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Making mental health a priority, Oakland Roots adds therapist to soccer club

on October 12, 2021

During every Oakland Roots home soccer game, Lisa Bonta Sumii stands on the opposite team’s sideline, carefully watching the players’ body language. 

At the end of a recent game, when she noticed defensive player Akeem O’Connor-Ward standing still with his hands on his hips, staring blankly as his opponents celebrated a 1-0 victory, Bonta Sumii walked over to comfort him.  

As the soccer club’s mental health and sports performance specialist, Bonta Sumii intervened to keep O’Connor-Ward from getting too down, giving him a pep talk and emphasizing performance strategies they had previously worked on.

O’Connor-Ward thanked the fans, gave Bonta Sumii a hug, and walked into the locker room.

Oakland Roots is one of the few teams in the United Soccer League with a staff member who helps players with mental health both on and off the field. 

Oakland Roots
Lisa Bonta Sumii, Oakland Roots’ clinical social workers. (Courtesy of Oakland Roots)

Mental illness has long been stigmatized in sports, but Mike Geddes, director of purpose for the Oakland Roots, said that in the past five years, more teams have been prioritizing mental health. 

“You know, it used to be that people didn’t think about nutrition, and now everyone understands that good nutrition is part of being a healthy athlete. And I think that’s where it’s going for mental health as well,” Geddes said.

Elite athletes have stressed that point in recent months, prioritizing their mental health during high stakes matches. Gymnast Simone Biles did so on sports’ biggest stage this summer when she pulled out of the women’s team gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics, saying: “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.” And tennis star Naomi Osaka cited similar concerns when she bowed out of the French Open in May. 

Oakland Roots has moved proactively to keep players from feeling stressed. Adding Bonta Sumii was part of that process. Assistant coach and former Roots captain Nana Attakora was among those involved in creating the position. 

“I felt it had been long overdue for professional sports teams to see the value and importance in mental health and someone who could help athletes navigate it,” Attakora said.

Bonta Sumii, a licensed clinical social worker, had been a therapist for over 20 years when she joined the Roots in March. She holds therapy sessions with players, offers post-game observations and book recommendations, and helps them work through performance anxiety. 

The players say they appreciate the bond Bonta Sumii has built with them.

Oakland Roots
Team captain Emrah Klimenta completing a pass against the LA Galaxy II. (Isaac Ceja)

“She has definitely unlocked a different mental side of my game that I believe has helped me through situations that occur on the field,” said team captain Emrah Klimenta. “More so it has helped me off the field and how I approach life problems as well.” 

Bonta Sumii’s impact on and off the field may have helped the team’s recent performance — Roots went from eighth place to fourth and has a shot at third. There are four games left in the regular season, which ends on Oct. 30.

O’Connor-Ward believes that working with Bonta Sumii has improved his approach to the sport. 

“It has helped me immensely in understanding how to stay more focused in matches, the proper mental preparation for matches, and to find consistency in the things I’m doing,” he said.

From the archives: June 25, 2010

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