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Q&A: Professional soccer players score telehealth partner for mental health

Soccer players may present a higher rate of depression and burnout than the general population. Still, Connor Tobin, professional soccer player and cofounder and executive director of the United Soccer League Players Association, says professional soccer lacks the resources to support players’ mental health. 

Tobin sat down with MobiHealthNews to discuss how USLPA aims to aid players through a new partnership with telehealth company Onrise, a platform offering a care program and telehealth support tailored for athletes.

MobiHealthNews: Can you tell me about the partnership between USLPA and Onrise, and how it will help USL’s Championship and League One players?

Connor Tobin: We’ve contracted Onrise to come in and provide a full range of mental health services for our players. Essentially, this means that players will have access, in many cases for the first time, to any sort of mental health resource.

It is completely anonymous to clubs, anonymous to the PA [players association], and is there purely for the benefit of the player. They can access the system at any time and, you know, in terms of care, it can get elevated to licensed clinical therapists all the way up to psychiatric MD’s, depending on what the need is and what the thing that they’re working through is.

MHN: How will having access to mental health care via telehealth affect athletes, not only as players, but as people?

Tobin: The second part is the bigger thing because we’re worried about them as people. You know, if you’re not okay as a person, the playing side is very hard. Oftentimes athletes, you’re looked at as you’re supposed to be mentally tough. That doesn’t mean you don’t have things going on in your life on or off the field that may affect you. 

I think another big thing, in terms of this and why it’s so important, oftentimes, when people think about professional athletes, they think about the top level of the game. Well, there are other players that are at the other end of the spectrum.

So, what services are there to really support them? Particularly when oftentimes players are living hand-to-mouth. There’s other pressures that are, I guess, “different” is the word I’ll use then, you know, if you’re playing in the NBA or something like that. So, just because those challenges are different, doesn’t mean that you don’t need support.

MHN: How are the challenges different among soccer players than athletes in the NBA, for example?

Tobin: Yeah, I think you can start just financially. Our players, while we have CBAs [Collective Bargaining Agreements] now in both leagues for the first time ever, the standard contract length is only ten months. So you’re dealing with offseasons where you’re not getting paid.

Particularly at this end of the sport, there is not a ton of security. So you don’t have tons of players on a five or seven-year guaranteed deal. Oftentimes, you’re only guaranteed for that season. So we experience situations where player turnover can be up to 60% year-over-year at a given club.

We have guys that range from 15/16 years old up to 39. So there’s the range of challenges that might live within that. We also have a significant portion of our player pool that’s foreign. So, dealing with challenges from coming from another place in the world to here and acclimating, whether it’s language, cultural, just basic things, even the stress around how do I navigate to the grocery store? How do I actually have transportation and things like that? So there’s an absolute range of things the players might be going through.

MHN: Will Onrise be available all year, even during the offseason?

Tobin: One of the things that became very interesting from a PA perspective … Let’s say you get mental health resources through the club or a league that you play with, right? Well, if your contract ends or you move to a different team, you lose continuity of care. By housing this under the Players Association, and you move from club A to club B, we can have continuity of care.  

This partnership extends to if a player ends up out a contract. There is kind of a grace period because that’s sometimes when their biggest challenge is. 

MHN: Why did USLPA choose a telemedicine company to provide this offering?

Tobin: It has to do with the footprint of the league. Across both leagues, championship and League One, we currently have 36 clubs. We stretch coast to coast. So in terms of a provider, we needed someone that could touch a lot of different places. That’s the first piece. 

The second piece, oftentimes with professional athletes, particularly during the season, this is something that your schedule can be so varied. Every day there’s something that can be moved around. So you need something that has flexibility in terms of players accessing it. 

And then the final piece … it’s a cost thing too. At this end of the sport, players don’t make a ton of money, which means, you know, from a PA perspective, there’s not a ton of money to operate with.

We’re a fairly new organization. How do you do this? So I think when you think about telehealth and some of the capabilities there, there’s an ability to reduce costs in terms of providing the care.

MHN: Do you want to add anything we didn’t touch on? 

Tobin: Particularly in American soccer, and it’s unique, because we exist within a global game, there’s been a lot of development in the sport in the United States, and you often hear in the sport, “We’re investing in players. So we’re giving more resources”.

And really what that’s about is, hey, we’re trying to develop a player, so hey, maybe he’s the next person we sell to Manchester United. We recoup our investment. I, personally, and I think our players’ association believes that’s really the wrong question. If you want to invest in players, you should be talking about investing in people, because 100% of what you experience lives between this [points to his head], and you bring that to your workplace every day.

So if you’re going to be successful in terms of advancing your career, if you’re really gonna become an asset that club can capitalize on, you have to invest in the person, and throughout the U.S. soccer pyramid, there hasn’t been enough of that. But particularly at the level that we exist in, it [has], for lack of a better word, been completely barren.

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