Keep your head in the game: How college athletics are focusing on both physical and mental recovery

Mental Health Student Athletes

Everyone knows you don’t skip leg day.

When it comes to improving physical health, universities employ the best trainers, strength coaches and physical therapists to keep student-athletes in peak physical shape. That means giving equal focus to every muscle group.

Unfortunately, the brain often gets left off the list. For such a key player in our overall physical health, we’ve not always paid adequate attention to the mental well-being of our student-athletes. Thankfully, colleges and universities are starting to realize how crucial the mental aspect is and how prioritizing it can lead to greater results on the field.

Embracing the whole-body student-athlete

In the stands on a Saturday with a beer in hand, it’s easy to forget the athletes on the field are still young people – many still teenagers – learning to navigate the college experience (and life in general). ESPN reporter Kate Fagan writes in her book that, for her, adjusting to life as a college athlete was “like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold.” The pressure on young athletes – especially in those high-profile sports on the big stage – is certain to place a major toll on mental health.

And while studies show that college athletes have slightly lower rates of anxiety and depression than the general student population, they’re also more likely to conceal it from coaches and training staff, according to an NCAA report. In that same report, Brian Hainline, NCAA Chief Medical Officer, explains the importance of mental health in student-athletes:

“As more media coverage, commentary and public scrutiny are devoted to what student-athletes do off the field, along with the accompanying pressures to perform (and win games) on the field, student-athletes are inundated with factors that may affect their mental health and wellness. And the ‘culture’ of athletics may inhibit student-athletes from seeking help to address issues such as anxiety, depression, the stress associated with the expectations of their sport, and the everyday stress of dealing with relationships, academic demands, and adjusting to life away from home.”

That reluctance only exacerbates the issue, leading to added anxiety and decreased athletic performance. And when a school’s athletic training facility isn’t equipped to handle mental health as comprehensively as it treats an ankle sprain, the message to the student-athletes isn’t generally positive. Julie Kliegman elaborates in The Ringer:

“When players are expected to leave the athletic department’s facilities to seek care, they get the message that they’re outsiders, that what they’re dealing with isn’t a problem common among their peers. They can get the impression that they need to separate who they are as student-athletes from the ways in which their brains work.”

Conversely, if athletes can get the mental support they need in the same community where they spend so much of their time, then the overall environment becomes much more supportive and conducive to a healthy whole-body approach.

Growing a supportive environment

The good news is that over the last five years or so, universities across the country have been beefing up their mental health capabilities within their athletic departments: In 2014, fewer than 25 Division I schools had a mental health professional on staff in their athletic departments, but by 2016, that number had grown to more than 39%—and surely more now as we approach 2020.

The trend really gained steam after the NCAA created its first Mental Health Task Force in 2013, which was followed by the 2014 guide, “Mind, Body and Sport,” which addressed the extent of emotional and mental challenges faced by athletes and the overall deficiency of adequate resources.

This has led to more student-led activities and engagement, including the University of Michigan’s Athletes Connected, a program designed to “increase awareness of mental health issues…and promote positive coping skills among student-athletes.”

Designing for the future of college athletics

Of course, athletic directors and coaches are focused on winning games. Part of that is finding ways to push the envelope beyond just the physical enhancement of student-athletes, but actually increasing the mental recovery efforts as well.

As we partner with schools around the nation, we’re starting to see a better balance of physical and mental health as new training facilities are being constructed. (Some new additions, like the sleep pods added by the University of Oregon, really benefit both.)

Other new features we’re seeing are napping rooms, isolation pods, acupuncture services, yoga, massages—day-spa services designed to support better mental health. More and more schools are adding staff psychologists as well. This approach to address the mental side has truly started to change the culture of university sports, and it’s going to be the new direction of athletics in the future as schools implement these new facilities.

It’s an inspiring development, for sure. And as more and more universities upgrade their facilities to compete with the rest of their conference, the most successful ones will partner with an architect and designer who understand that the holistic, whole-body approach to athletics is the one designed for long-term success for everyone involved—truly a win-win situation.

Matt Keys, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a client leader at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including higher education, public and private K-12. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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