Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Larry Bowman, John Thompson and Eugene Kemp play a modified version of sharks and minnows during an Operation Get Active Kickstart soccer session at Highland Park Commons Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Kickstart is a new soccer program aimed at helping adults of all ages and people with mental health needs within the Hamilton County community.

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Soccer program for mentally ill

Whistles blowing, the thump of a ball hitting the turf, cheers of encouragement — these were the sounds of a Thursday morning soccer game at Highland Park Commons.

For the participants in Operation Get Out Kickstart — a new soccer program aimed at helping adults of all ages and people with mental health needs — these sounds can be more than just background noise. They can be therapeutic, especially when the sounds and fun had while playing help quiet the internal thoughts of people with psychiatric disorders.

Chris Precise, founder of Kickstart, is a full-time firefighter but has a social work degree. He previously worked at a Helen Ross McNabb Center — a nonprofit provider of behavioral health services in East Tennessee — supportive house in Hamilton County.

Residents there are diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, and would otherwise be homeless, because they have limited social and family support.

Precise noticed that residents spent most of their time eating, sleeping, smoking and watching TV, and he wanted to find a way to increase their activity.

"That led to our overall mission, which is to improve the health and well-being of individuals with mental health issues and various other forms of disability, and we want to do that through inclusion and also through the game of soccer," he said. "The inclusion is big for me, because [these diagnoses are] often forgotten about, and no one wants to see it or recognize it."

Kickstart started as a pilot program for residents at the five Helen Ross McNabb Center supportive homes in Hamilton County. Participation is voluntary and includes warm-up, drills and scrimmage on Thursday mornings.

"At first, we had a lot of people that would just walk and then not play — they'd sit down. Since then, we've had an increase and hardly anyone's sitting now and [they're] up playing or doing other activities," Precise said.

Alex Fletcher, a licensed master social worker at Helen Ross McNabb, said the program has been especially beneficial because many of the residents have co-occurring health issues that stem from inactivity, and opportunities for them to participate in organized sports are extremely rare.

"Their day-to-day life a lot of times is just limited as far as what they can do, and this program has been something that's been a bright light for them," Fletcher said. "I've seen attitude changes. I've seen a more positive outlook on things in general. I've seen people exercising on their own that never did that before."

Fletcher said he's been able to use that success to encourage other residents to participate and reach their treatment goals.

"I did a separate statistical analysis of their weight, and the average weight lost in last year's program is seven or eight pounds," he said.

Kickstart is supported through sponsors, the Chattanooga Football Club Foundation and by Operation Get Active, a health initiative that uses the game of soccer to encourage Chattanooga's youth to live active, healthy lifestyles.

Since starting, it's added a Friday session for residents of Orange Grove Center, and Precise is hoping to add a third and fourth group in the future.

"With funding, we can do that," he said. "There's a large homeless population that's [diagnosed with schizophrenia] that we'd like to be able to reach out to and get them out here playing, too."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.