Just Say Yes

By Lya Wodraska — April 01, 2002 9 min read
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The ATLAS program offers athletes positive alternatives to potentially dangerous drugs.

Gathered in a small, windowless room down the hall from West High School’s gym on a chilly December afternoon, Shawn Price, Lance Gummersall, and Tom Olsen relive highlights from last night’s basketball game. Price is teased for a failed “no look” pass, and Olsen, who also runs cross country for the Salt Lake City school, gets ribbed for constantly sprinting up and down the court. Laughter fills the room, warming it more than the faulty heater that struggles against the cold air creeping in under the door.

As the wisecracking continues, about 10 more teammates arrive. But the chatter subsides as Chad Drecksel, West High’s track coach, begins the session. He asks everyone whether they met yesterday’s personal goal—to eat well—and bemoans the lackluster responses. Still, the teenagers seem primed for today’s assignment, which is to write newspaper-style pieces on one of the following subjects: drugs, exercise, nutritional supplements, or smart food choices. The boys split into groups, toss around ideas, and start composing. One group yuks it up with a mock article about a corpse found behind a fast-food restaurant. The cause of death? Obesity brought on by too many cheeseburgers.

This exercise is part of the ATLAS, or Athletes Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids, program, which encourages male high school athletes to forgo any form of drug or alcohol use in favor of healthful alternatives. Over the course of 10 45-minute sessions, a faculty adviser and peer lead-ers supervise a number of playful activities, such as throwing balls at “Steroid Man” and picking apart bodybuilding ads, while focusing on exercise and nutrition as means to develop speed, size, and endurance. “You have to give them something they can use,” notes Linn Goldberg, the program’s creator. “We aren’t saying steroids don’t work—because they do. But there are much safer and better ways to get the same results.”

Goldberg, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, pilot tested ATLAS a few years ago and then, at the suggestion of drug-prevention experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, worked with a publisher to promote the program nationwide. Since 1999, it’s been used in more than 25 states, but until recently, Goldberg didn’t have the resources necessary to track the number of schools using ATLAS or how well they implement it. Now, with $150,000 in federal funding, he’s launched an effort to monitor its implementation in several locations, including the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. “The whole world’s focus is on Salt Lake City,” he says, more than a month before the games are set to begin.

Goldberg’s primary aim is to draw attention to the problems associated with performance-enhancing drugs. Steroids, research shows, can cause cardiovascular disease and other serious side effects, including stunted growth, yet they remain popular among young athletes. A 1999 Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association survey found that 60 percent of teens interviewed knew athletes their age who used steroids and similar substances. And a growing number of kids are attracted to nutritional supplements, which some health experts claim are potentially dangerous. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has linked the energy booster ephedrine to incidents of heart attack, stroke, and seizure.

ATLAS, Goldberg says, has curbed drug use among its participants, and he has the numbers to prove it. He’s also backed by the U.S. Department of Education, which cites the program as exemplary. Nevertheless, ATLAS is not without its drawbacks. In Salt Lake City, for example, it got off to a rough start when coaches at various high schools resisted its launch, in part, because they found the program time-consuming.

But the basketball players gathered at West High this afternoon are enthusiastic about ATLAS. In one group, the kids throw themselves into creating their fictitious restaurant, where every tablespoon of mayo applied to a cheeseburger adds a whopping 99 calories. Later, Shawn Price says he’s tried to limit his own fast-food consumption. He now passes up the hamburger joints most students patronize for healthier selections at Subway or a local Italian sandwich shop.

He’s also noticed a difference in his athletic performance since he started the program just a few weeks ago. He recently played a full game against Mountain Crest but says he could have gone longer. At times over the past couple of years, he admits, he considered trying steroids. Not anymore. “I didn’t realize they could be bad for you even after you’ve stopped taking them,” he notes. “[ATLAS] has made me take a second look at everything.”

Goldberg developed the ATLAS program after coaches at public schools not far from Oregon Health Sciences University began asking if his medical students could talk to teens they suspected were using steroids. With a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (a division of the National Institutes of Health), he tested the program at 31 Oregon and Washington high schools between 1994 and 1996. A year later, he reported that there’d been a 50 percent drop in the number of participants who started taking steroids and a decline in their use of drugs and alcohol.

In 1999, Sunburst Press began publishing and distributing the ATLAS materials: three student workbooks and a scripted teacher’s guide. Included in their pages are explanations of how steroid use can lead to liver cancer, shrunken testicles, stroke, and other problems. One workbook breaks exercise routines into colorful categories, such as “sport utility training” for endurance and “truck training” for strength. “We try to use humor,” says Goldberg. “We want it to be fun.”

The ATLAS program encourages male high school athletes to forgo any form of drug or alcohol use in favor of healthful alternatives.

Timothy Condin, an associate director at NIDA, is a fan of ATLAS. The program works, he says, because it’s led by students and coaches, not guest lecturers. “It helps change the culture in the athletic departments about what is acceptable,” he explains. “Changing the norm in their environment is one of the hardest things to do, and you can’t just depend on outside information to do it.”

West High is one of three Salt Lake City schools that have agreed to participate in Goldberg’s latest experiment—in part because the mayor, Rocky Anderson, is also a fan of the program—and, after nine sessions, coach Drecksel’s students are waiting in the hallway for their last workshop to begin. Some are actually finishing up yesterday’s homework. Each teenager was told to ask five girls to look at several photos and select the most attractive male. The choices included two hulking muscle men, a slim cross-country runner, and a moderately toned athlete with “six pack” abs. Most picked the guy with the rippled stomach, and all rejected the bulging-bicep pinups, the kind of guys bodybuilding ads insist women really want.

Once the session gets under way, the peer leaders, Lance Gummersall and Tom Olsen—who were trained by Drecksel—take turns directing the class. Although many of the athletes are seniors and Gummersall’s only a junior, they respect him and listen intently. He says later that he never felt his teammates resented the fact that he was playing teacher. “We don’t really tell them what to do—that helps,” he explains. “We’re just leading the discussions.”

Of course, letting kids supervise a class has potential drawbacks, mostly because a lot rides on their enthusiasm. Generally, the West High peer leaders take their job seriously, but it does have its perks; they get to skip the exercises, for example. “That is the best part,” says Gummersall, who at times looks more bored than inspiring. “You don’t have to do all the work, and you get to get out of class for the training.”

Coaches like Drecksel also carry responsibility for making ATLAS work, helping the students run the class and making sure they cover the material on time. At five-feet-nine-inches, Drecksel is smaller than most of the athletes he teaches, and he’s soft-spoken. Still, the kids pay attention to him. When he asks the group to come up with benefits of various weight-training techniques, they respond quickly, shouting out answers such as “explosive power” and “muscular endurance.”

Although Drecksel is pro-ATLAS now, he and other Salt Lake coaches were skeptical at first, and some failed to implement the program last spring as originally planned. Rod Miner, West High’s athletic director, attributes the resistance to the district’s shoddy introduction of the program. “We had it shoved down our throats without any explanation or reasons,” he complains. “The coaches are also supposed to use practice time for this, and a lot don’t want to give that time up.” Now, though, Drecksel says he and others don’t mind making the necessary sacrifices for ATLAS. “We know it works,” he explains.

It may work, but some aspects of the program can be expensive. If coaches want to be trained, for example, ATLAS staff charge $1,000 or more, depending on the number of trainees. And the price of the workbooks for one teacher and 10 students is $150. But Goldberg knows many school budgets are tight. He says coaches can skip the training and simply follow the scripted teacher’s guide. In addition, the workbooks are not copyrighted for a reason; if they want to, educators can photocopy them.

ATLAS, Goldberg says, has curbed drug use among its participants, and he has the numbers to prove it.

At West High, the athletes appreciate the dietary aspects of the program more than any other. Surprisingly, they say they had little nutrition education in previous classes, including health. “It has changed how our whole family is eating,” says Tanner Nicholson, a lanky sophomore with a big Afro. “I snack a lot differently, and my dad is even looking through the books, figuring out what he should be eating.”

This is the kind of effect Goldberg always hoped ATLAS would have. And several years of what he deems success have inspired him to develop similar programs. He’s currently testing ATHENA, or Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives, a program for female athletes that focuses on eating disorders and other problems. Eventually, he’d like to launch a program for all students—Gender Associated Learning in Lifestyle and Exercise Opportunities, or GALILEO for short. He’s now applying for a grant to develop it.

Meanwhile, the basketball players at West High are enjoying their last few minutes of the ATLAS program. Many take the opportunity to munch on snacks they’ve brought from home, most of which are healthful, such as bagels, pudding, and fruit. But Olsen, after he downs some pudding, breaks out a Snickers bar. He leans back in his chair while the class answers 34 questions in a review of the program. Most of the guys get the answers right—they know a few high-protein foods and the effects of alcohol on the body, for example. In fact, the only question that really stumps them is, “What does ATLAS stand for?”

The review finished, the program’s officially over. A few cheers go up, and some kids joke that they’d rather continue ATLAS than head to basketball practice. In truth, Olsen is itching to get on the court; he’s hoping to win a college basketball scholarship. But he’s glad he participated in the program. Despite a Snickers bar here and there, he says he’s tried to change his diet, eating less junk food and more chicken and tuna and drinking milk every day. “I eat the same bad stuff,” he notes with a slight smile, “but just not as much.”


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