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Winners at the 2024 SBC Awards North America

Liz looking forward to supporting more student-athletes

“Every campus I go to is a whole different feel and culture… it’s kind of like getting to know a new friend or family member.”

It’s clear that for Liz Thielen, one of EPIC’s programme facilitators, the organization’s NCAA education program is a deeply personal commitment.

The former champion boxer turned addiction support specialist has been an integral part of EPIC’s delivery team during the first two-and-a-half years of its educational delivery across NCAA colleges, so it comes as no surprise that she’s now in demand to share the learnings from all aspects of her professional career at a continually impressive run of speaking engagements.

Last week, she partnered with senior professional sports manager Dr Meg Popovic to present to a room of influential athlete wellbeing experts from leading sports institutions as part of the Leaders In Sport Performance Summit at Red Bull’s Los Angeles headquarters.

Alongside delivering a masterclass on strategies for recognizing and mitigating gambling harm in high performance, the audience was also presented with copies of ‘Taking on an Invisible Rival’, the newly-released case study report that details how impactful the NCAA program has been since its inception in 2022.

“I think the athlete wellness angle to performance is something that people are now starting to recognize as being important,” explained Liz, as she reflected on how the audience engaged with their presentation.

“I think everybody sees around them and the headlines obviously make it clear that athletes are being impacted by both sports betting and gambling in general, so it’s not as if we’re coming in saying something that they might be sceptical about. They’re very aware of the issue and very concerned.”

Sometimes, the biggest challenge for a sports institution around gambling issues is a sense that they can’t influence a player or staff member’s decisions around whether or not to wager, but Thielen and Popovic’s message was that with the right inspiration and advice to hand, a better outcome could be more readily available than they first thought.

“One big one is that many people feel powerless to stop athletes from gambling,” she continued.

“They feel like it’s such an insurmountable task that they don’t even bother trying to figure out how they could help. We started off by letting them off the hook and saying ‘nobody can make an athlete not gamble, just like that’, but what we can do is help equip you to have conversations with the athletes that you work with, which helps them to make informed and intentional decisions about gambling. I really think that’s an important approach. People were very receptive to that.

“It was nice working with Doctor Meg, to try to formulate how we share information with this group that might be useful to them and also get around some of the potential barriers that we’ve seen in general conversation previously.”

Delivering key messages to influential audiences has been a considerable part of Liz’s remit so far this year, having also spoken to packed venues at the SIGA Annual Summit on Female Leadership in Sport in New York and the SBC Summit North America in New Jersey in recent months.

However, whilst this has been an exciting change of direction during the quieter ‘off season’ months for the NCAA, Thielen admits that she can’t wait for August, when the majority of sports teams are back on campus and EPIC’s work will continue apace again, with sessions spread across multiple states every week throughout the late summer and fall.

Anticipating a return to directly engaging with student-athletes to share her story – she turned to gambling after injury curtailed her boxing career and she lost a close relative in quick succession – she reveals:

“I love working with the athletes; it feels very genuine and organic when I meet with them.

“I think it’s so important. The athletes are so very receptive, interactive and welcoming.

“Every campus I go to is a whole different feel and culture. It’s kind of like getting to know a new friend or family member, just getting to know the campus, the culture, the athletes and the different teams. I absolutely love it.”

Thielen is part of a team who each bring very different but relatable experiences to campus, with the facilitators chosen to present to each college based on characteristics like their previous career or geographic connections to the location in order to create an immediate bond with each audience. One common bond that each facilitator shares: they have all experienced the worst side of problem gambling at previous points in their lives.

That plan bears fruit with the way it encourages student-athletes to come forward and share their needs or fears with her when she has finished talking; hopefully opening doors for each affected individual to find support as needed, be it personally or for a loved one. She explains:

“Roughly every third session, somebody will approach me afterwards and talk about their concerns about gambling; usually it’s around a friend or family member.

“The emotion that they can finally talk to somebody about something that they’ve been completely alone in is so important.

“And for every one of them, I can’t even imagine how many of them don’t come up and talk, but now they know that they’re not alone, and they know where they can turn is so incredible.”

NCAA colleges wanting to bring that power of communication on campus for the wellbeing of their student-athletes and staff can contact Simon Wootton via to enquire about the availability of EPIC staff to present at venues across any division or competition.

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