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Best practices to address student-athlete alcohol abuse

By: Susan Bruce, Director, Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention
Department of Student Health University of Virginia and David L. Wyrick, PhD, Director,
Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Best practices to address student-athlete alcohol abuse

Drinking by college students has long been viewed by many as a harmless and expected part of the transition from high school to college.  The truth is that drinking is not harmless and is among the most serious public health problems of American college students1.  We who work with student-athletes know the toll alcohol abuse can take in terms of lost potential – both athletically and academically.

Student-athletes are shown to be at greater risk for abusing alcohol than their non-athlete peers and they experience more frequent negative consequences.2   Those student-athletes with the heaviest drinking patterns are 6.15 times more likely to experience unintentional alcohol-related injuries, including those that may be season- or career-ending.3  Heavy drinking can result in a “hangover effect” which may reduce athletic performance by 11.4 percent4.

These issues confront us with important questions: “What is the best strategy or (more likely) combination of strategies that will create a safe environment for student-athletes?  How can we empower them, individually and collectively, to gain the most from their college experience?”

Fortunately, over the past few decades, answers are emerging.  Studies have shown that most student-athletes (72%) report drinking more during their off-season,  so athletics departments must adopt a comprehensive, year-round approach to alcohol and other drug abuse prevention2. One-time efforts, such as a dynamic educational speaker, are not sufficient.    Programs have the greatest impact when they are based on collaboration among student-athletes, coaches, athletics staff and prevention specialists. Successful prevention efforts involve a mix of approaches delivered to individuals and teams with other efforts that address the social environment and campus culture.  Evidence-based and promising strategies identified by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism  include:

  • Provide non-judgmental, normative feedback comparing a student-athlete’s drinking behavior to their student-athlete peers (either on campus or nationally).
    • Student-athletes who drink above the campus norm are more likely to reduce their alcohol use when presented with accurate drinking norms in a non-judgmental format.
  • Offer brief, motivational enhancement interventions with personalized feedback.
    • Structured, one-on-one and small group sessions that help students increase their desire to change and self-confidence in meeting goals are highly effective. Many campus counseling centers or health education departments already offer such programs. Athletics departments should consider partnering with existing campus programs to tailor feedback to reflect the impact of drinking on athletic performance.
  • Challenge “positive expectations” regarding alcohol use.
    • Student-athletes who hold more positive alcohol-related expectations (e.g., “drinking will help me relax or be more social”) are at increased risk for heavy drinking.
  • Illustrate the discrepancy between student-athletes’ goals and alcohol abuse.
    • Student-athletes are very accustomed to planning the steps to achieve their goals. Providing opportunities for student-athletes to recognize how alcohol abuse can negatively impact their personal goals can lead to reduced drinking levels.
  • Correct misperceptions about the acceptability and rates of alcohol use.
    • Student-athletes tend to overestimate the prevalence and acceptability of alcohol use, even among their immediate peer groups.
  • Teach harm reduction strategies.
    • These may include strategies that reduce intoxication (e.g., alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks) and those that reduce negative consequences (e.g., using a designated driver, having a buddy system).
  • Create comprehensive athletics department alcohol policies and ensure consistent enforcement.
    • Policies and procedures should be uniform across all teams, available in writing and communicated annually to all athletics staff and student-athletes. Student-athlete involvement in policy development is essential to creating real and lasting change.
  • Host alcohol-free events.
    • Athletics events can unify the student body and the department can take the lead in supporting or changing the campus drinking culture by planning weekend and evening social events. While some may tie into existing athletics events, others may be stand-alone activities that seek to build campus spirit. These programs may not attract the heaviest drinkers, but they do help non- and light-drinkers recognize that they are not alone in making healthy choices.
  • Train student-athletes in bystander intervention.
    • Most student-athletes report a desire to step-up and intervene with their peers to prevent alcohol-related harm. However, students need sufficient training to know how to intervene effectively.
  • Limit alcohol accessibility.
    • Working with local businesses and law enforcement helps limit access to alcohol by enforcing underage drinking laws, reducing alcohol advertising and discouraging/limiting drink specials. Alcohol-free housing is also an effective approach to limiting exposure to alcohol.
  • Set high academic standards.
    • Setting and communicating high standards for class attendance and academic performance can help deter heavy alcohol use.
  • Teach stress management skills.
    • Student-athletes are at increased risk of using alcohol to cope with stress6. Stress management skills training helps student-athletes use alternative strategies to cope with and manage psychologically difficult situations.

It is our hope that this article helps you better understand how alcohol can impact student-athletes and provide ways to talk about the potential consequences of abuse.  The NCAA has a number of excellent programs to support you in decreasing alcohol abuse on your campus.

NCAA resources include the CHOICES Alcohol Education Grants, sponsorship of the annual APPLE Conferences to Promote Student-Athlete Wellness and Substance Abuse Prevention and myPlaybook: a Web-based alcohol and other drug education program for student-athletes. Registration is currently open and spots are available at the Reston, Virginia site for institutions to send a group to the NCAA sponsored APPLE Conference (register here). Information on these resources can be found at www.ncaa.org/drugtesting.

Additional NCAA Resources

*Editor’s Note:  The third week of October is traditionally Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week, a time to reinforce commitment to year-round attention to this issue.  Support for NCAAW activities can be found at http://collegesubstanceabuseprevention.org/ncaaw_current.html

1Hingson RW, Zha W, Weitzman ER.  Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2009; S16:12-20.

2Brenner & Swanik. High-risk drinking characteristics in collegiate athletics.  Journal of American College Health. 2007; 65 (3) 267-672.

3 Brenner J, Metz S, Entriken J. Alcohol-Related Unintentional Injury Among Collegiate Athletes. Athletic Training and Sports Health Care. 2014; 6: 228-236.

4 O’Brien & Lyons. Alcohol and the athlete. Sports Medicine, 2000: 29(5), 295-300

5National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges. NIH Pub. No. 02–5010. Bethesda, MD: NIAAA, 2002.

6Martens, Dams-O’Connor & Beck. A systematic review of college student-athlete drinking: Prevalence rates, sport-related factors and interventions.  Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2014; 31: 305-316.

About Susan Bruce

Susan Bruce is director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. She has more than 20 years of experience in collegiate health promotion and has expertise in the social norms approach, peer education, and curriculum infusion strategies. She directs the national Gordie’s Call campaign to prevent alcohol abuse and hazing and the NCAA-funded APPLE conferences:  the leading national training symposiums dedicated to substance abuse prevention and health promotion for student-athletes and athletics department administrators.   She is a founding member of the Step UP! bystander intervention program and serves on the Step UP! Executive Board.  Her research focuses on reducing celebratory drinking consequences through peer-developed social marketing campaigns.  Susan earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Master of Education in Counselor Education from the University of Virginia.

About David L. Wyrick, PhD

Dr. Wyrick is an Associate Professor of Public Health Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) where he founded and directs the Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness. He also serves as the UNCG Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the NCAA. Dr. Wyrick has received more than 15 NIH-funded grants to conduct research related to alcohol and other drug prevention for high school and college students. With a deep concern for the health and wellness of adolescents and young adults, he creates programs and curricula that are informed with the most recent findings of prevention research. For example, he is the co-developer of the web-based alcohol and other drug prevention program for college student-athletes, myPlaybook, which has been used by approximately 300 college and university athletic departments around the country. He has also served as the Chair for the Early Career Preventionist Network and a member of the Board of Directors for the Society for Prevention Research and as an expert consultant for various groups including the NCAA, the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and the National Center for Drug Free