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An APPLE for the mentor? Program takes peer approach to substance abuse education
Adult degree offered

An APPLE for the mentor? Program takes peer approach to substance abuse education

By Dan Heuchert

Universities must take a comprehensive approach to preventing alcohol and substance abuse among their athletes, according to Allison Houser, the interim director of U.Va.'s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education (formerly the Institute for Substance Abuse Studies).

Houser co-directs the Athletic Prevention Programming and Leadership Education program -- APPLE for short -- a twice-yearly conference that helps colleges and universities around the country assess their prevention efforts, and suggests strategies for improving them. In its ninth year, the program receives $120,000 in annual support from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

"It's a holistic approach, an environmental approach to substance-abuse education," she said. The idea is to make sure that student-athletes receive consistent messages from all sources.

Participating "teams" comprised of administrators, coaches and student-athletes complete a pre-conference questionnaire that seeks information on their current programs. The survey focuses on seven key areas, which Houser calls "the slices of the APPLE": recruitment practices, expectations and attitudes, education programs, policies, drug testing, discipline, and referral and counseling.

"We ask questions like, 'Do you have a written policy in that area? Do you communicate it?' How often is it reviewed?'" Houser said.

Conference organizers review the responses and suggest areas for the teams to concentrate on during the conference. The teams then use the time to develop action plans to address their weaknesses. "It's been rewarding to see what the schools have done," said Joe Gieck, director of sports medicine at U.Va., who designed the APPLE program with the late Susan Grossman.

U.Va. is hosting two conferences this year, the second of which will be held Feb. 11-13. Generally, 30 to 40 schools are represented at each conference. As the sponsor, the NCAA prefers to have new schools represented each time, but "A lot of schools want to come back and work on a different area," Houser said.

The program for the most recent conference, held Jan. 21-23, included lectures, workshops and times for the teams to meet on their own.

Peer education and leadership is at the heart of the APPLE approach. Houser and Gieck encourage student-athlete mentoring, in which athletic teams choose "SAMs," who are in turn trained as resources for their peers.

"We ask them to select students they already trust and respect, Houser said. "If they have problems, this should be the person they already turn to.

The SAMs are asked to lead or arrange at least one program per semester for their teams. Although the mentors originally focused on drug and alcohol education, their responsibilities have since stretched to include personal development, wellness, nutrition and other lifestyle areas, Houser said.

The SAMs are consulted in drawing up new athletic department-wide policies, as well as in setting guidelines for their own teams, Gieck said. For instance, the SAMs on Virginia's men's lacrosse team helped formulate the strict alcohol policy the team adopted last spring, which they believe was instrumental in their successful run at the national championship.

While the message doesn't always get through -- Gieck noted that one U.Va. team proposed "limiting" members to six beers on the night before a game, a proposition their coach promptly nixed -- the athletes are more often stricter than coaches or administrators would have been.

At U.Va., athlete representatives proposed immediately dismissing anyone who failed a drug test from his or her team, Gieck said; administrators felt an obligation to help the athlete work through their problems.

The APPLE approach gets consistently positive evaluations, and there were waiting lists for both conferences this year, Houser said.

"I think most [athletic] departments before this started would do the minimum of what the NCAA required -- one big 'alcohol talk' at the beginning of a semester, which would usually put everyone to sleep," she said.


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