St. John’s Wellness Center shapes ‘complete athletes’

The way athletic programs define the “complete athlete” has evolved. Practice drills and bench presses remain cornerstones of athlete development, but more schools are carving out time for yoga, meditation and other wellness initiatives.

Few schools have bought into the concept more than St. John’s Preparatory School in Massachusetts. Last summer, the all-boys Catholic school finished construction on an 88,000-square-foot wellness center, offering students a variety of opportunities to train the body and mind. The idea of going beyond physical training has caught fire at the collegiate level, but today more high schools are following their lead.

“I’ve been in schools where we’re focused on educating the whole person, but in my mind that isn’t really concrete,” said Keith Crowley, St. John’s principal and associate head of school. “You can say that, but how do you measure it, what does it look like, what are you trying to do? We decided to look into this idea of wellness on campus and have that be the centerpiece of our mission to develop the whole person.”

Why wellness?

Today, more athletic programs are mindful of the number of hours athletes sleep. Dozens of NCAA schools have constructed new sports complexes where athletes can find nutritious shakes and snacks.

The research showing how wellness affects performance is piling up. A 2016 study conducted by the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that yoga and meditation help students manage stress and academics. Sleep studies continue to find that athletes who get more than eight hours see a boost in performance and reaction time.

The St. John’s project had more than athletes in mind, but teams see the benefits. The new center includes an eight-lane pool, indoor track, fitness rooms, a four-court field house, a meditation room and multipurpose rooms. Students have access to a café that serves only healthy products like wraps and protein bars.

Crowley said the wellness concept came to St. John’s around 2012. Administrators began taking a closer look at what it meant to develop the “whole person” and eventually partnered with a professor at Salem State University to create its five dimensions of wellness — physical, social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual.

“Part of the goal was to engage students with faculty and staff too,” Crowley said. “We were testing the waters, and then starting to have programs in places where we had the space.”

Athletic Director Jim O’Leary said there’s palpable excitement on campus since the facility opened in September. The center created more interaction among students, and faculty have their own opportunities for self-improvement.

“The other day, we had a self-defense seminar for female staff members,” O’Leary said. “Ten years ago, in an all-male school, that never would have been thought of, but it’s just part of our programming now.”

A growing team

O’Leary has been at St. John’s since 1977. As a physical education teacher, he had a major role in the school’s athletics, but today the program has become more segmented.

The opening of the wellness center meant the school needed more resources. A strength and conditioning coach was hired to lead student-athlete training, and a wellness director now oversees physical education. The school also welcomed a mental health counselor, rec sports coordinator and facility coordinators who help draw revenue by forging partnerships with off-campus groups.

O’Leary said wellness center director Steve Brown has a background in sports psychology, previously helping Green Berets and SEALs cope with difficult aspects of their jobs. The St. John’s swim team benefitted from his expertise when he spoke to athletes about handling pressure before the state championship.

“Those things don’t happen in most high schools, but that was a conscious decision by our principal and headmaster that we’re going with this and we’re going to fund it,” O’Leary said. “We’re not just going to open this nice building and say, ‘Go play.’”

Creating financial space for new hires is difficult for any school, but St. John’s planned ahead. Crowley said before a shovel was put into the ground, the school already created a strategy for how it would make room in the budget.

“We knew what was coming,” he said, “and we planned for it.”

Community support

Crowley concedes that the wellness center wouldn’t have been possible without donors. And donors wouldn’t have jumped on board had the school failed to make the facility a place for everyone.

The center’s $25 million price tag was covered entirely by donors, a rarity for any school in today’s day and age. Sports are popular at St. John’s, but the school needed to build facilities that also welcomed non-athletes. That’s why it was important to promote the wellness concept as one that would serve the students well beyond their high school years.

“Every student that comes to the school here is going to benefit from this,” O’Leary said. “Faculty members, English teachers, history teachers; they’re all down here interacting and seeing the students they have in class, not just the athletes. I think that’s important.”

It’s also crucial that administrators carefully consider who they include in the process. If students, parents, teachers and other community members will have access to the facilities, they needed to gather their thoughts on what they want to see included. St. John’s took it a step further by establishing a website that distributed updates about the project after crews began construction.

What it all comes back to is providing students with another resource that advances the educational experience. At St. John’s, that meant showing young boys and girls how wellness can lead to healthier, fuller lives.

“Seven years later, we’re now looking at something that has moved us along the spectrum of trying to achieve to goals that we’ve set,” Crowley said. “It has really benefitted us.”

The St. John’s facility project: Lessons learned

Athletic facility renovations are a massive undertaking, even for those who have been there before.

Last summer, St. John’s Preparatory School in Massachusetts completed construction on a new wellness center that serves all the school’s 1,500 students, along with staff and community groups. Those involved offered some advice for athletic directors involved with facility projects of their own.

Jim O’Leary, athletic director

It was important that the architects (Flansburgh Architects) were familiar with us and our culture. You need to do your homework, make visits and get someone who really understands what you’re looking for.

We made the decision to go from a six-lane pool to an eight-lane pool to host bigger meets. And we have 10 full racks in our weight room, but our football coach would like to have 40. That’s just not realistic, so you need to make those types of compromises.

Make sure that you’re not just servicing your major sports. We do a lot with intramurals, so we needed to make sure we have space and time for what they do. Remember all those other sports/groups when planning and building, because those people down the road could be huge donors. It’s what’s right, and what’s fair.

Finally, hire people to service the facilities properly.

Keith Crowley, principal and associate head of school

More schools are considering this wellness concept, but understand that it doesn’t need to be tied to a facility. The big part is looking at what you mean by the whole person and what you can do about it.

If you don’t have the resources or money, it’s possible there are people in your community who are committed to adolescent wellness, and those partnerships can make it work. They’ll be happy to work with you on pricing, because it’s something they’re committed to.

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