Coaches and alcohol: young athletes need leaders, not friends

A Massachusetts high school hockey coach is under investigation following allegations that underage drinking took place in his team’s locker room, possibly with his consent. Dale Dunbar—long-time coach of the Winthrop hockey team and former pro-hockey player—is currently on administrative leave while police and school officials review surveillance tapes to see if he, or other members of the coaching staff, provided teenage players with alcohol or had knowledge of their drinking after a tough season-ending loss in a state tournament.

A police officer driving by the rink noticed that on the night of the big loss there were several lights on and a suspicious amount of movement inside the rink, especially considering it was practically midnight. When he entered the rink’s locker room, he found team members and two coaches, along with empty beer cans. The officer said he smelled alcohol in the air, but he did not report seeing any minors drinking.

The actual events of that night, and whether or not Dunbar violated any laws, will no doubt come to light as the investigation continues. In the meantime, the media coverage around the story could have some parents wondering about the behavior of their own kids’ coaches.

“The relationship between a coach and a school athlete is unique and requires a certain amount of balance,” says Sharon Chirban, PhD, a sports psychologist with the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “In many cases, coaches aspire to be an authority figure while maintaining a friendly enough relationship where the players feel connected and supported by them. But if a coach tries too hard to be ‘one of the team,’ they may have problems setting limits or enforcing consequences, like when athletes are caught drinking or engaging in other negative behaviors.”

Sharon Chirban, PhD

Great coaching goes beyond setting expectations or enforcing rules. In many school-sponsored sports programs, athletic prowess alone cannot guarantee you a spot in the starting line up—the student’s grades and behavior also play a role in determining whether or not she’s allowed to participate.

Because coaches are often responsible for weighing all these factors before deciding who plays and who doesn’t on game day, Chirban says they have an opportunity to influence positive teenage behavior in a way few adults can.

“Establishing consistent roles and boundaries is really important for kids, and sports let you do that in a culture the young athlete is readily engaged in,” she says. “Through active encouragement and behavior modeling, coaches can find a way to take their players’ enthusiasm for the game and extend it into promoting good citizenship, both on and off the field. The best coaches don’t just help develop good athletes, they help develop good people.”