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Jeff Janssen's Books

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Is Underage Drinking Plaguing Your Program?

Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center
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What is the root cause of almost all harmful and embarrassing incidents at colleges and high schools across the nation?

Just about every coach or athletic administrator will point to underage and binge drinking as the major factor in off court/field/track problems.

"Everything that goes wrong in intercollegiate athletics, behaviorally, revolves around alcohol," said Willie Scroggs, North Carolina's former men's lacrosse coach and current associate athletic director, ticking off a list that includes drunken driving, fights, and sexual assaults. "My personal opinion is it's an alcohol issue, not a lacrosse or athletics issue. These types of things don't happen on a Tuesday afternoon when no one's been drinking."

Student-athlete drinking is obviously a pervasive and perplexing problem that plagues virtually every college and high school in America. From the local to national levels, underage drinking is often the underlying cause of almost every destructive and distressing incident involving student-athletes.

With an increased awareness of the negative consequences of student-athlete alcohol use and abuse, coaches and administrators across the country are taking a close look at the culture and behavior of their student-athletes. In doing so, they are trying to figure out an effective way to tackle this important issue, before it is too late.


Fortunately, recent research by Calvin College volleyball coach Dr. Amber Warners has some encouraging answers for solving this difficult dilemma - and it all points to the pivotal role of team captains.

Dr. Warners studied the factors that most influenced the level of student-athlete drinking at the college level. Using surveys of 618 student-athletes across 42 schools, she looked at drinking behavior to see what factors might influence it.

She looked at coaches to see what kind of influence they might have. The study found that no matter how many times a coach reminded athletes not to drink, whether it was repeatedly or not at all, it had no significant relationship with how much the team actually drank.

She looked at specific team alcohol policies and rules to see if they had any impact on drinking. Again, there was no significant relationship to the actual drinking that took place.

She then looked at the influence of team captain's drinking on the rest of their teammates. It was only here that Dr. Warners found a significant relationship.

She discovered that the team captains' use of alcohol did indeed have a significant relationship with how much the rest of the team drank. How much the captains drank significantly influenced the rest of the team's drinking.

Thus, like many other areas, the study demonstrates that positive and responsible team captains are the biggest and best keys to curb student-athlete drinking.

In an effort to influence the character and leadership skills of team captains and leaders, the Janssen Sports Leadership Center is holding Team Captain's Leadership Camps during the Summer of 2009. To find out the details and locations, click here.

Dr. Warners concludes, "The findings from the current study suggest that prevention programs that focus on team captains and their influence on team members could be more successful in curbing heavy alcohol use by athletes."

As I state in The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and Dr. Warner's recent research demonstrates, developing your team captains into responsible leaders is your best insurance policy against alcohol problems - as well as a myriad of other teenage temptations like hazing, drugs, steroids, etc. that can sabotage your program and reputation.

Rather than focusing on even more alcohol education, tightening school drinking policies, or preaching to your team once again about staying away from alcohol, the study shows that the best and only real way to have a positive impact on underage and binge drinking is through the team captains/leaders.

Since team captains have the greatest influence on the drinking behavior of the rest of the team, efforts should focus on developing responsible and respected peer leaders who can model, reinforce, and enforce positive behaviors toward alcohol.

Think about it... What costs more?

The time and energy you proactively invest to develop your leaders?

Or the embarrassing problems, distractions, headaches, heartaches, and crises you must reactively deal with when you don't?

As Coach Warner's research demonstrates, proactively developing captains into responsible leaders is clearly the best return on investment when it comes to combating the perplexing and destructive alcohol issue.

(Special thanks to Calvin College's Dr. Amber Warners for sharing her important research!)

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