10 Things NOT to Say to an Athlete Who Has Recently Become Permanently Sidelined
Someone in your life has recently been told that he or she has to give up competing in their sport. They’ve had one too many ACL tears. One too many concussions. A severe neck injury. Or maybe they’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition that is too risky to continue competing. Whatever the case may be, someone you care about has just received devastating news. Their whole world has been upended and chances are they are experiencing a host of emotions ranging from denial to rage. It’s a situation you may not feel prepared for. It’s tough to know exactly how to respond.
We want you to know it’s okay to not know what to say. Listening really is most important. Sometimes though, in honest attempts to somehow make the situation better, people offer bad advice or damaging antidotes. We’ve been through this ourselves and have come up with a list of comments that while well-intended, can actually be rather discouraging or even damaging.
1. “Pshhh. Don’t listen to the doctors! They don’t know what they’re talking about. A doctor once told me ____________ and I pushed through and proved them wrong. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do.”
This might be the worst one. The sidelined athlete is already trying to think of every which way he/she can get around the diagnosis. Sometimes bodies really do have limits and it’s no longer safe to compete in the same way. Since “acceptance” is a long and painful process, every time somebody offers this kind of “accept no limits” advice, they prolong the athlete’s internal agony and slow down the healing process.
2. “Did you get a second opinion?”
Unless you are family or a really close friend, it is not your place to question the validity of the diagnosis. The sidelined athlete doesn’t need the additional aggravation of answering your skepticism. Take what they say at face value.
3. “Maybe you’ll be able to play someday . . .”
Offering false hope has no value whatsoever. It’s not enough that it makes you feel better to offer it.
4. “At least you know now so you can pursue other things instead.”
It’s not that this isn’t true. It’s just that there’s never a good time to be told you can no longer compete in your sport. No matter what age it happens, it hurts.
5. “It’s not the end of the world.”
To these athletes, at this point in their lives, that may be exactly what it feels like. Then they’ll feel misunderstood and will be more prone to hiding and feeling ashamed of what they’re feeling. Subsequently, they’ll be less apt to seek support.
6. “Don’t be sad; you have so many other things to look forward to.”
Even though the second part will eventually be true, you can’t skip the first step of the process: 1) Grieve. 2) Move on and rebuild. It’s really tough to get to #2 without going through #1.
7.“It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just find something else.”
This is dismissive and infuriating. Sidelined athletes don’t want something else. They want to be back competing in their sport. Eventually, yes, they will find other passions and it certainly is good to encourage them if they are ready for that next step. However, in the beginning stages of healing (grief and acceptance), a permanently sidelined athlete feels like part of him/her has died. Be sensitive to that.
8. “At least you got to play at all!”
Attempting to find the “silver lining” for someone who’s grieving is actually offensive. It feels like you are discrediting what they are feeling. It’s a matter of timing and sensitivity. If you’re trying to talk them out of their grief, you aren’t going to be helpful.
9. “Other people are going through way worse things.”
Now on top of feeling sad, they feel guilty about their sadness. It’s obviously true, but it’s not helpful. Virtually anything you say to try to minimize or discount their sadness will be counterproductive. They’ve earned the right to be sad by committing completely to their sport. Let them feel it.
10. “Isn’t it time to move on?”
There is no universal “right amount” of time to grieve. It’s different for everyone. Most grieving people just want you to acknowledge their pain and be there with a listening ear. Don’t judge them if it’s taking them longer than you think it should.
For more information on how to help someone you love move forward from a career-ending injury or health diagnosis, watch the Matt Brown interview.