Sydney Holmes
Holmes used her time at UC Davis to raise awareness about mental health care for student-athletes. As founder and president of Athlete Guidance and Support (AGS), she aims to change the culture around mental health within the athletic community at UC Davis. Courtesy photo

Mary Jeanne Gilhooly Award Winner Sydney Holmes Aims to Improve Mental Health in the Athletics Community

Sydney Holmes knew firsthand the struggles faced by student-athletes. During her freshman year of college, she coped with the death of a relative, homesickness, a loss of a sense of identity and a knee injury that sidelined her from her passion: track and field.

“I became depressed and anxious,” said Holmes, a UC Davis student who graduated in winter with a degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior. “I didn’t know who to reach out to or how to cope. Even though I was part of the track team, I did not feel comfortable telling any of my older teammates what I was going through.”

Holmes returned home to Turlock, Calif., where she healed with the support of her family and enrolled in Modesto Junior College.

“That spring I received my acceptance letter to study biology at UC Davis and was offered a spot on the Track and Field Team,” she said. “I was ecstatic to get a fresh start.”

Holmes used her time at UC Davis to raise awareness about mental health care for student-athletes. As founder and president of Athlete Guidance and Support (AGS), she aims to change the culture around mental health within the athletic community at UC Davis. Recently, the organization received a $30,000 grant from the NCAA to expand its efforts.

For her leadership, scholarship, integrity and service to the UC Davis community, Holmes was awarded the Mary Jeanne Gilhooly Award.

“I have always loved organizing and mobilizing resources for the benefit of my community and this was the perfect opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those around me,” she said.

A proactive approach

The idea to start Athlete Guidance and Support was born at the APPLE Training Institute, an NCAA sponsored program that aims to facilitate ways to promote health and wellness in the university athletics community. Inspired, Holmes along with three other UC Davis student-athletes took action and launched Athlete Guidance and Support in January 2018.

“AGS focuses on two things,” said Holmes. “The first is to organize events to destigmatize and educate our peers on mental health topics. The second is what we call ‘AGS Check-Ins’ or a peer support program. With support from university staff and administration, we train our representatives from each team to be the ‘go-to’ teammate for all things mental health-related. This includes conducting AGS Check-Ins, where representatives spot struggling teammates and make sure they are ‘okay’ by actively listening, guiding and supporting them through the process of finding appropriate mental health resources.”

Thus far, Holmes and her student-athlete peers have organized eight events promoting wellness, reaching nearly 100 student-athletes per event in the UC Davis community.

Holmes presented the work of the Athlete Guidance and Support program at APPLE Training Institute held in January 2020.

“When we finished presenting at our session, we had countless student-athletes from across the country asking us questions about how they could start their own AGS programs,” said Holmes. “It felt like I had come full circle. The struggles that I had endured my freshman year were all worth it to be able to help the countless athletes that I have by implementing the AGS program.”

Currently, Holmes and the team are conducting assessments to understand the needs of student-athletes on campus. They’re also investigating national trends in health and wellness data. The findings from both will help guide future Athlete Guidance and Support programs.

Next year, Holmes will enroll in the UC Davis Masters in Public Health Program.

“I hope with my degree in the future I can create programs that prevent health crises rather than waiting to react to them,” said Holmes.

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