Surprising Facts About Student-Athletes and Alcohol Use

Have you always thought that keeping your kids occupied with hockey and other sports will help deter them from using alcohol and drugs? Contrary to what most parents believe, studies show that college student-athletes are considered to be at greater risk for abusing alcohol and other drugs than their non-athlete peers.

In fact, according to Dr. Jeffrey Milroy, director of programs and research associate for Prevention Strategies — a private research firm dedicated to evidence-based prevention of alcohol and other drug use among athletes — student-athletes drink more alcohol per week, engage in binge or high-risk drinking more often and experience more alcohol-related consequences than do non-athletes.

What might be even more surprising for One Million Skates readers is that school administrators are seeing a higher incidence of alcohol use among hockey players.

“There’s a fuzzy line between how hockey can be protective as a good alternative to hanging out, being bored and identifying other things to get their hands into, versus integrating into an environment where, historically, alcohol use has been a part of the culture,” said Milroy.

“That culture still kind of exists today. It is very persistent within movies and the media. It just kind of continues to be pushed, and a lot of our youth hockey players still see that as part of the culture.”

Millroy and experts believe the higher incidence can, in part, be attributed to the influence of “normative perceptions” — what we believe other people to be engaging in, and accepting of, behaviour-wise.

“The perception doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate,” said Milroy, who grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and later played collegiate hockey at a Division III school in upstate New York. An example, he says, is that “a Canadian is automatically a hockey player and automatically likes beer.”

“Norms can be quite powerful,” noted Milroy. “As human beings we tend to migrate towards the norm, regardless of reality. So, if we can share with others that the norm here isn’t really what you think it is — that all the hockey players or all the athletes are getting drunk on their days off — then we can try to better match the normative perception with reality, which is that the majority of them are actually behaving in a responsible way.”

According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, one in four nine-year-olds has tried drinking and, in a 2005 national youth survey, 62.3 per cent of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 considered themselves alcohol users.

To help kids develop a healthy attitude about alcohol use from a young age, Milroy suggests parents try to limit how often their children see them consuming alcohol.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean don’t have it at the dinner table or functions that kids will be at but I think if parents can make a bit more of a conscious effort about their own habits then I think that it would definitely play into their son or daughter’s choices a lot more than they think.”

Milroy warns that parents should also try and stay away from the “good ol’ days” stories. “Although the story might be being told because the parent is trying to use it as an example to encourage staying away from alcohol, the son or daughter sees that Mom and Dad are successful now and that things are okay. So there might be a perception that Mom and Dad got into it and they got through, so it wasn’t so bad.”

As far as prevention strategies, Millroy says asking pre-teens and teens about how the behaviours they are engaging in now relate to what their future goals are can be very effective.

“For a 10-year-old hockey player, a goal may be to play in the NHL. The message to that individual might be that alcohol and other drugs don’t match up with making it to the NHL — certainly not any more, not in this day and age when science is being integrated into athletics and when nutrition and dietary intake, supplements — all these things — are playing a major role.”

In addition, Milroy says parents should get their kids to think about what they expect to happen when they drink.

“Do they think that everything is going to be better — that they are going to perform better or they’re going to dance better or be a funnier person? Then have them think about legitimate negative consequences that can occur from consuming alcohol — almost like a pros and cons list. The expectancies or ‘benefits’ might not line up with the consequences that could potentially happen. For example, a Midget or Junior hockey player might have a Saturday night game and then have Sunday off. They might think, ‘Because I don’t have a practice tomorrow, I can go out after the game and have some beers tonight and I’ll be good to go on Monday.’ However, lingering effects of alcohol consumption can actually persist through that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”

One of the most difficult challenges young people face is peer pressure. A recent study concluded that over one-quarter of Canadian 13-year-olds drink alcohol: 2.7 per cent just about every weekend and 24 per cent just about every month or less. In addition, 24 per cent of 16-year-olds drink alcohol just about every weekend and just 23 per cent of 16-year-olds have never had a drink.

And according to Milroy, the most ineffective way to resist the opportunity when presented with alcohol is to “just say no.”

“What happens is that it’s a very easy follow-up for the person to say ‘Oh, come on, it’s no big deal, just have one.’ It’s more effective to say ‘no’ and this is the reason why. It helps to divert the attention of the person who is making the offer. But that still might have some follow-up. What we find is one of the best methods is to say, ‘No, thanks’ and then ask for something else. It sounds funny, but if you say ‘No, but I’d love a diet Coke!’ or ‘No, but, have you seen so-and-so?’ then it can really stop them from making follow-up offers.”

Lastly, Milroy suggested that parents can help their kids resist alcohol use by engaging in alternative environments and activities — such as movie night, going to the gym or hanging out with friends — where alcohol is not present.

“One of the strongest predictors of alcohol use problems or issues in the future is the age of first drunkenness. So the earlier that first time is, the more predictive that is of issues in the future. And so that’s one thing to keep in mind for parents. If you can delay that first time, you’re really setting your son or daughter up for better choices in the future.”

Parents — For tips on how to talk to your child about alcohol, download the free Make A Difference publication from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

High school and college administrators — For evidence-based programs designed to prevent alcohol and other drug related harm, visit

About The Author

John Wynne joins One Million Skates as a voice to parents looking for information on equipment, minor hockey experiences and the joys of friendships created within the hockey world. CONTINUE

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