About the VIRTUES study - Values and Individual Responsibility Training to Uphold Ethics in Sport


It is well known that doping can have significant negative health consequences for athletes and contributes to an undesirable image of sport in society. Yet, the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) by athletes is a pervasive phenomenon in sport, particularly at the elite level. Although researchers have developed sophisticated detection-based anti-doping methods, prevention is by far the preferred approach to eradicating doping from sport.

To date, the predominant approach to doping prevention has been to educate athletes about the negative health consequences of doping (Elliot et al., 2008; Goldberg et al., 1996, 2000, 2003). However, there is limited evidence to suggest that programmes focusing on education alone can significantly reduce doping intentions and behaviours.

Prevention can be achieved by intervening on psychological factors known to be associated with doping use by athletes (e.g., Barkoukis et al., 2011; Kavussanu, 2016, 2017; Lucidi et al., 2008). Recent research has identified that moral disengagement and self-regulatory efficacy to resist pressure to dope are both strongly related to intentions to dope (Kavussanu et al., 2016; Ntoumanis et al., 2014); however, to date, no study has intervened on these variables. The present study, funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) aims to fill this gap by developing a novel programme targeting these variables and testing whether it is effective at reducing athletes’ intention to dope. We will develop two versions of this programme: an in-person and a web-based version. We will be working with athletes aged 16-22 years from a range of different sports across three countries: UK, Greece and Italy.

In sum, the study aims to:

  1. Develop, implement, and evaluate a novel anti-doping intervention in young athletes aged 16-22 years.
  2. Determine whether the web-based version of the intervention is as effective as the in-person version.
  3. Examine whether the intervention is equally effective across the UK, Greece, and Italy.

There are three phases of the study:

  • Phase 1: Intervention development (September 2016- September 2017) – COMPLETE

In Phase 1, the main activities were the development of materials for the in-person interventions. These materials were developed using both the research team’s existing expertise but also an exhaustive review of the literature. Once these materials for both the moral (main) and educational (control) interventions were developed, they were extensively piloted and refined, in order to ensure that they were engaging, interactive, and enjoyable to the athletes who took part. The development of these materials in Phase 1 has now successfully led the way for the work in the current on-going phases.

  • Phase 2: Delivery and evaluation of in-person intervention (January 2018-December 2018).

The second phase of the project entailed the delivery of these interventions to athletes in small groups across six weekly sessions. These sessions were delivered by our expertly trained intervention facilitators who help deliver the sessions. To assess the effectiveness of these interventions measures of key variables were taken before and after each intervention, as well as two months later to see if these effects had been maintained. This in-person phase has now largely been completed in the UK and Greece, with the anticipated start data for the in-person intervention in Italy being October/November 2018.

  • Phase 3: Design and delivery of web-based intervention (September 2018 – January 2019)

The final phase of the project is to examine the potential for the new intervention to be delivered via the web. Using the internet to help deliver our intervention has the potential to allow us to reach a larger number of athletes than through in-person interventions.

This phase has involved working directly with a web development company to both develop a suitable platform to deliver our intervention through, but also consider how we can adapt our materials to still be engaging and interactive when delivered online. Recruitment and delivery of this phase will commence in October 2018.


Barkoukis, V. Lazuras, L., Tsorbatzoudis, H., & Rodafinos.A. (2011). Motivational and sportspersonship profiles of elite athletes in relation to doping behavior. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 205-212.

Elliot, D.L., Goldberg, L., Moe, E.L., DeFrancesco, C.A., Durham, M.B., McGinnis, W., & Lockwood, C. (2008). Long-term outcomes of the ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternatives) program for female high school athletes. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 52, 73-92.

Goldberg, L., Elliot, D.L., Clarke, G.N., Mackinnon, D.P., Moe, E., Zoref, L., et al. (1996). Effects of a multidimensional anabolic steroid prevention intervention: The Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS) program. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 276, 1555-1562.

Goldberg, L., MacKinnon, D.P., Elliot, D., Moe, E., Clarke, G., & Cheong, J. (2000). The adolescents training and learning to avoid steroids program: Preventing drug use and promoting health behaviors. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 154, 332-338.

Goldberg, L., Elliot, D.L., Mackinnon, D.P., Moe, E., Kuehl, K.S., Nohre, L., et al. (2003). Drug testing athletes to prevent substance abuse: Background and pilot study results of the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32, 16-25.

Kavussanu, M. (2016). Moral disengagement and doping. In V. Barkoukis, L. Lazuras, & H. Tsorbatzoudis (Eds), The psychology of doping in sport (pp. 151-164). New York: Routledge.

Kavussanu, M. (2017). Doping in football: A moral psychology perspective. In J. Bangsbo, P. Krustrup, P. Hansen, L. Ottesen, G. Pfister, & A. M. Elbe (Eds.), Science and Football VIII.  Routledge.

Kavussanu, M., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Elbe, A.M., & Ring, C. (2016). The Moral Disengagement in Doping Scale. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 24, 188-198.

Lucidi, F., Zelli, A., Mallia, L., Grano, C., Russo, P.M., & Violani, C. (2008). The social-cognitive mechanisms regulating adolescents’ use of doping substances. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26, 447-456.

Ntoumanis, N., Ng, J., Barkoukis, V., & Backhouse, S. (2014). Personal and psychosocial predictors of doping use in physical activity settings: A meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 44, 1603-1624.