The Emotional Wellness training program for Hertha Berlin’s U17 team is based on helping the young men build healthy relationships through developing the key skills of mutual understanding. In the process, the youth players are not only learning how to bring out the best in themselves but also how to affirm and encourage the best in those around them, including their families, their teammates, and those who have traditionally been on the margins of our society.
The Tokyo Olympics will long be remembered as a turning point in elite sport where the mental health of athletes became an essential concern for all. Hertha Berlin takes seriously its duty of care to promote the emotional well-being of the participants in its Youth Academy. To that end, for the 2021-2022 football season the Club engaged Arne Friedrich, then a Hertha Executive Board member, whose areas of responsibility included the Youth Academy, Dr. Ben Houltberg, an internationally respected youth developmental psychologist, and Dr. John Ashley Null, a Fulbright Alumnus and deeply experienced pastoral counselor to elite athletes, to design a pilot program to promote emotional wellness in Hertha’s Under 17 youth team.
The project was founded on the principle that a person is not defined by their accomplishments, but by their relationships. However, relationships are what make accomplishments possible. After all, the first thing Olympic Gold Medalists do when they realize they have won is instinctively look to the stands to make eye contact with someone they love. Because no matter how wonderful the thrill of victory is at the very special moment, if there is no one with whom to share the joy, even a victory as great as that is empty. And, of course, it was the on-going love of those very people that provided the gold medalists the “emotional shock absorbers” they needed to keep going, despite all the disappointments and multiple setbacks the come with elite sport, until they had achieved their goal of the gold. In short, emotional wellness gives people the resilience they need to keep striving for a better future, and emotional wellness is the product of healthy relationships. Therefore, the Hertha pilot program concentrated on giving the twenty-four fifteen- and sixteen-year-old young men of its Under 17 team the tools they needed to build healthy relationships. And what is the foundation of healthy relationships?
Mutual understanding. The program identified seven key skills necessary for mutual understanding: respect, empathy, trust, togetherness, forgiveness, gratitude, and resilience. One relational skill was featured each month. The U17 team met for emotional wellness training three times a month in ninety-minute sessions. Since youths learn best through role models, activities, and conscious integration, the first monthly meeting featured an interview with a member of the current pro team or staff about how the relational skill of the month helps the pro on and off the field.
For respect, Dedryck Boyata, the current pro team captain, spoke about the importance of taking time to invest in other people, since it was the support which his family gave him that got him through a very difficult rehabilitation process after a serious injury at the start of his career. Other speakers include Fredi Bobic, Hertha Managing Director; Arne Friedrich, Hertha Sporting Director and former pro team captain; and Maxi Mittelstädt, current member of the Hertha pro team and alumnus of the Hertha Youth Academy. The second monthly meeting consisted of a physical activity which reinforced the featured skill, broadened the youth players’ understanding, and acted as a service project to the wider community.
For empathy, the young men interacted with mentally and physically handicapped people at their work place. On the one hand, the youth players learned that making a cheese board for which someone would pay money served a similar function in the lives of the handicapped as scoring a goal did for them. Despite the significant differences between the two groups, they all shared a basic human need to be productive and appreciated. This awareness broadened the young footballers understanding of handicapped people and of themselves. On the other hand, for the handicapped, elite sportspeople coming to their work place to learn from them reinforced that they had something significant to offer others, which increased the handicapped participants’ own sense of accomplishment and being appreciated.
Other service projects included playing blind football with members of Hertha’s blind football team (trust), inviting their parents to a December party where they told them all things they were grateful that their parents did for them (gratitude) and learning from a former homeless teenager at the Mission to Bahnhof Zoo about how depression led him to the streets where shame and fear plagued him–the three very issues with which elite athletes have to struggle–and how he overcame them (resilience).
A very special highlight of the year was listening to Margot Friedländer speak about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor, including how she learned to forgive.
The focus of the third monthly meeting was reflection and integration. The youth players were each given a personal notebook. In the final meeting of the month, the young men recorded what they have learned about the featured relational skill. They are then encouraged to write down how that skill could help their relationship with themselves, with their family and friends, with their football performance, with their teammates and coaches, and with others in school and the community.
Finally, they are asked to write down one action item where they commit to growing better at the relational skill in a specific context. In their written comments, many remarked, for example, how they had learned for the first time that they should express respect and empathy for those different from themselves, rather than pity. Some committed themselves to working on remaining positive when their teammates make mistakes in a match, since they knew how that felt. Several others recognized how they have failed to have empathy for their parents and have pledged to try harder at understanding and respecting them. Not surprisingly, then, those not directly associated with the Emotional Wellness project, like their coaches, commented that they could see a real difference in how the participants acted towards others.
In the light of the positive evaluations, Hertha plans to continue the program in its Youth Academy for the 2022-2023 football season.