In our effort to give coaches at all levels more guidance as they lead athletes to greatness, and as they navigate an often unpredictable sports world, we’ve asked our resident Licensed Psychotherapist and member of the Member of Florida State Athletic Behavioral Health Team, Paul Peavy, to step in for bi-weekly coaching-related Q&A sessions.

(Paul Peavy)

(Paul Peavy)

Paul has been helping us with our sports-related character development lessons since September, and now he’s ready to bridge things over to the coaching sector.

Paul has counseled kids, teens, and families for over 20 years. He’s also a father, husband, and athlete with many Ironmans under his belt.

In this week’s advice column, we look at what coaches can do when one of their athletes passes away.

So how can coaches best handle the death of an athlete? 

It happens across all levels of sports. Sometimes an athlete loses his or her life whether it’s due to an accident, disease, mental illness, or something else.

Purpose 2 Play: How should a coach break the news to his or her team that one of their teammates has passed?

Paul Peavy: I’m glad we are addressing this issue because the two things we don’t deal with in popular American culture are aging and death. Teenagers especially feel like they are invincible and nothing can touch them or hurt them so they also ascribe these same superpowers to their peers. Now you add the badge of “I am an athlete, so I really am physically bulletproof,” and you see how when a death of a young athlete comes, it is nowhere in the universe of possibilities of their teammates.

A coach should make a very strong point to have everyone gathered to gather at one place. One of the things now with access to the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle is that all of your athletes will know some version of what happened before you can get them all together. Where to meet should be very flexible. If a group is already meeting at the family’s home or a friend’s home, just go with that. If no place has been established, text, email, and post that everyone is welcome at the gym, the pool, the field, or wherever they usually practice or hangout.

You will probably feel like you have to have the right words. Don’t worry about trying to find the right words. Just be there for your team and say something, or say nothing, but just be there and hug and cry and do whatever comes to your heart. The team needs a role model at this time and your honesty and your hurt and your confusion is just as valid of a way to lead as trying to fake like you have a tidy answer for them.

P2P: Losing a teammate can very much be like losing a member of the family. What can coaches expect their athletes to go through?

PP: Seth Godin is a very forward thinking entrepreneur; techie, speaker, and writer and he re-introduced us to the ancient idea of tribes. Humans have lived in tribes since the beginning, but we have gotten away from labeling them as such. I cannot think of a more accurate description of a team than a tribe. You eat together, you work together, you make conquests together and you definitely have your very own unique rituals and rites of passages. So yes, it’s like family but it is definitely your tribe.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set the template for the stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying. These stages help people understand that the random emotions they may feel at different times are not unusual and they can come at them in any time and in any order. The stages she explained were presented as “stages of adjustment.” They are:

Denial– “This can’t be happening” or “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

This can actually include turning to talk to someone who’s not there or starting a text to someone who has passed. This could be viewed as the brain’s shock absorber to only handle as much bad news as possible at one time.

Anger– “I’m so mad at God for taking you” or “I’m so mad at you for leaving me!”

It doesn’t sound right or proper to express or even feel anger at this time, but emotions are not logical. Anger is one of the ways the brain looks to protect itself or ones that we love.

Bargaining– “Why couldn’t this have happened to me?” or “I would gladly trade places with her!”

Death definitely makes us feel at our most helpless, so we try to offer up ourselves or something dear to us to undo what has been done.

Depression– “This hurts so bad. I am so sad all the time.”

Once the brain and the body adjusts to the reality of the situation, the sadness just starts to seep in. Perhaps the other stages of denial and anger kick in to fight off the sadness that is coming on.

Acceptance– “He’s gone. he’s really gone.” I

I think that this can only come in bits and pieces and definitely goes away at times when you forget that she is not there.

These stages definitely do not come in order, nor do you stay in one place once you have gone through one. It’s a random hodgepodge of timing and intensity. It is your brain doing its best in helping you deal with the absolute worst case scenario. Some athletes may want to avoid practice and some may want to dive in and get lost in the sport they shared with their teammate. You know your athletes best, so follow your gut.

P2P:  What resources should coaches direct their athletes to in order to cope in a healthy way? (i.e. school counselors, education on the stages of grief, etc.)

PP: Having school counselors available as well as community grief experts would be great to have available. Also at this time, don’t be afraid to bring in spiritual people such as popular youth ministers or pastors. Your kids may already have some experience with these people, and they can be very comforting at this time. Also just having other parents and adults around can be very helpful because there can be some very strong relationships that have already been established.

P2P: What are some good ways for teams to honor a deceased teammate?

PP: Certainly setting up a Facebook page or flooding Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are great ways to create a positive virtual monument to your teammate.

You certainly should let your team discuss this because they can be very creative in the ways I have seen this happen. Certainly, the teammate’s number on the shoulder, cap, or helmet of everyone is an honorable way to remember a teammate. Performing the same quirky ritual that the lost teammate performed would be very stirring. Rotating that teammate’s jersey each game is a cool way I’ve seen done also. I’ve also seen things like players shoot free throws left handed to honor a teammate.

My own daughter’s swim team lost a swimmer 6 ½ years ago and Mac Crutchfield’s family has fought long and painfully hard to keep his memory alive.  Their coach says he has never in his 40-year career seen a team as cohesive as his ATAC team has been for the last 6 years. They have really turned tragedy into triumph with birthday celebrations, swim meets, parties, swim scholarships, and even getting Ryan Lochte to sign on as a spokesperson.

As Mac’s mother Maggie Crutchfield has so painfully pointed out, a mother’s worst fear is that her child would be forgotten. Don’t be surprised if in whatever town you are in you see a “Heart Mac” car decal or a herd of hungry swimmers attacking a grocery store with permanent or temporary “Heart Mac” tattoos plastered on their bodies.

P2P: Coaches need to tend to their own feelings as well as their teams. What advice would you give to a grieving coach?

PP: If we go back to the earlier question, which said that teams are like families, then you have lost the closest thing to a child. As a parent, it has been so great to know that my child has an incredibly powerful and wise mentor in her coach. I am not jealous when I say he is a father figure to her. So please don’t feel like you have to be some stupid macho rock to support everyone. Just as the flight attendants constantly remind us, place the oxygen mask on yourself first, then take care of the kids. Probably talking to other coaches may be the strongest experience. I know our swim coach made it a point to call another swim coach when a swimmer in our same state died a few weeks ago.

Journaling is also a huge way to get your feelings, thoughts, and words out. You may feel like you will never stop writing once you start but that’s the point. Think of all those thoughts just cycling through your head with nowhere to go. The point is that if you release them through writing, they don’t have to keep running around in circles in your head. (I guess I just reminded myself that this also a good thing to offer for your athletes to help them through this time.)

If you are embarrassed to go seek help from a therapist, there are actually very good therapists online these days so that you can do counseling very anonymously through chat, skype, or phone calls.

Also don’t be afraid to speak to your team when you are choking up or at a loss for words. It is healthy for you to try to get things out and it is healthy for your team to see that you are struggling also.

I’ll wrap this up by saying that they taught us in school that therapy can’t always be wrapped up neatly in a package with a bow. Neither can life. Life is about shaping the best mosaic you can out of what seems like a scrambled mess. Young athletes often believe life is orderly and just. I am glad good coaches are in their lives to shepherd them through dark, chaotic, unjust times and let them know that life is still good and that the strength of the tribe can carry them through these dark valleys.