Play Healthy! Encouraging Student Athlete Success

by Breanna Boland, Executive Director ACPP II, Casa Grande Alliance

As parents and community members, we put time and effort into helping our youth be successful in life. One way we do this is by encouraging our children to participate in extracurricular activities, such as school sports and community sports leagues.

Participation in sports provides youth an opportunity to grow mentally and physically. Some of the benefits of participating include learning to work well with others, building self-confidence, enhancing communication skills, discovering how to set and achieve goals, relieving stress, improving physical and mental health, and the list could go on and on.

Sports and Substance Abuse

It’s important for parents to understand that a youth’s participation in sports does not make a child immune from substance use. According to Steve Pasierb, President and CEO of The Partnership at, “Sports can be a positive protective factor in a young person’s life because of all those great things — structure, goal setting, fair play and achievement, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

Studies indicate there is a link between youth who play sports and substance use. A review of 17 studies, all but one taking place in the U.S., indicate that alcohol use was greater among students who engage in sports. Studies also found that participation in sports was associated with less illegal drug use other than marijuana. The association with marijuana use wasn’t clear.2 Substance use can lead to substance abuse, and it can happen to anyone.

Pressure to Perform

Two common misperceptions are that youth involved in sports don’t have time to use alcohol or drugs, and being an athlete and using drugs or alcohol doesn’t go together because athletes are health conscious. In actuality, some factors make student athletes more prone to substance use then their nonathletic peers.

Being a student athlete can be tough and even stressful at times. Think about it, student athletes have to perform at school, at practice, at games and at home. Some of the reasons why student athletes turn to alcohol and drugs are to deal with the pressure to perform well in school and in sports, enhance performance, handle injuries, and often to self-medicate to relieve physical pain.4 In Pinal County, one third of our youth say they use alcohol or drugs to help relieve stress from school, parents and family.1 As a parent, coach or caring adult in the community, it is crucial to understand how stress presents itself in youth and how to help them relieve stress without turning to alcohol or drugs.

Dealing with Stress

Stress can manifest physically (headaches, stomach aches, sweaty palms), emotionally (anger, frustrations, fear, sadness), behaviorally (saying something mean, blowing up at someone), and personally (self-isolation, feelings of being unwanted).3 Participation in physical activity is one way to relieve stress; but if that is already contributing to a child’s stress level, it is essential to help them find some alternative stress-relieving activities.

Some suggested ways of relieving stress, besides physical activity, include participating in arts and crafts, talking to friends, talking to parents, writing in a journal and meditating. Working with our student athletes to identify alternative ways to relieve stress will help them be more successful in sports and in life.3

Helping Students Cope

In addition, having conversations about the risks of substance use and setting clear no-use policies is another way to protect your student athlete from substance use. Youth that have good relationships with their parents are two times less likely to use alcohol and three to four times less likely to use marijuana.5 One of the main reasons youth give for not using drugs or alcohol is they don’t want to disappoint a parent (or another caring adult) in their life.1

The Casa Grande Alliance has a free evidence-informed presentation for parents, coaches and student athletes called Play Healthy. The presentation focuses on what it takes to be a student athlete, including nutrition, water intake, sleep and abstaining from alcohol and drugs. Play Healthy includes suggestions on what parents can do to help their student athlete be successful.

For more information about Play Healthy, substance abuse prevention or how to have conversations about drugs and alcohol with your child, visit, or call 520-836-5022.

1 Arizona Criminal Justice Commission-ACJC. (2018). Arizona Youth Survey. Retrieved from
2 Cairney, J., et. al. (2014). Sport participation and alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescents and young adults: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. Addictive Behaviors, 39(3), 497-506. Retrieved from
3 Molgaard, V., Kumpfer, K. & Fleming, E. (1993). Iowa State University Strengthening Families Program for Parents and Youth 10-14.
4 Reardon, C. L., & Creado, S. (2014). Drug abuse in athletes. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 5, 95–105. Retrieved from
5 The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2012). The Importance of Family Dinners VIII.