Could team sports reduce hazardous drinking in young offenders?

PicturePrevious research has found that teenagers who take part in team sports report more hazardous drinking than their peers.

By Britt Hallingberg

I’d like to invite you to take a second and reflect on your childhood. Maybe you were able to pursue your interests alongside your formal education. Maybe your parents or caregivers drove you the long distance to the football field for training, maybe someone paid for your violin and violin lessons so you could continue to develop your musical talent, maybe your school had a smorgasbord of extracurricular activities to choose from, or maybe your parents offered encouragement when you just wanted to throw in the towel. If you were lucky, you had experiences during childhood of pursuing your interests.

I say lucky because many young people do not participate in ‘organised activities’ – an umbrella term used to describe a variety of structured activities that take place outside the school curriculum. They take many forms including sports, community organisations and youth development programs. These activities can support the development of a variety of skills, provide a sense of belonging to a group, help young people become involved in their community, and create opportunities to develop social networks.

Although participation in these activities is generally seen as positive, several studies have shown that adolescents who take part in organised activities such as sports, and more specifically team sports, report drinking alcohol more heavily and more often than peers who didn’t take part in these activities. Most of these studies have only included students attending school, and less is known about these relationships in other less-represented groups in the population and in research generally, such as young offenders.

In a study recently published in Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, undertaken as part of my DECIPHer PhD, we investigated the relationship between teenagers’ participation in organised activities and indicators of hazardous drinking (measured by the FAST alcohol screening test). This relationship was compared for two groups of adolescent males: a group of young offenders (male adolescents who had committed a crime) and a group of non-offenders of a similar socioeconomic status, age and IQ. We found:

  • 70% of non-offenders and only 30% of young offenders reported participation in an organised activity, and team sports (such as football) were the most popular activities in both groups.
  • Looking specifically at those who did not participate in any organised activity, young offenders reported more hazardous drinking than non-offenders. 
  • Looking specifically at those who did participate in a team sport, young offenders and non-offenders had similar scores on hazardous drinking.
  • There was a trend for young offenders in team sports to have less hazardous drinking than young offenders who didn’t participate in any activities. 


PictureParticipating in team sports may mean young people are encouraged to make healthy choices about alcohol to improve their performance.
School-based studies have found that students who participate in team sports report more alcohol use than those who do not. However, the findings from this study show that young offenders reported less hazardous drinking if they participated in a team sport.

Sports are used by social enterprises in the UK, such as Positive Futures and Street Games, to address offending and young people’s substance use, and there are many reasons why team sports might be associated with less hazardous drinking. Alcohol use may be influenced through increased supervision, fewer opportunities to consume alcohol, or encouraging young people to make healthier lifestyle choices in order to improve their performance. Participating in a team sport may also impact an individual’s alcohol use via the people around them. For example, a coach or other team players might influence a young person’s alcohol use by shaping what they see as acceptable or typical of the people around them.

This study highlights that vulnerable young people (such as young offenders) participate less in organised activities in their communities but those who participate in team sports might benefit uniquely when it comes to their alcohol use. It is therefore important to ensure that these young people are able to access sports and other types of activities in communities. During this time of economic hardship youth services are facing funding cuts and young people’s access to organised activities  may be threatened.

Building on the findings of this research, I am currently conducting a qualitative study to understand the barriers youth workers face when they try to engage vulnerable young people in organised activities, as well as how organised activities might shape vulnerable young people’s alcohol use. 




This piece draws on findings from the following paper:

Hallingberg B, Moore S, Morgan J, Bowen K and van Goozen S. ‘Adolescent male hazardous drinking and participation in organised activities: Involvement in team sports is associated with less hazardous drinking in young offenders‘ Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2014. First published online: 16 May 2014. doi: 10.1002/cbm.1912

Britt Hallingberg (@BHallingberg) is a DECIPHer PhD student, based in Cardiff University’s School of Dentistry. Britt is part of the Violence and Society Research Group (@ViolenceSociety).

‘What about alcohol?’ image source : alsis35, via Flickr.

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