A Coach's Guide to Recognizing Alcohol/Drug Problems Among Athletes

How do I know if one of my athletes is abusing alcohol, drugs, or both?

Assessing a potential alcohol or drug problem is a difficult and often frustrating process. Your influential role as a coach and a confidant, however, places you in a unique position to successfully reach a troubled student.

What should coaches look for?

There are many reasons why students may show the following signs and symptoms. The behavior may or may not be alcohol or drug related. When these behavior patterns occur with some regularity and are interfering with the student's performance, it's time to intervene.

Behavioral Patterns:


  • Physically assaultive or threatening
  • Exaggerated self-importance
  • Rigid, inflexible, unable to change plans with ease
  • Incoherent, irrelevant statements
  • Excessive attention to routine procedure, almost making it a ritual
  • Frequent arguments
  • Frequent outbursts of temper
  • Frequent episodes of crying
  • Excessive amount of breaks at practice
  • Reports from peers who are worried about the person in question
  • Frequent visits by strangers to residence hall room or housing
  • Complaints from community regarding debts, rude behavior
  • Minor scrapes with campus or municipal authorities


  • Depressed
  • Withdrawn
  • Suspicious
  • Mood swings: high and low
  • Oversensitive
  • Frequent irritability with teammates and other students
  • Nervousness
  • Preoccupation with illness, even death



  • Frequent minor injuries due to carelessness, lack of conditioning
  • Mishaps not related to sports
  • Frequent physical complaints

Athletic Performance and Patterns:

  • Assignments take more effort and time to complete
  • Difficulty in recalling instructions
  • Difficulty in handling complex procedures
  • Lack of interest in one's game
  • Difficulty in recalling previous mistakes
  • Absent-mindedness, general forgetfulness
  • Coming to practices or games in an intoxicated or impaired state
  • Fluctuating periods of high or low productivity
  • Mistakes due to poor judgment
  • Complaints from others concerning her work or habits
  • Improbable excuses for deteriorating performance
  • Overall carelessness


  • Poor reports from instructor or academic advisors
  • Lateness or failure to complete assignments
  • Listlessness or sleeping in class
  • Sharp fluctuations in classroom work
  • Evidence of cheating or using someone else's work
  • Frequent cutting of classes

Absenteeism (with the team or sport):

  • Excessive time spent sick
  • Misuse of excused absences
  • Unreasonable resentment to discipline or mistakes of others
  • Excessive lateness for practices, meeting, or after breaks
  • Increasingly improbable and peculiar reasons for absences
  • Absences after weekend, holidays, or other time off given to team

Strategies for Approaching and Helping a Student:

If the student comes to you for help:

  1. Commend the student's initiative and courage for coming to you for help. This first step is one of the toughest.
  2. Listen. Listen. Listen. Allow the student to tell you why she thinks there's a problem.
  3. Discuss options available for ongoing help. The student may want to continue talking to you, in which case you may need to set a limit on how long you can be put in this position. Encourage the student to seek professional help.
  4. Know the resources on campus: Alcohol and Drug Awareness Project x2616, Health Education x2466, Health Services x2121, Counseling Center x2307

If you have reason to suspect a drug/alcohol problem:

  1. Arrange a private meeting with the student.
  2. Develop a highly specific list of facts which substantiates your reasons for believing the student may have a problem.
  3. During your initial meeting with the student, express your concern based on the list of facts you have documented about behavioral changes.
  4. If the student denies there is a problem, continue monitoring her behavior. Approach again in a couple of weeks if there's no change in behavior. If denial persists, you may need to consider stronger action.
  5. If the student acknowledges there is a problem be prepared to suggest where she can go for help.

Key Points to Remember:

  • Remember that the message you want to convey is: "There is a problem and I care." (Note: Anticipate your own anger, fear and/or disappointment, so that it can be controlled.)
  • Policies and procedures you follow must be consistent with ALL your students.
  • Privacy and confidentiality are necessary to ensure trust.
  • Speak in terms of behavioral fact: weed out your personal judgments on personality, performance, etc. (Note: Avoid "labeling" the individual as an alcoholic or drug addict.)
  • Anticipate the student's reactions; learn to expect:
    • Defensive reactions: denial, rationalization, blaming
    • Emotional reactions: anger, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, despair, disappointment in self and support system

Source: UMASS Athletic Health Enhancement Program and Mount Holyoke Health Educator