Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Red Stars midfielder Cari Roccaro has been a champion for mental health in the NWSL and beyond

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When midfielder Cari Roccaro was traded to the Red Stars at the beginning of 2023, it was her second cross-country move in two years.

Admittedly when she joined the organization, it was not the easiest environment to adjust to. The lack of stability after two major moves as a result of trades had a huge effect on her. That instability coupled with the Red Stars being in a state of flux, without ownership and lacking resources, made it difficult.

“You mix it all together, and you’re just trying to hang on, honestly,” Roccaro said. “That’s what people don’t realize when they’re watching games. People really don’t know what’s going on internally with someone’s heart and mind.”

Roccaro’s journey toward better understanding and caring for her mental health began in college. As a freshman at Notre Dame, she experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression and introduced therapy into her life for the first time.

But when she reached the professional level, a personal experience exacerbated her struggles ahead of the 2019 season.

“That felt a little bit different than ongoing depression,” Roccaro said. “I was originally planning on taking a leave. But, at the time, the league didn’t have that option.”

Roccaro ended up playing the entire season, but the lack of options she had for her mental-health condition prompted her to speak up.

When the NWSL Players Association was negotiating with the league to establish the first collective-bargaining agreement, Roccaro made it clear that attention needed to be paid to mental health. She made the suggestion to her player rep at the time that the league allow for a mental-health leave of absence.

The NWSL’s mental-health policy, which allows players to take up to a six-month paid leave if recommended by their psychologist or psychiatrist, is believed to be the first of its kind in U.S. pro sports.

“As athletes, we need to remind ourselves that we’re human, too,” Roccaro said.

In 2020, Roccaro and Ginny McGowan — an old teammate at Notre Dame — took things a step further by launching a podcast dedicated to destigmatizing mental-health conversations.

McGowan was two years younger than Roccaro. Their friendship was strengthened after Roccaro graduated. McGowan said Roccaro helped her through her own mental-health challenges while she was still playing at Notre Dame. When McGowan presented the idea of launching a podcast to Roccaro, she was all in.

“I dealt with performance anxiety my whole life, no matter what sport I was playing,” McGowan said. “I couldn’t really find much relief online. I hadn’t heard of any other players that had it. The idea was: ‘Can Cari and I talk about this issue and other athletes that have gone through these struggles, so people can understand these professional athletes who made it are just like me.’ ”

Roccaro and McGowan have spotlighted athletes from Dak Prescott to Aly Raisman and featured such guests as Lindsey Horan and Jess McDonald.

A little over a year into her new life in Chicago, Roccaro is excited about being part of a page-turning moment in Red Stars history. She’s also beginning to feel at home in the city.

Roccaro was on the North Carolina Courage team that beat the Red Stars in the 2019 NWSL championship game. In the Red Stars’ efforts to establish a championship culture, Roccaro has noticed some similarities.

“This team is very cohesive,” Roccaro said. “I am really enjoying being part of the culture. The way we get along and fight for each other, it shows that we’re able to grind out and get really good results at home or away. We can hang with any team. We truly believe in that.”

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