‘A mirror’: Charlotte FC mental health coach helps club progress past tragedy

CHARLOTTE — When Charlotte FC hired their new head of mental health performance, the intention was to find someone who would give them an edge on the pitch and push the club’s play to the next level in their second MLS season.

Channel 9′s sports director Phil Orban sat down with the man whose role became more important than ever following the sudden death of Anton Walkes last month.

Andrea Cannivaccuolo is hard to find on the pitch unless you’re looking for him, but he sees everything. It’s his job to pick up on the cues and tells that might tip him off to a player who is distracted or lacking focus.

“The pitch is an environment in which you can see something that is more unconscious than conscious, so it’s more how can I say? It’s more true,” Cannivaccuolo said.

Any one of those nonverbal cues can start a conversation. It’s not a lecture, but an opportunity to gain new perspective.

“The metaphor that I use for them is like a mirror in which they can see with no judgement at all,” he said.

His position dramatically changed five weeks ago with the unexpected death of Walkes, a beloved friend and teammate. The suddenness of the tragedy has only amplified the pain.

“I can tell you, I had breakfast with him the same day,” Cannivaccuolo said.

Now, Cannivaccuolo was tasked with helping dozens of young professionals broken by the shared loss. The details of those conversations are privileged, but they were a difficult first step in the long process of healing.

“I can tell you that we went deep,” he said. “It’s something that maybe takes more time, you know, before you can see the fruit of this.”

Rather than focusing on getting past the grief, Cannivaccuolo has worked to make sure the team carries Walkes’ memory with them, always.

“We decided to have to make it something that we feel him with us,” he said.

It’s hard to quantify Cannivaccuolo’s contributions to the club, but it’s difficult to imagine they would be here, with clear eyes set on Saturday’s season opening match, without him.

“I had a meeting, an individual meeting, with one of them and he thanked me a lot, I answered that the best way to thank me is when you will fly on the pitch,” he said. “For me, this is my reward, I swear.”

(WATCH BELOW: Charlotte FC value hits $625M — almost double what David Tepper paid for MLS team)

Comments on this article