The Passing of Melanie Coleman: Responding to Trauma or Injury
I want to talk a little bit tonight about the passing of Melanie Coleman, the SCSU gymnast who was injured in a gymnastics training accident and then passed away a couple of days later. This is something that hit me hard. I remember pulling up the article as I was giving my kids a bath, and I was stunned at this freak accident. That’s something that we sort of joke about as athletes, and so for this to happen, it makes the danger of our sport very real for a lot of people.
I was first hit by that and then, in the PerformHappy Facebook group, one of the moms posted, “How do we talk to our kids about this?”
Then, some of the athletes who are members posted or sent me emails saying, “I’m scared. I’m scared to do my gymnastics after this happened.” I work with girls who are pretty high-level gymnasts who have pretty big skills.
Feeling the Loss
Everyone is starting is feeling this loss, this huge loss of this wonderful girl, and nothing but amazing things can be said about her. So I wanted to check in and touch on what you can do, parents and athletes when something like this happens.
We know when a tragedy like this happens, when someone’s injured, a fear can be developed. They’ve watched an injury happened to their friend or they have been injured themselves and fear sets in. Here are a couple of tips that can help get through this time in a graceful way if possible.
The first thing to do is just to offer to listen. I mentioned in the PerformHappy group, my kids are young – I have a little gymnast, but she’s four and a half, so obviously I’m not going to be having this conversation with her, but the teenagers are well aware of this. If your athlete’s a teenager, they know what happened. They know this story and the word is traveling. If you’re not sure, I wouldn’t be the one to necessarily break this to your athlete, but if they are aware of this, I would definitely dive into a conversation around this. So offer to listen, don’t prod them or force them to talk. Just let them know that since this happened, it’s upsetting. Say things like, “I understand that this can be upsetting for you and I’m here to talk if you’re feeling scared or if you’re feeling sad or if you’re having any feelings about this.”
2. Share the Facts
And then of course, any questions that they have, answer age appropriately, which I think goes without saying, but talk about what happened. Once we have more information it might be a little bit easier to be able to say, “Well it looks like this was what happened.” When there’s some sort of a tragedy or an accident that happens, it’s good to be able to discuss the facts of what happened and remind your athlete that it’s okay to be scared.
3. Validate All Feelings
That’s really the main point that I want to get across if you are feeling affected by this. It’s okay to feel that way. It’s compassionate, it’s empathetic, it’s normal. It’s also pretty understandable that you might take a blow to your confidence hearing something that makes the danger of the sport very real.
4. Listen to Your Body
When a traumatic experience happens, our bodies go into emergency mode and our brains get very diligent. This is great because it can help you get to work to solve the problem, save the people, and be a hero. However, if you’re in emergency mode and there’s nothing to save and there’s nothing to do and you’re just trying to hold it together, just be aware that maybe that’s where you are. Maybe your brain is being hyper diligent and doesn’t really want you to do bars right now and doesn’t really want you to do that dismount off the beam right now. If your brain is pulling you back and making you a little bit more conservative, there’s nothing wrong with you. That’s absolutely a normal response, so don’t get down on yourself.
Of course, here we are, it’s November and optional season is rapidly approaching and some of us are thinking, “I don’t have time to have this hiccup. I don’t have time to be afraid.” But you know what? Your brain doesn’t care about season. Your brain cares about your health and safety and you just have to honor it and know that this will pass.
5. Share Your Feelings
It’s okay to take it seriously and to allow yourself a moment to be a little bit more conservative in what you’re doing in practice. Don’t get down on yourself, just do what you can. If there’s fear happening, if your body’s saying, “I can’t,” and your brain is saying,” I can’t, I don’t want to. I don’t like this right now,” I recommend you ask yourself … “What can I do?” It’s going to take some communicating. If you were doing a certain skill last week and this week, it doesn’t feel safe and it feels a little more uneasy, what can you do?
You can talk to your coach and say, “You know, I’m feeling affected by this. I’m feeling a little freaked out. Can I just go easy right now? I know we have a meet coming up, but I think I just need to back it up a little bit for right now.” Make sure that you talk about it if you don’t feel safe. Tell your coach, “I don’t feel safe. Can I please have an extra mat today? Can I please skip this station?” Whatever it is that will make you feel safer, talk about it. Talk about it, talk about it. It’s easy for us to hold things in and just be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m just sad and scared and feeling kind of isolated or alone.”
6. Allow Time to Grieve
Talk about it with your friends and not in a gruesome way, but just like, “Wow, that really freaked me out,” and talk about it with your parents. Talk about what freaked you out and what it made you feel like because not keeping it packed down inside allows it to process and allows you to actually grieve. Whether it’s an injury of a friend it’s this big, tragic incident that many of us nationwide are aware of… no matter what it is, make sure that you have time to grieve it and don’t feel bad for needing to grieve it even if you didn’t know her because she’s one of us. We know a lot about her and her journey as a gymnast.
It’s okay to feel like you’re somehow related to her journey and that you’re somehow threatened by her accident and her pain. If you feel threatened and you need to take it easy, I encourage you to do so. Do what you need to do to feel safe. Give yourself time to grieve. Parents, if you notice that your athlete is struggling or you’re noticing their performance suffering, talk to the coaches and then encourage self-care, getting enough sleep, getting enough to eat, really taking care of yourself can be so critical in moments when you’re just not feeling okay.
Remember – we want to honor her life. We want to honor her accident, we want to honor the danger of our sport and take the necessary measures to make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for safety and success.
8. Finding the Silver Lining
If something doesn’t feel safe, even if it felt safe yesterday, ask for help. After we process everything, it’s great to find the silver lining. I know there’s no silver lining and losing a loved one. There just isn’t and it’s not okay. It’s not anything that is worth accepting or getting over, but sometimes we can find beauty in loss. One of the things that I think is beautiful that’s been highlighted is that she gave life to others. She was able to donate organs to people who wouldn’t have been able to live. Now she has become their life story, which is pretty beautiful and amazing.
I was looking into past tragedies and what’s happened as a result. There was a past tragedy that led to the vault table being changed to what it is today so that it would be sturdier and safer, and that’s led to the U shaped mat around the Yurchenko vault board.
When things don’t go right, things get better as a result.
We want to make sure that people can stay safer and we learn from it. Not that it’s ever okay to have somebody be injured, but it’s good to know that there is that silver lining, that things get better and people get more diligent and people really look out for each.
For the younger athletes, maybe you’re not a teenager, maybe you’re in a preteen, if you’re feeling affected by it, find a way to give back now, just like Melanie got to give her organs. Maybe you can do a fundraiser for her family or write a card to her family. I’m not sure how old you have to be, but maybe you could sign up to be an organ donor just like she did and do something that will help let her legacy live on.
Remember – you’re resilient. Gymnastics is resilient, and we’re going to continue on and have joy for the sport that she loved so much. If you are struggling and you need somebody to talk to, please reach out to me. Obviously, if you’re really struggling, find somebody to talk to immediately, it does not have to be me.
I just want to let you all know that I’m with you in the struggle and it’s normal to feel sad, it’s normal to feel scared, and you’re not alone. All right, everyone. I’ll see you soon.