When senior golfer Aparna Ramakrishnan steps up to tee off during one of her Naperville Central High School team tournaments, she knows that she’s ready for the round ahead. She plays every new course weeks ahead of the competition, taking notes throughout her preparation and going over them before taking each swing. For her warmup, Ramakrishnan makes sure that she doesn’t overwork herself—she hits just five balls per club from a few different distances. She knows that if she hits any more than five, she might start to overanalyze how she’s hitting the ball that day and jeopardize her positive headspace.
“I know what I’m doing,” Ramakrishnan tells herself at this moment. “I know how to hit a golf swing, I know how to hit a ball, I can do it.”
There is only one thing left for her to do. As she winds up to take her swing, she thinks of the mantra her coach has instilled in her and her teammates: “Grip it and rip it!”
Student-athlete and activist
If you were to meet Aparna Ramakrishnan for the first time, you might be in awe of how effortlessly confident, intelligent, and thoughtful she is for a student-athlete of her age. She seems incredibly sure of herself and comfortable in her personality, yet she is the first to admit that she went through a complicated mental health journey to get to this point.
“I sat there worried about what would happen next,” Ramakrishnan writes about taking a math test in school one day on her charity’s website. “Would I finally find something to stop my worry? No. [My 7th coping strategy] failed. I slumped in my chair, feeling hopeless, what am I going to do? I go about my day keeping a smile on my face, innocently assuming everyone feels this way when in reality I was an iceberg and there was a lot beneath the surface.”
Ramakrishnan eventually sought professional help for these feelings and was able to learn to cope with her mental health struggles. Through many conversations with experts though, she realized that if she had been educated properly about mental health and heard stories similar to hers, she would have reached out for help much sooner. This realization led Ramakrishnan to start her non-profit organization, Beyond Charity, aimed at opening up the mental health conversation among people her age.
“The common theme I heard throughout [my conversations] was peer-led movement, “Ramakrishnan writes. “Students are more likely to listen to their peers, and by sharing our mental health stories, we are destigmatizing mental health, making it more accessible.”
Ramakrishnan and her student-led team give free presentations to other adolescents, using their own experiences to educate other teens on what mental health is, why it’s important, and how to find resources to develop coping strategies. Since its founding in 2020, Beyond Charity has educated 13,000 students and passed a bill in the state of Illinois mandating that suicide prevention hotline numbers be put on every student ID card. It’s all thanks to Ramakrishnan and her peers sharing their own journeys.
“I know I don't have a Ph.D. in psychology,” Ramakrishnan said, “but I feel like my mental health story is something that deserves to be shared because it can help that one or those two [kids], or anyone who's in the same position that I was in a couple of years ago, or anyone who is struggling and looking for advice. It does get better at some point.”
Take a breather
As an avid athlete, Ramakrishnan knows how close the relationship is between mental health and sport. Part of the curriculum she’s created is specifically targeted towards student-athletes and the unique mental health challenges they face depending on their sport.
“For gymnastics,” she said, “[mental health] may be different and may be more like eating disorders and figure and how perfectionism plays a role. Whereas football may be the idea that you don't feel comfortable talking out to like your peers about what's going on. So really tailoring [the presentation] to whatever sport we're talking to.”
Ramakrishnan also knows that while sports can be a catalyst for challenges, they can also be a successful way to cope and overcome mental barriers.
“Golf has definitely been one of my coping strategies,” she said, “whether it be angrily hitting the ball or trying to use it to calm down and reset, refocus. My mom would tell you that over the summer, I’d go to the range at least like once a day because it's just like a great way for me to take a breather.”
“Take a breather” is Ramakrishnan’s biggest piece of advice for youth athletes looking for ways to manage stress, especially in their sport. But she knows that there’s a large stigma around this strategy for athletes, and she hopes to change that in her peer-led education.
“It's totally acceptable to just step back and say, ‘I need five minutes, I need to calm down, I need to refocus, I will be ten times better when I step back on the court or on the field and get back into the game,’” she said. “Sometimes taking a break signals that you're weak, you're unable to do it, but it's what you need to be able to perform at your best and be at your peak at all times.”
Unsurprisingly, Ramakrishnan was fully supportive of Simone Biles’ stepping back from competition during the Tokyo Olympics last summer and is hopeful that elite athletes will help start the long-overdue mental health conversation in sports. But she also knows that, the most important and effective mental health conversations sometimes happen on a much smaller scale, particularly among teammates. And while golf is a very individual sport, it allows for unique opportunities to develop personal relationships with other golfers, especially when managing performance anxiety.
“I try to help those people who are struggling with [performance anxiety] because sometimes you can see them literally shaking with a golf club,” Ramakrishnan said. “Being able to work with them to create… like a pre-shot routine…can definitely reduce performance anxiety because you know exactly what's going to happen leading up to that shot.”
Ramakrishnan likes to strengthen these teammate relationships beyond the course as well. Her high school team of 24 golfers makes bonding a priority and tries to create opportunities for all of the girls to get to know one another. It has become a team tradition for the varsity girls to drive the junior varsity girls to practice, allowing everyone a chance to connect outside of the golf world.
In these moments, Ramakrishnan likes to do one simple thing: listen.
“I like to listen, I'm a very big empathizer. And we have problems sometimes because I don't talk,” she laughed, “but I love to listen, and I feel that just talking it out sometimes can take away half of the stress.”
When Ramakrishnan herself needs a support system to talk out her stresses to, she typically turns to the person who introduced her to golf: her sister. “She's been with me throughout this whole mental health journey,” Ramakrishnan said, “and she played golf, so she understands and is able to resonate with me.”
A toolkit for life
As Ramakrishnan heads into her final semester of high school, she’s transitioning Beyond Charity to a new leader – a fellow student who will take over the day-to-day work while she’s in college. She is also gearing up for her final season of high school golf.
While Ramakrishnan isn’t quite sure of the role golf will play in her future, she knows that the sport has taught her essential life skills that she will take with her wherever she goes.
“I think one of the biggest skills I've learned is persistence,” she said. “Golf is not like a lot of other sports, where you play your game and focus on what's happening in the moment like basketball. Golf is more of a mental game, in my opinion, and you're standing out there for like three to four hours on end and waiting on other people, and you're only hitting maybe, like, 60 to 70 times in a round of 18. So because of that, I think it's taught me a lot of perseverance and to not give up after one bad shot or one bad hole, but to continue on and be fearless in the face of failure.”
As for Beyond Charity, Ramakrishnan said that starting the organization has taught her to not let anyone or anything stand in the way of fighting for what you believe in, “It's really taught me to not be afraid to follow my passion,” she said.
“I feel like a lot of students think you're just a student, and there's only so much that you can do. So I feel like it's taught me to not be afraid of the outcome and just go for what I feel like is right, go for what I feel passionate about.”
Armed with perseverance and passion, Ramakrishnan hopes to achieve two goals before she graduates: fight for more mental health legislation and break 40 on the golf course.
There is only one thing left for her to do: grip it and rip it.
Speed Round with Aparna
- Favorite Sport to Play: Golf
- Favorite Sport to Watch: Basketball
- Favorite Athlete: Tiger Woods or Suni Lee
- Favorite Team: Chicago Bulls
- Post-Game Treat: One chocolate chip cookie from the clubhouse
- Favorite Pump-Up Song: Jackie Chan