skip navigation

How the Battery’s Emilio Ycaza turned his interest in mental health into a tuning device for his game

By EMILIO YCAZA, Charleston Battery, 06/04/24, 9:00AM EDT


Charleston midfielder’s experience in college, pro ranks have made him an advocate for the benefits sports psychologists offer

Playing the Mental Game

Author - Emilio Ycaza
Emilio Ycaza
Charleston Battery
June 4th, 2024

For most of us playing right now in the USL Championship, from a young age, this was the goal.

Having someone pay you to do the thing you love? It’s obviously the sort of thing most people dream about.

You get to travel. In some ways, the hours are shorter.

You get to hang out with your teammates and can make friends and memories that will last a lifetime on and off the field.

When I was around high school-age, though, I was also pretty set on what I wanted to study as well – mental health.

To me, it felt like the two things went hand in hand.

In everything I’ve experienced in my path to this point, that’s proven true.


My path’s been unconventional, to say the least. While my family had a passion for soccer due to our Ecuadorian roots, no-one had ever navigated that path or really understood what it took to be a pro.

That left me, with my family’s support, to find my own way.

It began with a detour to Sweden.

Joining IF Brommapojkarna and living in Stockholm as a teenager was definitely a high point. Being exposed to that level of professionalism, that passion and culture was super-fulfilling.

It also exposed me to what it takes to make it, the side most people don’t always see when it comes to life as a professional. You miss a lot of moments. Family moments, friends, you miss weddings, you miss funerals. It can be even harder for the guys who come from overseas, who don’t always get to bring their families for the ride.

You’re really tied to your sport.

So, when I came back home to St. Petersburg, Fla. – and joined the men’s soccer program at the University of South Florida – the value of mental health as part of that journey really hit home.

I was pretty fortunate. We had a sports psychologist on staff, Dr. Lee Dorpfeld, and he was the most popular guy in the building. People loved him for who he was and would talk to him about anything. When I first started seeing him, it was completely sports – “my coach is doing this,” “I’m not getting this playing time,” or “I’m not getting the performances I’m looking for.”

I had a really good experience the two years I was there – working with him, getting better and seeing those off the field results – to where I knew I wanted to continue as I pursued my professional goals.

At first, it continued to be about maximizing my own performance, but at the same time as I got older and experienced more things in my broader life – especially the highs, lows, successes and insecurity you can experience as a player – the resource became a massive help.

Whether it’s discussing non-soccer relationships with my wife and family, or a mixture of both on the field and off the field challenges, it’s become a way to maximize my all-around potential and achieve on-field success.


Want a real-life example of how this all comes together?

Let me show you.

Last month when we were facing Birmingham Legion, my teammates put me in a great spot late in the first half. All alone in the penalty area, only the goalkeeper to beat, a goal there for the taking.

I missed the target completely.

It was obvious I was angry. I knew how big of an opportunity it was. The visible frustration, though? That was also part of the process of resetting my mind, just getting the anger out.

It might have been a coincidence, but working with mental health coach Brad Johnson at Battery partner The Ideal Life, my theme of the week had been focused on how I get over missed opportunities as quickly as possible.

In the game, we hit halftime right after that. I knew I was going to get another chance, and this time I had to be calmer and more collected. We worked on that – different tactics of staying calm in moments, and how to recover when it goes wrong – and when the second chance came, I buried it.

The session we did proved to be the difference in earning three points on the road against a very good team.

It’s moments like that – and the overall benefits I’ve received in my career – which stand as why I’ve become an advocate for players to seek out resources that can aid their mental health and performance.

I get why some people shy away from it, especially in men’s sports. It’s tough to be vulnerable. It’s tough to talk about your feelings, to talk about your emotions. A lot of it can depend on where you're from – there are so many cultures that are brought together in one changing room.

But in general, guys were raised with the mindset you need to be tough, you need to play through it and don’t let that affect you.

In a certain way, if you veer away from that, you’re being asked to fight the way you were raised.

The benefits, though, are clear to me, and thankfully they’re now more accessible than ever. Having OnRise Health as a part of the resources that every player in the USL Championship and League One has through the USL Players’ Association is massive. So are the resources that are available through our clubs and the USL.

Now, it’s more about spreading the word. A lot of guys don’t know it’s there, or there’s the stigma around talking about it that still has an influence. The way it’s been great for me, I'm also happy to speak up for it and try to break that stigma down.

Sometimes, I’ll get told, “I don't need that,” or “I don’t know, I’d rather speak about it with my family or my friends.” For me, that’s actually great. Everyone has their own moment. You don't have to utilize all the resources that we have, but to know it’s there and the impact it’s having when people give it a chance, it’s a great thing for everyone to have.

Once you experience it yourself, you might wonder where it was the rest of your career.

For me, it’s made a huge difference.

From The Pitch aims to provide a platform for individuals within the USL to share their thoughts on things that matter most to them – at the crossroads of life and the beautiful game. USL partner Bellevue University is committed to empowering motivated students to explore their passions, impact change in their communities and chase their dreams.

Follow the USL Championship

Most Recent News

Most Read News

Latest Videos