.Oakland Coaches Trained to Support Young Athletes’ Mental Health

Oakland soccer club coaches learn to spot signs of depression and anxiety among Black and Latino youth

This article was produced by Capital & Main and is copublished here with permission. Sign up for Capital & Main’s newsletter.

When gunshots ring out around the parks where Oakland Soccer Club practices, the teenage athletes keep their focus on the ball. They are unphased, says coach Sergio Ramos, a former East Palo Alto police officer who worked there when the city had a reputation as the murder capital of the U.S. back in the 1990s.

But trauma catches up to its victims. A former player committed suicide as an adult. Another witnessed a man shot on the street as a child; his negative comments in advance of games—announcing, “We’re going to lose” and “They’re too good”—was anxiety manifest. In college, he was put on medication and someone watched him to prevent self-harm. And then there is Jonathan Bandabaila, who disappeared five years ago, at age 19; he was last seen in his warm-up gear, according to police.

“These are the stories we have in our club,” Ramos said. “These are the things we deal with in our community.”

Most of the players with the Oakland Soccer Club are low-income Black and Latino youth—the groups more likely to suffer depression, and the former at higher risk for suicide than white youth, according to a new study. Those communities need trusted adults that these youth can speak to and receive guidance from. One solution might be people like Ramos: coaches.   

The study, published in JAMA Network Open in October, examined Kaiser Permanente patients aged 12-16 in Northern California who were asked how frequently they felt down, depressed or hopeless in the two weeks before an appointment.

Patients were also asked if they had ever seriously thought about killing themselves, made a suicide plan or attempted suicide. The actual risk to Black and Latino youth may be higher than the study’s findings as research was limited to young people with health care plans and willing to self-report, according to the authors of the study. 

Researchers say the study’s findings “suggest that interventions aimed at promoting equity in adolescent mental health outcomes must extend beyond the clinical setting,” which could be accomplished in part through direct access in schools and neighborhoods to therapists and other adults capable of recognizing emotional issues.

The same month the study was published, coaches in Oakland began to discuss how they might address and help young athletes showing signs of anxiety and depression. “The coach is likely the first point of contact for a person in crisis,” said Edward Stephen, co-president and coach at Oakland Soccer Club. “If we, as a coach, don’t recognize a situation or try to address it, the problems perpetuate.”

Oakland Soccer Club fields teams for children as young as 8 as well as a professional adult squad. Of the 354 young athletes who comprise the club, 75% received free or reduced meals at school. Latinos and African Americans make up 85% of the club’s roster. The average household income for an Oakland Soccer Club family is $43,582—about one-third of Alameda County’s median income of $151,053.

Coaches are aware of the mental health strain their youth suffer through their behavior: ignoring direction, challenging instruction, yelling at teammates and coaches alike. Then there are fights, like the time a 16-year-old punched someone in the face. That youth was thrown off the team, and the club was put on probation by the league. But knowing what Oakland Soccer Club youth go through, the reprimand didn’t sit right with Iliana Rivera Ramos, the team’s co-president.

“What if we could offer therapy,” Rivera Ramos suggested. “His only outlet may be soccer.”

In October, two months after the study of Northern California youth mental health was published, Oakland Roots, a professional men’s soccer team, and their women’s professional club, Oakland Soul, hosted a youth mental health workshop for Oakland soccer coaches.

“Practice, and coaching, is unique because most of the time kids want to be there,” said Khali Blackman-Newton, with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring positive sports experiences for all youth. Coaches are likely to notice inconsistent or aggressive behavior that may reveal an underlying problem.

“Our goal is to arm more people in the community with skills to see mental health warning signs,” Blackman-Newton added. “To help children and families get more support or simply get an adult to talk to.”

The workshop was coordinated by the Positive Coaching Alliance and co-led by Gina Biviano, an athletic trainer from University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospitals. Biviano recently co-authored a comprehensive guide to mental health support for youth athletes that was published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. About 20 coaches attended the workshop, including Sergio Ramos and Rivera Ramos, who are married.

Biviano came prepared to lead the workshop, but changed her approach to listening and guidance after she noticed people began to share their concerns for Oakland youth. Biviano heard stories of how traumatic family matters such as divorce, death, separation and jail often parallel youth fights, yelling at coaches, self-doubt or becoming withdrawn. There was the realization for the coaches, Biviano noted, that responding to yelling by yelling back is counterproductive.

“This cannot be another place they come to get yelled at or demeaned,” Stephen said. 

Biviano directed the coaches to a mental health toolkit developed for high school athletes in California. In addition, the Oakland Sport Equity and Access Coalition, which helped bring together the various groups for the workshop, provided access to mental health professionals whom both coaches and youth could call. 

About a month after the workshop, Sergio Ramos was at the football stadium at Fremont High School. It was a mid-morning game and Oakland Soccer Club was up 5-1 thanks to the team’s star striker, who scored his fourth goal of the game with about 20 minutes left. The losing team started attacking the young striker—kicks to the ankles and calves; shoving from behind. The young striker reacted by putting someone in a headlock. The referee reached for a red card and ejected the striker.

Ramos said in the past he would have yelled, ordered the player off the field—maybe even dropped him from the team. But instead, the team had talked in advance about how to de-escalate situations like this. The goalie, Ramos’ son, calmed the young striker, who walked off the field and sat down. Ramos gave him space to think. The young player approached Ramos, apologized, and they spoke.

“In the past, I wouldn’t have had discussions like that,” Ramos said. “Now, I feel more comfortable.”

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