How to Insulate Teams in Crisis

By Kathleen Hessert - Sports Media Challenge Last December, the University of Michigan’s Jeff Reese died from kidney and heart failure after a 2-hour workout in a 92-degree sauna room. Random violence took the life of Pablo Lopez, a star football player at the Florida State University who was destined for the NFL. The University of North Carolina’s top basketball recruit, Charles Hayward, was diagnosed with Leukemia before the season even started. Traumatic events such as these can have a devastating effect on the people involved, especially athletic teams that draw their character and much of their success from closeness, interdependency and chemistry among their members. Avoid "Business as Usual" How can a coach deal with such a situation? By using an often-neglected crisis management tool: PostTrauma Counseling. Experts contend that it’s inappropriate to act as if nothing happened and assume business as usual. In the case of the wrestler’s death, the Wolverines suspended their season for 20 days so that the school could investigate and review policies, look at its practices and rules, and allow the players to cope with the loss of a team member. Players and staff look to their coach for direction, so how does one deal with the after-effects of a traumatic experience? Emotions are very high after a trauma, so you must refocus your team for the season. Often, coaches find that trauma can be a tremendous motivational tool; using symbols such as black armbands, a seat reserved on the bench, a preserved locker, and jersey or number retirement. Keys to Coping Because degrees of trauma vary, you must first assess the team’s needs both as a unit and as individuals. Are school counselors and ministers needed, or do you bring in professional post-trauma counselors and sports psychologists? Secondly, act fast—within the first 24 hours. This is where crisis planning is critical. For example, what if the crisis happens on the road? When a traumatic experience occurs while your team’s away the confusion and lag time are multiplied. You’ll need extra help because you don’t have the same resources available as you do at home. Documenting steps taken while handling the crisis can also lend support the next time an event occurs. Another key to dealing with traumatic events is to look to assistants, trainers and other coaches to see if they’ve dealt with similar situations. In the UNC case, head basketball coach Melvin Watkins gleaned helpful advice from a former assistant, Kevin Billerman, who was the head coach at Florida Atlantic University and had lost an athlete to a heart attack. Lastly, care about your team members and staff—they’re your primary concern. If it’s not your style to be warm and talkative, listening effectively conveys compassion. Post-Trauma Counseling Can • Help • It’s not unusual for coaches or players to avoid post-trauma counseling. • There’s something inherent about sports that convinces participants they don’t need help coping. How do you deal with this? Make the first meeting with a counselor mandatory. Let them gripe about it, but make them go so that the counselor can assess counseling needs. • Post-trauma counseling benefits you and your team in the long run. Counseling helps people sort out emotions and gain closure while reinforcing the solidarity of the group. Kathleen Hessert is President of Charlotte, NC based Sports Media Challenge, a professional speaker, trainer and consultant focusing on crisis communication, public speaking skills and media relations. Sports Media Challenge’s website (www.sports.mediachallenge.com) offers regularly updated tips on media, crisis, image and presentation skills.

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