Veteran’s Day Spotlight: Dr. Galen Duncan’s unique role for UIC athletics

WGN News Now

CHICAGO – A look at the title on his bio, in many ways, indicates the direction to which the university’s athletic program along with sports is going as 2021 continues.

In September, Dr. Galen Duncan became UIC’s senior associate athletics director of health, wellness and performance. The role, per the Flames’ website, says he “provides leadership for all aspects of student-athlete wellness and performance, including athletic training, athletic medicine, mental health, nutrition, and data analytics.”

Essentially, his job is to be there for the well-being of the student-athletes that compete for the school, which is a reflection of sports in general’s emphasis on caring for mental health, which was often disregarded in the past.

“This is not the typical athletic department. We are very forward-thinking, we have a growth mindset, and we’re looking to grow what’s going on here at this university and be a prideful piece for all of Chicago, if we can,” said Duncan of the new role, which he started in September. “Our student-athletes are ready to do those types of things. You should just kinda feel the energy that goes on around here, and that’s what really attracted me to come here.”

Dr. Duncan has an extensive resume of working with athletes and their well-being, especially when it comes to mental health. He spent the previous four years with the Sacramento Kings as the vice president of their academy and professional development where he established an organization-wide mental health awareness and treatment program.

From 2006-2017, Dr. Duncan served as the Senior Director of Player Development for the NFL’s Detroit Lions while at the same time also helping with the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program.

“I would have to give kudos to those NBA and NFL athletes that have stepped forward and normalized mental health,” said Duncan. “They’ve made it seem very normal and it’s OK to go check on your mind, just as you would check on an injury for your leg or your arm or if hit your head.

“If you can go and work in the weight and strengthen every muscle in your body, there’s no reason in the world why you can strengthen the largest muscle you have in your body and the strongest one which is your brain.”

Doing so started before his time in athletics, first in school where he graduated from Lake Superior State University in 1994 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Sciences. Dr. Duncan earned a Masters of Social Work with a concentration in mental health from Wayne State University in 1997, which he’d use when he’d join the US Army reserve after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

He worked with Army Reserves Neuropsychology Team in Southfield, Michigan during his 11 years in the service, helping soldiers prepare to go into combat zones and then aiding their transition into civilian life.

“You have to meet the client where they are. So it’s really an assessment process where you listen to them. It’s a lot of listening, a lot of hearing them,” said Duncan of working with soldiers who either had a good or difficult transition after service. “Listening to the stories that they have and then relive those things in a safe space, then talking about how to move past some of the trauma they’ve experienced and how to turn down the noise that’s associated with a war-time environment.”

This is much different than what is experienced by an athlete on any level in their sport of competition, so the crossover can sometimes be tricky. Yet there’s one aspect of the military that transitions well to the field of competition: Simple teamwork.

“Commaradrie, having your man’s back, the ‘Buddy’ system, the willingness to work as a team and a group to reach one common goal,” said Duncan when pointing out a similarity between teaching mindset in athletics and the military. “Having dedication, having a job and a responsibility and being able to be relied on, being dependable. Those things are really important.”

All of this will be included in his strategy to help UIC athletes improve their mental and physical health in the years ahead, with Dr. Duncan using the acronym “G.R.I.T” as part of his program. (You can hear the explanation in the video above)

“If you see someone who is not doing well, one of your teammates is not understanding something or is having a difficult time, then it’s extremely important for you to step up as a leader and help that teammate,” said Duncan.

It’s a philosophy that translates from one part of his professional career to another in Chicago.

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