Biles’ decision sent shockwaves through and beyond the sports world. But, it adds momentum to a positive trend: athletes prioritizing their mental health.
Earlier this year, World Tennis Player No. 2 Naomi Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon citing the need to focus on her mental health. Professional golfer Matthew Wolff took time away from the PGA Tour for similar reasons. NBA star Kevin Love also speaks publicly on the topic.
While these athletes’ decisions do send shock waves, they really shouldn’t be surprising. For starters, they are humans. And, we know that one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year. Sheer math tells us that many professional and student-athletes fall within this group.
Moreover, the immense pressure and public scrutiny these athletes face makes them more likely to face mental health challenges. Global and national TV coverage, social media pundits, criticism and review of their every move and decision, the pressure is ever-intense.
Athletes like Biles and Osaka should be applauded for speaking out on mental wellness. Their decisions push the topic to the forefront of society, help reduce stigma, and will ignite change.
While mental health requires comprehensive approaches and solutions, facility design can play a role in helping athletes. The design community has long advocated for creating athletic training facilities more calibrated to support mental health—and several institutions are leading the charge.
As the mental health of athletes continues to become a mainstream topic and reality, here are four ways athletic training facilities can be designed to better support athlete mental health.
Infuse Counseling Spaces
The most overt strategy institutions can take is to program dedicated counseling spaces into their training facilities. Just as we ensure these buildings have extensive cardio, weights and physical therapy areas, it’s imperative to dedicate space for athletes’ mental fitness too.
Simply infusing counseling spaces within athletic facilities lets athletes know their mental health is being prioritized. They have clear access to help if they need it and any stigma around mental health is reduced. Georgia College & State University was one of the first to take this approach with their Student Wellness and Recreation Center. The building unites recreation, health, counseling services and athletics in a building that embraces mental health. The center has helped them double daily student usage at peak times and allowed them to increase retention and overall sports offerings.
Natural Light and Access to Nature
Extensive data proves access to natural light and nature helps humans feel better physically and mentally, and even heal. Across the built environment, workplaces, hospitals, academic areas and more are being designed to embrace this reality. It’s key we bring the same approach to our athletic training facilities.
A wonderful example of this approach is the United States Air Force Academy’s Holaday Athletic Center in Colorado. The indoor football practice facility relies on custom-designed sunscreens and a large overhanging roof on the facility’s western side allowing for panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains while also controlling heat gain and glare. The center also uses 100% natural ventilation and does not employ heating or cooling systems, capitalizing on the region’s prevailing winds and low humidity. All of these design strategies embed USAFA athletes in as natural a setting as possible while still being indoors.
Create Spaces for Respite and Personal Choice
Life as an athlete is demanding. Society celebrates athletes for “being the first in the building, and the last to leave,” or “never losing focus on their craft.” But in truth, all of us perform better when we feel holistically well, and this requires rest and respite. Here again, athletics programs should create specific areas for athletes to relax. This could be meditation rooms, game rooms, social cafes, nap pods, outdoor gardens and/or other exciting possibilities.
Dickinson College took this approach to heart with its Kline Athletic Center. Foremost, a space for the college’s squash program, the building features indoor and outdoor cafes, an outdoor yoga terrace, and numerous spaces for socialization and relaxation are situated around training and competition zones.
It’s also important institutions don’t create just “a singular” space for athletes to relax. As we learn more and more about neurodiversity—how all of our brains function and react differently — and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) it’s important to focus on creating a spectrum of areas for personal choice. Some athletes will find peace in socialization, some in solitude, others in nature – it’s important to try and accommodate all these unique realities in the buildings we create.
Celebrate Mental Fitness with Environmental Graphics
Far too often, environmental graphics and branding can be a bit of an afterthought for institutions when they invest in new athletic facilities. However, prioritizing a graphics program can have great benefits for athletes, coaches, recruits, fans, brand value and more. And, if designed appropriately, they can also promote mental health.
Just as our graphics often celebrate hard work and physical strength, we can devise a plan that also visually supports calm, peace, and asking for help. These graphics can help further reduce stigma and also pivot the conversation on mental health to be more about mental fitness — just as we celebrate physical fitness in our society.
Design isn’t the only way we can or should respond to our athletes’ need for greater mental health support, but it’s a tool we should bring to the fight. By asking for help, the world’s best athletes like Simon Biles are reminding us that many, many of our professional and student-athletes deal with mental health challenges. It’s our responsibility to create spaces designed to help them thrive within and outside of their sport.