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Calhoun Tackles Mental Health in Sports: Coaching the Entire Athlete to Success

Mental health in sports has been at the forefront of athletic culture in the last few years. More and more, professional athletes are speaking up about their struggles, and the resources they’ve used to get better. These conversations have been very important in understanding the complex landscape of mental health, and they’ve humanized public figures who have seemed larger than life. Calhoun Athletics, understanding the importance of this moment in sports, has kept up with the national conversation and wanted to continue it with the athletes in the community. 

The athletics department regularly listens to their athletes’ needs and challenges surrounding their mental health. These needs and challenges increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, where students were pushed further than ever. Athletes were speaking up in class and during practices about their mental health after, for example, a tough loss or when classes and competitions made their schedules hectic. At Calhoun, we prioritize the entire athlete, which includes their mental health; thus, the athletics department knew that they had to find a way to address these concerns, and create a space where students feel supported and heard. 

At the start of each season, Calhoun coaches practice creating and seizing these teachable moments in their coaching-development workshops, where they learn both to foster sports-based and leadership skills on their teams and to support the personal growth of student-athletes. These intentional workshops have been instrumental in encouraging student-athletes to become strong-minded and resilient individuals, even long after their athletic careers at Calhoun are over. This year’s coaching development workshop focused on the mental health of student-athletes and normalizing the conversation around it; the goal was to best equip coaches with the tools to discuss the topic with student-athletes and support them through difficult times. The conversion was enhanced by visits from a few guest speakers, including Dr. Briana Newland, an NYU associate professor and expert in sports participation, and Ella D. ‘24, a senior at Calhoun who ran a mental health workshop with Middle Schoolers in the fall. 

Dr. Newland’s presence at the workshop was profound. Not only did she provide nuanced, scientific context to the workshop, she was able to bring a perspective about larger trends in mental health on a national scale; she showed data on how student-athletes all over the country are dealing with mental health issues, and how the adults in their communities have responded. Dr. Newland’s work is mostly discussion-based, so when the coaches split up in groups to converse, Calhoun’s Director of Athletics, Nicola Zimmer, was pleasantly surprised and impressed with how in-tune they were with the data and supportive practices. As she writes, “It was a point of pride for me listening to our coaches engage with Dr. Newland. This is a space where we think holistically about athletics, have a values-based program and have very high expectations for the way we do things, not just outcomes.” 

"This is a space where we think holistically about athletics, have a values-based program and have very high expectations for the way we do things, not just outcomes.”Nicola Zimmer, Director of Athletics

Our coaches were so invested in the discussion that, Casey Shane, Assistant Director of Athletics and Head Coach of the Varsity Boys/Non-Binary Students Basketball team, remembered many coaches asked about how they could have an impact on this issue on a larger scale: “It led to some very great moments and back and forth with our coaches. They wanted to investigate more, and ask about larger changes; not just change on our scale at Calhoun, but how can they have an impact on a larger scale in bigger institutions. Dr. Newland talked about grassroots organization amongst high school coaches; if there is a baseline standard that is agreed upon amongst the coaches throughout the US in terms of mental health, that’s when widespread change can happen at the larger institution. That was driven by our coaches asking Dr. Newland the right questions.”

Ella D. ‘24, whose Junior Workshop project was based on the mental health of athletes, gave a presentation at the meeting. The coaches and educators were proud to see her providing knowledge, but they were also grateful for her perspective as an athlete in the community: “When Casey and Nicola asked me to talk at the coach's workshop, I was excited about this new opportunity. Sharing my research on mental health and my takeaways from the middle school workshops offered a new perspective for coaches to hear. Working alongside sports psychologist Dr. Newland was particularly impactful; her information on the decrease in participation in girls' sports inspires me to dive deeper into the gender aspect of mental health in sports,” Ella explains. Because she is a graduating senior, coaches were eager to hear her perspective after years of participation in the program and showing the department where it can be improved; Ella provided valuable insight to parts of the program that others overlooked. As she moves on to her next chapter after Calhoun, Ella hopes that her presence in the workshop will have an impact on the athletes and coaches that follow her: “I hope that my work helps the adults in our community better understand student-athletes, and think about how they can work with us to implement strategies to make the world of athletics more inclusive and comfortable.”

“I hope that my work helps the adults in our community better understand student-athletes, and think about how they can work with us to implement strategies to make the world of athletics more inclusive and comfortable.”Ella D. '24

Next, it was time to talk about the challenges of coaching and mental health. One important challenge that came up was understanding the academic timelines for students. Whether it’s the end of the mod, college application deadlines, or adjusting to high school-level work, each student experiences their own stresses at different times throughout the year. Casey understands it’s tough to keep up with different grade timelines, but wants coaches to recognize it is paramount in supporting their athletes: “I think it’s difficult for our coaches to navigate those timelines and be fully informed on each student on their team. My hope is to create that bridge of communication, so that our coaches can identify when these challenges present themselves and help students accordingly.” 

The biggest challenge, for many coaches, is teaching their athletes how to manage stress while showing up for their teammates, but also know when it is overwhelming and it is time to reach out for help. Stress is a part of life, and it is the job of the coaches, as well as teachers and other adult community members, to teach students how to handle it while completing responsibilities: “I struggle with helping our students understand that a certain level of stress, anxiety and overwhelm is a part of life. I want to give them the tools to successfully manage their stress, while also giving them the tools to understand when that stress becomes too much and they should reach out for help,” writes Nicola, reflecting on her experience coaching the Varsity Girls/Non-Binary Students Basketball team for several years. Now as the Director of Athletics, she wants to be a resource for athletes on all teams, and use what she’s learned as a coach over the years in these decisions. Nicola hopes to teach athletes to be accountable to their teammates as much as they are to themselves: “The beautiful part of being on a team is that you are not only accountable to yourself but the people around you. We want to teach [student-athletes] to make empowered decisions about their own needs versus the needs of the group they’re involved in and the commitment they’ve made. They must learn to do that in a way that both honors their mental health and honors the commitment [to the team].”  

Moving forward, Nicola and Casey hope to continue the conversation with students and encourage coaches and other adults in the community to talk about these topics in other spaces throughout the school. Additionally, they want to keep these discussions open with coaches as each season progresses. They both recognize that they, as well as coaches, are partners in this work; they are learning just like the students as they go, and are committed and open to knowledge in order to be better coaches, leaders, and people for the students they serve: “This is lifelong work; this generation has started their conversation, and now it is our priority to join and help them move it along as best as we can,” writes Nicola.


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