talked about what to bet on (e.g., horses and various teams) or how much money they would bet and might win, with the focus being on profits. Losses did not occupy much time in the conversation:
But then, there is something to talk about in the dressing room as well. People talk about what to bet on, how to do it, how to bet … (IP 27, 26 years).
There were few distinct differences in how gambling was described by the athletes compared with the coaches/managers. The managers of the larger, wealthier clubs described less distress about the athletes’ gambling patterns and raised no concerns about any other staff member’s gambling habits. Not many athletes in the current study commented on the gambling of the coaches, although it happened:
I think coaches also gamble quite a lot, at least that’s my experience. I have heard many people talk about it. They mention no sums—nothing like that—just that they talk about gambling. You actually get a little shocked, as you didn’t think that was the case. You think they have grown older and understand a little, that there is no meaning to it, really. (IP 2, 26 years).
All respondents experienced that athletes had a relatively large amount of free time. For young people who did not have family, afternoons and evenings were often free, sometimes creating the feeling that time must be “killed”. Gambling become a way to give color to leisure time described as somewhat monotonous. If free time increased, for example, when athletes changed sports clubs and moved to a new town, their gambling might increase:
I would say that I play a little more now since I’ve come to X than I did in Y. … In the beginning, there was a lot of free time and there was nothing to do [here]. (IP 11, 21 years).
Journeys in connection with matches were recurrently described in terms of “time to kill” But also a sociable time. Plenty of hours were spent travelling on the bus, and how to spend that time varied little: Netflix, sleeping, listening to music, gaming, and gambling seemed to be the most common features of such travelling. Some sports clubs have two-floor buses, with the athletes using the upstairs and the coaches the downstairs. It was mainly on the bus that gambling became a shared activity of the athletes. This activity can be difficult to handle, even if there is no formal pressure to participate:
It’s hard to stop when you sit with a bunch [of guys] and gamble at the same time. You come down to zero and watch when others are gambling, then it’s really hard just to give up. (IP 2, 26 years).
One athlete described the time on the bus as the reason why he resumed gambling after refraining from it for some time. Lack of activities and gambling teammates made it seem appropriate to start gambling again.
Money Gives Thrill and Reward
There is too much or too little money. High salaries and the pursuit of money are factors that athletes, coaches, and management recurrently cite as both as career-driving forces and as risk factors for gambling. The respondents’ earnings differed considerably, but the respondents more or less agreed that higher salaries generated more gambling. A high salary gives one a better opportunity to gamble because one’s surplus is larger. Several respondents described how the stakes increased as incomes increased, or when they became used to high salaries:
So, when I go to the casino with 25,000 plus and then don’t come out with it [i.e., the money], I don’t think it affects me. (IP 10, 28 years).
The same argument was used to explain why female athletes have a much lower prevalence of at-risk gambling than do the males: they don’t have high enough salaries to gamble, nor can they expect to earn them later in their sports careers. However, the respondents reckoned that if salaries increased, gambling might increase in female sport.
“Money at a young age” was commonly described as a risk factor for gambling. Coaches/managers noted that the athletes were relatively young when they first received their high salaries. The young athletes have low fixed expenses but high salaries, making the stakes rise very quickly without immediate consequences.
The idea of fast money was recurrently articulated. Sometimes, in a desire for status, money provides opportunities to consume things and impress others, giving access to contacts, parties, and girls. However, the money won was also a sign that one was good at gambling. The money won from playing the horses, sports betting, or poker became evidence of skill:
I know about it. I can sit and watch a match and check my ability, how good I am at betting. (IP 10 28 years).
The skills are important but were not described as a sufficient reason for gambling; rather, the money is the final goal, the reward and also what gave the thrill. Both regular and occasional gamblers described it as important to win money. Regardless of whether one needs more money or whether the winnings are low, the actual money is an important motivator and a reward.
The elite athletes were described by the coaches, managers, and one another in words such as “reward junkies”, “extreme competitors”, and “results oriented”. Part from money, many of the explanations for gambling concerned “the high” or “the thrill” of winning. The thrill is the reward for success:
It is certainly the thrill we talked about earlier. As an athlete, it is important to get the thrill you get from winning a match. (IP 6, 25 years).
Many respondents bet on sports, and one stated reason for doing so was to increase the thrill. While some respondents reported a need to feel excited when watching a match, others said it was not required. For some, the reactions to the betting outcome were similar to the reactions after having played a match:
If you win, the thrill comes, and if you lose, you do what is expected after a match loss – you get up and take revenge. And these competitive moments both give a thrill and also give some kind of feedback – “Have I done right, have I done wrong?” (IP 16, 45 years, MC).
The thrills one gets from gambling were also used as an escape and relief from setbacks in training, dissipating negative thoughts and creating energy through an “adrenaline kick”.
The Surrounding Society
Increased availability is a problematic issue mentioned by some respondents, but mainly by the coaches/managers. First came online betting and the possibility of betting on one’s computer; then came mobile betting, and accessibility was unlimited.
All respondents had opinions on gambling marketing. The absolute majority of both athletes and coaches/managers expressed considerable frustration and annoyance at gambling advertising: the amount of such advertising was irritating, and there was the question of whether or not it was harmful. Regarding gambling advertising, many believed that it probably affected the number of people attracted to gambling, as the advertising made it difficult to forget about gambling.
A few respondents noted that it was probably difficult to stop gambling when surrounded by intrusive advertising. Another issue was that some athletes advertise gambling, which some saw as very problematic. This opinion was repeatedly articulated by the athletes, but was just briefly mentioned by one coach/manager. Athletes as horse owners represented another form of marketing, and were mentioned as a trigger to bet on horses. The combination of sponsorship by gambling companies and athletes promoting gambling in advertising illustrated the pervasive influence of gambling companies:
The team is sponsored [by a gambling company] and it is so obvious that you notice it very often. … Obviously, the question arises once again: “Oh, should I start doing that? Zlatan [Ibrahimović] is in the commercials – he thinks it’s a good thing [to gamble] and is my idol. Well, I should register there”. There is an awful lot of advertising for gambling, and it is clear that it is not good for my age group. (IP 18, 20 years).
Two of the three participating sports associations, for football and ice hockey, have gambling companies as sponsors, and several sports clubs have sponsorship agreements with gambling companies. One respondent described a situation in which an athlete with gambling problems was asked to come to the casino to represent the team at an event. The situation could have been avoided, as it was provocative and stressful for both the athlete and his friends who knew about it. Representation was seen as among the athletes’ duties but also as a form of entertainment.
Do you go there [i.e., to the horse races], so … 20% of those sitting in the stands are [sports] guys as well. That’s it – it’s accepted as hell to gamble. (IP 8, 26 years).
The respondents expressed gratitude for the revenues from the gambling companies and unwillingness to forgo that money. However, the choice of sponsors seemed to be a latent issue. The athletes were happy to raise the matter with the clubs and the sports associations, and managers/coaches were convinced that gambling company sponsorship was necessary and beneficial, or were ambivalent about how the issue ought to be handled. One coach described a meeting between ice hockey and football coaches in which they suddenly started discussing gambling company sponsorship. He described this as a sign of concern about the situation. However, the managers generally expressed no concern that the athletes or themselves might become more prone to gambling problems through having gambling companies as partners. The coaches and management differed, in that management was less likely to problematize the issue.
Pleasure Becomes a Problem
The Emotions of Gambling Problems
The respondents who gamble described it as essentially amusing and entertaining. However, several recalled periods when they did not feel good about gambling or described what it was like for others who ended up gambling destructively. Those who reflected on their gambling often did so based on their relationship dynamics, for example, their partner might complain, or they felt too occupied by thoughts of gambling and paid their loved ones too little attention. Still, monetary losses were the main reason for worries about gambling:
A month ago, maybe, I felt like this: “I’m gambling too much, it’s not good”. So, I went back and checked all my accounts, all the withdrawals and deposits. I concluded that in three years I had lost 50 thousand. I don’t know whether that might be considered a gambling addiction. (IP 8, 26 years).
One coach said that he met many young athletes with gambling problems. In general, they were ashamed and blamed themselves:
The guys I talk with who have problems, they call themselves idiots. Their self-image is so bad it can’t get worse. Everyone says almost the same thing: It would have been better to have a drug problem, then you at least would have been addicted to something. (IP 4, 41 years, MC).
Discover or Admit to a Gambling Problem
Several respondents said that the most important thing was to have control over their finances when gambling; for example, they kept cash records, checked their logs, or sat down and counted their expenses. However, the problems could begin with losing control of finances, and then starting to gamble to restore one’s financial position.
Everyone agreed that it was difficult to discover or assess whether a person has a gambling problem. If they were to ask most were doubtful as to whether they would get an honest answer:
Then, it is also sensitive to ask the question and … People can take offence if you say, like, “How are you, do you have a problem?” It is not easy, either, to open up and just throw it out. But I think you can always ask, at least it’s not bad. (IP 29, 20 years).
The first explicit sign was “when the person starts to borrow money”, but as the respondents also noted, by that point the gambling problem had probably been going on for a while.
Some respondents asked how to relate to a person who gambles a lot but does not seem to feel bad about it. Some considered “gambling often and with too much money” an early sign of “addiction”, though addiction did not seem to be synonymous with “problem”. Some respondents believed that as long as the person did not apparently feel bad about gambling, it could not be considered a problem. It evoked suspicion, however, when gamblers talked only about “profits” and not at all about losses. Everyone knows, the respondents said, that one loses too—the question is just “how much”.
Most athletes said that teammates were likely to suspect or get to know if someone is feeling bad. Both athletes and coaches were clearly aware of their teammates’ general health, but usually relatives or spouses were the first to discover gambling problems:
Then he became greyer, worse, and finally it came out that his partner had found a lot of debt-collection notices at home and thought that this was impossible for a man who earns (X)00,000 in salary a month – you hardly need debt collection. Then she started investigating this, and it turned out that he had wasted all the money they had and borrowed nearly (X)00,000 to finance his gambling. (IP 4, 41 years, MC).
Many said that it was common to hide larger problems, such as gambling problems, from the coaches. The coaches and sports managers confirmed this, saying that even if they suspected that something was wrong, it might take several conversations before the person would open up. Also, telling others about one’s own gambling problems was considered difficult. Some of the younger respondents thought it would be possible to tell teammates if they had a problem, but they would rather talk to their parents or girlfriend. Others described it as difficult and relatively uncommon to talk about sensitive problems in the locker room. On the other hand, gambling problems were considered somewhat easier to talk about than mental illness. There was a fear of being seen as weak, as this might affect their position in the team. Having gambling problems was often described as being stupid rather than weak:
Admitting to gambling addiction can be tough and hard, I think. Well, it’s nothing anyone wants to do … But if you want to look at it purely career-wise, I still think it is more difficult to admit that you feel crap mentally than having problems with gambling, even though it is obviously very closely related. … It is even bad in front of teammates, but even more for the club management. (IP1, 28 years).
What Would you Suggest?
The respondents were asked what the individual could do to prevent gambling problems.
One respondent said that even though he appreciated gambling and saw it as fun, he no longer initiated gambling with his teammates. Some respondents said they would like to talk more about the downsides of gambling, as there were rarely any critical questions or discussions of gambling among the athletes or in interactions with coaches. If this happened, it might ultimately be possible to change attitudes to gambling, some argued:
It is very uncommon to have reservations, instead you laugh at it: “Haha, you lost 5,000 SEK” – a little bit like that. Everything that has to do with gambling you consider more like “fun”. I think we must get rid of that. (IP 2, 26 years).
Several respondents had found ways to reduce or stop gambling. Some said that their gambling decreased when children and family life made it more difficult to have time to gamble. One respondent felt that he should not gamble for ethical reasons, because gambling companies and gambling created so much trouble for others, but thought that this was too difficult and big a step to take. Others decided that not gambling at all was better than risking being at the borderline of gambling problems.
The Organization and me
Work-life and Health
The spontaneous response of the respondents was that their clubs would help athletes with problems, whether with gambling or anything else. However, all respondents were aware that it is ultimately their performance during training or competition that is crucial. Performance is always in focus, and the feeling of being constantly assessed and valued characterized the athletes’ life choices and self-image. Coaches and managers often returned to descriptions of the centrality of performance.
Sports at this level have been professionalized. All interviewed coaches and managers agreed that the sports milieu is more in line with other workplaces than it was 10–15 years ago, but that more can be done they add. However, they say, the question is what the sport club get back by investing more resources. Everyone, both athletes and coaches/managers, was aware that employment agreements make it possible to eliminate underperforming athletes and coaches. Athlete and coach rotation was seen as part of the business, affecting how much one would want to expose oneself as an individual. Mental health problems can be perceived as weaknesses, creating fear of being traded or removed from the team. On the other hand, denying having a problem can also be problematic:
Say that we have a player with a gambling addiction. We discuss this with the player and he just denies it – then I can tell you that he won’t stay very long in the sports club. (IP 16, 45 years, MC).
All respondents—athletes, coaches, and managers—expressed in different ways that they were aware that personal life affects sports achievement. Despite this, it was described as difficult to trust that club management understood this, as what matters is match results.
Policies and Prevention
Policies and guidelines are a way to prevent problems and clarify positions, even if they sometimes are insufficient implemented. To start it is notable that the response, in his study, regarding prevention efforts differs with age, particularly among the athletes. Generally, the older the respondent is the more likely he is to suggest some restrictions regarding gambling and believe it would be able to change. Younger respondents are more likely to take the view “it has always been like this—it can’t be changed”.
Most studied clubs had alcohol use guidelines, and all forms of doping were prohibited. It was also common to talk about social media guidelines and how to act as club representatives. However, two subjects reoccurred concerning policy. The first is that “gambling policy” was associated with rules on betting on one’s own sport. It was very unclear to the athletes whether or not one could bet on one’s own league:
No, I don’t have a hundred per cent control, but I know … I know, we can’t bet on our matches. Then I don’t know … I think it may be that we can’t bet on the [league] because it’s our league. (IP 17, 23 years).
Gambling on one’s own matches is prohibited as it could be linked to match-fixing. The police, the National Sports Federation, and to a certain extent the unions have visited the clubs to inform them about match-fixing to prevent this crime.
The second subject is that gambling was not an issue subject to guidelines or structured prevention efforts in any club. Preventive measures consisted of point actions efforts: one respondent talked about a club that banned gambling on the bus to the match, but not on the way home. Another respondent believed that the athletes had been asked not to gamble for money on the bus because it might create incentives for the younger ones to start gambling. One manager said that it was impossible to monitor gambling, but that the athletes should not gamble in the locker room, even though it was difficult to supervise. Respondents’ opinions varied as to the effectiveness of such a gambling policy. Some respondents believed that it would be valuable, but perhaps impossible, to prohibit talk about gambling in the locker room. They thought it would help to shift the focus from money and gambling to something else. A similar situation was described regarding the journeys: the athletes seemed to think that the coaches knew little about what was happening on the bus. They also said that they were not open with the coaches:
No one really talks to the coaches – you are not open about it. [i.e., gambling] with the coaches and such. You are very open within the team, but not with the coaches. (IP 29, 20 years).
Not all the athletes and coaches shared this understanding, and a few athletes and coaches described coaches as more involved.
Investing heavily in prevention efforts may improve results, but not with certainty, some respondents claimed. As there was high mobility between clubs, the club environment can sometimes change rapidly even in the absence of such efforts. Even so, managers stated that, as employers, they are responsible for finding treatments and supporting those with gambling problems, but that it was not yet relevant to formulate guidelines for preventing gambling problems. At the same, time several respondents asked for more information about the warning signs of gambling problems as well as for more information about gambling problems in general. Some clubs have hosted visits by athletes who previously had major gambling problems. The respondents had evidently taken these visits seriously, and the visiting athletes had created respect for the problem.
Some respondents, how had considered the situation, believed that sanctions must be part of preventive measures to restrict gambling if they are to be complied with. There seemed to be some ambiguity about whether, for example, travel time (e.g., bus trips) is considered working or leisure time, and whether that would matter concerning gambling restrictions. It was also deemed important that restrictions should apply to everyone in the sport:
If only our team’s coach says it, I don’t think it would help. If it were something applying to all of Sweden, then it could probably have a greater impact, I think. (IP 2, 26 years).
The only remedy for gambling problems, reported by several respondents, was financial remediation: the club would take the person to the bank and try to rectify his financial problems. If the club saw that the person needed psychological help with his gambling problem, he was referred to outpatient care or even a private CBT-trained psychologist.
Although perceptions of the utility and possibility of gambling policy were diverse, there was one thing that everyone agreed on: start with youth. Regardless of the respondents’ ages, they suggested to start talking about the danger of gambling in high school and youth teams.