A Collaboration Model for Academic Advisers Who Work with Student-Athletes, Especially Those with Addictive Behaviors

Theresa A. Coogan
Bridgewater State College
Victoria L. Bacon
Bridgewater State College

Volume: 11
Article first published online: November 11, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161534

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, student-athletes, addiction, addictive behaviors, collaboration model


Academic advisers work with a variety of students throughout their academic careers with a common goal of setting up each student for success. The academic adviser often serves an integral role that extends beyond registering the student for classes each semester. This is especially true for the student-athlete population within the college environment. In addition to student's team coaches, academic advisers are key players whom students can access for answers to their questions, as well as for guidance and support.

The student-athlete population is considered to be a subgroup in the college environment, since these students are thought to face a unique set of challenges compared to their non-athlete peers. Such challenges may include but are not limited to succeeding at both academics and athletics and coping with academic and sport performance; issues related to time management; stress related to the pressures of their sports; peer pressure regarding drug, alcohol, and steroid use; and traditional developmental tasks of their peer group (Bacon & Russell, 2004; Etzel, Ferrante, & Pinkney, 2002). Collegiate student-athletes are thought to be at a higher risk for academically and socially problematic behaviors than their non-athletic peer cohort. More specifically, addiction is a significant problem in the student-athlete population at the collegiate level (Doumas, Turrisi, Coll, & Haralson, 2007). This prediction of risk may vary based on the athlete's level of sport engagement (e.g., recreational, competitive, and elite) as well as the institution's division status that is used to assist with defining the level of involvement (e.g., Division I, II, III). Academic advisers are in key positions to identify problematic and psychological issues and can facilitate necessary support services and referrals.

The purpose of this article is to discuss multiple addictive behaviors among undergraduate student-athletes and recommend a model for academic advisers to consider as a prevention and/or intervention strategy when action is necessary. While it is beyond the scope of professional academic advising practice to provide treatment for addictive behaviors in student-athletes, the academic adviser can help identify needs and offer referrals to a host of professionals.

Multiple Addictive Behaviors among Undergraduate Student-Athletes

While addictions can manifest in different ways, it is common for individuals with addictions to feel powerless and unable to control them (Bacon & Russell, 2004). Schaef (1987) described changes in behavior as a result of addiction as those that impel actions contrary to one's values and beliefs and may progress to obsession and maladaptive action. Problematic behaviors such as alcohol abuse, steroid use, pathological gambling, and weight control and exercise addictions are typical maladaptive behaviors seen in athletes of all ages in both individual and team sports (Bacon & Russell, 2004). Some studies suggest that the student-athlete population may be at risk for multiple addictive behaviors (Bacon & Russell, 2004; Martin, 1998; National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2004; Overdorf & Gill, 1994; Shaffer, 1997). Addiction research suggests that persons may have multiple or cross addictions that are mutually reinforcing, making prevention and treatment difficult (Ajar, 1999; DiClemente, 2003; Walters, 1999). The likelihood that a student-athlete is at risk for engaging in an addictive behavior at some point during his or her undergraduate academic career is high. Addictions may also present as a combination of behaviors such as ingesting a substance as well as acting on a process addiction (e.g., gambling, excessive exercise), thus increasing the likelihood of multiple addictions (Schaef, 1987).

It is not within the scope of the academic adviser's role to provide treatment, diagnosis, or clinical intervention, if he or she suspects a student-athlete is dealing with addictive behaviors. Advisers should learn how to identify addictive behaviors and also have a referral plan in place. A collaborative relationship with other key professionals (e.g., coach) can help to identify possible problematic and/or clinical behaviors that may be related to addictions.

Academic Advisers and Coaches: A Collaborative Model

Collaboration models are common throughout all levels of the educational system (Dougherty, 2009; Erford, 2007). We commonly see collaboration models implemented at the primary and secondary levels in the form of team meetings and parent-teacher conferences. Collaboration models are a useful approach to problem solving and decision making that can be an asset to academic advisers and coaches in identifying possible problematic behaviors among the students with whom they work most directly. A recommended format when working with student athletes is a tripart model that involves the student, the academic adviser, and the coach (think of the parent-teacher/school counselor/student model common at the primary and secondary levels for a visual image of this model). It can be helpful to involve the coach as a part of the process, as student-athletes often remain engaged in their sports for training purposes during the off-season. In addition, the coach-athlete may have a close relationship that can sometimes reach a level at which the student-athlete will disclose personal information to the coach as a confidante. Unlike other models of problem solving and decision making with multiple parties, everyone invested in a collaboration model plays an important role in the overall outcome (e.g., students' success in their academic careers). In a collaboration model, regardless of the intention and goals the parties are seeking, “all parties involved have responsibility for some part of the outcome and reciprocally consult with one another” (Dougherty, p. 7). Open communication among all parties involved is essential throughout, and the process should be transparent to those involved. Collaboration models have been used in a variety of contexts within the educational system, as they are easily adaptable to that environment. Regardless of the level, there are often multiple adult roles (e.g., teachers, counselors, coaches, advisers) working together to assist a student to be successful. This model can be easily adapted to work with academic advisers, coaches, and student-athletes at the collegiate level.

This model is ideal for academic advisers working with the college-aged population for multiple reasons. First, developmentally, many college-aged students are 18–22 years old and emerging into adulthood. A collaborative model provides the student with opportunities for personal growth in areas related to self awareness, understanding their internal locus of control, and learning healthy and adaptive behaviors to manage multiple responsibilities. Second, academic advisers who utilize a collaborative model when working with students allow for the growth of creativity, open communication, and appreciation of joint problem solving and recognize the power of group process (Dougherty, 2009). Third, the application of a collaborative model as part of the structure for the role of the academic adviser will also serve as a preventive approach when working with students rather than an adviser's response to a crisis situation. Specific to student-athletes, a collaborative model places academic advisers in a position to best identify and detect possible issues and often intervene before problematic behaviors become damaging. Finally, the logistics of adopting and implementing a collaborative model are positive. This model is adaptable and can be successfully used across many settings. The main resources required for success with this model are related to the parties involved. Adopting this model as part of the organizational structure at an institution should not require any financial assistance or special support. What is required is the vested engagement of the academic advisers, the student-athletes, and the coaches as active members of this approach. Open lines of communication from all parties are essential for success.

The specific relationship developed as a result of applying a collaborative model will vary based on the individuals, the goals, and possibly the availability of resources within the organization. However, all parties will actively contribute to the relationship through decision making, problem solving, and acting as agents of change. For example, goals set for a first-year student-athlete may be different than goals set for a student-athlete in his or her final year. Many institutions use e-mail as a primary method of communication, and this can help to maintain open lines among all parties. In addition, some students may benefit from more direct contact with either the coach or the academic adviser, while other students may prefer a heightened level of autonomy. Both approaches of contact can provide the student with opportunities for success, especially if the goals are clearly defined, realistic, and measurable.

A recommended part of a collaborative model adopted by academic advisers and coaches is to offer an information session during which both advisers and coaches can share their strategies and approaches to assist the student succeed. This conversation will establish a baseline from which to move forward and will also help to establish each party's role in the collaborative relationship. This clarification of roles is also essential in maintaining open lines of communication as well as encouraging active collaborative efforts from all involved. This discussion can help to determine opportunities for evaluation and assessment and identify areas of focus for students. After a collaborative model is established as part of the structure, annual information sessions can serve as professional development training. Academic advisers and coaches can share information that would be relevant for planning the following academic year and working with the student-athletes.

Academic advisers are able to implement this model with ease regardless of the number of student-athletes in their caseload. The implementation of a tripart collaborative model does not require an entire system change, but rather requires the investment of the three parties involved: the academic adviser, the coach, and the student. All parties will share in the decision making, problem solving, evaluating, and assessing as part of the model. This is not to say that each party will have equal roles at all times, but rather that each party demonstrates active engagement in the collective relationship to achieve the goals set forth.

It is critical that the student-athlete also remain an active part of this tripart collaborative model. One recommendation suggests initiating the student into the model during the first advising session with his or her academic adviser. The adviser can explain the purpose and role of the collaborative model to assist the student-athlete succeed and recognize the stressors that may be present.

If students are not participating in sports during their first year at the institution, the academic adviser should still establish a similar level of open communication and engagement with them. Advisers could mention that there are mechanisms in place to assist these student succeed if they choose to participate in sports and could request that the students make the adviser aware if they join so that the necessary information can be shared at that time. Having a general conversation will still plant a seed for future discussion, if needed.

As illustrated above, there are many benefits to adopting a collaborative relationship model when working with student-athletes, and these benefits include assisting to identify any possible areas of addiction. Most importantly, the goal is prevention. A collaborative relationship model allows for open communication and engagement among the three parties involved. Active levels of engagement from the adults involved can be assets when watching for any possible problematic behaviors early on and seeking assistance as needed. In addition, when advisers share with first-year students that they have relationships with other faculty and staff throughout the campus, the students likely will feel a greater sense of community and cohesion within the campus. It is one step that academic advisers can use to build a productive working relationship with any student. It is important to remember that all institutions and teams have their own unique qualities that may impact the environment and the culture of a collaborative relationship. It will be helpful to students if the academic advisers and coaches can create the foundation for a collaborative model prior to the involvement of the students. Once a model is established, each organization is encouraged to use creativity in setting goals and planning future endeavors.

Collaborative efforts in sports that involve mental health-related concerns and practitioners must include discussions about athlete-client confidentiality, informed consent, the college/university as an organization, the team (Moore, 2003), and the role of a student-athlete. Consistent with best practices, confidentiality and the limits of confidentiality should be discussed with the athlete-client (Whelan, 2009). Moore recommends that privileged communication be discussed and agreed upon prior to the implementation of services and as part of informed consent.

Possible barriers and limitations that may stall a collaborative model might include logistical elements. If limited resources are available for communication (e.g., e-mail, no offices on campus for coaches) it may be challenging for all parties to stay current. This is one area in which the student may be able to take more responsibility. For example, the student-athlete could relay information discussed by the team to the academic adviser when she or he is on campus for classes, and to the coach before or after practices or games. Technology has made communication quicker and easier in many instances (e.g., e-mail); however, possible options may be telephone conferences and/or in-person meetings. Also, issues of confidentiality and sharing of information is also a potential barrier. While the collaborative relationship model between coaches, academic advisers, and students does not include a professional confidentially clause, an understanding exists regarding sharing personal information on a “need-to-know” basis. In other words, efforts should focus on maintaining as much privacy as possible in each student's life while the coach, academic adviser, and student work together. Having a conversation at the onset of the collaborative relationship about the limits of sharing personal information will also help to clearly identify the boundaries for all parties. The group should clearly understand the methods of communication during the initial stages of forming this collaborative relationship to avoid confusion during the later stages. A second possible barrier may be related to personal buy-in, meaning perhaps either the academic adviser or the coach do not wish to engage in a collaborative model. Reasons for this will vary with the individuals. However, for a tripart collaborative model to be most successful, all three parties involved must be engaged in the process.


Many student-athletes are faced with negotiating a unique set of challenges: succeeding in both academics and athletics, dealing with time management, stress due to the pressures of their sport, peer pressure regarding recreational activities including drug and alcohol use, and coping with the traditional developmental tasks typical of their peer group (Etzel et al., 2002). Academic advisers and coaches are key players who can assist student-athletes succeed and learn from life challenges. A manageable approach for academic advisers and coaches to use when directly working with students is a tripart collaborative model. This approach focuses on interpersonal communication and engagement that can be adapted at any institutional level.


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About the Author(s)

Theresa A. Coogan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of counselor education at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, MA. She can be reached at theresa.coogan@bridgew.edu.

Victoria L. Bacon, Ed.D., is a professor of counselor education at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, MA. She can be reached at vbacon@bridgew.edu.