When it comes to athletic performance, wellness has increasingly become part of the conversation. Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, more athletic programs are dedicating themselves to taking care of the well being of their athletes. Athletic directors, student-athletes, & conference commissioners play a vital role in the push towards a mentally healthy athletic program. We at The Zone have compiled a list of the best wellness advocates in the college athletic field and we would like to honor them.
1. Amy Huchthausen
Amy Huchthausen in her Softball playing days at Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of The America East Conference since 2011, has led the organization to be a leader at spreading mental health awareness among college athletics. In 2018, the organization partnered with its Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to create the #BetterTo9ether campaign. The campaign works to destigmatize mental health and to create mentally healthy athletic environments on all America East campuses. According to its website, “in 2019, America East became the first non-autonomy conference to adopt an NCAA proposal that mandates each institution to make mental health services and resources available to its student-athletes…” To improve mental health among universities, America East campuses established standard practices after conducting a baseline report. Furthermore, in order to destigmatize and improve education and access to mental health resources, America East brought together stakeholders such as athletic directors, psychologists, and student-athletes to discuss important mental health issues. The conference also puts together an annual Health & Safety summit and recently created its first Mental Health Coaches’ Workshop which helps to educate coaches about student-athlete mental health. According to Front Office Sports, Huchthausen hopes that by starting conversations surrounding mental health, universities can connect resources and install a system to treat mental health as an actual program rather than handling it as a “discreet to-do list.”
2. Nathan Braaten, Taylor Ricci, and Oregon State University
Oregon State University allowed for student-athletes Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci to found the #DamWorthIt initiative. The #DamWorthIt mission is about working to spread awareness on mental health as well as destigmatize it in college athletics. Soccer player Braaten and former gymnast Ricci have each lost teammates to suicide. They strive to make every team member and student know that they are #DamWorthIt. The Dam Worth It campaign also will work to host seminars, guest speakers, and training sessions for suicide prevention. The group has set up booths to distribute pamphlets at athletic competitions in order to help out student-athletes and increase educational opportunities. In the future, Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci aspire to make mental health resources available on all campuses in order to help more students.
3. Hap Zarzour, Duke University
HAP ZARZOUR, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DUKE SPORTS MEDICINE, HAS LOOKED AFTER DUKE ATHLETES SINCE 1992.
Formed in 2018, the Duke University Athletic Association’s Integrative Performance Excellence Group is a trailblazer at addressing student-athlete wellbeing. A body of directors from Sports Performance, Athletic Medicine, Sports Nutrition, to Behavioral Health, the group aims to provide a holistic approach to caring for their student athlete’s wellness. Hap Zarzour, Chairman of the Group and Executive Director of Athletic Medicine, recognizes that athletic success is tied to multiple factors and not just one aspect of their health. By gathering team physicians and professionals from physiological services, the group provides student-athletes with mental and physical health support. The group also partnered with Duke University’s Hospital, Sports Science Institute, Student Health, and Counseling and Psychological Services. The group works with coaches of various sports teams at Duke to create individual performance excellence plans for each student-athlete. These plans help their athletes to succeed by providing personalized programs to support and enhance their mental and physical strengths and wellness. Duke University worked to consolidate its quality resources so that student-athletes could utilize them to their fullest potential, separating Duke from other universities.
4. Warde Manuel, University of Michigan
Warde Manuel has always put the voices and health of his student-athletes first as the Athletic Director of the University of Michigan. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he rejected the idea of isolating athletes so that they could continue to play during the season. According to Detroit Free Press, he said, “They are not professionals. We won’t get into a situation where we are placing them into a hotel continuously to isolate them from fellow students and whomever else…” Manuel greatly cares about the health and wellbeing of his athletes’, so he does not want to risk committing them to isolation for their sports. Furthermore, he refuses to have athletes sign any waiver which makes them take responsibility for their own health. Instead, he said the university has a policy statement that educates students and families about staying safe and that athletes need to follow fixed protocols and procedures in order to ensure everyone’s safety. However, he does not want student-athletes to return to campus just for their sport if all students will not be returning. He tells the Detroit Free Press, “If it’s declared that our students can’t come back to campus for class, why would I ask a student-athlete to come back and participate in sports? It’s against how I think about our student-athletes. They are students first.” Not only is he concerned about students' safety, but he continues to value athletes’ voices even during a pandemic. Regarding the Black Lives Matter Movement, Manuel told the local media according to The Athletic, “Many of our black student-athletes are hurting. I’m hurting as a black man. It’s something we’re going to continue to work towards and fix and make better in our society.” Manuel evidently values athletes’ voices and safety, making him a role model for many athletic programs.
5. Olivia Lubarsky and Towson University
Own Your Roar Movement
After struggling with depression and anxiety as a gymnast on Towson University’s Division I team, Olivia Lubarsky partnered with Towson University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to create “Own Your Roar.” Lubarsky realized that there was a lack of support and awareness towards student-athletes’ mental health compared to their physical wellness. Own Your Roar is a campaign that brings awareness to mental health issues and helps student-athletes speak up and be confident in addressing their mental health, to “Own Their Roar.” Stigmas in college athletics often prevent athletes from speaking up because they think that they are not supposed to show mental “weakness” or vulnerability. According to an interview conducted by Towson University, Lubarsky says that “Own Your Roar” helps student-athletes feel “they are capable and worthy” and that there is nothing to feel ashamed of. It also started a mentorship program with more than 70 student-athletes to build resilience and leadership skills. The campaign’s success is already receiving attention from other athletic programs and organizations. The “We’re All A Little Crazy” Global Mental Health Alliance chose Towson University as one of its stops for its mental health tour. It even inspired UCLA’s athletic program to create “Bruin Brave” and James Madison University’s “Dukes Let’s Talk.” Lubarsky continued to work with “We’re All A Little Crazy,” and from 2018–19, she joined Mental Health America as a member of its Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council. This year she even gave a TED talk called “Perfectionism Paralyzes Potential.” Lubarsky is changing the perception of mental health in athletics, and her work continues to inspire others to do the same.
6. David Klossner, University of Maryland
David Klossner is the Associate AD and Director of Sports Performance at the University of Maryland. Klossner considers the wellness of student-athletes to be of the utmost importance and has worked to ensure that the best services are made available to athletes. These services include athletic training, nutrition, strength/conditioning, physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic care, and sports psychology. Klossner works to coordinate health and safety legislation as well as resources. At Maryland, there is a multiple provider program that allows for student-athletes to have the ability to seek help from psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists. Maryland’s athletic staff strive to provide support for an athlete’s success not only in sports and academics but also in life.
7. Eric Laudano, University of Delaware
Eric Laudano is the Senior Associate AD for health, well-being, and sports performance at the University of Delaware. Laudano built a Wellness Performance Team with administrative oversight over departments of athletic training, strength/conditioning, nutrition, equipment operations, and sports psychology. Therefore, the heads of each department can focus on their own particular duties to produce a high care standard. Laudano’s position as a member of the Senior Leadership Team allows him to discuss issues, including those within the Wellness Performance Division, with the AD. Laudano works along with the AD to keep improving Delaware’s units in athletics. He has fostered strong relationships with departments outside of athletics to ensure that the staff is doing all they can to aid their student-athletes on campus.