Tips from Nancy Clark
Alcohol and Athletes: When drinking becomes a problem
"I used to have a drinking problem. Now I'm addicted to running.
I think I've traded one addiction for another..."
"I often wonder if my husband plays rugby for an excuse to
"I don't see myself as an alcoholic, but I sometimes notice
my drinking is interfering with my life..."
In our society, athletics and alcohol goes hand in hand. Observe
rugby players, tailgaters at football games, champions getting showered
with champaign. Athletics and alcohol also mesh together in another
way--many recovering alcoholics turn to exercise to relieve stress,
invest in their health, and (sometimes) even trade drinking for
an exercise addiction. The purpose of this article is to look at
some of the problems associated with alcohol and athletes, and offer
The first question is: How much alcohol is too much? The answer
varies. What's too much alcohol for one person may be OK for another.
In general, large, muscular athletes can handle more alcohol without
untoward consequences than can smaller people. Women are more susceptible
than men to the effects of alcohol. People who drink regularly can
handle more alcohol than can non-drinkers.
Experts say it's not only how much you drink, but the extent to
which it interferes with your life that determines whether you have
a problem with alcohol. So in addition to counting drinks, try answering
these questions honestly:
. Are you ever mad at yourself, knowing that alcohol keeps you from
being who you really are?
. Are you tired of regretting your actions?
. If alcohol is not available, do you make it available?
. Do you change your plans so that you can have a drink?
There's unlikely one cause for all alcohol problems. But we do
know drinking problems tend to run in families. In a survey of 222
people who overcame alcohol problems, 80% reported heavy drinking
in their immediate and extended families. Does this mean alcoholism
is genetic? Or do kids learn to cope with life the way their parents
An estimated 14 million Americans (more than 7% of adults) have
serious problems with alcohol, but only about 10% of these seek
help for their drinking problems. If you are a heavy drinker--or
know one, you may not even have a clue where to go for advice.
Thanks to Anne Fletcher's new book Sober for Good: New Solutions
for Drinking Problems-Advice from Those Who Have Succeeded (Houghton
Mifflin, 2001), problem drinkers and their families now have a resource
with words of wisdom from 222 people who have resolved their drinking
problems. The people are from all walks of lives, ages, and levels
of alcohol intakes. Sober for Good examines their recovery stories
and offers possible solutions for people (including athletes) who
1) wonder if they have a drinking problem,
2) if so, are ready to take action, or
3) want to help their friends and family members who have a drinking
Sober for Good highlights many approaches to recovery and notes
that AA is not the only way for an alcoholic to achieve sobriety.
Although a survey found that more than 90% of 450 representative
treatment programs are based on AA's 12-step approach, only 44%
of the "masters" in Sober for Good stopped drinking with
AA's support. The other 56% resolved their drinking problems non-conventionally.
To turn the tide, they weighed the pleasures of alcohol against
the pain and problems it caused and concluded drinking just wasn't
worth the price--often a loving relationship and a successful career.
One third of the masters tried at least three times to give up alcohol
before they were finally successful. Their words of wisdom: "Don't
Keys to success included building a life with no room for alcohol.
For many, this involved exercise. Not only does exercise help manage
stress and elevate endorphins for a "natural high," but
it is also healthful and can be a new source of gratification. Along
with exercise comes eating healthfully. And as you can imagine,
when you feel good about yourself and life, alcohol has less power.
Advice for family and friends
For every problem drinker, there are about five other people who
suffer as a result. If you are one of the sufferers, what can you
say to your husband or loved one who drinks too much? What doesn't
work is nagging, humiliation, and trying to control your loved one's
drinking by, let's say, dumping alcohol down the drain. Ultimately,
the person has to want to quit for himself, but your actions can
help them move in the right direction.
The worst thing you can do is do nothing. Rather, address the drinking
problem directly and let them know you are aware of the problem.
As one master commented "I thought I had everyone fooled..."
Don't make it easy for the problem drinker to keep drinking. (For
example, don't "call in sick" for them.)
Don't stop loving them. Make it clear the problem is the drinking,
not the drinker; they are a good person with a bad problem, not
a bad person.
Don't nag, criticize, preach, or complain. Say what you feel: "I'm
worried about you." Be loving but firm, and understand they
may need a number of tries before they get and stay sober.
Remind them: "Life can be ordinary or it can be great."
The following resources may be helpful for those who want to stop
drinking, as well as for their loved ones:
Moderation Management (for those who want to cut back on drinking
before they experience serious consequences)
(This website, HabitSmart, contains lots of useful content about
addiction and recovery, plus has good links.)
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels casual and competitive
athletes at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline, MA. Her best-selling
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition is available
by sending $21 to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston St. #205,
Brookline MA 02467 or via www.nancyclarkrd.com.
Sober for Good by Anne Fletcher is available via amazon.com. Both
books are at bookstores.
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