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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Silent no more, women’s pros make mental health a priority

Sinead Farrelly at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia, far from her darkest days.Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

By Rory Smith

The one thing she could not do, Sinead Farrelly knew, was talk. Nobody had ever told her that explicitly, of course. It was just something she understood. Soccer, her first time around, operated under what she can now call a “culture of silence.”

The perceived delicacy of the sport meant that principle applied publicly almost as a matter of policy. Only a little more than a decade ago, Farrelly and her peers playing in professional leagues — first the Women’s Professional Soccer league and then, after its dissolution, the incipient National Women’s Soccer League — did so keenly aware of their own mortality.

“You want fans to come so the league can survive,” Farrelly said. “You can’t be sharing how bad it is or what the conditions are really like. You have to put on a show for the development of sport. You owe it to yourself, your teammates, future generations.” It felt, to her, like “living a double life.”

Something darker held the omertà in place privately, among the players themselves. Years later, Farrelly would feel strong enough to tell the world what she had endured: years of psychological torment and allegations of coercive sex at the hands of the coach to whom she felt she owed her career.

Her voice would bring about substantive change. The coach, Paul Riley, would receive a lifetime ban; her account would act as a prompt for the Yates Report, with its damning findings revealing a “league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic.”

At the time the abuse was happening, though, Farrelly did not feel that she could tell anyone what she was going through, not even her teammates. Perhaps part of that, she said, can be explained by her nature. Now, looking back, she is frank and open and disarmingly, breezily honest. Back then, she said, she was not “comfortable with being vulnerable.”

But part of it, too, was a shared sense that saying something brings it into the world, gives it a shape and a form. “Opening those gates would have been too much,” she said, not just for her, but for her teammates as well. “You kind of operate on autopilot. You do not look at how dark it is. You kind of know that once you see something, you can’t unsee it.”

It took a car accident for Farrelly to come to terms with her experiences. Recovering from her injuries required weeks “in a dark room, alone with myself,” she said. In those circumstances, there is only so much you can do to distract yourself. It speaks volumes that, now, she describes herself as “grateful” for the crash, which is probably the best gauge of the severity of what she had endured.

It allowed her to identify a solution, a way to rebuild herself, and her life. She left soccer entirely. She did not kick a ball. She did not think about it. For seven years, she put that part of herself away.

Elite soccer has an uneven, uneasy relationship with mental health. It is, as the United States defender Naomi Girma put it, extremely good at “calls to action.” The sport knows that there are performance benefits to players’ being able to cope with the pressures under which they are operating. A generous interpretation would have it that soccer understands on some level that the same logic probably applies outside the tightly guarded boundaries of its universe.

It is less good at the action itself, the walking of the walk. The problem is not so much structural as essential. Elite sport is unapologetically cutthroat, inherently Darwinian.

And so, even as clubs have in recent years recognized the obvious benefits of sports psychology, they have found another problem. Installing a psychologist at a training ground is one thing; convincing the players that entering that office is not a way of signaling to your teammates and your coach that you are struggling is quite another.

Girma’s career thus far has been a rapid one — the top pick in the NWSL draft in 2022, she was the NWSL rookie of the year last season and U.S. Soccer’s women’s player of the year in 2023 — but it is still a relatively young one: Girma has only been a professional for two years.

Still, though, she has encountered the idea that a capacity to tolerate pressure can be characterized as “grit,” a quality a player needs as much as pace or vision. “It is starting to shift a little,” she said. “Plenty of players work with sports psychologists. It’s normalized to talk, and to get help.”

She attributes that in part to the willingness of clubs to pursue anything that looks even remotely like a marginal gain — her NWSL team, the San Diego Wave, employs a “wellness coach” — but believes the example set by athletes like Simone Biles is possibly even more influential.

“To see someone like her, the best gymnast in the world, talking about her mental health shows that it doesn’t mean you can’t perform,” Girma said.

The change, though, has been piecemeal, and delicate. Driven by the loss of one of her closest friends — Katie Meyer, a teammate at Stanford — to suicide in 2022, Girma has long believed a different approach was needed: not just something more systemic, but something more organic. She concluded it had to come from the players.

“Teams create families,” she said. “You want people to feel as though they have a support system. Not necessarily from the whole group, but a couple of players within it who you can feel you can turn to when you need it.”

Her answer will take shape this weekend, in a quiet hotel overlooking San Diego Bay. Girma, Farrelly and Becky Sauerbrunn, the longtime U.S. women’s team captain, will be among 20 players — including at least one from all 14 NWSL clubs — and a number of grassroots organizations to attend Create the Space, a mental health retreat organized by Common Goal.

Given that most, if not all, of the guests are less than a week away from reporting for preseason training, it should not be a surprise that a couple of practice sessions have been scheduled.

The emphasis, though, will be on a different type of training. There will be classes, designed in conjunction with E-Motion, a community-focused counseling organization, on learning how to cope with loss, injury and retirement. The participants will be taught techniques drawn from movement therapy and somatic yoga.

“We did not want to offer just one prescribed way of doing things,” said Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, the executive director at Common Goal USA. “It was about showing the players various different ways and seeing what works for them.”

In the summer of 2022, Farrelly decided to go back to the game. She was not entirely sure she felt ready. She was afraid of any number of things: that she might not be good enough, that she might let herself down, that she might let other people down. “I’m comfortable being small,” she said. “There’s a part of my brain that is there to protect me from being hurt.”

She knew, though, that at 33 she would not have another chance, and so she took the risk. She started training with Gotham FC. She impressed enough to be given a contract. Within a year, she would be playing in her first World Cup.

It has not been as easy as that timeline makes it sound. Farrelly has never regretted her decision to return to soccer, she said, but there were times when she was “crying every day,” when she was not sure if she could be what she once was, when the highs and the lows threatened to “overwhelm her.”

This time, though, the culture had shifted. At Gotham, she could speak. Not just to her psychologist and her somatic therapist, but to other players. She could speak to her teammates about the fact she was using a psychologist. “I had to open up and be vulnerable,” she said. “At times, that meant having a vulnerability hangover, but I’m grateful for it.”

Silence had forced her from the game; filling it helped her find her way back. She now believes, ardently, in sharing that with her peers and her successors. “We live in a society that teaches us that we are in competition with each other, that for one to succeed, someone else has to fail,” she said. “But we are starting to see what we can do if we lift each other up, instead.

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