Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Melinda Larson

Whitworth University

It’s a good thing Melinda Larson, MS, ATC, AT/L, is used to having a lot on her plate. When June began, she was serving in her dual roles as Head Athletic Trainer and Associate Professor of Health Science at Whitworth University. But after the school’s athletic director announced he was leaving on June 12, Larson was immediately appointed Interim Athletic Director–trading in her position as the supervisor of the four-person sports medicine staff for a job that would have her lead a department with more than 60 employees. In 1995, Larson began juggling the responsibilities of teaching classes and providing hands-on care at Whitworth, while also being involved in many activities and committees both on and off campus. She currently serves as a member of the NATA’s College/University Athletic Trainers Committee and was selected in 2012 for a four-year term on the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. Over the last five years, she has also gone on two mission trips to Guatemala through Athletes in Action.

Larson’s service has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, she was named Outstanding Educator by the Northwest Athletic Trainers Association, and in 2010, she received the NATA’s Outstanding Service Award. In July of 2012, Larson was invited to be a part of the Substance Abuse Prevention Program Delivery Group for a first of its kind partnership between NCAA Division III and NASPA, a professional group for student affairs administrators in higher education. The initiative aims to curb alcohol use and abuse among college students and athletes by developing educational and institutional programming. In this interview, Larson provides a glimpse into her three roles–athletic trainer, professor, and now, administrator. She explains how she found herself in the athletic director’s chair, how she has balanced all her responsibilities, and what she has learned from her student-athletes.

T&C: What were your thoughts when you were named Interim Athletic Director? Larson: I was really happy about the opportunity. For some time, I was hoping my next step would be into athletic administration, whether that was on a college or high school campus, for a conference, or on a national level. Being a head athletic trainer, I found that I enjoyed and was successful at administrative duties. And the support I’ve received over the past several years from the athletic department, university, and our president has helped me develop professionally. I can think of no better place to start this portion of my career.

I’m not just a placeholder, and I’m certainly interested in the permanent position, so my next thought was that we needed to fill my old roles for the upcoming academic year. We have opened up a visiting faculty position and the head athletic training duties will be transferred to my most senior assistant.

How did the administration at Whitworth help you prepare for this role?

Our previous athletic director delegated a lot of responsibility throughout the department. We’ve never had any full-time assistant or associate athletic directors, so he put together a leadership team to handle duties such as athletic communications and event management. I became a part of the team and was exposed to many areas beyond athletic training, which gave me great experience and reinforced that administration was something I wanted to do.

For example, one of my responsibilities was serving as advisor to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. One of the most rewarding projects I did with that group was to help organize a last-minute food drive that brought in more than 500 pounds for our local food bank. We heard they were running low on supplies right around the holidays, so we decided to collect goods at a men’s basketball game. We rallied the Whitworth students into contributing to the cause, and I was amazed at everyone’s willingness to jump in, fill a need, and serve the community.

What were the initial challenges of your new position? Making myself known to the community. As an athletic trainer, I’m used to working out of the spotlight. So some Whitworth supporters didn’t know who I was when I was announced as the interim athletic director. Once they met me, some said, “I’ve seen you on the sidelines or in the gym,” but they hadn’t yet connected my name to my face. In some ways, I think I’ll always feel like a behind-the-scenes, support person, but I’m working with our president on ways to become a more public face of the athletic department.

How did you balance teaching and athletic training over the past 18 years?

The first key to managing it all was routinely meeting with my department chairs so they understood the demands and unpredictability of the athletic schedule. They were usually helpful in making considerations regarding my class times and faculty responsibilities. For example, if I worked a weekend as an athletic trainer, I was permitted to miss the department meeting on Monday. It also required a lot of creative scheduling and efficient time management, which frequently meant combining two separate job responsibilities into one time frame. For example, I would sometimes meet with a student from my class while I was watching practice. I also supervised most of my rehabs during practice times. That way, I could dedicate the care needed to my injured athletes while also keeping an eye on what was happening on the field. In addition, I would grade papers during lulls in practice.

What were the positive aspects of the dual position? In order to teach a course, I had to know as much as possible about the content it was going to cover, so I was constantly reading and studying about various aspects of health care. It allowed me to continue my education as a clinician. And being an active athletic trainer gave me practical experience and examples that I could share with students in the classroom.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

It’s something that I’ve worked on over the years. For me, it starts with a few daily habits. One is going for morning walks by the river with my Australian Shepherd who is my “exercise accountability partner.” That gives me a chance to pray and reflect before starting my day. It’s what I call, “Melinda time.” I also try to do as much recreation as possible. To make sure I exercise at least a little every day, I ride my bike to and from work. I’m also a co-leader of a group called Believers on Mountain Bikes, which is an evangelical outreach group. It’s a way to serve the community while also going out and enjoying the area’s mountains and trails.

How is Whitworth implementing the new Division III rule on sickle cell testing?

In the past, we would ask athletes for their sickle cell trait status, but we wouldn’t always get answers from everyone. The new policy requires that student-athletes know their status and bring us proof of testing. For those who don’t know this information, we provide resources at Whitworth–from how to get in contact with the right physician to contacting the state board of health. We also have an arrangement with a local lab that offers convenient testing for our student-athletes.

Why did you work primarily with Whitworth’s soccer teams when many head athletic trainers typically prefer to cover football? During my undergraduate years, one of my roommates played on the school’s soccer team, so I started going to her games and learned about the sport. But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school at Florida International University and worked with the women’s soccer program that I really fell in love with it. The team was ranked in the top 10 nationally and made the NCAA Division I tournament both years I was there. I’ve become a fan of pretty much every sport I’ve worked with, but I think I fell for soccer because of the type of athlete it requires and the overall flow of the game. It’s like no other sport. For example, I grew up playing basketball, and I played in college, but working soccer is much more enjoyable to me as an athletic trainer.

What are the benefits of working with the NCAA Division III Substance Abuse Prevention Program Delivery Group? I am thankful to be given the opportunity to be a part of this collaborative effort, because I’ve gotten to meet people in various fields from D-III schools all across the country. I’ve also learned a lot from experts about substance abuse, substance abuse prevention programs, and what goes into putting a plan together to combat abuse on the national level.

What came out of your time with the collaborative?

We developed a three-part web portal to help institutions tackle substance use and abuse on their campuses. The first component is a Personalized Feedback Intervention, which surveys students about their alcohol and drug practices and immediately provides a response to their usage. In the past, this tool has been shown to decrease negative alcohol-related consequences among college students.

The second piece is a campus assessment that requires schools to identify what aspects of drug and alcohol prevention and treatment they can improve upon. In the final part, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism will deliver information on how schools can implement their own best practices with alcohol and drug curriculum.

Twenty D-III schools started the two-year pilot program at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year with the Personalized Feedback Intervention. The remaining tools will be implemented in the 2013-14 academic year, and the full initiative will launch in the fall of 2014.

How did you get started doing service work abroad? Several years ago, I became friends with a woman who was a missionary for the organization Athletes in Action, and in 2008, I decided to sign up for a service trip. I was enrolled in a five-day trip to Guatemala with a handful of other sports medicine personnel. We spent our time there teaching at a training center for elite athletes. The medical professionals at the facility had an amazing desire to learn anything they could. For example, one day they led me around the clinic by the arm to ask my opinion on the treatment of some of their patients. I also sat down with a Guatemalan orthopedic surgeon who asked me every question he could think of regarding ACL recovery. Last summer, I decided to go there again with a new group. We went to a few different places near Guatemala City and had another fabulous trip. One of my recently graduated students also went on a trip this summer, and I was excited that she wanted to jump in and serve.

How do you help injured athletes handle the emotional aspect of a rehab?

I think that sometimes you need to have tough times to truly appreciate the positives in life. So I ask my athletes what they learned about themselves after recovering from an injury. I think it would be a tragic missed opportunity for a student-athlete to go through a life-altering event like an injury and not take the time to respond to and reflect on it. I encourage them to think about how the rehab changed them, their relationships, and their life. Having to fight back through the recovery process alters your identity and daily habits, so I think it would be a shame to pretend like those hard months didn’t happen or mean anything. Of course, this self-reflection comes easier to some than others. A few student-athletes have that lightbulb moment right away while others take longer to realize how valuable the recovery process was to their growth.

What was the key to developing your interpersonal skills with student-athletes?

I tried to learn something from each student-athlete I interacted with. I heard a lot about their families, where they came from, and what was important to them. From these conversations, I learned that everyone is unique, and it was important for me as an athletic trainer to know my athletes as a person, not just as an injured ankle. I also made a rule for myself to always have the most charitable thought about any athlete I worked with, even if they were cranky, rude, not showing up for rehab, or not working as hard as I thought they should be. More often than not, there was a reason for their behavior. I would ask myself, “What’s the whole person here? What else could be going on in their life?” Then when I found out more about the situation, I would understand why they were acting that way. The nature of athletics and injuries brings so many emotions bubbling up to the surface. So as an athletic trainer, and now an athletic administrator, I have learned to be sensitive and aware of the effect it can have on people. Sometimes that means not being grumpy back to an irritable student-athlete or taking the extra time to talk with them.


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