How Sports Can Teach Us About Grief and Loss
Updated: Feb 14
Super bowl LVII, is here! One of the biggest sports events of the year. If you’re like me, I love sports, from football, to baseball, to basketball, to soccer, I have grown up a sports junkie. The Super Bowl took me back to one of my childhood dreams, to be the first professional athlete in 3 sports, soccer, basketball, and baseball! This was in the midst of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, guys who were accomplishing things beyond imagination. But my love for sports has grown from a wild and imaginative dream at 7 yrs old, to life long lessons I carry with me everyday. These life long lessons have helped with the ups and downs of life, the many times you get knocked down and yet keep getting up. I’ve learned and experienced courage with hope, especially when working through the pain of grief and loss.
This takes me back to my sophomore year of college, I was the closer for our baseball team. We were towards the end of our season, playing in beautiful San Diego. It was the end of a doubleheader and coach told me to warm up, I needed to get some work in. I started throwing in the bullpen and felt a slight twinge in my elbow. I didn’t think much of it, tendonitis was always a possibility towards the end of the year. Coach signaled for me and I entered the game. I went through the 6th inning 1...2...3. Coach asked how I was feeling, I said, “good, I can go one more inning.” I’m warming up for the next inning and that twinge comes back, this time a little stronger. I told myself, “Just relax, finish this inning and then we’ll take care of it.” First batter comes up, fastball inside corner, ground ball to the shortstop, 1 out. Next batter steps to the plate and everything slows down. The wind slightly blowing on my face as I step onto the rubber. The heat from the sun on the back of my neck, light shining into the catchers glove. The catcher gives me the sign for a change-up, four fingers down. I nod, then start my windup. My leg lifts and I start to explode towards the mound. My right arm is racing forward, then POP! Next thing I remember, I’m waving to my coach, with my left arm of course, signaling him I can’t finish. I’m taken to the trainer and she said the dreadful words, “Tommy-John surgery”. For those of you who might not know, Tommy-John surgery is for a torn ligament in the elbow. It was confirmed. My current and next year’s season was finished and my scholarship taken. Done just like that!
Sports has a way of exemplifying life. From the joys of winning as a team or individual to the tears of losing a championship game or suffering a season ending injury. If you’ve played or watched sports, you have experienced or witnessed these highs and lows. I remember the sadness I felt for these unpredictable, random events, much like the grief and loss experienced everyday. It made me think of those who have received news of a life-altering illness. Maybe it was the unexpected death of a family member, the inexplicable end of a close relationship or job. So many things can happen in life, suddenly and unpredictably.
I believe, some of the most powerful stories in sports lie in recovery, that journey a team takes from losing a championship game or getting back on that mound after surgery. I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories of recovery, Dave Dravecky. His story of recovery starts when he received news of cancer in his left arm in 1988. He had surgery to remove the cancer and was determined to pitch the following year. Doctors recommend he wait to pitch in 1990, but Dravecky officially made his comeback to the San Francisco Giants on August 10, 1989, just under a year from his surgery! He pitched in one more game where he suffered his career ending injury in the middle of a game, he broke his arm after he threw a pitch! His arm was amputated after multiple surgeries and he never pitched again. But he continued his legacy through writing and becoming a motivational speaker. Dravecky said, “I’ve come to realize that real growth of character takes place in the valleys of life.”
When I suffered my unexpected losses, torn ligament and removed scholarship, I changed. I found in my recovery, as my ligament had regrown, I had changed as a person. My change was best summarized in the most painful experience of my journey, physical therapy. Those of you who have gone through physical therapy might have winced, just like I did when I wrote those two words. I had to stretch out my new ligament so I could have full range of motion again in my arm. If I did not get it stretched, if I did not work through the pain, I would have lost my range of motion. It was excruciating! There were many moments that I questioned myself, was range of motion worth this amount of pain, was this necessary, I mean could I really come back and pitch again! As a sophomore in college, I was oblivious to how courage and hope helped, but as I look back, I can see their impact. When I reference courage, I think of it as facing the reality of today. There is immense courage in accepting what had happened, actually happened. I wrestled with the thought that I prepared myself as best as I could, and yet my ligament still snapped. It could be the diagnosis of an illness that was out of your control, the loss of a job despite all your best efforts. Recognizing these thoughts, questions, doubts, are helpful because there is power in awareness. I encourage, stating these thoughts to a trusted individual who will listen without fixing can be healing. Writing or drawing these questions or doubts can provide healing as well. As you become more aware of your courage, hope for the future can be a powerful ally to help work through the pain of loss. I see hope as a vision for what the future could look like. I remember my motivation was to pitch again. I wanted to do everything I could do get back on that mound, feel the sensation of the ball leaving my hand and hearing the pop of the catcher’s glove. I encourage you to answer 3 questions, what could the future look like five years from now, 1 year from now, next month. Take those answers and share them with a trusted individual who is willing to listen. If you are having trouble answering those questions, no problem. Try writing down what you accomplished that day, small or large. For instance, reading this article is 1 pt, getting out of bed, eating, exercising, taking a nap, you get the idea. From small to large, giving yourself points can help reinforce what it is you’d like to do in the future because you are already accomplishing it. Then share these with a trusted individual. I’m emphasizing sharing with an individual because I believe we need help and support from those around us. If that is family, friends, co-workers, or counselors there is immense courage in allowing others to help.
So as you’re watching Super Bowl LI, or the commercials, look for those stories of recovery. Recognize that you do not have to be a professional athlete, even if it was a dream, to live a life of courage with hope. That in the midst of unexpected grief and loss, you are able to get back on that mound and throw again!