By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Four Willamette University student-athletes recently attended the APPLE Institute in Orlando, Florida. Participants in the APPLE Institute learned about all aspects of student-athlete well-being, especially the influence of drugs and alcohol on academic and athletic performance, and the need for mental health support. Representing Willamette at the event were football player Kyle Martz (So., DB, Salem, OR/ South Salem HS), volleyball player Lauren Stiles (Jr., OH, Altadena, CA/Flintridge Preparatory School), men's soccer player Mack van der Velde (So., D, Voorhout, Neth./Summit HS, Bend, OR), and volleyball player Morgan Webster (Sr., S/DS, Milwaukie, OR/Milwaukie HS).
Also participating in the APPLE Institute were Case Manager Heather Canby, LPC, from Bishop Wellness Center counseling services, and Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator Leslie Shevlin. Canby worked with the Willamette student-athletes throughout the institute. Shevlin joined the group about midway through the institute after completing duties associated with the NCAA Convention.
Willamette's four designated student-athletes were at the APPLE Institute for three days. After learning about various aspects of student-athlete wellness, the participants from each institution developed an action plan for student-athletes on their campus.
The APPLE Institute broke up student-athlete wellness into various slices of an apple such as drug use, alcohol use, mental health, diversity and inclusion, etc. Groups were asked to focus one one or two "slices" and develop an action plan to be completed during the next 12 months. Participants will hopefully be able to attend the APPLE Institute again next year to measure successes and find out how action plans were implemented at other colleges and universities.
"It was a great opportunity to learn about best practices regarding substance use prevention among student-athletes and to learn from other institutions on how they overcame challenges to implement them," Canby said. "Additionally, it was a chance for us to reflect on our own areas of strengths, areas for improvement, and begin to explore creative solutions."
Student-athletes from throughout the country started the institute by interacting with speakers who presented various facts and approaches to dealing with student-athlete well-being. Learning about the implications of alcohol and drug use, as well as the need for mental health support, had a huge impact on the student-athletes from Willamette.
"The APPLE Institute opened up my eyes," van der Velde said. "It was thoroughly planned and well organized. They brought to light large misconceptions and beliefs about drinking and marijuana that I either thought I knew or was naive about."
"In general, the APPLE Institute is doing amazing work," Stiles commented. "Their vision is clear and they have created digestible steps to equip student-athlete leaders to take their vision back their campuses."
"It gives athletes the opportunity to learn more about drug and alcohol prevention in student-athletes, as well as tools to help adopt practices at our universities," Webster said.
"I think the students gained a lot of knowledge about how different drug and alcohol substances can affect athletic performance," Shevlin said. "Abusing alcohol and drugs can affect your system for upwards of 14 days in some cases."
After learning about the issues facing student-athletes, it was time for the Bearcat student-athletes to create their action plan for Willamette.
"They taught us that trying to implement all of our ideas at once would most likely end in a failure to change anything dramatically," van der Velde recalled. "They told us to pick one specific area to focus on and really put out effort into that. We chose to focus on counseling and mental health. We hope to educate, shed light and encourage athletes who are struggling with mental health to feel comfortable reaching out for help. Many student-athletes believe asking for help makes them look 'weak' or incapable. We want to encourage our fellow student-athletes to seek help from Bishop and the counseling department which has free counseling."
"Our action plan comes in different categories (phases)," Stiles said. "The one I am most excited about is broadcasting the availability of Bishop to the entire campus and specifically weaving counseling into athletics. Some goals are mental health informational posters in locker rooms, a counselor in the training room, and reaching every athlete about Bishop services and the importance of mental health. "
"I learned that student-athletes have a hard time asking for help because they try and be 'mentally tough' and thus are less likely to seek counseling services." Webster noted.
"The action plan is largely student-driven," Canby said. "It was wonderful to see the student-athletes collaborate and work together to create a plan that they thought would create change. The student chose to focus on the area of counseling and referrals, and incorporated a compassionate, harm reduction approach. We hope to see student-athletes become more aware of supports on campus as well as how to get connected to supports off campus."
In addition, the action plan hopes to reach recruits when they visit campus. Visits provide an opportunity to show that support services are available at Willamette and encourage prospects to join the Bearcats if they share a similar vision of campus life.
"So another goal is to create a pamphlet that has fun things to do around Salem that don't involve drugs or alcohol, and that also contains something along the lines of 'this is who we are at Willamette, what we believe in, and what we strive to become. If that is you, then this is the place for you'," Stiles said.
"I hope that Rob Passge, Heather and myself will be able to partner with other administrators on campus to help their good ideas come to fruition," Shevlin commented. "Two days after their return to campus, the student-athletes were able to share some important information to their fellow Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members about support available on our campus. They are already taking steps to make Willamette University a safer place."
Martz filmed much of the trip. He created a video after the student-athletes returned to Oregon. Watch the video.
There were plenty of facts and details to learn during the APPLE Institute.
"I learned there are a lot of misconceptions on the amount of athletes who drink, how often they drink, how often student-athletes are involved in sexual activity, as well as shedding light on the idea that many student-athletes are afraid and don't seek out help or counseling for mental health issues," van der Velde said.
"I learned how abusing drugs impacts the body's recovery process," Martz said. "And how essential mental health resources are available on our campus."
"The things I took away from the conference were the small steps that you can take on the way to a bigger goal," Stiles noted. "And there were data driven facts/talks about perception versus reality."
Although the three-day institute was mostly about learning and working on an action plan, there also were times for fun and interaction with student-athletes from other college and universities.
"I enjoyed being in the Florida sunshine the most," Martz recalled.
"We learned team bonding skills and got to interact with different student-athletes from across the country who have different successes and problems," van der Velde recalled.
"I enjoyed discussing the atmosphere on other campuses, finding similarities and listening to how they have attacked problems and cultivated environments," Stiles said. "It opened my mind to new things and challenged me to think in ways I haven't before."
"I got to know student-athletes from other universities, and knowing that even though we come from different states and NCAA divisions, we all have similar goals," Webster said.