The Day My Friend Took Adderall Before a Track Meet Cognitive psychology is a window into why Adderall isn't a performance enhancer.

This is a guest post by a student atWilliams College, class of 2018. The effects ofAdderalland other ADHDdrugson schoolwork are very well documented: they help you focus and process information faster. But its less well known that athletes

This is a guest post by a student at Williams College, class of 2018.

The effects of Adderall and other ADHD drugs on schoolwork are very well documented: they help you focus and process information faster. But it's less well known that athletes use them too.

My sophomore year of high school, there was an 800m runner on my team who was committed to run on a Division 1 scholarship after only starting track his junior year. This athlete “Dave” was someone the underclassmen on our team looked up to and because he was so new to the sport, he was improving drastically each week. Leading up to the state championship he was seeded first and our team believed he was a lock to win.

As a sophomore, I did not qualify for the state championship, but still came to support Dave and give him a warm-up partner. During the warm-up I remember making a comment about how he looked locked in and he replied, “thanks, I scored some Adderall for the first time to give me an extra boost too.” I never thought about how ‘study drugs’ would affect athletic performance, but I was confident in Dave’s decision-making skills and believed they would give him the focus to win.

Through the first half of the race, Dave was tied for first place and was executing his race plan perfectly. Our whole team was sure that Dave could will his way to a state title the same way he fought to conference and county titles in previous weeks. But, the second lap of the race, Dave’s normal look of vengeance turned into a look of fear and he tanked the ending of his race. Seeded to get first, Dave was passed by 6 runners in the final lap and placed seventh. Nobody on our team questioned Dave’s effort, as he led our team throughout the whole year and wanted to win a state championship more than anyone. But, I remember not being able to put the pieces together: his training was outstanding, he lived a clean life, and had a supposed performance-enhancing drug on his side.

This semester, when I learned about state cues in cognitive psychology, I was finally able to come up with an explanation for Dave’s performance. The idea behind state cues is that our state’s internal environment plays a role in our ability to retrievememories. If our internal state at the time of encoding memories matches the one at the time of retrieval, our success rate will increase. For example people who learned something drunk were able to remember it the best if they were also drunk when asked about it. The way that I conceptualize Dave’s performance follows the same rationale: Dave already knew how to be a champion from our practices and smaller meets. But, under the influence of Adderall for the first time at our state championship, Dave did not feel like his same self that won championships in the past, and did not know what to do. While other runners were powering past him, Dave looked star struck and without his normal ‘black mamba’ killer instinct.  

Maybe there was another contributing factor to Dave’s tough performance that day that I am unaware of. Or maybe Dave was simply due for a bad day after winning so much earlier in the year. But that performance at such an important meet never made sense to me, and this course finally provided an explanation that fits.