Binge drinking among student-athletes is a problem that impacts virtually every college and university in the nation, UNCG included. However, Counseling and Education Development Department (CED) Associate Professor Todd Lewis and the new Institute for Athlete Health and Wellness are in the vanguard of researchers and counselors working to combine teaching and research to make college a healthier, safer place for students who are playing intercollegiate sports.
Dr. Lewis credits Public Health Education Professor David Wyrick as “the person who put things in motion to form the Institute.” He said Wyrick’s vision is to address the problem of student-athletes abusing drugs and, especially, alcohol. The Public Health Education Department is working closely with Dr. Lewis and CED graduate students to build an effective, innovative program. Dr. Lewis said he knows of no other campus in the UNC System that has a substance abuse program specifically for the needs of student-athletes.
“Student-athletes have been identified as an at-risk group for binge drinking,” Dr. Lewis said. This is true among both male and female student-athletes. Binge drinking often leads to diminished performance, both on the field and in the classroom, and can result in a host of other negative consequences. But student-athletes too frequently don’t connect those dots.
So why is this particular group of students more vulnerable to excess? That’s a question the Institute plans to address, Dr. Lewis said. But he said there are a number of theories. One theory is that such behaviors are a function of social norms. “It’s this idea of being in an environment where binge drinking is celebrated,” he said. Plenty of student-athletes don’t drink to excess, he said, but they may perceive the “typical” student-athlete as drinking more than they actually do. Vulnerable student-athletes may then increase their drinking to match a false norm.
Another theory is that student-athletes drink due to stress. “I think there’s a perception that student-athletes have it made,” Dr. Lewis said. But in reality, long hours of practice and intense pressure to perform at sports, in addition to the academic stresses all college students face, can make binge drinking seem like an acceptable coping mechanism.
Interestingly, Dr. Lewis noted that the Institute’s preliminary research shows that athletes are more likely to engage in binge drinking during their sports season, which he said may give some credence to the theory that such behavior is stress-related.
“You would think that it’s counter-intuitive, but our data shows there’s a greater risk of student-athletes drinking more in season,” he said.
Dr. Lewis is researching the risk factors that lead to heavy, episodic drinking by athletes. The goal is to gather information which will lead to solutions for identifying, treating and preventing student-athlete binge drinking.
For Dr. Lewis, this work fits nicely with his previous work in the field of substance abuse counseling. In 2013, he authored the text “Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment: Practical Application of Counseling Theory,” and he teaches courses on Substance Abuse Counseling at UNCG.
Two CED doctoral students, Stephen Hebard and Katie Wachtel, are collaborating with him in research for the Institute for Athlete Health and Wellness.
“We want it to be informed by research and best practices,” Dr. Lewis said.
Wachtel and Hebard have met one-on-one with student-athletes for counseling sessions.
“We try to tailor the sessions to the specific student-athlete and the specific violation,” Wachtel said. “We usually find there’s a lot more going on (than just drinking). We often find they are under a lot of pressure.” She said athletes often view their teams as surrogate families, with all the complex dynamics of a family. Student-athletes may struggle to find their place within the team, or they may worry about letting their teammates down on the field, she added.
In the first year of the Institute, researchers and counselors have been focused on binge drinking among UNCG student-athletes. Counselors have met with entire sports teams, as well as individuals who have had problems with substance abuse. Future plans call for creating educational programs for coaches, athletic administrators and team trainers, and Dr. Lewis said he would like to share their findings with other colleges, as the Institute continues to operate at the intersection of teaching, research and service.
“As the Institute grows, we will begin to look at other aspects of health and wellness,” he said. “Our goal is helping student-athletes make healthier choices.”
In fact, Wachtel said the Institute’s work already is attracting outside attention. The NCAA, the body that oversees college athletics, has been highly cooperative and interested in the Institute’s findings. Also, Wachtel and Hebard recently gave a presentation at a conference in Montana.
“There’s a lot of work being done with student-athletes, but not a lot of research,” Wachtel said. “People at that conference were really excited about the Institute.”