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The world of high-level sports is a paradox.

By Dana Hammerstrom

As children, we are encouraged to play sports as a method of making friends, getting some energy out and keeping us occupied so our parents can get a break.


In the transition through adolescence, those sports start to take over. Instead of forming friendships, it’s retaining them. Sports become a way to excel athletically, to take advantage of that energy and wring out every drop of it.


High school comes around and the pressure creeps in. You are better at your sport, stronger and smarter, but the stakes here are higher now. The people coaching you aren’t your parents or friends anymore. Your mistakes aren’t solved with a pat on the back and a “better luck next time.”


Sports have crossed the line from a way to maintain one’s physical health to a sacrificial act endangering one’s mental health.


And still, some people can keep going.


Collegiate athletes face this pressure in an exponentially deeper way. For many athletes at the Division I level, their schools are covering their cost of tuition in exchange for athletic performance. They’ve been committed to their sport for years by this point, and they are finally put on a national stage.


What we don’t talk about in sports — specifically at this high of a level — is what this does to the psyche. Mental pressures, compounded with intense workouts and the threat of a game looming, leave the athlete stripped of all resources that a stable-minded person could use to help themselves.


This is where we see the headlines that send chills down our spines and prompt us to send those “I’m here for you” texts. The premature losses of these figures of athleticism and success are reminders that mental health requires constant maintenance, especially for those under constant pressure and stress.


That’s where The Zone comes in.


The Zone was designed by former collegiate athletes as a personal mental health coach, right in your pocket. Co-founders Ivan Tchatchouwo and Erik Poldroo experienced the mental health issues facing college athletes firsthand, and both realized through their own individual struggles how lacking the support systems were for collegiate athletes.


Bringing together a combination of mood tracking, access to support, online resources and licensed medical help, over 5,500 student athletes at 12 universities can get the help they need through their college’s partnership with The Zone.


The psychological data housed within The Zone is built by a team of licensed professionals that make up the platform’s medical board. In terms of mental health, there are a lot of wrong answers strewn across every realm of the internet. The Zone’s research team strives to promote the right ones.


“We need strategies that, while are designed for athletes, really need to be evidence-based,” said Adam Brown, a member of The Zone’s medical advisory board and an associate professor of psychology at the New School. “They need to come from the best available science we have around mental health and resilience.”


Adam Brown’s journey to The Zone was as serendipitous as his path to working with athletes in psychology. After an interview with the Wall Street Journal about mental health in a post-pandemic world, Brown found himself staring at an email from The Zone team about an up-and-coming sports tech application designed to better the mental health of athletes.


The Zone’s foundation in real human experiences, combined with its mission to accurately serve a struggling community, hooked Brown in early. As a member of the medical advisory board, his mission is to find ways to change the way athletes engage with mental health resources.


“Part of the reason The Zone is so interesting is that while I believe in-person or talk therapy can be really great, for young people they’re getting their support on their phones,” Brown said. “At least as a starting point, we need to meet people where they’re at. And if people are going to be on TikTok or Instagram connecting around well-being, let’s get the evidence-based strategies there.”


The Zone’s goal is not more downloads or more money — it’s reaching more people.


“This is about changing care for people and reaching people, and it’s incredible,” Brown said. “When Tchatchouwo and Poldroo go to campuses to do an onboarding, I think what they’re really doing is showing up for the students. They really want students to put a face to the app. These are real people who built this because they care about this community. To me, that is completely different from any other app I’ve seen on the market.”


The Zone’s partnerships currently cover student-athletes at universities, but the growth of this platform is undeniable. For Brown, expansion into different fields is an ideal future goal for The Zone’s platform.


“I think the tools that are embedded within this platform can easily be relevant to so many, whether it’s students in general or other communities where we’re seeing high levels of burnout and stress,” Brown said. “I’d love to see The Zone over the next couple of years really expand into different markets.”


Brown is a researcher at heart, and the ability to understand the Zone’s impact on a long-term level is another upgrade to the platform that would not only benefit the data-driven platform’s mission, but the athletes The Zone strives to serve.


“I would also love to see The Zone follow people,” Brown said. “Right now we’ve got these cohorts of students who are starting to use it, and it would be wonderful if we could grow with them and be a part of their learning and their well-being as they move into the next phase of their life and their career.”


The Zone’s journey is just beginning. With more athletes comes more data, and with more data comes better solutions. The narrative that student-athletes have been living can be rewritten — it will take time and energy and resources, but it’s a cause that The Zone is dedicated to supporting.



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