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student athletes and alcohol abuse
January 27, 2017

How Schools Are Preventing Alcohol Abuse in Student Athletes

student athletes and alcohol abuseStudent athletes are generally at greater risk of abusing alcohol than their college peers. As a result, they are also more vulnerable to the effects of binge drinking and other forms of alcohol misuse. These risk factors for alcohol abuse and its sometimes life-threatening effects are increasingly the target of school-wide substance abuse prevention policies that would seek to curtail the problem. This article takes a closer look at how, more specifically, drinking disproportionately affects college athletes, and describes some of the ways that schools are responding in an effort to prevent alcohol abuse in this population.

Alcohol Abuse in College Athletes

Studies have found that college athletes tend to drink with greater frequency and in greater amounts when they do drink, with the result that they also tend to experience more of the effects of alcohol abuse. In its 2001 “Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student Athletes,” the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) surveyed 21,225 athletes and found roughly 80 percent of them drank in the past 12 months. Those who drank experienced “high rates of negative consequences,” according to a 2006 summary in an article in the Journal of General Psychology:

  • 65.4% reportedly experienced a hangover
  • 52.4% reportedly had nausea or vomiting
  • 43.7% reported doing something they later regretted
  • 43.2% reported missing a class
  • 35.1% got into a fight
  • 33.3% reported doing poorly on a test
  • 29.7% drove a car while under the influence
  • 29.3% had a memory loss
  • 20% were hurt or injured
  • 17.5% had been in trouble with police or other college authorities
  • 11.5% had been taken advantage of sexually as a direct result of using alcohol or drugs in the past 12 months

More athletes than non-athletes are also more likely to meet the definition of “binge drinkers,” based on 2008 findings in the journal, Addictive Behaviors, and research elsewhere. (That means they consume on average four to five drinks in the course of a one two-hour period.) The same study cited the following trends as being associated with this higher risk profile for binge and heavy drinking among college athletes: “higher sensation seeking, overestimation of peer heavy drinking, non-use of protective behaviors while drinking, and higher enhancement and coping drinking motives.”

Interventions Aimed at Student Athletes

Schools have responded by introducing various interventions aimed at student athletes with the goal of preventing alcohol abuse. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has detailed a number of these “best practices to address student-athlete alcohol abuse”, as “evidence-based strategies” identified by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA). Such prevention efforts have included the following measures compiled by the director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Susan Bruce:

  • Educating student athletes about how their drinking behavior compares to that of their peers on campus and nationally, by providing accurate information regarding drinking norms in a non-judgmental format
  • Motivational interventions with personalized feedback in structured, one-on-one and small groups sessions that educate athletes regarding the impact of their drinking on athletic performance; (heavy drinking can reportedly produce a “hangover effect” that reduces athletic performance by more than 10 percent)
  • Challenging positive expectations regarding alcohol use, insofar as positive alcohol-related expectations predict an increased risk for heavy or binge drinking
  • Providing opportunities for student athletes to see the discrepancy between their personal goals and drinking levels
  • Correcting misperceptions about the overall prevalence and acceptability of peer alcohol use, insofar as overestimations about prevalence and acceptability of peer alcohol use correlate with higher rates of drinking
  • Teaching harm reduction strategies that lower intoxication (such as alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks) and reduce negative consequences (such as using a designated driver and having a buddy system)
  • Having uniform and comprehensive alcohol policies across athletics departments and ensuring the consistent enforcement of these rules and guidelines
  • Hosting alcohol-free athletic events
  • Training student athletes in preventing alcohol-related harm among bystanders
  • Limiting alcohol accessibility to underage drinkers, by working with local businesses and law enforcement to enforce underage drinking laws, decrease alcohol advertising and limit drink specials
  • Providing alcohol-free housing to student athletes
  • Setting high academic standards that govern class attendance and academic performance
  • Teaching stress management skills that help student athletes cope with stress, given their greater vulnerability to using alcohol as a coping device
  • A comprehensive, year-round campaign of education and prevention, because student athletes are more likely to engage in risky drinking during the off-season

In a 2001 study, researchers tested the success of a “social norm feedback campaign” for Division I student athletes. They found that student athletes who received two to three sessions of small group education and personalized feedback regarding their alcohol use, peer drinking norms, consequences of alcohol use, and skills for reducing alcohol abuse and risks, experienced a decrease in negative alcohol-related consequences.

The same NCAA publication cited above said alcohol abuse programs that have had the greatest success are based on collaboration among student athletes, coaches, athletics staff and prevention specialists, and typically involve a mix of the above approaches.

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