Football is back and the director of player wellness at the NFL Players Association is here to offer a few words of wisdom.
By Sean Downey
It’s no secret that football can be a hard-hitting game, with NFL players putting their bodies on the line every time they step on the field. But while sideline reporters, fantasy football leagues, and Monday morning quarterbacks focus on weekly injury reports detailing the various ailments players suffer, Amber Cargill prefers to take a more comprehensive view. As director of player wellness at the NFL Players Association, the union which represents players, she looks after the mental and physical health of every player on all 32 NFL teams.
Here, in her own words, Cargill, a licensed clinical and sport psychologist who earned her doctoral degree from the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, shares how she uses her Rutgers degree every day and what she’s learned from 16 years of working with athletes.
Getting inside the heads and hearts of players
Let’s just be clear, when you step into this billion-dollar business, it’s just a different world. I was nervous when I started at the NFL Players Association, but once I engaged the players like the human beings they are, like I’m trained to do, they were responsive and willing to go there, to be vulnerable and talk through what’s going on with them.
I let rookies know from the beginning that this is going to be a stressful time in their lives and that while they’re going to have a lot of fun doing the thing they love doing, it will be different because it’s their job now. Playing professional sports isn’t easy, not on the body and certainly not on the mind. I tell them, ‘If you’re dealing with something, no matter how big or small you think it is, you have my number. Use it.’ All 2,000 active NFL players have access to me whenever they need something. Oftentimes, they will reach out, and other times their agents, wives, or significant others will reach out on their behalf.
We host a program for players who end up on ‘injured reserve’ to help them manage the recovery process. They have a slew of doctors who take care of the physical injury, but the mental health side of that recovery is oftentimes just as difficult and not given as much attention. We work with them to make sure they know their resources and can use the time away from the game productively.
Receiving a thank you message from a player, or his wife or mom, is the most rewarding part of my job. It means he took the step toward health and I played a role in that.
Rutgers laid the groundwork
Rutgers let me chart a path that focused on Black mental health and sport psychology. My dissertation was around Black male athletes, their ideas about success, and how race plays a factor in that. With this position I feel like I’ve come full circle given that more than 70 percent of NFL players are Black men.
NFL players are, first and foremost, human beings, and the things they deal with are things that everyone tends to deal with: family, relationships, self-doubt, and worry about your position at your job. And they experience anxiety and depression just like the rest of us do. Part of my job is to get ahead of some of the mental health concerns we tend to see by providing education on mental health topics, like signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses, so they know what to look out for in themselves and their teammates.
While we as a society are working our way through definitions and constructs of masculinity, we have to understand that this group of men probably has had clear messaging about what masculinity means, so the idea of asking for help I think is still somewhat tricky. On top of that, they have some legitimate fears about how the team’s perception of them having a ‘mental health concern’ might be used against them by their teams.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field is interesting. There are definitely times when you feel it more than others. There are advantages, though. Many of the players, for whatever reason, feel more comfortable letting a woman in on some of the things that have been going on in their heads.
Still, I’ve seen the stigma around mental health and athletics slowly decrease over the years. Taking care of your mental health has become more woven into the fabric of being a good athlete. So, more and more universities put psychologists, social workers, and mental health professionals in place within athletic departments to meet that need.
Psychology always intrigued me. My high school had a psychology class and that’s where my interest really began to grow. I knew going into college I wanted to be in that field to better understand people so I could better assist and support them. Growing up, I was always someone who provided support to friends, so it was a natural fit to go down the clinical psychology path.
My sport psychology concentration at Rutgers laid the groundwork for the career I have now. The Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology is rigorous—the top program in the country—and I came out with the training I needed to be successful in any context.
Being in a major metropolitan area, Rutgers has relationships with places all over New York and New Jersey. We had access to every type of clinical setting imaginable and got to see many clinical presentations. By the time I entered the workforce, I had already treated several presentations of significant and severe mental illness. Not all graduate programs are like this.
Part of the beauty of our field in general, and what the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology does so well, is instill in you the need to learn about yourself to do this work well. It offers a supportive environment with lots of supervision to help you throughout the grueling process of getting a doctorate in clinical psychology.
What I Know Now features prominent alumni reflecting on their careers and their time at Rutgers while offering their insights and advice to current students and recent grads. They focus on life lessons—identifying what’s important and maintaining a healthy balance. And of course, finding personal success.