October 3, 2014 • Coaching

Between the Lines: Tragedy reminds us the team is family

Kevin Hoffman

Tragedy comes in many forms, but none is greater than the death of a teammate.

In August, Georgia high school football player Zyrees Oliver died from apparent “water intoxication” after consuming an estimated four gallons of water and sports drinks during a warm summer practice. The condition, known as hyponatremia, left Oliver brain dead. He was taken off life support days after being admitted to a hospital.

News like this is terrible, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like being in that locker room. I was fortunate in not having to deal with this type of tragedy in organized sports, so it’s difficult to comprehend how I would have coped. The game, the rivalries and the victories all become irrelevant.

Coaches have a difficult job in situations like this. They’re looked to for guidance, encouragement and consolation, so as impossible as it may seem, their strength is important. In fact, it’s crucial.

We hear heartbreaking stories like this every year. Some deaths are preventable, others are not, but that doesn’t change the way your players feel and react after tragedy strikes. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve ever been forced to cope with the loss of a close friend. They’re lost, and providing comfort and direction helps them through.

I hoped to include some advice for dealing with such a tragedy in this month’s editorial, but I’m not convinced it would help. Each team is different, made up of its own personalities. How you mourn and how you move on depends entirely on the makeup of your team. If there is one general idea that coaches should take to heart, it’s to remember that your team is your family. In situations like these, it’s important to lean on each other and pick others up when they’re in need.

Photo: Gary Miotla

We don’t talk about that enough, but at the core of every team is that sense of togetherness. Many coaches work the “family” theme into team phrases and mottos that are proudly displayed on the backs of T-shirts and chanted loudly before games. Your players fight side-by-side each day on the field, so it’s only natural that those in your program feel a special sort of kinship when they’re off of it.

If you take the time to talk to coaches from around the country, each has their own story about how they’ve positively affected someone’s lives. How you guide your players through the loss of a teammate is an extreme example, but it illustrates the value of your job. You don’t stop being a coach when you step off the field. They way you interact with your athletes will have a profound influence on their personalities throughout their lives. Your job is more valuable than you might think.

I sincerely hope none of you ever have to deal with a situation similar to what happened on that Georgia football field, but let it serve as a reminder to how quickly lives can change. And when there is tragedy in the realm of sports, it’s the coach’s job to pull everyone through.

Never forget how much that means to your team.

Kevin Hoffman is the editorial director of Coach & Athletic Director. His editorial, Between the Lines, appears in each edition of the magazine.

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