A friend once explained that her competitive, hard-working, and skilled ski racing son (who won often enough to be notable) had decided to retire from the sport at the age of fifteen because, “ski racing is breaking his heart – there is too much loss for him and his friends.”
Loss and heartbreak can be the hard truth for many young skiers, even when they love the sport enough to face its inherent challenges such as early mornings, winter elements, physical grit, and equipment maintenance. When there are more than 100 in a field of competition, and only three racers ultimately reach the podium, many of those remaining competitors will experience loss and disappointment, and even heartbreak. Losing regularly can definitely break a competitive heart, and this is even before considering the emotional minefield of inevitable injury.
Helping ski racers face and cope with this heartbreak can make the difference between their quitting the sport or persisting on their ski journey. When an athlete faces heartbreak because they fail to reach a goal (or suffer a major injury), they will likely experience grief and possibly even trauma. Effectively supporting a skier facing loss or injury requires a considered awareness of these four simple key tenants of heartbroken athlete care.
First, do not judge or try to control how an individual athlete experiences heartbreak. Understand the heartbreak belongs to the individual and is personal for each individual athlete as they experience it. Some racers can lose with incredible grace and honor, even as they are deeply disappointed. Some, however, wear their hearts out on their race suit sleeve and show the emotion and frustration of loss or injury.
Second, do not try to fix what has already happened or is broken. An athlete’s loss in a race or sidelining injury cannot be taken back, rewound, or fixed. The pain of the loss or injury is there to stay for at least a little while, and not until the athlete is ready can they (or anyone else) lessen that grief. Trying to fix them or assuaging their pain can often make it endure or worsen it.
Third, be available. Stay present with the athlete, even when this feels hard or sad to do so. Do not avoid the athlete or the situation. Just be there for them – for a conversation, questions, support, a meal, or some entertainment. Let them vent about the loss, listen to their sadness, and be present while they try to cope with the pain of losing or being out due to injury.
Four, be honest. Do not say things that might not be true, such as “you should have won,” “you’ll be back on course soon,” or “you’ll get the win next time.” Although well-intentioned, these potentially untrue remarks can remove an athlete’s accountability for the loss or injury, an accountability they need to genuinely learn and embrace their own progression and development. Only make statements that are truthful, such as “I am sorry this loss is challenging for you,” “it is tough to lose or suffer an injury,” or “I wish you did not have to experience this pain.”
Finally, and most importantly, just be willing to express care and concern for the athlete while they are mired in the hard work of overcoming loss or recovering from injury. Every single ski racer is going to DNF, miss the flip, crash into a gate, hurt some body part, or suffer frustration, humiliation, and disappointment at some point (and some more often than others) during their time in this heartbreak sport. Ski racing is fertile ground for learning some of life’s greatest lessons – so say and/or do something to help those lessons take root so the athlete persists and stays in the sport.