Alcohol & Marijuana Use & The College Athlete

Categories: Alcohol & Drugs,Parenting,Sport Psychology,Sports | June 25, 2013

Alcohol Use

The experimentation with alcohol and other substances that sometimes begins in high school frequently becomes more thoroughly entrenched as a student enters college. The impact of alcohol on the college athlete is frequently overlooked among the hoopla and glory that surrounds college athletic events. Binge drinking is especially prevalent among college students, both athletes and non-athletes. This appears to be among the rites of passage North American young people pass along the way of eventually (in most cases) learning how to drink in a controlled and social way.

The fact is that alcohol use and athleticism work at cross-purposes. While many athletes in particularly demanding or aggressive sports take their partying as seriously as their sport – in that they go all out in each – the fact is that alcohol and substance use negatively impacts on performance. Research reported through the University of Norte Dame’s Office of Alcohol and Drug Education clearly underscore this point. Among their findings are the fact that an athlete’s attention span is reduced for up to forty-eight hours after drinking; that consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one night can affect brain and body activities for up to three days; and that two consecutive nights of this level of drinking can increase the duration that brain and body activities are impacted for up to five days. This makes it clear that partying hard on the weekend after a game can set in motion a cycle of gradually decreased athletic performance. Over the course of a season the results can be quite significant.

The following excerpts from the University of California in San Diego’s Athletic Performance Nutrition Bulletin highlight a few of the significant side effects of alcohol use that are of particular importance to athletes:

Dehydration Alcohol is a powerful diuretic that can cause severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. A night of partying is always accompanied by dehydration. Severe dehydration can require several days to a week for full recovery, during which time an athlete is at greater risk for musculoskeletal injuries including: cramps, muscle pulls, and muscle strains. Also, dehydration can lead to severe brain impairment and even death when coupled with extreme temperatures and intense practices (most notable during two-a-days).

Performance Alcohol, when consumed in amounts typical with college binge drinking can dramatically decrease serum testosterone levels. Decreases in testosterone are associated with decreases in aggression, lean muscle mass, muscle recovery and overall athletic performance. It will also impair reaction time and mental acuity for up to several days after consumption. Alcohol can also cause nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness for up to several days after consumption.

Energy Alcohol delaminates (destroys) amino acids and stores them as fat. Alcohol consumption, therefore, increases fat storage and adversely effects body composition (increasing % of body fat). Powerful energy pathways (like glycolysis) are impaired and large amounts of lactic acid are produced, this results in decreased energy, decreased muscle recovery, and increased muscle soreness. It will also take longer to reload muscle fuels (glycogen). Normally we can reload our muscles with fuels in 8-12 hours, but after drinking it can be 16-24 hours.

Judgment Even the smartest college students are capable of decision-making that can easily be characterized as “stupid” when under the influence of alcohol. This can manifest in both the early and later stages of the drinking cycle. When a person begins to drink their inhibitions are lessoned to some degree. This “lightening up” is what feels good, but it might lead a less experienced drinker to say or do some things (such as drink more) that they might later regret. In the later stage of an evening of drinking the central nervous system depressant qualities of alcohol consumption come into play. People can literally feel depressed and/or angry and frequently be at risk exercising considerably poor judgment. This might manifest socially with fighting, sexual aggression, sexual inhibition, despondency or belligerence or with making the choice to continue to drink. If the alcohol does not cause noticeable physical harm in the moment, a drunk scholar-athlete’s decision making may very well.

Marijuana Use

Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the Western world and as such it has found a secure home on the college campus. A study conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 17.4 million Americans were using marijuana in 2010, an increase of 3 million users from 2007.

Marijuana use among college-aged students jumped from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.5% in 2010. Among college-aged kids, 16% have used it within the last month. Apparently it isn’t just the non-athletes who are using. For example, the NCAA’s post season drug testing report showed positive results for marijuana at championship events across all three divisions increased from 28 in the 2008-2009 academic year to 71 in 2009-2010. In 2011. Charles Thompson who is Princeton University’s head athletic trainer said that, “There are a lot of athletic trainers (at a number of universities) who feel that marijuana use on campus has grown exponentially, even among the athletic population”.

We have to take serious notice of the increase in use especially given that the potency of marijuana has increased steadily over the past three decades in terms in the level of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. The average potency of marijuana now exceeds 10%, with some samples of marijuana having THC levels as high as 37%. Average THC potency levels are expected to rise to 15% within the next five years. As a point of reference, the average THC potency in the early 1980’s was only about 4%.

The following excerpts from The American Athletic Institute highlight a few of the significant effects of marijuana use that are of particular importance to athletes:

Heath Risks Marijuana smoke contains 50% to 70% more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. It impacts the Central Nervous System and remains stored in the fat cells of the body for about 30 days. This is compounded when there is daily use and the THC is built up in increasing levels.

Effects on Performance: Psychological It is crucial for athletes to develop and maintain a positive mental attitude in order to elevate their level of motivation necessary to optimally perform. Furthermore in order for athletes to perform up to their ability it is necessary for them to be highly focused. This is crucial in order to enter “the zone”. Marijuana use directly undercuts these mental fitness skills. Focus and motivation are negatively impacted, as is the ability to effectively process stimuli when faced with the flood of events and actions that continuously occur in sport. Marijuana affects an athlete’s cognitive ability to multitask and to sort among the various forms of input in order to effectively prioritize what to attend to and what actions to take. In addition to all of the above, when an individual becomes a daily user, they frequently become psychologically addicted to it.

Effects on Performance: Physiological Marijuana decreases the ability to accurately assess visual depth. This has obvious implications for sport given the frequent necessity to track moving objects and determine their distance and speed. When tracking and depth perception are off, then the entire chains of events that lead to an athlete effectively blocking a shot or catching a ball are thrown into disarray. Reductions in reaction time to outside stimuli always impact on the precision and accuracy of an athlete’s biomechanics. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has documented that THC throws the brain chemistry out of balance by disturbing the natural process of the endocannabinoid system. This results in negatively impacting memory, learning, decision-making, and also gives people “the munchies”.

It is pretty obvious that for an athlete who takes his or her involvement in their sport seriously, then use of alcohol or marijuana, especially in-season is to be seriously reconsidered. Clearly neither is a performance enhancing substance. They don’t help on the field, court or pitch, nor do they help in the classroom. That said, forgetting the legal ramifications, in the off-season, the infrequent and purely social use of either can aid in relaxation and in kicking back and bonding with friends. That said, it is imperative that the athlete develops other means of coping and relaxing such as socializing, meditating, playing an instrument or being involved with another grounding activity. Given that the human brain is not fully developed until a person 25 years old at least, when it comes to these mind altering substances moderation is crucial.


No Crossing the Foul Line with Your Kids

Categories: Children's Sports,Parenting,Sports | January 8, 2012

I know of parents who wept upon learning that their daughter had only gotten into Yale and not Harvard. In their grief they asked, “What did we do wrong?” I also know of a father who literally broke a (wooden) baseball bat in half over his knee in frustration when he couldn’t get his 8 year old son to effectively hit the ball. I know of another father who would play with his three year old son only if he held the bat correctly. The boy didn’t because as a three year-old he didn’t know how and was left crying as his father walked away. I saw a high school senior’s mom come on to the football field because of her displeasure with the way the referee was officiating the game. Countless times I have seen and heard soccer parents screaming instructions to their children and arguing calls or non-calls with officials. I saw a twelve year old’s father (who was also one of his coaches) grab him forcefully by the back of his neck and direct him out of the dugout so they could go and have a little talk. It was a one-way discussion and it was loud. The son had just struck out and had thrown his bat in frustration. Any reasonable parent would be concerned about bat throwing, as would any reasonable coach who would be concerned about the safety issue along with the display of poor sportsmanship. There is caring and concern and then there is over-involvement and enmeshment. These are clear examples of the latter.

Most of the individuals who coach in recreational sports are volunteers and by and large they do their best to give children a good experience in terms of skill development and social interaction. Not being professionally trained, they are bound to make mistakes, but if they have their egos in check, these coaches do much more good than harm. The question of course comes when a coach’s ego is not quite in check or when you disagree with his or her coaching or communication methods. When a coach crosses the line and has way more Bobby Knight in him then you feel comfortable having your child exposed to, your decision is pretty clear: Get you child out of harms way.  However when a coach is not great, but falls short of being abusive most parents feel caught in a gray zone. What to do?

As parents, you always have a right to express a concern to a coach. How a coach responds will usually tell you if a reasonable accommodation can be found or if the coach simply can not be reached. When the later occurs the question is what to do. You can not raise your children in a bubble; they are going to have to learn to deal with difficult peers and authorities in the form of coaches, teachers and bosses. If the coach is a difficult, but not harmful person and you decide to have your child finish the season (if possible it is always better for a child to have a sense of closure, rather then learning that dropping out is an option in life), explain to your son and daughter the ways you wish their coach would act differently. Depending on your child’s age you can discuss with them how all people are different, with different abilities and limitations. You can tell them the importance of finishing what they started and that you intend to do you best to make sure they will have a different coach next season. By having this kind of conversation you will be demonstrating protectiveness for your child, affirming their ability to deal with a less than ideal situation, reinforcing the importance of following-through and providing assurance that things will be different in the future.

In addition to making sure others don’t cross the line with your children, there is also the question of maintaining your own boundaries with your child. When your son is resistant to practicing his violin or your daughter doesn’t hustle hard enough down to first base after hitting a ground ball you are presented with the challenge of how to respond. While it may be clear that neither child is performing to the best of their ability, it is not necessarily clear of why that is the case. These situations raise several questions: Does your child want to do this activity in the first place? Do they have fun when engaged in it? Are they confident in their ability to accomplish the task or are they playing out an irrational belief that they aren’t good enough? What is the relationship like with their coach or teacher? To what extent is it important for you that they are successful? And most importantly for whom do you want them to succeed? A better way to explore this last question is to ask yourself what percentage of your interest in their performance is for the child and what percentage of your interest in their performance is in some way for you (your pride, your living through your child, expunging your own doubts or failures). These are challenging questions, but the self-reflection is well worth it in terms of helping to keep you staying on your side of the boundary. Being mindful of your own very human part in this will put you in the best position to help your child face up to their own self doubts and hopefully as a result develop an increased sense of mastery and a higher esteem.

Consider the following in formulating your actions:


  1. Inform an officer of the league of the incident if you observe a coach or a child’s parent “cross the line” in terms of their words or actions with a child, and ask that they address this problem.
  2. Immediately call 911 if you observe any adult become physically abusive to a child.
  3. Be courageous enough to observe your own aggressive or overly demanding impulses (It’s OK to find that you have an impulse that is self-serving or aggressive as long as upon reflection you only act on behalf of your child).
  4. Be courageous enough to seek your own counseling if you find yourself crossing the line with your child.


  1. Intervene directly if you observe a coach or a child’s parent cross the line, in the heat of the moment this is more than likely to inflame the situation rather than calming things down. If however the safety and well-being of a child is seriously called into question, by all means take appropriate and reasonable steps to protect the child.
  2. Mistake where you end and where your child begins in terms of what is in his or her best interest. Ask yourself “for whom am I doing this?”
  3. Put your child in the center of an adult “storm”. If a coach is not a good character-building role model, but tolerable, have your child finish the season and make sure he or she is never on that coach’s team again. If the coach’s behavior is intolerable, inform league officials of his or her actions and immediately remove your child from the team. Do what you need to do as an adult will minimizing the drama to which your child is exposed.

Helping Your Kids Develop Mastery

Categories: Children's Sports,Parenting,Sports | November 1, 2010

Every parent wishes for their children to do well in life. In the growing up years it is natural for parents to look at how their kids are doing at school, and in their athletic and musical activities and other special interests in order to get a sense for whether or not they are on track. If they are engaged and doing well in their activities, parents feel a sense that all is going well. When this is the case, it is wise to stay the course. However, the reality is that few children ever stay locked on track in a constant upward trajectory. It is normal for academic, social, musical and athletic progress and performance to vary over time. read more…


Dealing with Coaches: Especially the Difficult Ones

Categories: Children's Sports,Coaching,Parenting,Sports | July 28, 2009

The relationship between a coach and his or her players is one of the most important parts – if not the most important part – of a child’s sports experience. The nature and quality of this relationship can determine whether children decide to continue in a particular sport or – if they really get turned off by a coach – in any sport activity for that matter. On the other hand a positive, endearing, and fun connection with a coach can have a profound impact on developing particular sport skills, the foundations of sportsmanship, but more importantly fostering the development of solid character and self-esteem. How then should you relate to a person who holds such a central place in your child’s athletic life? read more…


The Origins of Sport Psychology

Categories: Coaching,Sport Psychology,Sports | August 1, 2008

I’m going to tell you a little about sport psychology and where it came from. When many people think of sport psychology they have an image of a high priced consultant helping Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong to lock-in their incredible ability to focus by using some advanced scientific technique or perhaps by means of an ancient mystical method. People might also imagine a sport psychologist using some complicated hypnotic procedure to assist A-Rod to break out of a batting slump. read more…