Bonding with teammates without alcohol?

Hello Alice,

I am a freshman on a collegiate varsity sports team. Team gatherings, when we are not practicing, usually consist of excessive drinking with and without drinking games. I did not drink in high school and when I tried drinking with the team it made me feel really sick. I want to bond with my teammates (they are really great when not drunk) but I don't know how because if I am the only guy in the room not drinking I can't play drinking games with them, discuss favorite types of alcohol, or even carry on a real conversation because at a certain point in the night they stop forming coherent sentences. I need to be friends with this group of people but I would like to do so in a way that allows me to remember the night in the morning. Is this possible? What should I do?

While I don't really approve of their lifestyle (why devote six days a week to practice only to reduce your performance with alcohol?), I make no moral judgement. I don't want to change their way of doing things, I just want them to respect my way.

Thank you,

Unintentional Party Pooper

Dear Unintentional Party Pooper, 

It can be difficult to stay true to your feelings about what’s best for your well-being and body, especially when there may be social pressure. Sports culture has a deeply embedded history of drinking, involving both players and spectators. Luckily, there are several ways you may choose to communicate your feelings towards alcohol while navigating these relationships with your teammates. 

While you may think you’re the odd one out on your team, know that you're not alone. It may be helpful to know that others do share similar preferences to not drink or to drink infrequently. Yet, they are still engaged in social situations with alcohol. These people may identify as being “sober curious,” which reflects their desire to become aware of their drinking habits and mindful of their alcohol consumption. That said, practicing a sober curious lifestyle can look different for everyone. While some may prefer simply limiting their alcohol intake, others may choose to abstain completely from drinking whether it be for physical or mental health reasons. 

Regardless of how you decide to use alcohol, communicating your feelings and setting boundaries with your teammates may be helpful. Being unapologetic and honest about your feelings in these situations can help you to set clear boundaries with your teammates. While discussing your boundaries, it’s up to you to choose how much you want to disclose. You’re not obligated to justify your decision, but you could try to frame the conversation around how much you value their friendship. A tactic you may want to try is centering your preferences by using “I” statements. Centering your experience may help alleviate any potential tension by not putting the onus on your friends. It may also be helpful to talk with one person at a time, rather than the group as a whole. 

After setting these boundaries, however, you may still find yourself in situations where alcohol is present. There are some tips for you to consider as you navigate these situations: 

  • Try a non-alcoholic drink. Mocktails, water, juice, or non-alcoholic spirits can be great drink options to have that will both refresh you and keep others from prying. Carrying these drinks in a colored cup can also help to deter onlookers. The best part is, you can even use these drinks for the drinking games you mentioned earlier so that you can join in on the fun without having to drink alcohol. 
  • Have a go-to response. Responses like “I’m sober curious” or “I’m not interested in drinking tonight” can help set boundaries, while still maintaining your privacy. Additionally, if you’re feeling uncomfortable or not having fun, having an exit excuse, such as “I have an early day tomorrow” or “I’m not feeling well” prepared can also be helpful. 
  • Maintain your boundaries. Some of your teammates may not be as understanding as others. Reminding them of your boundaries, using direct communication, and providing guidance may help enforce the boundaries you have set while avoiding any misunderstandings. If they continue to resist your boundaries, it may be time to reflect on whether this friendship is still important to you. 
  • Try new activities with your friends. Perhaps you can host a team study session before finals or organize a practice game for your neighborhood. Trying new restaurants, going to the park, or visiting local landmarks can also be fun ways to hang with the team without the presence of alcohol. 

If you do decide to have a drink or two, it may be helpful to understand your limits. The effect of alcohol depends on the quantity, speed, and frequency at which a person is drinking. The amount and rate at which a person drinks influences the amount of alcohol that enters the bloodstream. Understanding the ins and outs of this process can help you to lower your risks if drinking is the route you decide to go. Unintentional Party Pooper, you also mentioned that your teammates eventually reach a point while drinking where they’re unable to form coherent sentences. Being aware of those symptoms and more (i.e., slurred speech, shortness of breath, vomiting, unconsciousness) can be lifesaving, as this level of intoxication can be dangerous. If you find that your teammates are frequently drinking to this point, you might consider letting them know you’re concerned about their health and well-being. If they’re open to receiving help, you might direct them to resources like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline or Alcoholics Anonymous, or you might choose to read more about how to help a friend who's struggling with alcohol.  

Working as a team can be helpful both on and off the field. Here’s to hoping you all have a new understanding of each other’s boundaries, and your team time becomes a home run!

Last updated Dec 08, 2023
Originally published Aug 14, 2015