Jonah Silk is the president of the non-profit Goals and Glory, which seeks to destigmatize mental health in athletics and offers scholarships to high school athletes who tell their story in order to heal from trauma. Silk likens it to The Player's Tribune, but instead of highlighting high-profile athletes, Goals and Glory stars teenagers who have faced obstacles in their life and otherwise wouldn't have a platform. Silk also has a fellowship as an athletic counselor at the University of Michigan.
Before he was drawn to social work, Silk was coaching high school and youth ball, with PDA, in New Jersey. "I was thinking, 'OK, I played soccer in college, but I also got a bachelor's degree. I have interests in human rights and social justice and mental health that I'm not utilizing at all."
Silk faced a fair share of obstacles during his successful college career. "I had injuries, other stuff off the field," he says. "Way later in life, I recognized the value of therapy and thought about how late I was to it and how helpful it ended up being." Silk also knows he comes from a position of privilege, which made him want to give back to the game in a different way. He went on to get his master's in social work specializing in clinical mental health. In the summer of 2018, he founded Goals and Glory.
SOCCER AMERICA: When we talk about trauma and mental health, what are we talking about on a physical level?
JONAH SILK: On the most obvious level, it's when people who are really stressed out complain about back pain. But it goes way deeper than that. People carry tension in all different sorts of places. When you're tense or anxious or hyper-vigilant or worried about things in the future, it carries itself in physical tension in the body which can have all kinds of negative consequences.
Trauma's the real thing — cortisol is a stress hormone and that's important. But not when it's excessive, not needed, and still being produced.
Those are the most glaring examples and that's what drew me to the work, especially as someone who's been through a lot but also been pretty privileged as well. I had a good upbringing and good family support — I just was seeking ways to give back to the game and help more marginalized and underprivileged groups of folks who didn’t have some of the luxuries or privileges that I had.
That's what started the idea for Goals and Glory, and then when I got to Ann Arbor I got around this field and community and really started to focus specifically on trauma, trauma healing and telling a narrative in order to heal from trauma. That's at the root of what we do. Furthermore, we work on the destigmatization of mental health with athletes.
SA: Tell us about your foundation, Goals and Glory.
JONAH SILK: It was definitely a process — I think my business plan got hacked apart by my support group and they kind of became my board members. I think we had done 14 versions by the time we finished.
The evolution was really when it became a magazine. I will say, The Players Tribune was pretty inspirational for my story in terms of normalizing and bringing awareness to mental health stuff.
I just thought, 'OK, here's everything I care about, here's an example of this service for celebrities and high-profile older athletes. Why isn't there something offered for the more everyday athlete?' What about the 14-year-old kid who's still thriving and trying to chase his goals despite all of these hardships and no one even knows about him? That was really the aha moment.
SA: Could you give me a sample story of someone who has benefited from the Goals and Glory program?
JONAH SILK: Mahfouz was our first scholarship winner and we also really pride ourselves on maintaining kind of a mentorship relationship with our winners. So I got to see Mahfouz at an internship he was at in Toledo, Ohio. I scooped him up and we spent the day together in Ann Arbor. He's exactly what we wanted Goals and Glory to be about.
SA: Talk about the impact you guys want to make and have made. Responses from the communities you serve or the athletes you’ve helped?
JONAH SILK: All three of our scholarship winners were high school kids who had expressed what had happened that was tough and what they still wanted to do. We were behind them for whatever aspiration they had — whether that was college or rehabilitation or certification.
The main thing is that all of these kids went to college and are doing well. All have maintained relationships with us and want to continue it with the generations ahead of them — how they might be spokespeople for the next group of young high school kids.
The goal is to create a more supportive, aware, destigmatized community toward mental health. As a byproduct, there's this ever-growing network of previous winners, supporters and things like that that really can become a family — a supportive network for this group, the individuals, and the mission.
SA: How about the stigma surrounding mental health just in society — not even in sports.
JONAH SILK: Whew. How far do you want to go back? The main thing in American society, there has been this, 'rub some dirt in it, pull yourself up by the bootstraps' sentiment. On a scientific level, a lot of it has really been the scientific evolution of different philosophies and different psychological developments in those fields.
Issues with suicide, a lot of these problems — especially issues like trauma, PTSD and major mental health disorders — we consider to be in very specific populations and troubled people suffering from extreme violence. The more we see is that it can be true in all forms of people and all types of populations. That has been a forced realization and has kind of expedited the movement.
And then that was tenfold with the pandemic. Everyone was beginning to experience things that before only "troubled" or "weak" or "flawed" people did.
I think that's really the myth that's been busted. We really used to think that [the problem is] weak, broken, ill, sick people. The more we've learned, we've protested and stood up for mental health.
You go to the doctor for your leg, you go to the dentist for your teeth, and you need to maintain and take care of your mind, which is the most complex, powerful thing that we're actually trying to maintain.
Why are we so hellbent on taking care of ourselves physically and our teeth, and you'll go to physical therapy no questions asked, but the mind is struggling in some capacity and we've thought to deny that?
SA: There's something about not being able to see a wound, or not being able to articulate it. When you can't see something, it's easy to pretend it doesn't exist.
JONAH SILK: I couldn't have put it better myself. I keep coming back to trauma because that's my focus. Trauma can really influence our behavior and our disorders later in life. David A. Treleaven talks about it in Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness where he's like, 'What more excruciating agony is there than one that is completely invisible to others and you can't explain it either.'
This is a whole separate conversation, but I did have a youth athlete at my club who passed away in the same year that I was starting all of this. She was a light of joy in people's lives and an elite goalkeeper and at 15 years old she passed away from leukemia. At the time, I named the scholarship after her and was like, 'this is a good way to memorialize her.' It is close to our founding and our creation and mission.
SA: Talk about the stigma of mental health in sports?
JONAH SILK: There is this notion that people can be like machines and if they're functioning properly they will just fire on all cylinders. In reality, that is not the case. we're extremely complex and things get mis-wired, exhausted, fatigued or broken down a little. Who's gonna be the most impacted by that? For a long time, athletes were seen as a level above that — tougher, more physical specimens.
In reality, if you look at the data and statistics, athletes are more vulnerable to trauma, adversity, identity conflict and time management anxiety. To have the myth be the literal opposite — like where did that come from? Mental health stuff is not taught until it's taught. That notion has begun to change where mental and physical strength can be separate.
SA: Professional athletes who have big platforms and are looked up might find it hard to be vulnerable and open up.
JONAH SILK: 100%. Circling back to the historical stigma of mental health, where regular people were deemed clinically insane. It already exists in society and for professional athletes it's just exponentially higher expectations for athletes. All the while there are more risk factors for athletes.
SA: Are there any differences between how we treat men and women’s mental health differently?
JONAH SILK: I don't know if there is a difference in demand. You can look at the way things manifest in themselves differently, for example, how a non-athlete experiences depression vs. how an athlete does. One person might experience it as hopelessness and real grief and tears, and another person who's wired a little bit differently is going to experience agitation, anger, and intense lack of motivation.
You can maybe extract some differences there, but I don't think there's a higher willingness in males or females — but I also think I'm pretty spoiled to be in a community that's worked really hard to decrease stigma and to increase openness and awareness and tolerance to that.
SA: What kind of mental health issues do you usually hear about from athletes?
JONAH SILK: Something that's close to my work and my heart is certainly the identity conflict of who you are once you're no longer an athlete and transitioning into the world after your sports career is finished — huge struggle for a lot of people, myself included.
Anybody who isn't proactive about identifying who they are other than being an athlete. So that's a big one. Another one is injury and when we're out of your sport, mostly people treat that as a physical loss of ability. In reality, that's a huge test on our mentality. Anxiety, depression and traumatic experiences.
SA: Identity conflict?
JONAH SILK: I can speak to myself first and foremost. That's how I learned this field — through my struggle and a 10-year period without real mental health guidance too because at that point it wasn't tolerated as much.
You spent all that time and energy being an athlete — you get your feelings of worth, fulfillment and having a talent and an ability. A lot of people just haven't put in the time to explore what else they're good at, what else makes them a special person beyond the fact that they're good at their sport.
For a lot of people it's, 'what is my purpose?' And then for a lot of people it's literally just that they're not getting to exert that and they don't know what to do with that time and that energy and that passion that is now a void.
It's a dual-faceted thing where the purpose is the deeper one you have to introspectively explore, and then people also have to physically find new outlets of fun and excitement.
SA: How can coaches be more supportive about their players’ mental health while maintaining a fiercely competitive environment?
JONAH SILK: You said it best, it should be a part of coaching education. This stuff and mental health and the work we're talking about — the awareness and the destigmatization — should be a part of youth education and part of the expected classes you take just like PE. That takes some of the work off of the coaches. It's kind of a cop-out answer, but putting it into the education of the players and coaches I think goes a long way.
SA: What do you say to someone who is a little more closed off to talking openly about mental health. Is there a pitch you have?
JONAH SILK: Yeah, for sure. There are specific modalities I'm going to use that are surrounding motivation to change. You cannot change for somebody. Until someone is willing to, [their unwillingness] is going to be an obstacle. If you're going to hear about what their goals and hopes are and what they want, I think it's about finding that mutual accountability where something's gotta change in order for us to access change.
It's about not making it about something you're asking them to do, but it's for their own benefit. Getting to a place where it's a mutually agreed upon thing for us to try to make an improvement to our goals. But that is certainly an obstacle and something we see and need to work on.
SA: What is the next step for Goals and Glory?
JONAH SILK: Oh man. We got some good things in the works. We had our first event where we brought people together, we celebrated our first three years at a Red Wings game. We want to continue to build more pipelines with more communities and increase funding, stories coming in, so we can award more scholarships to contributors. The board selects who they think is in most need and who's story most fits our mission.
Right now, we want to build partnerships with the community, whether that's youth organizations, high schools, or coaches, and really start to build a powerful network. We want to continue building our community and not only destigmatize, but almost promote help-seeking. To make this the good, cool thing to do. ... We want to find kids who we can help right now. If you know a kid who's deserving or whose story deserves to be recognized or they made it through something and still have some obstacles to where they want to get to — that's what it's all about.• Goals and Glory: Supporting and Empowering Youth Athletes Facing Trauma; online magazine: The Comeback; newsletter.
• U.S. Soccer mental health resources:
The Recognize to Recover Mental Health Resources for Athletes
COVID 19 and Mental Health