In Practice: An Athletics Department’s Wellness Program

Summer 2019

By Katie Bergstrom Mark

ia.jpgAt Germantown Friends School (PA), we are on a constant journey to grow and improve our methods of educating the mind, body, and spirit. Wellness has always been top of mind for Germantown Friends School (GFS) Athletics. With more than 65 sports teams in the middle and upper schools, we’ve offered students access to trainers, who were often graduate assistants and split their commitments between school and work. We also had one psychologist who split time among all divisions. While we always offered wellness education to students and coaches, we knew we could do more.
Over the years, the GFS athletics staff has tracked the abundant research about the link between athletics and overall physical health. And when we came across research about the connection between athletics and mental health, we considered how it could help inform our work. The 2012 study published in BMC Psychiatry, “Barriers and Facilitators to Mental Health Help-seeking for Young Elite Athletes: A Qualitative Study,” concluded that intervention strategies for improving help-seeking should focus on three things: reducing stigma of asking for help, educating individuals about mental-health issues, and improving relations with potential health providers. Our team wondered, how could we make these strategies part of our work?
In 2016, our athletics department, inspired by a schoolwide strategic visioning process, took these strategies and began to identify and explore ways our people, program, and resources could better support student wellness. Over the past few years, GFS developed a new athletics staffing model, education focus, and holistic and individualized approach to health and well-being that impacts students in the classrooms, during sports, and outside of school. This program has proven valuable to our student-athletes—and our entire community.

The Approach 

Our investment in athletics’ wellness work reflects our Quaker philosophy and mission. While many schools invest in new facilities, we look inward, and we prioritize our people and relationships, as well as empowering our student-athletes. We knew it would be critical to put our people—coaches, trainers, counselors, teachers, and administrators—at the center of this work.
Students have access to more than 80 full- and part-time coaches who are trained to identify students’ physical and emotional needs and understand who and where to go to when issues arise. We added two new full-time trainers to help students, teams, and families prevent and heal injuries in a healthy way. We also added another counselor, a former elite athlete, who’s trained to help with issues such as anxiety and depression. She works closely with coaches and teachers to intervene early.
Our school promotes a culture of continual learning and this extends into our athletics department. Like teachers, coaches are required to participate in professional development including medical training/certification, local and national conferences, and on-site speakers and workshops. Our coaches often take additional trainings, which provide relevant research, injury-prevention strategies, and tools to promote healthy decisions. Our coaches, many of whom were student-athletes themselves, understand concerns about fitting in, performance, failure, and the unknown. They’re trained in identifying anxiety, depression, and other issues young people face.
It’s intentional that many of our coaches are also teachers and administrators, and we often coach in pairs: a teacher familiar with the students from the school day and an expert athlete in the sport. Many of these staff members, including those in the athletics department, bring advanced degrees and an in-depth understanding of exercise psychology, anatomy, physiology, motor-skills development, kinesiology, and nutrition. With overlapping roles, many coaches bring a broad view of the student experience to the field. Coaches also routinely speak with students’ grade advisers and college counselors, gaining insight into other scholastic pressures and scenarios that may be in play.
In addition to our in-house specialists, we work with external experts, such as Matthew Grady, a sports medicine pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He leads workshops on concussions and primary care sports medicine for our athletics staff as well as informational sessions for parents. He also sees students on campus weekly; students are able to get necessary care quickly so that the overall stress of an injury is managed in a healthy way. 

Strategies in Action

As we put our team of coaches, psychologists, and trainers in place, we were able to meet the goals we’d set. Creating a positive culture that allows athletes to be seen and heard as individuals allows them to have a voice in their training, which is paramount to their success and motivation. The more they are included in the process of team wellness, the more they promote positive peer pressure.
We aim to empower students with knowledge. Team practices incorporate education on injury prevention, hydration, and concussions, in addition to physical activity. With this knowledge, we see students make conscious, healthy decisions and also encourage these practices with their teammates. During practices, our coaches teach visualization techniques, as well as share recorded video of the athletes operating at their best, which builds confidence and reduces anxiety.
Our frontline coaches are invested in each student’s growth and health. Randy Mower, a varsity baseball and middle school wrestling and soccer coach as well as former Washington Nationals’ draftee, has found that speaking with students about their concerns opens the door for future conversations, and they’ll often come back to him later, initiating the conversation. Coaches, who spend a significant part of the day with the students, alert the psychologists when they notice warning signs, such as changes in mood, personality, or behavior. Students are then contacted in a confidential manner, generally outside of practice. Often, after making the initial connection, student-athletes will make appointments to continue working with them until their issue is resolved.
A student’s family is also important in the care of our athletes. We make sure to involve parents and caregivers when developing timelines and programs for injury recovery or encouraging mindfulness. There’s an open door for families to discuss wellness strategies or specific issues anytime, but workshops and other learning opportunities are regularly scheduled. 

Our Takeaways 

Since our enhanced mental and physical wellness supports have been in place, we have noticed an uptick in overall athletic engagement. In the past five years, more students have chosen to continue with their sports year after year. Over the past five years, about 75 seniors—who have no sport requirement—have been playing at least one sport, many students play two or three. In ninth and 10th grades, when students are required to play two sports and one sport, many have chosen to play more. These multisport athletes are bucking the current single-sport specialization trend, which has been linked to an increased risk of injury and burnout, and decreased enjoyment because of excessive training, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
We’ve also seen a trend of older students feeling comfortable and happy to play on junior varsity—they’re playing to advance their health and enjoy the sport versus simply playing to win. And our young female athletes are going on to play college sports at the same rate or higher than their male peers, which isn’t always the case according to the Gatorade “Girls in Sports” study (by age 17, 50 percent more girls drop out of sports than boys).
Our trainers and coaches track team injuries and problems online. Recently, we’ve seen a low rate of injury for our wrestling team, and I can confidently attribute this to teamwork among coaches and staff, as well as Grady’s work.
We continue to deepen our educational and support offerings within our athletic program. By focusing on each individual student’s range of academic, athletic, social, and emotional needs, we have created a program to perfectly complement GFS’s institutional goal of honoring the light in everyone. An athletics program that helps a student master their physical and mental well-being equips that individual with the confidence and awareness to embrace all the challenges the world may have for them in the future.

Program at a Glance

The Germantown Friends School athletics department’s wellness program is built on a comprehensive system of people, relationships, and educational opportunities. It includes:
  • a counselor with experience as an elite athlete,
  • active athletic trainers with an eye for anxiety and depression,
  • coaches trained to identify and support physical and mental health challenges,
  • coaches, trainers, experts, faculty, students, and parents working together, and 
  • educating student-athletes about physical and mental health.
Katie Bergstrom Mark

Katie Bergstrom Mark is athletic director at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.