Unfinished Business: 5 Insights When Your Athletic Season is Sidelined by a Pandemic

EDITOR’S NOTE: We recently received the below piece from Sidelined USA and TMR member Christine Pinalto that may not strictly be sports business, but we believe it is our business to always look out members of the TMR Community. Please know that if you–or anyone you know–are struggling, there are always people who will listen and lend a hand (or ear).

This article first appeared on Sidelined USA’s Resources blog.

The unimaginable has happened and athletics have come to an unexpected and abrupt halt for the season. It’s fair to say that student-athletes find themselves in a state of shock and disbelief. Seniors, even more so, considering they won’t get the normal closure to their high school or college athletic career they’ve anticipated for years and rightfully earned.

How was Wednesday (Mar 11) so normal and by Thursday, my whole world up-ended? 

If you are one of these heartbroken athletes, this read is especially for you.

As classes begin to resume in online form, perhaps you’re struggling to figure out how you will possibly focus on your studies. Maybe a new norm seems impossible to engage with right now. Maybe it feels like you’ve been blocked off from one of the most significant parts of yourself. Maybe you are wondering if it’s okay to feel so devastated when many others are suffering far greater losses like losing their jobs and not knowing how to pay their rent or feed their kids.

While these are new experiences to the vast majority of all the “sidelined” athletes in the world right now, this is a familiar space for us at Sidelined USA. As the first national 501(c)3 nonprofit who specializes in the after-care of athletes experiencing a medically forced exit from sport, we are dedicated to reuniting sidelined athletes with their passions and equipping them to find a meaningful way forward.

Working with athletes who’ve been permanently-sidelined due to injury, health conditions, and repeat concussions has uniquely qualified us to understand your real and devastating loss and to offer some insights into how to begin to forge the path forward. While we can’t possibly tackle all the various facets of this complicated transition in one article, we wanted to share with you five key insights we’ve learned that can help you process your loss and move forward in the coming months.

1. First and foremost, you have earned the right to grieve. 

What you have lost is significant. It can’t be fixed. It can’t be replaced. And despite all the peddling of well-meaning “silver-lining” commentary, the reality is, it hurts right now.

It would be great if people understood they don’t have to try to “fix” you and would just listen to your disappointment without feeling the need to interject their limited perspective and quick dismissals, “Well, at least this” and “At least that”. It’s okay to feel angry when others try to diminish your pain, but remember they are just trying to bring perspective to help you out to the best of their ability. It most likely comes from a place of love and care. So if their well-intended words sting, try to let them roll off.

Your pain is valid regardless of who “gets it” and who doesn’t.

It’s important to give yourself permission to grieve your loss. That means getting your feelings out. Athletes often internalize their emotions and are sometimes more prone to suppress their feelings than to work them through. The truth is, it’s rather futile to “bottle up your feelings”. Naturally, this strategy has its benefits in the temporary, helping you attend to the immediate and delay grief for a season. But if you don’t work through the grief, you leave yourself exposed to a slow growth of anger and bitterness, which at some point, is sure to release one way or the other.

“Talking it out” with a trusted friend or mentor, journaling, exercising, creative expression (art, music, poetry), prayer, connecting with the outdoors — all can be effective ways to work through your sense of loss. If you find yourself deeply struggling, make an appointment with a professional. A well-trained therapist or counselor has the tools to assist you in the internal work needed to help you work through your grief and there’s no shame in asking for help.

2. Get busy with some mindset work: Self-talk and Identity. 

After getting out your feelings, it’s important to speak into that grief with some forward-thinking perspective. This is where self-talk, that is, the practice of training your mind to manage the negative thinking and make a mental shift, can be an effective tool. Reframing, Mental Toughness, Relaxation Techniques, Imagery, Gratefulness, Prayer, and Meditation are all examples of ways one can learn to help manage that inner dialogue.

Unfulfilled dreams, “what if’s”, and “could-have been’s” are particularly haunting.

The thoughts pop up out of no where. You think you’re fine and have come to terms with your new reality, and then all of a sudden out of no where, your mind replays recycled scripts that have no real solutions.

This is the time to remember to place your identity in something more solid than your athletic achievements. Sports do not equal the sum total of your value. You always were more than a basketball player, more than a baseball player, soccer player, lacrosse player, etc. Sports has shaped you and provided you with powerful tools you can apply to other challenges as well.

Right now, it’s a mental battle. Utilize your training in sports to guide you through overcoming this adversity. Resilience, positivity, determination, adaptability, sacrifice, passion, and persistence are all traits you can nurture in this trying time.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on self-talk and identity. To explore more, related articles include:

3. Keep a familiar schedule. 

As a dedicated athlete, you are used to a strict routine. Times for practice, class, homework, and meals are generally all set in stone with little room for flexibility. Now that classes are online and your team practices are no longer in person, your routine is completely disrupted. If you’re a college student-athlete displaced from campus, your routine is further disrupted by being back at home and you may find yourself all out of sorts.

One way you can take back a certain measure of control is to get back to your normal routine as best you can.

Maintaining your schedule as much as possible can help reduce the impact of all of these disruptions and help refocus you on your remaining goals for the semester.

We know…“remaining goals for the semester” may have just hit a nerve.

It’s difficult to trudge forward with remaining goals if you feel like so much has been taken away from you that you don’t feel like you even recognize your new life.

If you are struggling to find motivation for what’s left without sports, know that this feeling is valid and normal. It may take everything you’ve got to move forward and find the strength to stay focused on your school work. Perhaps if you don’t give up on your physical goals, this will help you stay motivated in your academics as well.

4.  Keep grinding: Stay physical.
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You are accustomed to spending many hours a week training for competition. Assuming your training includes regular cardio, the consistent pumping of endorphins through your body has contributed to the alteration of your mood, whether or not you’ve been aware it. Cardio reduces tension, relaxes muscles, and helps release stress. Additionally, “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.” (Source: Harvard Men’s Health)

Considering the incredible amount of stressors you are currently experiencing, now is not the time to drop your exercise regiment.

Loss of energy, irritability, tension, loss of motivation, and depression can be associated with a neurochemical deficit such as sudden discontinuation of a vigorous workout routine. “During exercise we stress the body which triggers a release of adrenaline to respond to that stress. Post-exercise, in order to balance the stress response, our body releases noradrenaline, which gives us that calm, euphoric, peaceful feeling (enhances mood). This is particularly true of exercise that elevates our heart rate significantly.” (Source: Sports Psychologist and Sidelined USA Advisory Board Member, Matt Brown, PhD)

No doubt sticking with a daily workout routine prioritizing a minimum of 20 minutes of cardio has clear benefits from both a pro-active and preventative angle.

You may not have the same access to equipment and coaching, but what can you do to be adaptable and utilize what you can access? We’ve seen a lot of athletes out there posting videos of their modified workouts with sandbags, cement blocks, old tires, etc. This is great – get creative and have fun with it.

Recognizing the value of social support in your exercise routine, can you continue to workout together as a team by connecting virtually, setting goals, reporting progress, and even competing against each other? Adapting to the current realities by utilizing digital connectivity to set up team competitions could prove to be a helpful way to make the best of a bad situation. That brings us to the fifth insight.

5. Adapt to find new ways to stay competitive. 

“Being a competitor isn’t what I do, it’s who I am.”

If this resonates with you, then by all means, cut your losses, dust yourself off and get back to competition, in some form, in some way.

This is where you thrive! And this is where you will be the most fulfilled even with all the distractions in our world right now.

Set new goals. Maybe they’re physical. Maybe they’re academic. Maybe a whole different context. The important thing is to reconnect with the inner competitor in you as quickly as possible.

Take some time and figure out how to inject competition back into the next few months, invite some friends and teammates to join you if possible, and get busy again with achieving your next accomplishment.

Former competitive figure skater and Sidelined USA Board Member, Val Jones, who experienced an abrupt end to her Olympic aspirations after a single-devastating injury wrote an excellent piece, Beyond the Game: Harnessing Your Competitive Edge for Life, that explores this idea further. Take a look for more inspiration and practical advice about reconnecting with competition when your situation changes.

What You’re Experiencing is Difficult but All is Not Lost

Unfortunately there is no grit or determination that will change the reality of this sports season ending abruptly. Your plans are thwarted and your dreams are temporarily put on hold. For some of you, your future opportunity in sports is uncertain. These are all difficult realities you will need to contend with.

However, your story is not over.

Regardless of the status of your athletic career, your journey in life is really just beginning in so many ways. Keep the long game in mind.

You are well prepared to handle adversity, to conquer challenges, and to forge a way forward despite the odds.

You’re an athlete. Your training has prepared you. And we are confident you will find a way to overcome.


Visit the Sidelined USA Resources page for additional support. If you are coping with stress and anxiety related to the coronavirus crisis itself, others have found this guide to be especially helpful from the nonprofit mental health and wellness website, HelpGuide: Coronavirus Anxiety: Coping with Stress, Fear, and Uncertainty.

Disclaimer: This article is provided for TMR members for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered.

Christine Pinalto is the Executive Director & Co-Founder of Chicago-based Sidelined USA. Formed in 2016, it is the first national 501(c)3 nonprofit specializing in the after-care of athletes experiencing a medically forced exit from sport. Christine leads efforts to raise awareness about the psychological impact on athletes as well as to educate the sports medicine community on improved patient care, particularly after-care, for medically disqualified (MDQ) athletes.