Perspectives August 8, 2017

For Well-Rounded Student-Athletes, Sports Facilities That Support Well-Being

by Jennifer Williams
The new Ryan/Walter Athletic Center with the Chicago skyline in the background.

Depression and anxiety are deeply common among college students, as surveys by the American College Health Association have repeatedly shown. But if experiencing the dislocation of college as a student doesn’t seem hard enough, consider life as a student-athlete: the stress factors compound in practically every way.

At Harvard University Radcliffe Institute’s recent Game Changers Conference, I attended a talk by the NCAA’s very first chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Hainline. The NCAA hired him in 2012 to develop a nationwide set of resources for better care, providing team physicians and athletic trainers with the latest expertise and research. Hainline considers mental health the most critical concern among today’s student-athletes. As he said upon his hiring, “our collective goal is nothing short of a societal shift in how our country addresses the health and well-being of student athletes at all ages.”

In my work as an interior designer for collegiate athletic facilities, I approach my projects with that societal shift in mind. Like any successful project, the desired outcome is best expressed as early as possible, in the programming process. I ask stakeholders, how do we improve mental health among student-athletes? How do we use space to address issues related to athletic injury, eating disorders, substance abuse, academic workload, and the constant pressure to succeed?

In the design process for Northwestern University’s Ryan/Walter Athletics Center, we answered those questions early on, outlining a collaborative care model that integrates athletic trainers, team physicians and clinical sport psychologists. Such a model, says Tory Lindley, Northwestern’s director of athletic training, “enhances mental health management and the promotion of lifetime wellness.” He says there is no question that “facility design, including appropriate adjacencies to clinical spaces as well as preservation of confidentiality, can help remove the negative stigma around addressing mental health issues in collegiate student athletes.”

In working with Lindley and his colleagues, our overarching goal was to reduce the likelihood of injury, improve recovery times, and prioritize the overall well-being of the students.

We specifically sought to maximize the value of adjacencies. That meant building a strong connection between the sports medicine clinic and areas for athletic training, rehabilitation, drug testing, body composition analysis, imaging, and hydrotherapy. Similarly, the nutrition and psychology offices are near each other, telegraphing to the players that good eating and good mental health are inextricable from each other (and from high-performance results). We sought to increase foot traffic through the sports medicine and athletic training areas by bringing transparency into the space, incorporating thoughtful branding and messaging, and maximizing views to the outdoors. The entire suite is centrally located between locker rooms, giving athletes the chance to interact with care providers without even consciously deciding to do so.

When it comes to nutrition, influencing healthy choices goes well beyond the menu. In a food-service setting, even just the order in which athletes visit food stations can influence their decisions.

When it comes to nutrition, influencing healthy choices goes well beyond the menu. In a food service setting, even just the order in which athletes visit food stations can influence their decisions. People pick the most of what they see first, so the design of a servery should bring athletes to the vegetables, fruit, and protein before moving on to carbohydrates like pizza and dessert. University policy changes such as offering plates without trays help with portion control by forcing a return trip to the servery only when someone needs more food. We also designed ancillary nutrition centers throughout the project, including near all locker rooms and within both sports performance spaces.

Academic performance affects well-being too. And academic success comes when we provide spaces—tutoring rooms, advising offices, and academic lounges—where student-athletes can receive support. Sleep pods ensure a quick nap amid busy schedules. Dedicated locker-room lounges, located directly off of the team-specific locker areas, hold soft seating, monitors, and study areas. Spaces like these give players an off-field way to reinforce team camaraderie, while catering to the needs of individuals regardless of schedule or learning style.

Across the nation, sports fans devote boundless attention to a team’s success—yet there is comparatively little focus on the factors behind that performance. So when schools prioritize the wellbeing of individual athletes, everyone wins, no matter the score.