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Helping Female Student-Athletes Avoid The Pitfalls of Alcohol Abuse

In the United States and many other countries, underage drinking is a serious problem. Today, the average age a girl in the U.S. has her first drink is 13.[1] It is important for young girls to be aware of the problems associated with drinking and how to best protect themselves so that they may live a healthy life both physically and mentally. There is a difficult relationship between alcohol and athletes that makes it particularly important to educate our young girls about. By educating, we can help them avoid a host of negative consequences associated with problem drinking, damaging to their immediate and long-term health, safety and well-being.

Binge drinking is defined, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as a pattern of drinking that elevates blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL, which typically occurs after four drinks for women in roughly two hours.[2] The risks associated with problem drinking are associated with a constellation of health consequences, such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease, breast cancer, low bone density and fetal alcohol syndrome.[3] Alcohol has also been identified as a gateway drug which can lead to the use of other illicit drugs [4] and underage drinking is a predictor of future alcohol dependence, employment problems and criminality. [5]

High school is often remembered as a stressful time due to the pressure to excel in academics, navigate a confusing array of social interactions, and prepare for the future. While sports have been identified as a positive way to cope with stress, many high schoolers identify substance abuse as a method to manage stress [6] with alcohol remaining the long-standing drug of choice for teenage girls.[7] According to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s report ‘Her Life Depends On It III,’ nearly three in four high school girls have tried alcohol in their lifetimes.[8]0 By their senior year, more than 25% of girls report binge drinking.[9] In 2011, 7% of high school girls reported driving after drinking and 25% said they had ridden in a vehicle with a driver who had been drinking.[10]

While there are clear risks associated with drinking for both genders, sexual risk-taking, intimate violence, motor-vehicle accidents and suicide,[11] there are some risks particularly associated with females. Girls who drink more frequently are reportedly more likely to attempt suicide and are at a greater risk for unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, dating violence and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.[12]

The correlation between being an athlete and drinking more or less than non-athletes is complex. In general, adolescent girls are more likely than their male counterparts to drink as a way to cope with problems, boost confidence or relieve stress [13], all things sports are shown to improve. Through participation in sports and physical activity girls experience improved fitness levels, higher self-esteem, higher confidence, more positive body images and lower levels of depression. Sometimes though, while sports can be a de-stressor they can also be viewed as adding stress due to the pressure to perform well, desiring success in every competition or suffering a serious injury. Studies have found high school and college female athletes are more likely to engage in problem drinking.[14] The “impact of athletic participation on drinking behavior is complicated by mediating factors, such as peer influences, sport-related identities and sport subcultures.”[15]

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), more than half of male and female college athletes report drinking during their competitive and off seasons.[16] However, many female athletes are seeking to maximize their athletic performance and have a strong support system for healthy decision-making that allows them to be less likely to fall prone to substance abuse as a whole. Excessive alcohol consumption hampers athletic performance by undermining muscle development and recovery, proper absorption and metabolism of nutrients and information processing and retention.[17] When athlete’s abuse alcohol it may be a result of self-medication to reduce the anxiety and stress of competition and injuries, exaggerated perceptions of peer alcohol use or drinking-tolerant team subcultures [18], where the team may be more conducive to drinking.[19]

Alcohol is a substance closely linked to sports, especially through advertisements that promote the sports environment as an atmosphere accepting and almost encouraging of drinking. The “alcohol industry spends more than half a billion dollars annually on advertising during televised sports programs, to which more than 80% of girls and women are exposed to at some point.”[20] It has been shown that sports spectatorship, live or broadcast, can increase the risk of problem drinking [21] so it is not just those playing the sport who should be concerned. This entire sub-culture can put girls and women at a greater risk of alcohol abuse or being surrounded by an environment that encourages problem drinking.

Talking to kids early and openly about the risks of drinking can help reduce their chances of becoming problem drinkers. Common knowledge suggests that being involved in athletics will protect against the pitfalls of substance abuse, the true relationship between the two is complex particularly when looking at alcohol. Developing a strong support system for the female athlete will help mitigate the potential negative influences she faces in her everyday life. Involvement in sports has tremendous potential to offer a wide array of physical, social and even academic benefits. Let’s make sure our young girls and women experience the positives of sport and part of that requires open discussions with parents, coaches and mentors about alcohol abuse, building self-confidence in girls to make educated decisions about using alcohol and providing healthy methods to de-stress.

Footnotes:
1. Connery, Hilary Smith. “Teenage Drinking.” :Understanding the Dangers and Talking to Your Child. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/the-dangers-of-teenage-drinking.htm>.
2. "Drinking Levels Defined." Drinking Levels Defined. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web 23 Feb. 2016. <http://www.niaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking>.
3. Staurowsky, E.J., DeSousa, M.J., Miller, K.E., Sabo, D., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., Veliz, P., Weaver, A., & Williams, N. (2015). Her Life Depends On It III: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women's Sports Foundation. (66)
4. Ibid., 67
5. Ibid., 66
6. Leaonard, Noelle R., Marya Viorst Gwadz, Amanda Ritchie, Jessica L. Linick, Charles M. Cleland, Luther Elliott, and Michelle Grethel. "NYU Study Examines Top High School Students' Stress and Coping Mechanisms." NYC Study Examines Top High School Students' Stress and Coping Mechanisms. New York University, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2015/08/11/nyu-study-examines-top-high-school-students-stress-and-coping-mechanisms.html.
7. Staurowsky, E.J., DeSousa, M.J., Miller, K.E., Sabo, D., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., Veliz, P., Weaver, A., & Williams, N. (2015). Her Life Depends On It III: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women's Sports Foundation. (67)
8. Ibid., 67
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 66
12. Ibid., 67
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., 68
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Rexroat, Markie. "NCAA Student-Athlete Substance Use Study: Executive Summary August 2014." NCAA.org. NCAA, 21 July 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/ncaa-student-athlete-substance-use-study-executive-summary-august-2014.
20. Staurowsky, E.J., DeSousa, M.J., Miller, K.E., Sabo, D., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., Veliz, P., Weaver, A., & Williams, N. (2015). Her Life Depends On It III: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women's Sports Foundation. (68)
21. Ibid.