Miles, paces, heart rate—runners and coaches often use data to guide training.
But Diljeet Taylor, women’s cross-country head coach and associate director of track and field at Brigham Young University, knows there’s more that goes into an athlete’s performance. Harder-to-measure factors like recovery, anxiety levels, and even joy and self-worth play a key role in how a runner trains and races.
Plus, student athletes face significant pressures, fueling rising concerns about mental health and even suicide risk in the NCAA. Given all this, Taylor wanted a better way to gauge her runners’ emotional states. When she couldn’t find one, she built her own.
She’s now using the app she created, Status Strong, with her cross-country team at BYU and some members of her professional team, Taylor Made Elite. Along with a co-founder and a chief technology officer—Dustin Bybee and Ben Cobb, both BYU graduates—she’s formed an LLC that’s in talks with the university about expanding its use to other teams. After that, they’ll hope to sell monthly subscriptions to other universities and even high school athletic departments.
In the meantime, Status Strong is available now for free for iPhone, for runners anywhere to download (an Android version is coming in the months ahead). Taylor hopes it can serve as powerful tool for athletes and coaches alike to check in on well-being.
“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we want to remove the stigma that makes athletes feel like they have to hide their true emotions,” she said. The app is part of creating “a culture and an environment where they feel like we can help them through the struggle, and they’re not dealing with it alone.”
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Color-Code Your Emotions
The app is relatively simple. Each day, it prompts the user to rate themselves green (great), yellow (OK), or red (poor), in eight categories: motivation, joy, sleep, recovery, stress & anxiety, gratitude, self-worth, and overall mental health. These were derived from questions Taylor already regularly asked her athletes and her two sons, then fine-tuned with input from mental health professionals, Bybee said.
In the app’s dashboard, users can view their trends in each area over the previous week and month.
Tracking moods and behaviors is a long-standing staple in the mental-health space, because any change starts with awareness, said Justin Ross, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Denver who specializes in health, wellness, and human performance psychology, and who isn’t involved with the app.
“It’s even better when we can start to develop an awareness of trends,” he said. “So, not just how am I feeling today, but how does my life experience today relate to where I was a week ago or a month ago? Or how do certain situations influence how I’m doing?”
From there, you can use a wide range of strategies to regulate your emotions, he said. That might mean adjusting things like your training or sleep, trying a stress-management technique like a breathing exercise or meditation, or talking to a mental health professional.
Future iterations of Status Strong will likely offer individualized content and recommend mental exercises or other resources based on a user’s input, Bybee said. However, the current focus is on awareness, both for the athlete themselves and for those overseeing their training.
Make Your Moods Known
Crucially, users of the app can share their status with an accountability partner. As an individual, you can swap ratings and trends with your partner, children, or friends. Collegiate athletes using the app opt in to share data with their coach—and, anonymously, with the athletic department, which can keep tabs on larger patterns.
The idea is for the app to serve “a bridge between the coach and the athlete,” Taylor said. “What’s really hard is to walk in, as a 19-year-old, to your coach’s office and tell them you’re struggling.” Tapping a red circle on a screen is far easier, especially for young athletes who’ve grown up with phones and tablets in hand.
With these details, coaches can approach athletes differently at practice—encouraging those all in the green to try pushing harder, while showing extra empathy to someone in the yellow.
When Taylor meets with athletes one-on-one, she pulls up their past 30 days. For those sleeping poorly, she offers advice on sticking to a schedule; if they’re low in joy, she might aim to help them reconnect to the reasons they started running. If a runner is suddenly or consistently in the red in important areas, she checks in to offer support or, if needed, connect them with a mental health professional.
Taylor also uses the app to monitor her team as a whole. Last spring, around mid-terms, she noticed an increase in stress and poor sleep among many of her BYU women. So she called some mental health days, instructing her athletes to focus on self-care instead of coming to practice.
Courtney Wayment, a BYU graduate in her second year as a professional runner on Taylor’s elite team, has been using the app for months and said it’s made it even easier to communicate with her coach. She recalls a hard workout earlier this year when she didn’t feel great—afterward, she marked her recovery in the red.
Taylor adjusted her training to back off a bit, and the next week, Wayment ran her second-fastest time yet in the 3,000-meter steeplechase—9:11.41—to place 8th at the 2023 Golden Gala Pietro Mennea, a Diamond League track meet in Florence, Italy.
Wayment’s year has been full of highs and lows—she went on to place third in the steeplechase at the USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships in July and competed for Team USA at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last month; she made the final, but placed last. Through it all, she’s tracked her mental health using the app, and derived confidence from the fact that it’s stayed relatively stable. “I know that I am taking care of myself mentally and emotionally and physically,” she said.
Wayment and Bybee both said they would have appreciated the app during their years of collegiate running. Wayment recalls struggling with her mental health during an injury in 2018. Taylor checked in with her frequently, but an app would have streamlined that communication, Wayment said. Bybee said self-doubt had, at times, prevented him from racing to his potential—a tool like Status Strong could have helped him spot and address the problem.
One Piece of the Puzzle
Of course, tracking alone isn’t a cure-all, and any self-reporting mechanism has limitations, Ross said. It’s relatively easy to hit the green button even if you’re not doing well, especially if you’re not sure about the support available on the other end. “There has to be a culture of psychological safety, where the student athlete feels as though they can be honest and transparent, and that being honest and transparent isn’t going to lead to any kind of punitive action,” he said.
But in an environment where mental health is taken seriously, an app like this could help administrators and others spot problems and apportion resources. “Building it into those tiered system levels, from athletes to team to coach to department to university, is a fantastic idea,” he said.
Taylor hopes the app can keep her team performing well—in her seven years at BYU, she’s led her women to a national cross-country championship and two runner-up finishes, not to mention coaching individuals to six NCAA titles in cross-country and on the track. Your mental health doesn’t have to be perfect to run your best, she said, but you do need to recognize and manage your struggles.
But more than anything, she considers Status Strong her response and contribution to an escalating crisis in student athlete mental health and a trend toward holistic coaching to manage it. “Our whole job is to empower these kids, not just with athletic performance, but with tools that are going to help them navigate hardships through life,” Taylor said.
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013. She’s the coauthor of both Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart and Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the psychology of sports injury from Bloomsbury Sport. Cindy specializes in covering injury prevention and recovery, everyday athletes accomplishing extraordinary things, and the active community in her beloved Chicago, where winter forges deep bonds between those brave enough to train through it.