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Managing Disappointment: Navigating the Grief

Written By: Kylie Lahey

Disappointment is a part of life, and occurs when results fail to meet expectations. Every athletic career experiences disappointment over time and in a variety of ways - ranging from adding time in a race to suffering an injury that requires surgery.

For this discussion we will use the example of an athlete with a shoulder injury that requires a small invasive medical procedure. The athlete is then asked to take the next two weeks off from swimming and can only return to the water to kick for the duration of practice for the third week. Let’s note that their championship meet is coming up in five weeks, creating a disappointing timeline.

One way of processing this disappointment is through the lens of grief. A disappointment is a loss - whether a loss of a race, a loss of expectations, a loss of health, a loss of trust in someone, or a loss in training gains and time. Grief is the emotion associated with loss and grief cannot be avoided without disappointment. You may be familiar with the Five Stages of Grief from researcher Elizabeth Kubler Ross & David Kessler - the stages include denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Note these stages are not linear and they can occasionally overlap. Athletes and coaches alike will experience components of the stages while navigating disappointment.

For our aforementioned athlete, denial could sound like saying, “Well maybe I can get in and just swim less than usual once the incision heals” or “Maybe the injury isn’t THAT bad.” Bargaining would include adapting practices to avoid escalating the injury but still prevents full training gains or even inhibits healing. From a thought perspective, bargaining can include reflecting on ways the injury was preventable (think Lochte’s array of injuries circa early 2000s). Anger can look like being frustrated that the competition is still making training gains while the athlete is at home on the couch, or being mad at oneself for pushing to the point of injury in the first place. Depression can transpire as lack of motivation to do the exercises needed to heal, lack of motivation to return to sport, isolation from the team, or general sadness about the reality of the circumstances. At some point, the acceptance stage arises - sometimes it is early, sometimes it takes a while to manifest - in which the athlete tolerates their circumstances and embraces the steps to return to sport.

I believe the most important component of navigating disappointment is actually a recent addition within this grief model - a sixth stage of grief called “meaning making”. A loss with no meaning is simply suffering. When an athlete can identify their growth from a disappointment, they regain control over their circumstances because there is purpose to their pain. This sixth stage is a game changer in navigating disappointment as it also aids the relationship between athlete and coach, sport, teammates, as they all navigate the pursuit of resilience together.

To make meaning for our example swimmer - maybe this shoulder injury provided mental rest and extra time for assignments during a difficult academic semester. Maybe it forced the athlete to learn to accept help from others and communicate their needs - or it altered their parents’ perspective on using excessive pressure in parenting. Maybe it grows them as a leader with life-experience to better support a fellow teammate in the future. Maybe the injury required reevaluation of goals, a change of the taper timeline, or modification of historically bad habits or daily routines. Opportunities to make meaning are endless if we are open to their invitation.

It is important to recognize this process takes time - and it is possible to rush “meaning making” too quickly and prevent full recovery from disappointment, which leads me to my practical Two-Step Summary of navigating disappointment:

Step One: You have to “feel it to heal it”. We CANNOT dismiss the feelings of grief that come with a loss. When we push feelings aside, they come back with vengeance (as mentioned in my prior article related to the development of anxiety and depression). Connecting your athlete and their parents with mental health resources, providing empathy and encouragement, and asking

them what they need promotes connection, empowerment, and healing.

Step Two: Create small goals, starting with present options for next-steps, and re-evaluate them as prognosis continues. These small goals are the controllable aspects of the often largely-uncontrollable nature of disappointment. When we break down the disappointment of a performance plateau to a focus on small goals, we provide room to analyze the variety of contributors and respond accordingly versus living in the frustration of uncertainty. An athlete with a mono diagnosis will need small goals to structure to their rest and healing progression - or else boredom and hopelessness can creep in. One of my favorite relevant quotes from Mark Monson is “just because something is not your fault, does not mean it's not still your responsibility.” Embracing the responsibility involved in navigating disappointment is one of the most difficult barriers to change, but analysis of small goals prevents fixation on what is wrong and provides hope in noticing what all is going right.

As a coach, it is also important to acknowledge your own expectations around the recovery from the disappointment as well. As mentioned in my past article about boundaries, our nervous systems feed off one another, and a coach’s stress can greatly impact an athlete’s response to disappointment. Coaches can communicate honesty about disappointment while also not making the experience worse for the athlete. Your feelings are valid because an athlete’s wellbeing impacts your role; I suggest you use that shared experience of disappointment to co-create positive action-steps.

At the end of the day, I frequently tell my athletes - “no one wants to read a book where the main character never struggles - even when it’s hard to read”. Disappointment is part of life and being an athlete requires gambling with that reality in unique ways. While disappointment is never the goal, responding by exploring the grief process and encountering meaning-making-moments provides opportunities to grow, prove resilience, and gain trust in the process.

Kylie Lahey, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker native to Denver, Colorado but living in Austin, Texas. Lahey received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Secondary English Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2014 and her Master's of Science of Social Work degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2019. Lahey works primarily with athletes in the Division I college setting as a provider of individual and group behavioral health and performance support services across a variety of sports. Lahey also works with coaches, athletic trainers, strength staff, and other athletics professionals to promote mental health awareness and education for supporting elite athletes both within sport and outside of sport. Lahey's additional professional background includes experience as a therapist within high school and eating disorder/behavioral health hospital settings for both adult and adolescent clients. Lahey is a former club swim coach and has an athletic background in competitive swimming, triathlon training, and vinyasa yoga instruction through the Yoga Alliance.

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