6 Ways Coaches Can Show Up for Grieving Athletes

With all that’s been going on in the world, there’s a good likelihood that you’re going to have one or more grieving children on your team this fall. As a coach, it is crucial to know how to support them, and help other staff know how to show up for them as well. We hope you’ll find the information, which is based on the work we do at our grief camps for youth, from our Chief Clinical Director, Brie Overton, helpful.

How to show up for a grieving student athlete:

1. Reach out to the caregiver(s). Talk with them specifically about the death, how they are coping, and how you plan to support them. Ask about any changes the student has experienced since the death, particularly in activity, energy level, appetite, and sleep. Changes are often interpreted as a student being uncooperative, resistant, or even defiant so it’s important to know these facts to prepare your team.

2. Acknowledge the death. For some students this may be the first time someone outside of their family and close friends acknowledge that the death occurred. Say something like, “Jalen, I heard your dad died. I want you to know that I’m here if you want to talk.” By saying it out loud we let the student know we can handle hearing about it. Just do it privately. Many grieving kids don’t want to be perceived by their peers as different.

3. Listen actively. Ask them how they are feeling and really listen to their response with your eyes and ears. Just because they are laughing and playing doesn’t mean they aren’t still grieving. If they don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay. Validate their feelings and communicate that you are there to talk when they are ready.

4. Let your student be the expert. The last thing your student needs to hear is that you know how they feel. You may have had a similar experience, but everyone experiences grief differently, even members of the same family. Allow the student to communicate to you what it is they are feeling and don’t make assumptions.

5. Check in more than once. Students who want to talk will seek out people they trust and who feel safe. So check in with them throughout the season and even over the course of years if it’s a returning student. Grief changes but never goes away completely. While their grief may look different over time (even throughout the season), they will continue to carry it always.

6. Set boundaries. Rules and clear limits still apply to grieving students. Setting boundaries helps grieving students who may be acting out. Make sure they know the rules and consequences if the rules are not followed, and communicate this information to caregivers as well. This helps everyone know the environment is predictable and safe.

Brie Overton, Chief Clinical Officer of Experience Camps, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri – St. Louis in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy, where she educates and supervises master and doctoral level students on grief-specific issues in counseling. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and specializes in anticipatory loss, grief and bereavement, life transitions, and working with underserved populations. She is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and has worked as a clinician and Clinical Director for Experience Camps since 2016.