“When it comes to reaching youth, you have to find what matters most to them for your words to truly resonate and make an impact,” explained Lyme-Old Lyme Prevention Coalition (LOLPC)’s Prevention Coordinator, Alli Behnke. This year, LOLPC launched a Substance Free Athletics initiative in their local high school to reach students where they are at – which, for 80% of their student body, happens to be in athletics.
By bringing science-driven prevention education to athletes, coaches, and parents, LOLPC aims to spread awareness about the impact of substance use on athletic performance, injury, and recovery, and tie prevention into a topic that students are passionate about. Protect Your Game is the key message high school athletes are getting behind as they learn that using substances not only affects their health in the long-term, but also in the short-term on athletic performances.
At the start of this school year, 21 coaches attended an introductory meeting with LOLPC, where they received training on how to speak to their team about the impacts of substance use. “Research tells us that as youth reach adolescence, coaches and other adult mentors can become very influential on their choices and in shaping their path. That’s certainly something we have driven home with the coaches involved so far – that their voice matters.”
In addition to this coach-to-athlete approach, high school students will also take on leadership roles by making visits to their local middle school. “A lot of our high school athletes are excited to bring this initiative to middle schoolers and talk with them peer-to-peer style. They can share what it’s like to be a high school athlete, and how making the decision to not use substances can have a positive impact on their sports careers,” said Alli. “We currently have eight team captains who have volunteered to spearhead how these visits will work and what message they plan to get across. So far, the overwhelming feedback from students has been the connection they see between substance use and mental health. Instead of going to the middle schoolers and simply telling them to ‘say no to drugs,’ the high schoolers plan to share healthy lifestyle choices and speak about the opportunities and resources out there to support them.”
During the month of October, LOLPC has leaned into this youth-to-youth approach by having high schoolers host Red Ribbon lunches at the middle school and encouraging students to sign a Red Ribbon pledge. Additionally, throughout the month, the local high school has hosted Red Ribbon games, where prevention resources and swag are distributed, banners with QR codes link to prevention messaging and student-athletes have worn red to raise awareness about substance use prevention.
“I think one of the biggest accomplishments so far has been partnering with the athletic institution. That's something that our coalition hasn’t tapped into before, and as a result of this initiative, we’ve gone from teams not feeling comfortable about broaching the subject, to coaches being able to facilitate honest discussions around substances. I believe these conversations have the potential to really shift the culture of youth substance use in our area, and we’re really excited to see what the outcomes will be from this effort.”