Alcohol: Take courage from competence

Like England’s footballers, who overcame a decades-long inability to win on penalties, we are better off finding our courage through practice, not through alcohol.

Sports sponsorship, like Budweiser’s backing of the World Cup, and thrilling advertising images reinforce the phoney link between alcohol and courage, despite codes barring it being done explicitly.


Alcohol plays no part in the confidence of sports people, or anyone else. We all know it, but facts are not what advertising is about. Advertising connects feelings, not facts, in this case tension and alcohol relief.

Our pre-scientific alcohol lexicon provide a flimsy barrier to prevent this powerful emotional linkage. The phrase “Dutch courage” contains only an oblique reference to the Netherlands to trigger suspicion.

Own goals
Lingering misgivings about the Low Countries, alas, do little to prevent our behaviour from being influenced, so we often turn to alcohol to cocoon ourselves from anxiety and even use it to assuage our excitement.

This is doubly ironic, if not more. We watch sport stars perform feats of skill with amazing calm, focus and concentration, while consuming a substance which interferes with our ability to emulate them.

Alcohol inebriation slows our brain function, reducing our competence in activities requiring us to use our brains. This includes practically everything, even sleep.

And, of over the long term, using alcohol tends to fuel our fears and anxieties and lengthen jumpiness after stressful events, whether they end badly or well.

Practice kills nerves
The competence we developed in our jobs and sports mean we are rarely gripped by nerves. Experience teaches us, like professional sportspeople, to know our limits, estimate risk and gauge the chances of success.

Our biggest worries typically revolve around the more haphazard world of our social lives. We often worry about our ability to converse, make friends, find partners and, heaven forbid, give a speech.

We are often first faced with these types of challenges at the same time as we have our first chances to drink alcohol. And they often remain paired thereafter, seemingly inextricably linked.

Alcohol reduces our awareness of distractions which might interrupt our flow, but it does not give us any new skills. We can make fluent, jovial, spontaneous conversation just as well without alcohol. Even dancing is possible.

Social situations which do not enforce alcohol drinking are a help, though not necessary if we can slip under the radar. Like practising penalties, socialising without drinking will eventually bring results.