Supporting Athletes Through Grief and COVID-19

By Lauren Wong, Masters of Education Student, BU Wheelock, Counseling & Sport Psychology Program

Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic persists in disrupting normalcy. For athletes, this means everything from working out in masks, to losing access to facilities, to cancelled and postponed seasons. There are so many losses along this spectrum of change for athletes, and grief is inevitable. How can we, as sport psychology professionals and those supporting athletes, help them manage their grief through this moment in history?

Grief and athletes    

First, we must understand how athletes grieve. The most popular framework for the experience of grief is the Kübler-Ross model (1969) which details five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The Kübler-Ross model has been applied to athletic populations before (Poel & Nel, 2011), and it can be useful in understanding the unique experience of grief for individual athletes.

However, in the context of sport culture, athletes often choose to inhibit their emotional reactions and disclosures for fear of appearing weak. As the Kübler-Ross model was developed in a clinical setting, it does not account for the contextual influences athletes are under. A newer theory shows that grief may be experienced as a social emotion. Jakoby (2012) places experienced grief in an individual’s social context, by which the reactions of others may influence the reactions of the individual. With the culture of sport having such a strong presence in an athlete’s context and identity, this theory may provide better insight to grief in athletes than Kübler-Ross’s model.Lauren photo1

Much of the work related to grief and sport comes at the intersection of athletes and injury. Evans and Hardy (1995) reviewed all literature on sport injury and grief that was available at their time. They identified a different sense of emotions that athletes may encounter postinjury, including feelings of being cheated, devastation, restlessness, despair, and a need to reorient themselves post-trauma. The experience athletes can have with traumatic injuries may closely parallel their current unprecedented circumstances. In this sense, we can adapt the literature of grief and injury to help us identify concrete ways of helping athletes through the pandemic.

Write it out

There is evidence for the improved psychological well-being of grieving athletes using writing as a post-trauma intervention. For athletes dealing with long-term injuries, writing using Pennebaker’s written disclosure paradigm reduced feelings of devastation and despair (Mankad & Gordon, 2010). Pennebaker’s paradigm details that writing about one’s experience of a traumatic event does not improve coping simply by reliving the trauma; it does so by giving the individual control over their narrative through the process of choosing how to describe the event.

Lauren photo2For athletes recovering from concussions, participation in online forums about concussions was effective (Cassilo & Sanderson, 2018). Interpreted under the Jakoby theory (2012), concussed athletes often struggle with psychological distress due to social pressures and stigma that surround concussions. By entering an online community in which the taboo nature of talking about one’s concussion experience is removed, feelings of social isolation are reduced, thereby moderating the effects of a grief response.

Providing athletes with a structure for journaling that follows Pennebaker’s paradigm may be incredibly helpful to athletes. In the Mankad and Gordon study, the participating athletes were asked to write about their injury continuously for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days (2010). Providing the task of 20 minutes of writing per day is an intervention that we could suggest to any athlete regardless of the resources that may be available; all they would need is a something to write with and something to write on.

Several online platforms that share the stories of current and former athletes exist as well. Think Players’ Tribune for collegiate and high school athletes. While athletes can submit their own stories to be posted, just reading the stories of others on the platform can increase a sense of community. At my undergraduate university, the athletic department started the “In Their Own Words” series for athletes and coaches alike to share experiences of COVID loss with peers (Wong, 2020). Formal and informal spaces in which athletes can take control of their narratives should be provided not only for this liberation through expresssion, but also to build a community of individuals with similar expereinces—something increasingly important in a time of social distancing.

There is no knowing what the future holds for the world right now, let alone what the landscape of athletics will look like in the future. In order to support athletes, we need to understand how they may be grieving. We should encourage athletes to write about their experiences of grief in this time of uncertainty and allow them to air out their disappointment, anger, and saddness in spaces of community. Above all else, we need to be there to support them in navigating this unprecedented time.


Cassilo, D., & Sanderson, J. (2018). From social isolation to becoming an advocate: Exploring athletes’ grief discourse about lived concussion experiences in online forums. Communication & Sport, 7(5), 678-696. doi:10.1177/2167479518790039

Evans, L., & Hardy, L. (1995). Sport Injury and Grief Responses: A Review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology,17(3), 227-245. doi:10.1123/jsep.17.3.227

Jakoby, N. R. (2012). Grief as a social emotion: Theoretical perspectives. Death Studies, 36(8), 679-711. doi:10.1080/07481187.2011.584013

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Mankad, A., & Gordon, S. (2010). Psycholinguistic changes in athletes’ grief response to injury after written emotional disclosure. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 19(3), 328-342. doi:10.1123/jsr.19.3.328

Van der Poel, J., & Nel, P. (2011). Relevance of the Kübler-Ross model to the post-injury responses of competitive athletes [Abstract]. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 33(1). doi:10.4314/sajrs.v33i1.65496

Wong, L. (2020, April 22). In their own words: Track & field’s Lauren Wong. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from


The Science Behind Communication and Effort and Their Relationship to Team Cohesiveness in Sport: Insights From Sport Psychology

By Max Groen, Masters of Education Student, BU Wheelock, Counseling & Sport Psychology Program

Often when one thinks of a strongly competitive team, they look to some of the more obvious factors such as the level of talent on the roster and the abilities of the coaching staff. Although talent is certainly an important factor towards a team/programs success, there is a saying “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. Although a bit cliché, this saying stresses the importance of culture, specifically effort, within a team. Through research it has been found that effort, particularly the way an individual player views the effort of his teammates, has a positive impact on a team’s culture (Spink, McLaren, & Ulvick, 2017). While effort is an important factor, another concept that might go a bit under the radar in terms of culture, and a team’s success, is their frequency, and ability, to communicate with one another. Results from research with basketball players, as well as team sport athletes in general, have found that when a large portion of players/teammates interact, and communicate with their teammates, there is a stronger perception of task cohesion (McLaren & Spink 2019). This positive uptick in team task cohesion is an important piece to a strong culture, for it shows the players feel that they are all “on the same page” in pursuit of the groups goals.


Task Cohesion can only take place when a team establishes, and agrees upon, a clear and defined set of group goals (Filho, 2015). Once team/group goals are established, task cohesion in its simplest form can be described as the process of how likely/well a team/group remains united on the path to chasing their goal/task. For instance, if a team’s goal is to win their conference, their task cohesion would be measured by how well they stick together and work as a unit to achieve this goal. Therefore, the stronger team cohesion within a team, it is likely they will increase their chances of winning/achieving their goals (Senécal, Loughead, & Bloom (2008).


Communication has been found to be an important factor in a team’s level of cohesion. Studies have found that the larger amounts of teammates an individual athlete communicates with, the stronger perception they have of team cohesion (McLaren & Spink, 2019). For instance, the more athletes feel that their team is communicating, the more likely they are to have a higher perception of the team’s commitment level to its tasks/goals, compared to athletes who feel communication is limited (McLaren & Spink, 2019).


Another positive factor of team task cohesion is effort (Spink, McLaren, & Ulvick, 2017). However, while it is by no means a negative thing when players view another player to be a hard worker, when it comes to perceived team cohesion it has limited influence (Spink, McLaren, & Ulvick, 2017). However, if a player perceives that a large amount of their teammates to be working hard, their level of perceived team task cohesion goes up (Spink, McLaren, & Ulvick, 2017). For instance, if a player works hard, and others believe that player is working hard, that does not necessarily change that individuals perspective on the team’s level of task cohesion. However, if the individual views many of his teammates to be working hard, the individual will be more likely to view the teams task cohesion to be strong. Therefore, studies have shown that coaches preaching effort are not wrong, for the harder every player on the team is working, there is an opportunity for a strong positive mental influence on individual players. This positive mental influence can potentially cause individual players on the team to work harder themselves because they believe that the rest of their teammates are “doing their job” and working towards their collective team goal.


The better the team, the stronger the culture and team cohesion. While many factors contribute to team success, team task cohesion is a major one. Furthermore, while many factors contribute to a team’s task cohesion, communication and effort have a strong positive impact. If a coach wants to have success, he would be wise to preach and implement ways to improve team communication and effort!


Filho, E., Tenenbaum, G., & Yang, Y. (2015). Cohesion, team mental models, and collective          efficacy: Towards an integrated model of team dynamics in sports. Journal of Sports      Sciences, 33, 641-653.

Senécal, J., Loughead, T. M., & Bloom, G. A. (2008). A Season-Long Team-Building  Intervention: Examining the Effect of Team Goal Setting on Cohesion. Journal of Sport        and Exercise Psychology,30(2), 186-199.

Spink, K., Mclaren, D., Ulvick, J. (2017). Cues to informing perceived task cohesion in the sport    setting: The case for teammate effort. International Journal of Sport and Exercise    Pscychology.

Spink, K., & McLaren, C. (2019). Member communication as network structure: Relationship        with task cohesion in sport. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

An Athlete’s Identity: Does It Have to Come to An End?

By Lianna Malawski, Masters of Education Student, BU Wheelock, Counseling & Sport Psychology Program

Athletic Identity Foreclosure vs Athletic Identity 

Who am I? When athletes answer this question, it is simple. I am an athlete. What makes you an athlete? This one is a bit more challenging. What makes us an athlete could be many things, it may be the time commitment that has been put towards the sport, their passion for the game, the determination and motivation to become better, the disciplined practice and skill, the list is endless. But what is an athlete’s answer to the question: “What comes next?”

Lianna chart

In Brewer & Petitpas (2017), they identified athletic identity foreclosure as “individuals who fail to explore new life options and express commitment to the life role of an athlete” (p. 118). As an individual who fails to explore their life options during their athletic career, they end up limiting their options once they leave the sport. It is an interesting dynamic between an athlete’s foreclosure and their true identity. There is no rule book on how to live a specific lifestyle, so how are athlete’s meant to explore the future when focused on the now? 

Ronkainen et al. (2020) described athletic identity as being particularly difficult when transitioning out of sport into the real world, even called it an “Achilles heel.” An athlete’s identity is not just a phase of life but a way of living. In the era of Coivd-19 where sport seasons have been cut short and in-person practices have all but been banished, fourth and fifth year athletes are now being asked to make this transition from sport earlier.

What to Expect From Our Bodies

As an athlete we expect a lot from our bodies. We expect them to last through intense trainings and lifts and bounce back after being iced, stretched and treated. When looking at research done by Hadiyan & Cosh (2019) on current and former elite athletes’ physical function, we can also see a patterned mindset in those athletes who have retired and moved on. In this study, all athletes’ bodies were put through seven physical and motor function tests. In the end there were no significant differences between both athletes’ physical fitness but showed a definite difference in motor function. 

Part of the requirements for this study was to make sure the retired athletes had only been out of their sport for five years or less. As they are elite athletes it is not hard to assume that they have continued to put in effort to keep their musculature where it once was, but it is their new mindset and goals that have changed. Although they are not competitively competing, where is the line between healthy and problematic? Entering this new world is never easy, but with the help of healthy coping mechanisms, exploratory behavior and support the change can be done successfully. 

Lianna Photo

A New World

Ronkainen et al. (2020) mentions the need for having a life plan in place to help restore an athlete’s lifeworld and harmony. Athletes should explore their aspirations while safely in their athletic identity; doing so will create a sustainable narrative for the future and provide assurance. Athletic retirement is not meant to be cut and dry; bodies do not automatically shift to the new normal and neither do our mindsets. With a detraining program that focuses on maintaining the new normal, a nutrition guide that explains healthy options when not under a rigorous schedule, and a way to prep them and their mindset for the outside world this can all be preemptive. Recreating this part in ourselves does not seem so crazy after all once the plan is put in place. Along with the help of a sport psychologist, using their natural athletic skill and transferring that into potential life skills is now achievable.

Ronkainen et al. (2020) guides us through the stages of an athlete’s psychological status after an alpine skier had a career ending knee injury. This athlete goes through many difficult obstacles in order to find her way in this strange new part of her life. As an athlete, the arena, pitch, court, field is your home. In this article we see Pilvi (the skier) face extremely hard decisions and plan a future for herself that she never thought she could reach and eventually come back and decide to take up a new sport. Asking the question, does our athletic identity ever come to an end? 

In the face of adversity, athletes have the skill and determination to continue on, it is whether they choose to or not that is the deciding factor. A person’s exploratory behavior is what creates an identity; trying out new things, seeing what we like and dislike, enjoying new experiences, and deciding to continue on or switch to something new are decisions that all need to be made. This is where an athlete can get caught up in a time constraint. Once the sport has been picked and the mind has been set early on, it can prove to be extremely difficult to create a new identity when they have already formed one. It will always be a fight between an athlete’s foreclosure and their identity, but what comes next is always up to them.


Brewer, B. W., & Petitpas, A. J. (2017) Athletic Identity Foreclosure. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 118-122.

Hadiyan, H., Cosh, S. (2019). Level of Physical and Motor Fitness Post Retirement and Maintenance of Athletic Identity Within Active Retired Athletes. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 24(1), 84-95.

Ronkainen, N. J., Ryba, T. V., & Allen-Collinson, J. (2020). Restoring Harmony in the Lifeworld? Identity, Learning, and Leaving Preelite Sport, The Sport Psychologist, 1-8. Retrieved Nov 14, 2020, from

Schaffeld, C. (2020). Megan Rapinoe was one of several players on the U.S. Women's National Team who spoke out against a legal filing in a gender pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. [Photograph]. Bizwomen.

Life After Sport: Mitigating the Athlete Identity Crisis

By Erin Baker, Masters of Education Student, BU Wheelock, Counseling & Sport Psychology Program

Athlete. On paper this appears to be a seven-letter word, but what is not illustrated are the thousands of training hours required to earn this title. With so much time and energy spent on becoming an “athlete”, this title not only stands for what these individuals are, but it becomes a key piece of who they are as well. Unfortunately, even the most elite athletes will not maintain an athletic career for the entirety of their lifetime, which means sport psychologists, coaches, and other stakeholders must be aware of the nuances of athlete identity, and how to navigate them as athletes prepare to transition from sport (Hansen et al, 2019).

Erin photo

Understanding the Athletic Identity

            Identity is built off of one’s self-perception of their physical, psychological and interpersonal characteristics – many of which are rooted in personal experiences, memories, and social influences. Since athletes have spent much of their lives training, earning recognition for athletic accomplishments, and being integrated in the sport environment; they experience their athletic identity as most salient piece of who they are (Menke & Germany, 2019).

            While early experiences may have influenced the significance of the athletic identity, sociologists believe it is the athlete’s interaction and response to their external environment which causes this identity to be their primary focus. Picture an actor interacting with their audience, putting on a façade as they transform into who the audience wants to see at that moment – this is the same thing that happens with athletes. When an athlete’s external environment is constantly sport-related they are always rearranging their identity so that “athlete” is at the forefront – making it seem as if this is their sole identity. However, it is believed that when the sport-related stimuli are removed, athletes will rearrange their identity and adapt themselves to fit into the new external environment. This proposed idea of identity adaptation offers a promising outlook as it suggests that athletes have a range of other identities outside of sport -- the key is for sport psychologists to empower athletes to explore and access these other identities so when it is time for them to transition, they will not find themselves in a state of crisis (Hickey & Roderick, 2017).

Practical Application

Encourage Non-Sport Activities

Athletes should be encouraged by coaches, sport psychologists and other stakeholders to engage in non-sport related activities. Participating in outside activities will expose athletes to other social environments in which they can display and try on their other identities – preventing them from foreclosing on a single identity: athlete (Menke & Germany, 2019).

Normalizing Negative Emotions

            Stakeholders should not only be encouraging athletes to engage in outside activities, but they should also have conversations with athletes about the psychological impacts of sport transition. When athletes transition out of sport they often face a significant sense of loss, grief, and other negative emotions. These negative psychological responses can feel isolating if athletes think they are the only ones experiencing them. However, if athletic personnel have conversations with their teams about the potential for these negative reactions, sharing their own personal experiences with transition, it can help normalize this experience – showing athletes that they are not alone and validating their emotional response (Menke & Germany, 2019).  

Putting it All Together

Athletes anticipating transition often benefit from a multifaceted educational program as well. Such programming may focus on identity, career transition, and adapting to major life change (transition). Programs should include workshop elements that teach different coping strategies to improve athlete resilience. It is also important that programs feature a balance of psychoeducational and experiential learning components so that athletes are not only learning about the important information, but engaging in reflective practices and activities that they can continue to use even after the program ends (Hansen et al, 2019).

Take Home Message

When athletes feel like their sport-related identity has become the most salient to them they are more likely to face challenges when it comes time to transition. Therefore, sport psychologists, coaches, and other stakeholders need to create an environment conducive to identity exploration, as well as a safe space to discuss mental health challenges and personal concerns with the upcoming transition process (Hickey & Roderick, 2017). There are many professional athletes who have recognized the need for spaces like this, and have created organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) to help facilitate a healthy transition for athletes. In this video, former U.S. Women’s National Team Member, Danielle Slaton talks about the impact of her transition out of sport, and how she has partnered with the PCA in hopes of empowering athletes to change their mindset and learn how to view transition as not a detriment, but an opportunity (“Connect with PCA”, n.d.). Programs like these are necessary for sport psychologists to implement in order to mitigate the athlete identity crisis that ensues with career transition.


[Digital image]. (n.d.). Retreived from

Hansen, A., Perry, J., Ross, M., & Montgomery, T. (2019). Facilitating a successful transition out of sport: introduction of a collegiate student-athlete workshop. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 10(1): 1-9.

Hickey, C., & Roderick, M. (2017). The presentation of possible selves in everyday life: The management of identity among transitioning professional athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal, 24(3):270-80.

Menke, D., & Germany, M. (2019). Reconstructing athletic identity: College athletes and sport retirement. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 24(1): 17-30.

Positive Coaching Alliance. (n.d.).  Connect with PCA. Retrieved November 22, 2020,

Positive Coaching Alliance. (2015, September 1). An athlete’s transition to the “real” world [Video]. YouTube.

Welcome to the BU Sport & Performance Psychology Team!

Our "Why"

Sports, music, theater, and the performing arts are demanding disciplines that require the ability to manage high-pressure situations and perform consistently at your best. Our team can help.

Who We Are

We are a team of Sport & Performance Psychology Masters and Doctoral students in the BU Wheelock College of Education and Human Development who are passionate about helping teams, athletes, musicians, actors, dancers, and other performers perform their best and thrive in the process. We work under the supervision of BU Wheelock faculty members to provide services to BU teams and athletes, CFA students, and Ryan Center patients. Services will be provided by advanced graduate students receiving comprehensive training and supervision in sport, performance and exercise psychology. Students are pursuing designation as Certified Mental Performance Consultants through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, highlighting their commitment to ethical, competent, and professional practice. 

What We Do

We provide performance enhancement training. Alongside the strategic, technical and physical coaching that athletes/performers receive, Performance Enhancement Training adds a focus on mental skills and preparation and can have a tremendous impact on overall well-being and performance. We provide teams and individuals with training in mental skills that have been shown to improve performance and make it more consistent. 

Performance Enhancement Training can help athletes and performers:

  • Maintain the attention, focus, thoughts, and emotions that lead to optimal performance
  • Manage and regulate emotions to achieve consistent performance
  • Remove mental and emotional blocks that are getting in the way of optimal performance
  • Strengthen the ability to perform under pressure
  • Conquer performance and audition/try-out anxiety and fears of choking
  • Set specific performance goals 
  • Develop a plan for handling stress, setbacks and challenges in training, competition, auditions, and performances
  • Overcome the effects of injury or a poor performance

Find out more about our services and how to set up a meeting with one of our team members