Oak Knoll School Hosts Discussion on Student-Athletes and Mental Health

Oak Knoll School administrators, members of the athletics staff, school counselors, and a sports psychologist gathered in the Mother Mary Campion Center for the Performing Arts on campus last week to discuss mental health and student-athletes. 

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, experts led a discussion for faculty, staff, students, and parents about the pressures associated with competition and recruiting, the benefits and challenges of participating in competitive sports, what is happening at the collegiate level, and ways to help break the stigma of mental health issues and ways to support student-athletes.

Dr. Kelly Childs, Oak Knoll School Athletic Director, talked about students working on their mental health and fitness, and finding their identity that involves more than their athletic achievements.

Referencing collegiate athlete Morgan Rodgers who recently died by suicide and defined herself as a Division I Lacrosse player at Duke University, Childs said that Oak Knoll is working very hard with students to help develop their whole selves. 

“We invest a lot of time in the development of your children but ultimately it’s the care of the person that we want to focus on first and foremost – not the student, not the athlete – it’s the person first,” she said.

“Being an athlete is just a part of your identity, but it cannot be your sole identity,” said Childs. 

Dr. Melissa Maskery, Oak Knoll’s Athletic Trainer, discussed how packed a typical day in the life of a high school athlete can be, with most students not getting enough sleep while competing in year-round sports. 

“A recent study by the National Federation of State High School Associations said that moderately specialized athletes are 50 percent more likely to get injured in their sport while highly specialized high school athletes are 85 percent more likely to sustain an injury,” said Maskery. 

To help students combat the pressures that may bubble up to the surface during a high school sports season, Oak Knoll Upper School Counselor Christine Mahoney, works with students daily through roundtable wellness discussions and student check-ins to discuss the stressors that students are feeling. 

“The root of what I’m now seeing is how students perceive themselves and how they feel they’re perceived by others, including by parents, coaches, friends, extended family among others,” said Mahoney. “It’s important for us to work with students before they get to the burnout stage and where we can intervene to help with coping skills. Sometimes students’ expectations of themselves can be unrealistic and this can lead to burnout, anxiety, and a feeling of failure. We teach them that it’s OK to not feel OK.”

Ashley M. Zultanky, Psy.D., is a clinical psychology postdoctoral Fellow at Behavior Therapy Associates, a Certified School Psychologist in New Jersey, and former Division I athlete. She discussed tips — including practicing mindfulness — that can help student-athletes get to the source of the problem before it becomes too burdensome. 

“That car ride home after a bad game is a place where parents’ reactions can be very effective,” said Zultanky. “Some athletes will want complete silence to process what happened in their games, while it may help others to talk about their performances.” 

Another coping mechanism, said Zultanky, is for family members to find ways to discuss their own ways that help them to cope with situations through creative outlets such as drawing, painting, or by initiating an open and candid conversation with one another. 

“We have to be able to get to the source of emotional pain before we begin to figure out coping strategies and we need to feel our emotions but not to hold on to them too tightly,” she said. 

Dr. Childs added that one way Oak Knoll School helps students accomplish this is to recognize when students need a break – to say no to things – while trying to balance having grit and determination.

A recording of this presentation is available for Oak Knoll families on the myOKS resource board under athletics.