Sidelined USA, a non-profit organization, exists to reunite permanently sidelined athletes with their passions and inspire them to find a meaningful way forward. The free resources they provide are relevant not only to athletes experiencing loss but, now more than ever, to any individual or program disrupted from the pursuit of their goals.
Below, co-founder Christine Pinalto shares strategies to help leaders navigate communication and culture in the face of adversity.
Listen to the full interview below.
Q: Our closure and cancelation situation has been described as “a season ending injury for everyone”, from the most elite athlete to the weekend warrior, to the first-time tee baller. How does your research and experience in your work with athletes and teams lend itself to this current situation?
We work with athletes who have experienced a medical exit from sports. They can no longer compete due to a medical reason. It could be from a concussion; it could be a heart condition -- all kinds of different circumstances. Because of our background at Sidelined USA in helping athletes cope with their crisis, we are uniquely positioned to speak to this situation.
Every athlete right now has essentially experienced an abrupt end to their sports season, maybe their stats are on hold, or it could be their end of their sports career.
There is this massive psychological impact that we normally deal with on an individual basis that has spread throughout all athletics. Everything else that's going on further complicates matters. There's the impact of not being able to go to school; not being able to leave the house; and not being able to access your team, or to train regularly. Parents are stressed out and kids pick up on that stress. There's a lot of uncertainty out there. Sidelined USA can support these athletes and provide the resources for coaches, for parents, or any kind of athletic trainer. We need to do the best that we can to lead the way; we can provide information; we can speak to the psychological framework of the situation and shed some light -- offer solutions.
There is this massive psychological impact that we normally deal with on an individual basis that has spread throughout all athletics.
Q: Sidelined USA put together several resources in a great article titled “Unfinished Business” where you share insights for folks dealing with closure due to pandemic. What expertise gained from dealing with season ending injuries can be applicable?
Going through our journey with our athletes, we recognize that we've learned a tremendous amount, both through a tremendous amount of research in the psychological impact of created by injury, and through a lot of work with athletes. We learned about patterns of the impact, and the emotions and results that can come about when they are handled well and when they're not. We know a lot about that. I tried to streamline it in "Unfinished Business"; I know simplicity is key, especially in times of crisis.
The beginning for an athlete is a grieving process. Young people must recognize that it's not, just like - jump into a game plan, business as usual, we're going to tackle this. Motivation is going to come from a rebuilding when you honor the grief.I like to tell people you can't go around grief, you have to go through it. If you suppress it, you're just delaying it.
So, let's just make space for athletes to talk about it. If that feels super weird and hard to engage with, OK, that's fine too.
It's really, really important to get to this part for healing faster: Honor the feelings and make it OK. Open a line of communication to validate your athletes' feelings.
Q: Knowing that Sidelined USA works closely with athletic trainers—your biggest sponsor and partner being the National Athletic Training Association, how can a high school coach utilize your resources to help with their teams?
Coaches are having to think through things in such a different capacity at this point. It's going to benefit coaches and athletic directors to think of athletes in a holistic way. Keep these three domains in consideration: the physical, the social, and the psychological.
Coaches are usually dealing with the physical, and maybe a little bit of the psychological, so now there's more psychological considerations. Suddenly, you have to find ways to Include the social considerations--we have remote training and distance training, as tools to bring together your team in meaningful ways.
Q: How does a coach get started in implementing this wholistic approach for his athletes that you mention?
Come up with a plan for each of these three components: physical, social, and psychological.
This is not the time for trade secrets. I would encourage coaches to collaborate with each other.
This is not the time for trade secrets. I would encourage coaches to collaborate with each other.
Figure out what each is doing right now to keep their teams interacting in meaningful ways. Share with one another what's working; what's helpful.
There may be people connected with your team with unique talents that can help with things, like putting out an e-mail to your parents. You can widen your circle of resources by tapping into your parent group; there may be a tech person; there may be a nutritionist; there may be a strength coach, or a physical trainer. Expand the circle; take a team effort.
Q: You mention self-talk and identity -- overall mindset work in some of your resources. Why are those important? How can a coach encourage this?
This is the locker room moment, right? You're going to help your athletes rebuild by transferring your coach talk and empowering your athletes to do that within themselves. Help them understand that right now they are going to be their own best life coach.
You've got to be strategic about what you say. Help athletes to understand that there are many, many strategies that can help them during this time: to learn that freedom from the negativity comes by diminishing it; to engage with forward thinking thoughts; and to know what they can control. From reframing mental toughness to prayer and meditation, there are all kinds of ways to help guide our mental processes, instead of letting our mental processes guide us.
Q: Dealing with grief and being intentional with self-talk and identity is powerful internal work to be done and makes sense to be the beginning of the process, what are some practical, more externally focused tips?
You can go outside the lines right now and make training interesting; you can engage with different things than you're used to. Help your athlete stay motivated with something fresh. Make it interesting and different. Help them bridge the mental challenge with the physical goals that you as a team are working on.
Not everyone is going to have weights at home; so, get creative, take inventory. Have fun with finding solutions, use it as a time to engage with activities and disciplines that you haven't explored as a team. This is the time to take a look at yoga.
Q: Any final thoughts for coaches and leaders out there?
I think one last thing I would love to remind everybody is, as coaches you have this power to affirm the athlete--who they are and who they've become. Your high school seniors affected by this --there's no redo for them. They didn't get to finish out their basketball season and the playoffs, or spring sports, they didn't get a chance to do at all.
Take some time; write a letter. It doesn't have to be something really super long, but if you wrote a letter, it would mean the world to them. Tell each individual athlete what you see in them, how it will serve them in life and what you believe about them. Tell them you can't wait to see where they go, and that this isn't the end of their story. Tell them that they can shift and adapt in ways that are exciting.
Maybe it's not a letter, maybe it's a team chat. where you affirm them and remind them that what's great about sports is that it builds mechanisms for dealing with adversity in life. Tell them that they can certainly adapt; they can certainly rebound.
As a coach you are in a unique position, you are needed now more than ever. Anytime you can tap into your genuine feelings about how you're excited about the future, you're going to help these athletes.
Q: Where would you direct people to get more information?
Our website is meant to be a resource for coaches, athletic trainers, parents, athletes, and anyone close to this on a personal level.
Attention to this issue is way overdue. We can't take away the agony of this situation. Everyone's personal loss is their personal loss, but what we have learned is that we can shorten that grief cycle; we can offer support; we can help demystify this process.
So many parents are in the dark because maybe their kids aren't talking to them about how they're feeling or thinking--they are clearly struggling, there are tips for guidance. Everything we offer is out of experience and research and is meant to be a tool, but not a replacement for counseling. One thing I want to leave the audience with is to remember that mental health is something we all need to be thinking about.
Know and share mental health resources that are available to your parents. They will have the best pulse on how their kids are handling what's going on right now. Some of those resources are linked within our articles; we have links to resources on depression and suicidal risk and good mental health links, too.
Provide a checklist of things to look for that could signify that an athlete may need to talk to somebody, or could benefit from making an online appointment with a psychologist or the family physician -- to get the support that they need.
Q: What is your hope for the future with your work at Sidelined USA?
We're leading the way to make specialized resources available for free to any program to support the unique challenges of permanently sidelined athletes. Support is often neglected, not out of spite, but purely because it may not happen often enough within one team for programs to know exactly what to do. That's nobody's fault, but what we've found is that medical exits happen all the time. It may be an isolated event for a particular team, but when we tap into the larger context of the athletic community, it's a significant group of young people going through a profound life crisis with serious mental health implications.
Specialized tools and resources are warranted and we're prepared to help provide that guidance. It is our hope that athletes going through a medical exit from competition are connected with our community and find the support they need to rise above, reconnect with their passions, and find a meaningful way forward.
We're also creating the largest study of its kind on the psychological impact of medical exit from sports. If you are a coach who's had an athlete in your coaching history (anytime, including athletes up to 50 years old) have to take a medical exit of some kind, there's a link on main page of our website (within a red banner at the top.) Please click; please share the survey with those former impacted athletes. It takes about 10 -15 minutes. The more participants we have in this research study, the better work we're going to be able to do on a national scale to raise awareness and money for supporting these athletes.
For more Information about the origins of Sidelined USA, the work they continue to do and the support they offer to athletes, parents, coaches, and trainers listen to the podcast.
Visit their website at www.sidelinedusa.org.