Becoming Sidelined: Understanding the Grief Process
by Christine Pinalto
Permanently sidelined athletes can expect to go through a grieving process as they adjust to their new reality of life beyond their sport. Understanding what an athlete can expect to experience when coping with the loss of his/her sport can be a powerful piece of knowledge, both for the athlete and the athlete's family. While it is important to understand that everyone’s path is unique and each sidelined athlete should be treated as an individual, there are some common components of the grief and transition process described by many sidelined athletes. (Keep in mind, these are components, not necessarily sequential stages.)
Shock- Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news
“How is it possible that yesterday I could play and today - it’s all over?” The athlete is stunned with the bad news. As one sidelined athlete said, “A big motivating force in my life was gone . . . It was just kind of like I was going through the motions of life. Like a zombie or something like that. Just blowing through.” (Loberg, 2009)
Denial- Trying to avoid the inevitable
The athlete struggles to accept the facts, often discrediting or refuting the opinion of the physician. “This is a mistake.” or “That doctor is stupid, I’m getting another opinion."
Anger/bitterness- Frustrated outpouring of bottled up emotion
Sidelined athletes often “struggle with a lack of perceived control over their lives.” (Schlossberg, 1981) They can become angry and bitter toward whomever they perceive is responsible for their injury or diagnosis, or angry with themselves if they believe they could have somehow avoided the injury. There is also a secondary but significant emotion tied to anger and that is fear/uncertainty. Many athletes report being uncertain and scared of the future without their sport and others are additionally grappling with the uncertainty of how the injury/condition is going to impact their lives long-term. The fear can drive the anger and the anger can feed the fear.
Bargaining- Seeking a way out
The sidelined athlete may attempt to find a way to continue their sport despite what they’ve been told. Negotiating with doctors, parents, and coaches is common. “What if I find a doctor who will let me play?” or “If you just let me play, I promise to be really careful.”
Depression- The reality of the inevitable sinks in
Depression is very common in sidelined athletes as they begin to contend with their new reality. Sidelined athletes experiencing depression can struggle with “social withdrawal, insomnia, lethargy, eating disorders, and even thoughts of suicide.” (Leddy et.al., 1994) Athletes may not want to talk about their sport or engage with it.
Many reported feeling like a part of them had died. They question their self-identity and self-concept. Lauren Loberg, PhD, LCMHC, CC-AASP, reports “The loss of their athletic identity left many athletes to question whether or not they were the same person.” (Loberg, 2009) It is not uncommon for athletes to give the impression that they’re alright even if they are inwardly suffering. Loberg continues, “Many expressed the importance of hiding the emotional pain they were experiencing. They did not want to let others know how they were feeling and struggling.” (Loberg, 2009)
Testing- Seeking a new passion or challenge
“Maybe there are other things that can be meaningful to me.” The athlete tries out new ways to redefine his/her satisfaction - pursuing academia, exploring other potential interests, starting up a new hobby, building some new skills, etc. Matt Brown, PhD, Sports Psychology, explains, “A new challenge can provide a motivating force to break out of the low energy and inactivity. . . .pull them out of their down period and provide a vision for the future” (Brown, 1998)
Acceptance- Finding a meaningful way forward
Acceptance implies forward-movement. It is a moving away from the negative emotions and an emphasis on building something positive. The athlete moves on, finding meaning in other activities. Sometimes a sidelined athlete experiences acceptance but later is confronted with some sort of trigger which causes him/her to go through the grief again. Maybe it’s the launch of his/her sports season the following year. Maybe his/her old teammates start receiving college recruitment letters. A number of circumstances can cause the athlete to re-enter the grieving process.
Ken Ravizza, PhD, Professor of Sports Psychology at Cal State Fullerton says, "We used to believe that the stages occurred in that order, but we've found that athletes actually bounce around. One day they're angry, one day they're in denial, the next day they seem to have accepted it, and the day after that their angry again. But these distinct emotions are all there at some point." It may be helpful to think of the stages of grief for sidelined athletes more as a general process of grief and transition. This chart shows the potential “looping effect” of the process of grief and transition for sidelined athletes.
Understanding what an athlete can potentially expect to experience when coping with an unexpected career-ending injury or diagnosis can be a powerful piece of knowledge, both for the athlete and his/her family. When the process to healthy emotional recovery is demystified, all parties benefit and can work to move forward in healthy emotional recovery.
If you are a sidelined athlete struggling to find your way forward, we encourage you to reach out to someone and let them know. We recommend reading the follow up article Healthy Adjustment Part 3: Finding Your Voice in the Aftermath. We at Sidelined USA can help connect you to others who have experienced what you are going through. Take a look at our Connection page to watch videos of other sidelined athletes and their stories and join our online connection group.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered.
Brown, Matthew Tyler. (1998) Healthy Adjustment Following a Career-Ending Athletic Injury. MA thesis, University of Alberta.
Loberg, Lauren Aline. (2009) In at Instant It Was Over: The Athlete's Experience of a Career-Ending Injury. PhD diss., University of Tennessee.
Leddy, M.H., Lambert, J.J. & Ogles, B.M. (1994) Psychological consequences of athletic injury amount high-level competitors. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 65, 347-354.
Schlossberg, N. K. (1981). A model for analyzing human adaptation to transition. The Counseling Psychologist, 9(2), 2-18.
Smith, Laura. "Point of No Return." Training & Conditioning. 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2017
Sidelined USA's Executive Director and Co-founder, Sidelined USA Board Chair
"I am passionate about providing support for both sidelined athletes and their parents in the transition following the end of an athletic career due to medical disqualification. There is power in learning from those who have faced this difficult transition and who have found a way to thrive after such a devastating loss."