For some MLS players, depression and anxiety are the toughest enemies

The nights have always been the most difficult for Dominique Badji.

During the day Badji, a forward from Nashville SC, a sophomore club in MLS, has football to occupy his mind and his teammates to distract him from his thoughts.

A “kind of paradise, a little bubble,” he says.

But at night, alone in his living room, Badji’s thoughts often turn to his extended family in Senegal, where deadly political protests recently rocked the country.

“Once you get home, your real life begins,” he says. “That’s when all the stress of [life] and family come into effect.

“Coming back to an empty apartment is definitely not the best place to be when things are going on in your life.”

While Badji is often alone with his thoughts, he isn’t the only MLS player to deal with the loneliness and anxiety these thoughts produce. The league has players from 76 countries this season, making it one of the most diverse leading leagues in all sports history.

LAFC, which plays in Seattle on Sunday, includes players from 11 countries on five continents, while the Galaxy, which are at home on Saturday against Austin, added 13 players from eight countries this winter. And although many of these actors come here on their own from countries ravaged by poverty, crime and political instability, they are all expected to perform at a high level upon arrival.

Often times, this only makes matters worse.

“It’s a lot of things on the young shoulders,” said Anna S. Lau, professor of clinical psychology at UCLA. “It’s just so many challenges in addition to challenges.”

In many ways, football is the least that worries these young players because they are already confident and competent. For Badji, 28, who arrived in the United States as a teenager, coping with homesickness and adjusting to a different lifestyle was much more difficult.

“The cultural differences are incredible. And so everyone’s stress is individual. Some of the stories I have heard are crazy.

Dominique Badji, Nashville SC forward on the challenges players face in the United States

“You feel lonely here. It is not with us. Senegal is at home, ”he said. “You don’t have that support system here.”

To complicate matters, his family did not have internet access and he did not have enough money to call by phone.

“I couldn’t speak to my family for three years,” he said. “So you just have to be brave. You know, a lot of prayer and I just hope everything is going well at home.

Júnior Moreno had similar experiences. He was 24 when he left Venezuela to sign with DC United in 2018 and due to the COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil at home he has not seen his family for 18 months. But he thinks about it daily.

“Obviously worry, it’s still there,” Moreno, now 27, said in Spanish.

“In Venezuela, these are difficult times. We just hope that soon we will be out of it all.

Badji said worrying about family at home is a common cause of stress for MLS players, which is why they make it a point to watch each other, with Africans looking after each other. Africans, South Americans learning about South Americans and Europeans checking in with other Europeans. , whether they are teammates or opponents.

“If this is the first time you meet them or [they’re] a very close friend, the first question is always “how is the family?” he said. “It’s always been like this since I set foot in this league. And just seeing how older African players have treated me, I hope to pass it on.

Dominique Badji controls the ball during his time at FC Dallas in 2019.

(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

This base of support is crucial as even people in the same dressing room don’t always appreciate the unique pressures foreign players face in a strange land.

“There is a great lack of understanding,” Badji said. “It happens all the time, even in a simple general conversation. A lot of the things people say they don’t realize have a significant impact on us.

“The cultural differences are incredible. And so everyone’s stress is individual. Some of the stories I have heard are crazy.

He said one teammate who couldn’t stop worrying about his family’s dire financial situation, for example, while another was pressured to end his football career to come home and host a traditional wedding.

Badji, who played for three MLS teams for eight seasons, learned to cope with help from a therapist.

“Now I’m in a very good position,” he said.

Given the league’s growing diversity and its investment in young foreign players, Lau said counseling and mental health resources should be readily available to all players – something many clubs have already done.

CF Montreal were one of the first to hire a mental strength coach in 2015. At the end of last season, nearly half of the league’s 26 teams were using sports psychologists or consultants and this season, Real Salt Lake has added three mental performance coaches to its technical team. Staff.

“The coaching staff will get the most optimal performance from these kids if they create a situation that feels psychologically safe,” Lau said. “There is a real need to pay attention to this emotional climate in the club.

“We have to be very proactive. What can we do to promote good mental health and not just make room for it when people have mental health issues? “

Galaxy star Landon Donovan gestures during a game in 2016.

Former Galaxy star Landon Donovan struggled with depression during his playing days and found ways to cope with his struggles.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

San Diego Loyal sophomore manager Landon Donovan may be creating the model. Donovan, who won a record six league titles and set records in both MLS and with the national team, fought what ultimately became a very public battle with depression during his playing days. said the experience had a big influence on his approach to coaching.

“I’m very, very open and honest about my struggles, the importance of moving these issues forward,” said Donovan, whose team plays in the USL Second Tier Championship. “We are very open with our players. We allow them to come and talk to us about anything.

Donovan said that while most coaches would bench and ignore a player who hasn’t been performing well for a few weeks, “we dig and try to find out what’s wrong.

“It’s really painful because you get to know these players. I treat them like my children, ”he added. “When they go through situations, it’s really difficult.”

This is why Donovan asks sports coach Paulina Maldonado to give him regular mental and physical evaluations of each player, informing the coaches if a player is having problems at home, has broken up with his girlfriend or has a pet. sick.

“Most of the time we don’t act in a formal way, but we’ll go and say, ‘Hey, I heard your dog is dead. How do you deal with this? At the end of the day, we are just human beings, ”Donovan said.

“Yeah, they’re in the public eye at the MLS level. They make millions of dollars, but they’re just human beings.

However, not everyone earns millions. In fact, many players in the USL Championship – which is even more diverse than MLS, with players from 82 countries in its 43 clubs – don’t earn enough to live on their own. This can make it even more difficult to justify the difficulties.

“I decided to get away from my family and sacrifice the good times I have with them. So I have to make it work, ”said staunch defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele, a Frenchman who spent six years playing at the lower levels of American football.

Vancaeyezeele, 26, said he struggled so much with language and culture when he first arrived in the United States that he packed his bags and returned home after six months. Instead of a therapist, he confided in his siblings and close friends, who urged him to go back and try another chance.

He still regularly calls on them.

“Every time I struggle with something I call them and they are right [there] for me, ”he said.

He makes most of those house calls after dark because the nights, well, they’ve always been the hardest.

About Margie Peters

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