Commentary

Mental health and athletes: U.S. Soccer provides comprehensive resource

In April of 2020, U.S. Soccer added a Mental Health  section to its Recognize to Recover Player Health and Safety Program. The current Olympic Games have shed further light on athletes and mental health -- an opportune time to revisit our 2020 interview with George Chiampas, U.S. Soccer's Chief Medical Officer, and share links to U.S. Soccer's comprehensive resources for coaches, players, parents and referees.
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In 2015, U.S. Soccer launched Recognize to Recover, a program aimed to reduce injuries and promote safe play, and included new guidelines regarding concussions considering the latest science on head injuries. The site now provides resources and guidelines on a wide variety issues, including guidelines for environmental conditions (heat and cold weather), nutrition and hydration, injury prevention and recovery.

"My philosophy as Chief Medical Officer is that it's important for us, with Recognize to Recover, to tackle all aspects and make information readily available for our sport," said Dr. George Chiampas. "Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder -- those are areas that we want our coaches, our players and our parents across the country to have a resource to turn to."

The Recognize to Recover Mental Health Resources for Athletes includes information "on what are mental health issues/disorders," common mental health disorders in athletes, events that can trigger mental health concerns, anxiety, depression, suicide, how to have conversations about mental health issues, and the role of individuals involved in identifying mental health issues in athletes.

What should a coach do if he suspects a player may have mental health issues?

GEORGE CHIAMPAS: If the coach is concerned about a player's mental state and notices red flags, the first thing, in a non-threatening way, without accusing them of having a mental health disorder, is to try to start a conversation and say, "Hey, are you OK? What's going on? ... I noticed that you seemed a little withdrawn at practice."

You can say, "It's normal to feel this way." And it may be as simple as, "I had a bad day in school." But it may go deeper than that -- if someone's feeling like this for over-extended periods where it's consuming their life. If they can't come out of this dark, dark place -- that's when we need to support that young athlete.

If a coach sees a theme of that -- in many cases the player is a minor -- a coach should should speak to kids' parents and just say, "I recognize that he or she is down. I just want to make sure that the kid is safe." And if there's something that collectively we need to do, we should do it for the benefit of that kid. I think that's the appropriate pathway. If you do that in a genuine way and point to the athlete and the kid's safety being at the core, no one would question that approach.

What kind of mistakes do you think coaches may make with those who are challenged with mental health issues?

GEORGE CHIAMPAS: The No. 1 thing is, we shouldn't isolate kids. I think the easy pathway as a coach is to not deal with it. And I'm sure you've seen it where coaches deem those players "problem kids." What ends up happening sometimes is that those kids may feel isolated. Those kids may feel different, rather than coaches recognizing that there are individual variances.

One kid may have an extremely great quality in one area and another kid may have a weakness in that. I think the coaches' responsibilities and the clubs' responsibilities are to foster kids' strengths. And in areas where they need support resources, make sure that they build programing for those sort of things. If we don't foster or support the kids with those individual variances, it's a failure on all of us.

It's not OK to just say, the kid isn't strong enough mentally. That's something that historically has been done. And that's not OK. We can't be comfortable with that approach moving forward.

Chiampas recommends that clubs send the Recognize to Recover link out to all parents before each season.

Parents, players and coaches are seeking that advice. I think as a club, as a coach, you want to establish a culture and environment of a family. I don't think there's enough of that kind of environment. We want to build healthy and safe environments. This content from Recognize to Recover, the Mental Health section and all the other ones, really identify the core of what's important in our sport. I hope that leagues and clubs really, really use that and develop a culture of safety, and a growth mindset.

U.S. Soccer Recognize to Recover

LINKS:
Mental Health Guide
COVID 19 and Mental Health
Recognize to Recover Home Page

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