10 Ways to Help Permanently Sidelined Athletes
by Christine Pinalto with Matt Brown, PhD, Sports Psychology
Whether you are a friend, family member, teammate, athletic trainer, or coach of an athlete who has recently been permanently sidelined, the grief of the sidelined athlete can weigh heavy on you as well. You want to help but it can be tough to know what to say or how to ease the pain of the athlete who has experienced such a devastating loss. Following these research-based guidelines, you can support the permanently sidelined athlete in navigating a healthy adjustment to his or her new reality and have a positive impact in the athlete’s emotional recovery.
1. Open up a line of communication.
Don’t take for granted that grieving athletes know they can talk to you. It means a lot when you directly tell them that you care and communicate that you want to make yourself available.
2. Give them license to feel.
What recently sidelined athletes are going through is a big deal and their loss will take time to grieve. It’s important to listen more than you speak and to resist the temptation to fill the silence with your own “silver lining” comments. Especially at the beginning of the grieving process, focus on acknowledging their feelings and communicating empathy. Offering simple affirming statements like, “I would feel the same way” or simply, “what you're going through is really tough” are helpful in supporting the permanently sidelined athlete work through his/her feelings of grief.
3. Be patient and show grace.
You can’t rush grief. Realize that permanently sidelined athletes may struggle to feel like their normal selves. They may be moody or cranky out of the blue. This is normal. Show that you care and ask them if they are okay. They may not realize the way they are coming across and may just need to talk about what’s really on their mind.
4. Understand there may be isolating tendencies but know when to give a little push.
Sometimes the sidelined athlete is going to benefit from being around others and sometimes he/she is just going to want to be left alone. Alone time is an important part of the healing process. However, sometimes someone who is grieving can get stuck in that space and not have the motivation to pull out. If you sense this is happening, pursue them, invite them to do something, and if it comes down to it, show up at their place and *insist* on getting out together. A healthy “push” may be just the thing that is needed.
5. Encourage them to take it day by day.
Remind the sidelined athlete that some days are going to be harder than others. If it’s a bad day, remind them better days are coming. Encourage them, “Yes, it’s really hard right now, but it’s going to be alright. It won’t always be as hard as it is right now.”
6. Help them focus on physical recovery and encourage physical activity.
Encourage sidelined athletes to get back on their feet and get moving. Invite them to throw a ball around, go for a jog, go for bike ride, etc. Physical activity is key to reducing tendencies toward depression. Be sensitive to the fact that re-engaging with their own sport is probably not helpful right away. (The sidelined basketball player, for example, probably wants nothing to do with shooting hoops at the park.) Offer another idea, something that isn’t a reminder of what they’ve lost, and do the activity with them.
7. Stay positive and be encouraging.
When the time is right, tell the sidelined athlete, “you’re going make it through this”, “you will find happiness through other outlets”, “there’s more to you than being a ____ player”, and other forward-progress statements. They may not believe it right away, and that’s okay. Just keep reminding them of these truths until they do.
8. Affirm the grieving athlete in who they are.
Think about what character qualities made them a great competitor. Affirm that they are still that same person and that you look forward to seeing what’s next for them. Encourage them to apply those same characteristics into whatever they choose to do now.
9. Help them look ahead rather than looking back.
Help sidelined athletes focus on their future. Nudge them towards setting new goals. At the appropriate time, ask what’s next for them. If they don’t know yet, let them know that you believe there’s great things in store for them and you look forward to hearing about their next endeavor.
One coach put it so well when he wrote his devastated sidelined athlete a letter, “Whatever challenges come your way, you’ve always found a way. I know you’ll be successful at whatever you put your mind to.”
10. Understand the “spiral nature” of grief.
Permanently sidelined athletes may do really well for a while and then all of a sudden be confronted with the grief all over again. This is especially true when their sports season starts up again the following year and they are not a part of the team. Down the road from the initial injury or diagnosis, it might be hard for them to admit they are still struggling. Make it easier for them by checking in with them from time to time to see how they are really doing. It will mean the world to them to know that you continue to care and are a willing listener.
Want to learn more? Read our article “10 Things Not to Say to an Athlete Who Has Recently Become Permanently Sidelined” and watch our interview with Matt Brown, PhD, Sports Psychology "Practical Advice on Moving Forward From a Career-Ending Injury or Diagnosis."