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Yale’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Good Life Center co-launched an online wellness workshop series designed to help student-athletes safeguard their mental health and navigate difficulties associated with the onset of the pandemic.

The workshops are part of a new campaign called YUMatter –– born out of student-driven efforts and assisted by athletic administrative advisors –– to instill a culture of openness and communication about mental health within athletics. The underlying motivation behind the workshops is to invite student-athletes to talk through feelings associated with ongoing uncertainty as well as practice strategies to protect their mental health.  

According to SAAC president and rower Hannah Johns ’22, YUMatter is built upon three pillars: education, resources and awareness. These workshops are meant to address the education portion. The workshops were originally intended to be held in person, Johns said.

“We wanted to create these workshops that not only gave student-athletes an outlet to speak about their experiences with mental health, but also educate them on how to deal with their emotions,” Johns told the News. 

The workshops, which began on Sept. 16 and continue until Nov. 2, focus on three topics: “Your Student-Athlete Identity,” “Coping with Circumstances Beyond Your Control” and “Coping with Loss.”

In an email she wrote to the News, Good Life Center Woodbridge fellow Alexa Vaghenas explained that the subjects for the workshops were selected after an initial brainstorming session between her, Professor of Psychology and Good Life Center founder Laurie Santos, Associate Athletic Director of Compliance Jason Strong and Senior Associate Athletic Director Andy Dunn. After creating a proposal outlining potential content, Vaghenas incorporated SAAC feedback solicited by Strong and Dunn to select the workshops that the students thought would be most beneficial.

Vaghenas also said that the group setting for the workshop series strengthens the program.

“I love that we are able to offer this wellness programming in a group setting as opposed to one-on-one, because many student-athletes are experiencing similar things, and these workshops show them that they are not alone,” Vaghenas wrote.

Sessions begin with ice-breakers or trust-building exercises, Vaghenas said. The workshop is then structured around personal reflection and communal sharing. Vaghenas will often lead participants in guided meditations or other various exercises.

The YUMatter initiative began last year, after Yale’s first time attending the Ivy League and Patriot League Mental Health Summit –– an event dedicated to sharing initiatives between different athletic departments on how to best support the mental wellbeing of student-athletes. According to Johns, who served as wellness chair of the SAAC last year, this event sparked the proposal of the YUMatter campaign, presented for approval to the administration under the advice and support of Strong and Assistant Athletic Director for Administration Marisa Pearson.

Helena Ware ’23, a member of the sailing team and chair of the wellness and mental health subcommittee of the SAAC, told the News that the workshops are only part of what YUMatter will be delivering this year. Planned programming includes a large social media campaign to promote student-athlete mental health and a new YUMatter website.

When referring to mental health concerns that specifically afflict the student-athlete body, Ware mentioned that the loss of competitive sports seasons — an important component of the student-athlete identity — poses a challenge to many athletes.

According to Ware, the absence of a wellness and exercise routine can exacerbate mental health concerns for student-athletes. Not being with teammates as often, or spending as much time outside, is something that can weigh down on the mental health of athletes, Ware said.

“To lose both something that matters so much to me and, with it, a bunch of the things that keep me well, was a huge blow to my mental health,” Ware said. “And I’m sure it was a similar situation for other student-athletes.”

Johns also said that the prevalence of negative feelings associated with the pandemic within the student-athlete community motivated the SAAC to elevate platforms that could address these emotions.

“We definitely wanted to tailor all of the workshops’ subject matters to things that are relevant to student-athletes right now,” Johns said. “We really wanted to target this moment in time and how difficult it is for student-athletes and put out something as quickly as possible to help as many people as possible.” 

According to tennis player Rhea Shrivastava ’23, even before the pandemic began, student-athlete mental health did not receive sufficient attention.

“Student-athletes have the added pressure of managing both rigorous course loads and competitive seasons,” Shrivastava said. “I think it’s so important for us to feel supported and comfortable to talk about our emotions, and I am so glad we are taking the initiative to make this happen … This is an amazing way to support our student-athletes.”

Shrivastava added that now, more than ever, is the time to ignite dialogue surrounding student-athlete mental health and change the culture associated with how this topic is addressed within sports. According to her, the YUMatter workshops will play an important role in advancing this change.

Johns is also hopeful that YUMatter will help Yale Athletics take important strides towards becoming a more supportive environment for conversations on mental health.

“The culture in almost every sport is ‘toughness is a virtue and being tough will get you far’,” Johns said. “And to a certain sense that’s true, … [but] on the other side of that, there is this boundary that is pushed with every single student-athlete where they are experiencing struggles with their mental health and they can’t exactly delineate between ‘I need to be tough and push through this and ignore it’ versus ‘I need to tackle what I’m feeling, internalize it and work on myself there.’”

Vaghenas also expressed that she would love to help think of different ways in which the Good Life Center could assist student-athletes dealing with issues including performance anxiety and finding calm in their busy schedules. As for the currently scheduled workshops, she hopes that they will help student-athletes come to terms with challenging circumstances with the support of their community.

Student-athletes can sign up to participate in YUMatter’s mental health workshops on the Yale Athletics website.

Maria Fernanda Pacheco |

Maria Fernanda Pacheco is a staff reporter for the Science & Technology desk of the Yale Daily News. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College majoring in Neuroscience and participating in the Global Health Studies program.