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Sport and alcohol - the tumultuous relationship

I think one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sporting related stories isn’t a tale of a side losing in the final moments of a game, or a player suffering a career-ending injury but that of rising star Len Bias. Bias was a basketball player for Maryland, scoring 2,146 points during his four years at the university. Some journalists have said that the six foot eighter’s jump shot would have been at home in the Louvre. Bias was expected to be Michael Jordan’s greatest rival, contributing to a rivalry comparable to that of Bird and Johnson, Russell and Chamberlain. He was expected to challenge Jordan’s sporting trajectory before he even made it to the league. But that’s all it ever was: expectation. Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after he was selected second in the 1986 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, he had been out celebrating. He was to go on and change the path of the Celtics dynasty, but he never got the opportunity.

Sport has an increasingly positive role in our lives with it being a health-protective behaviour in that it improves memory, decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers, improves overall wellbeing and reduces experience of stress among many many others - I could continue writing a list of exercise benefits for hours. But there is an awareness of the increasingly more negative role sport plays, particularly with the trying relationship that athletes have with drugs and alcohol.

Sporting celebrations go hand in hand in alcohol, whether that be bottles of champagne sprayed over players, drink poured into a trophy and passed around or the celebratory cans on the bus home. Sporting celebrations always include drink. Team bonding sessions generally include a team night out, suffering a loss also includes a night or two or three on the beer. Teams display sponsorship and advertisement of drink companies across their chest or on the side-lines. Sporting culture is never without the contribution of alcohol in some shape or form.

The sporting environments/culture in this country perpetuate a drinking culture. Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the most accessible drugs on the planet and sporting participation is linked to an increased consumption of this drug. However, this drinking culture isn’t a new or recent development within sporting teams. It is largely embroidered into the cloth of the club, it exists in the norms of the majority, if not all, clubs. And that is worrying.

According to the World Health Organisation, 2 billion people drink alcohol, contributing to 3 million deaths per year. Harmful consumption of alcohol contributes to 5.1% global burden of disease, causing 1.7 million deaths from noncommunicable diseases in 2016 alone. The potential effects of alcohol is so vast and varying. It is a psychoactive substance affecting numerous neural pathways and the brain itself, therefore unsurprising the increased mental health risk following consumption.

The initial sip of alcohol, that refreshing and soothing gulp, displays the immediate effect of the neuron-altering ability of alcohol, probably more so for us who will relish our first pint in a pub in months. Alcohol has psychopharmacological properties which alter the chemistry of the brain. This mood-altering substance allows us to mask, ignore and in some cases deal better with emotions. But the chemical reactions that are induced by drinking are largely ignored or are normalised and we rarely consider the longer term effect on us. Regular drinking reduces the production of serotonin, the happy hormone, leading to increased feelings of anxiousness and worry.

For many athletes and individuals who experience poor mental health or mental illness, the nights out and drinking culture will exacerbate their poor health. In many cases where a mental illness is undiagnosed and consequently untreated, the alcohol abuse can turn into self-medication. The athlete may be experiencing on and off-field pressures and stresses that they may not be able to understand or control, so when a team night out comes around the opportunity to indulge in drink which alters these thoughts or suppresses them completely is welcomed. We already know how dangerous and unregulated this behaviour is, there is no guarantee that the feelings experienced will be an improvement or anyways tolerable. The self-medication tactic can very easily turn into a cycle. Underlying anxious feelings are self-medicated with alcohol, which alters the part of the brain that will naturally reduce anxiety. Therefore the person will continue to feel anxious and will in turn drink more to deal with these feelings. There does come a point when an individual becomes tolerant of alcohol and the amount of alcohol required to self-medicate continually increases.

Alcohol addiction not only leads to mental health issues but it is co-occurring in many people with mental illnesses. Alcohol can exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses, while pre-existing mental health problems can lead to an increase in alcohol consumption. 65% of suicides are associated with excessive drinking, which is staggering. Alcoholism was found to be one of the strongest single predictors of completed suicides.

Whether we are considered mentally well or experience mental health issues sporting culture increases our exposure to alcohol and normalises alcohol abuse – “win or lose we’re on the booze.” We don’t want a replication of Len Bias’ story, we don’t want a life needlessly wasted. It is probably even more concerning that a drug such as alcohol is intrinsically linked to such a healthy behaviour. It is so present within this culture that we barely second guess it. We need to change our drinking culture and yes, a well-researched and funded intervention will have the greatest possibility at promoting change but we can change our individual habits. We can encourage friends and teammates to slow down while drinking, we can suggest alternative team bonding sessions. The harmful and worrying effects of alcohol consumption and abuse are well known. When we contribute to a sporting culture that further encourages this harmful behaviour we need to make a change. The statistics don’t lie. We can make a small difference in our own lives but also in the lives of our teammates.

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