Grad student and football player fights for student-athlete mental health

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John Armistead’s first three words were “mom,” “dad,” and “touchdown.” Sports have been a part of the USC Iovine and Young graduate student’s world for as long as he can remember. Currently pursuing a Master’s in Integrated Design, Business and Technology, Armistead is realizing his academic ambitions while also living out an athletic one – playing on USC’s football team. Throughout his esteemed collegiate career, he’s witnessed the highs and lows of being a student athlete, including the toll the pressure-packed position takes on mental health. Now at IYA, he’s using his newly-sharpened tech and design skills to improve the lives – and minds – of athletes.

A forever fan of USC, Armistead dreamed of playing on the school’s team someday. After high school injuries derailed his football plans, he committed to the lacrosse team at the University of Richmond as an undergrad. Majoring in computer science and physics, Armistead went through a rigorous balance of studying and training. Throughout the tumultuous journey (which he says he would do again “in a heartbeat”), Armistead kept his eye on the lacrosse ball as well as his commitment to academic success. When COVID granted him an extra year of athletic eligibility, he knew it was the time to play football competitively while attending a master’s program that honored his passions. IYA was the perfect place to take the next step in his career. Being an official Trojan was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Football itself was very difficult – 5 am lifts, film, and meetings and then practice every day. I loved it though. Our success this season was a product of all of this. The coaching staff was incredibly supportive, my teammates took me in as a walk-on transfer without hesitation, and I could feel the amazing culture every day,” he says of the experience.

With a rewarding season behind him, Armistead is making a game plan for his professional future at IYA. He chose the MSIDBT program because of its cutting-edge approach to learning and emphasis on collaboration – he is a veteran teammate, after all. With a technical background and internships in software engineering under his belt, branching out creatively was a priority. Now that he’s combined his coding and programming experience with prototyping prowess and a love of design, he’s able to focus on a project that’s not just business – it’s intrinsically personal.
Along with his friend and former Division 1 baseball player Lucas Ragen, Armistead is developing and coding an app called AthletesTogether. Armistead and Ragen shared a common bond and observation about the stressful lifestyles of student-athletes, noticing their accessibility to resources that address mental health is “frighteningly low.” They witnessed how the stigma surrounding mental wellness creates a barrier. They aim to break it. AthletesTogether is a platform for student-athletes to connect, share resources, and find therapy in order to attain mental wellness.
“Performance on the field is obviously not as important as overall mental-health, but we hope that this platform will give student-athletes the ability to improve both. The app essentially serves as a social media and database hybrid, where athletes can meet other athletes from all across the country and create friendships and share resources. It also will allow for student-athletes to access certified therapists for on-call and immediate access because schedules can be so chaotic,” he explains.

Armistead experienced the prevailing isolation that comes with being an athlete, and that feeling didn’t sit right with him. Realizing that students like him juggling sports and school don’t have the time or energy to create relationships with support systems propelled him to fill that void. AthletesTogether has completed the design phase and now it’s onto the coding chapter. Armistead aims to launch in the next year or so. IYA and its resources have aided in its advancement.

“I quickly learned more effective approaches to business plans and execution that I’ve been able to implement. IYA has also helped in learning the tools needed for this project,” he shares.

The fusion of athletics, wellness, and tech doesn’t stop there, in Armistead’s eyes. The space is ripe for innovation and he’s positioning himself as a pioneer and advocate for the cause.
“We saw the spike of interest in telehealth during COVID which I believe is only just scratching the surface for tech in mental wellness. This app will hopefully be an intersection of utilizing technology to create platforms for student-athletes to promote mental wellness, but the hope is that it is only the beginning of this industry. Sports psychology is a field that has been seeing a ton of development in the past few years and I think there is a huge opportunity for growth since it is still a somewhat unexplored field,” he adds.

Sports are at the heart of Armistead’s story, but so is the desire to uplift the athletic community that made him who he is today. Whether he’s on or off the field, he’s playing with passion and purpose.

“I don’t want anyone else to feel the ways that I felt for periods of time – and I know there is always more to be done,” shares Armistead. “I hope that my experience in the field will help because I understand the struggles that student-athletes face first-hand. I know how many people go through these struggles on a daily basis and I just want to help people like me.”

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