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Leveraging Death as Sport Practitioners

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Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

By Craig P. DeAngelis |

The wise old saying goes “there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the sun: a time to be born and a time to die…”

A helicopter crashed on Sunday, January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California. Any accident, no matter the manner is startling. However, when an accident causes a loss of life, regardless of the occupants, it officially becomes tragic. As details began to emerge in regards to the identities of those on board, the grip of that horrific helicopter crash has understandably extended far beyond the city borders of Calabasas.

The downed aircraft and the death of Kobe Bryant has sent shockwaves in the time since the accident. In truth, the consequences of that crash will linger in the hearts and minds of many for the duration of their lives. But as each tragic detail was confirmed, each new bit of information somehow worse than the last, it was hard to remain focused on the magnitude of the loss. With the gravity of the situation glaringly apparent, some atypical questions began to form…

What about tomorrow’s early morning lifting session?

What would be said in the classroom?

How would a coach address this in the locker room?

Is the school going to acknowledge this at the game this week?

As sport practitioners we grow to understand and anticipate difficulty. While certain circumstances inevitably bring us to our knees, there is an equal sense of resolve built into our collective “sport” DNA. Victories often remind us of how close to the line of defeat we stood, and losses show us that no matter how bitter the pill – we must press on to the next game, series, or season.

The wise old saying continues “…a time to tear down and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak…”

Over the course of my career in sports I have come face to face with tragic loss. I have stood silent and motionless on a football field prior to kickoff just days after 9/11, thinking about the family member I had lost as the smoke still smoldered on the newly fallen towers. I have attended funerals of former athletes who have committed suicide and embraced fellow coaches who have lost children. I have hugged lacrosse players at the gates of a town wide memorial service as they grieved over a fellow classmate who had been murdered in their school. I have escorted an unknowing soccer player to a school office where I knew he would be finding out that his father had died. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

The business of sport is a people business. The human condition has the potential to open the doors to some of the most joyous highs and some of the most crushing lows. Therefore, in sports, we will inevitably be confronted with some of life’s greatest joys and some of the most unimaginable lows. However, it is in the wake of these events where sport practitioners can truly have their greatest impact. Championship trophies will gather dust and team pictures will fade. But spoken words and created moments of reflection will prove to be the measuring stick for the value of our performance in our respective roles.

On January 27, 2020: coaches stood in front of teams, teachers stood in front of classes, professors walked into lecture halls, administrators called a meeting to order. In these fragile moments the time, the spoken word became necessary and what was said would be lasting. There is no systematic or generalized plan of best practice to enact in these scenarios. However, here are a few points to consider:

It is NOT a Game of Hide and Seek – In the wake of tragedy one of the worst things we as sport practitioners can do is hide from an issue. The practice plan might have already been printed and meeting agenda established, but the plans MUST change. Lay-up lines and the approval of meeting minutes can wait. The immediacy of how you address a tragic event and your demeanor in doing so will speak volumes to the stakeholders under your influence.

Consider Your Relationship – How you address difficult topics directly correlates to the established relationship you have with your athletes, students, or program. And no, chronological time spent in a position IS NOT a suitable indicator. People respond to honest character and they will open up only if there is a mutual bond of trust in place. If you as a sport practitioner have not done the necessary work to establish a meaningful relationship (or have not had the time) with those under your influence, keep conversations surface level and point to available support structures currently in place.

Be Raw – Speak to how an event has impacted you. You are the leader of your respective team or program. While this can be difficult, it is something which must be done. There is no need to be graphic or share inappropriate details. However, if you speak directly to some of the toughest emotions and most difficult aspects of a given circumstance you will be validating those same emotions and questions held by those you are addressing. It is ok to not be ok, but it is not ok to bottle things up and stay that way – open the door for healing.

Encouragement in the Present – You can’t change what has been done. You can’t reverse loss or alter history. However, you can point to how you can positively change in the wake of what has happened. You can be a source of reserved optimism and remind those who rely on you that you will be there for them. The sun still comes up on rainy days, you just need to find ways to remind those listening to you that even though you can’t see it, it is still there.

Point to the Future – This is not something which happens immediately. At the right time you start to instill the hope of overcoming what has transpired. Scars do not go away. But while the scars of tragedy or loss remain, they can serve as reminders of survival. As sport practitioners we must address the scars at the right time and remind those who look to us that their scars will be the very reason they will experience a brighter future.

To be clear, this article in no way is meant to minimize the horrific tragedy that has taken place. Equally, how an individual is impacted or handles such an event cannot be generalized with expected outcomes. Grief is a journey with twists and turns. Grief may sometimes relent but it also may never cease its persistent existence. Grief is a process. But grief, with the prime characteristic of loss, also provides fertile soil for growth.

As sport professionals we must not be passive in times of tragedy. We must be able to identify where hope resides. We must use our status for the sake of support. We must be strong and decide on a new course in the wake of unspeakable catastrophes. While not always easy for us individually, it is our responsibility to make a positive impact on the lives of those around us. Death is permanent and final. But with the right approach, we can use death as a source of inspiration for the living.

Craig P. DeAngelis is a former teacher, coach, and athletic administrator who is currently a faculty member at Manhattanville College.  Craig is a doctoral candidate at The United States Sports Academy with interests in organizational culture and leadership. If you wish to contact Craig please feel free to communicate with him via email: craig.deangelis@mville.edu

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