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Recently, Holly Rider-Milkovich authored a piece titled Training Athletes? Remember Intramural Sports. In it, she discussed the specific needs and experiences of intramural athletes as they relate to interpersonal violence, emphasizing the importance of focusing violence prevention efforts on this population.

The substance abuse field is another that has, through the years, focused on the inclusion of collegiate athletes in prevention efforts. Primarily, these efforts have catered to varsity sport athletes and those under the purview of the NCAA. There is a fairly robust data set of student-athlete substance use behaviors, providing insight that can support prevention professionals in tailoring efforts accordingly.

The NCAA Student Athlete Substance Use Study, for instance, provides a wealth of insight into the behaviors and beliefs of students involved with NCAA sports. The most recent version of the study in 2014 found that excessive drinking is down in student-athletes, although 80% still report consuming alcohol. They also found that student-athletes are less likely to use drugs socially than their non-athlete peers. Among those who do use drugs socially, Division 3 athletes do so at the highest rates, and male athletes are generally more likely to use substances altogether. Additionally, data shows that most athletes view drug testing as a deterrent to substance use.

But what about intramural athletes? Given that, in the area of interpersonal violence, their experiences are reflective of a distinct need for services and education, it’s reasonable to believe that the same is true for substance use. And, that’s often the case.

While not as robust as data on NCAA athletes, several studies have emerged that explore substance use among intramural athletes. Each emphasizes the need for colleges to pay special attention to the substance use behaviors of their intramural athletes. According to research, students participating in intramural sports tend to use alcohol at a greater frequency and intensity, and are more likely to engage in episodes of heavy drinking. Additionally, intramural athletes have been found to be more likely to demonstrate higher perceptions of other students alcohol consumption, and significantly less likely to engage in protective behaviors such as pacing consumption, alternating between alcohol and water, or avoiding drinking games. They have also been found to be more likely to experience physical injuries as a result of alcohol consumption.

While implications exist that highlight risk behaviors around interpersonal violence and substance use among intramural athletes, positive benefits of athletic involvement have been shown as well. According to some studies, intramural sport participation has been shown to correlate positively with mental well-being, and high school participation in intramural sports has been connected to increased resilience. With this in mind, the following tips can support your efforts in engaging intramural athletes in substance use prevention efforts.

  • Collect data. Obtain a list of all intramural teams and conduct assessments or focus groups to measure behaviors and attitudes towards substance use. By determining which teams may be most likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, you can tailor your prevention efforts accordingly. You can also use the data that you obtain to help correct misperceptions and to create inter-team social norms campaigns. Don’t forget to also measure outcomes.
  • Generate buy-in. Since intramural teams typically don’t have the same requirements as NCAA teams, it can be difficult to leverage mandates or requirements in the same fashion. There are a variety of ways in which you can build or strengthen relationships with intramural team captains. Consider something simple like inviting them for coffee or tea, and present an opportunity to discuss their role on campus, their goals (both personally and for their team), and what health means to them. Be transparent about your objectives, share your concerns using national or campus data, highlight their strengths, and ask them directly for their support in making their teams healthier. By making captains or influencers a part of the solution, you can build relationships that may help to solve the problem.
  • Develop (and uphold) intramural-specific substance use policies. Many institutions have specific policies addressing the use of alcohol and other drugs among intramural athletes. If you don’t already have one in place, connect with the staff member who oversees intramural sports to explore how to best integrate such an approach.
  • Recruit “in-groupers” for prevention efforts. Specifically, target intramural sport athletes when considering students to involve in health education efforts. By creating a student connection, you can gain both access into the intramural world, and insight into their behaviors and beliefs.

For many students, intramural athletic teams are an opportunity to make friends, ease the college transition, and stay active, without the time commitment of a varsity sport. By prioritizing wellness and prevention among this population, your institution can do it’s part to promote the social and health benefits, while decreasing substance use-related risks.

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