Athletes Going off the Grid: Injury, Coaching & Transition


For athletes, an injury/illness, change in coach or retirement from their sport may feel like a traumatic event and can greatly affect their mental health. During these three seasons of change, the athlete has the potential to go “off the grid” from their usual support systems of teammates, coaches, athletic trainers and strength coaches.

As a result of this stressful time, the incidence of disordered eating or eating disorder behaviors has the potential to increase. The athletes highlighted below provide insight into how as professionals we may be able to bring about awareness and interventions for these times of seasons of change.

Athletes’ Injury

“I was put in a cast to provide non-weight-bearing relief for a persistent injury. It was meant to be a time of healing. But my eating disorder (ED) knew it could grab the entirety of my focus and rule my life. When you put everything you have into your sport/profession it becomes an identity. My only other identity outside of ‘ballerina’ was ‘ED.’  When the immense focus, drive, and determination to perfecting your craft are taken away, it is so easy for ED to take control. I spiraled even deeper into the disorder and ultimately never found the healing I was searching for in that period of rest.” ~ Molly

Athletes tend to panic when their activity level is diminished. Due to the injury, they significantly reduce their usual energy intake leading to poor healing and increased disordered eating. They may also use their dedication to eating “healthy” and exercise beyond physical therapy to decrease their body weight. Pain can also impact the risk of disordered eating, diminishing the athlete’s appetite.

Tips for a Coach, Athletic Trainer or Parent

Here are some tips for athletes’ coaches, trainers and parents to support athletes during an injury.

  • Compare behaviors before the injury. If there have been changes in behavior, don’t hesitate to ask why.
  • Encourage the athlete to participate as part of the team so they avoid isolation.
  • Echo the importance of nourishment and rest so the athlete can fully heal to return to the sport and team.

Change in Coaching

“I was recruited by a coach that I felt really comfortable with. When I got to college, I discovered that she decided to stay home with her new baby. Part of the recruiting class decided to not commit after finding this out and the new coach showed favoritism to his recruits. I was so disappointed and frankly heart-broken.” ~ Broken Basketball Player

Coaches are such a profound part of an athlete’s life, similar to a family member. The athlete may feel a sense of mourning in a coaching change if they were really close to the previous coach. In a college setting, the athlete may feel isolated from athletes that the new coach has recruited. This may also lead to an increased pressure to impress the new coach at all costs.

Tips for the Coach, Athletic Trainer and Parents

Here are some tips for athletes’ coaches, trainers and parents to support athletes during an unexpected coaching change.

  • Make an effort to get to know your athletes and assure them they will all be treated equally.
  • If the previous staff is still present, find the time to learn more about your new players and how to relate to them.
  • For parents, encourage athletes to work on skills around change and remind them that everyone on the team likely feels the same.

Transition Out of the Sport

“Any life transitions challenge my disorder because uncertainty is scary! I quickly want to run to old habits as a means of control. However, when I retired from basketball, which I had played for 26 years, I faced the hardest transition of my life today. I walked through letting go of deep, embedded emotions that rocked my identity. Finding my new normal apart from the sport has been the longest, yet most rewarding, process. My team of support has carried me. The Lord, my husband, and close friends have challenged me and not let me go back.” Sidney Spencer, former Vol and retired WNBA.

For an athlete that has been in sports most of their life, transitioning out of the sport can be a frightening time and even feel like a loss. Many athletes have reported similar feelings of grief and turn to familiar comforts, such as control of food or exercising to a point of exhaustion.

Tips for Coaches, Athletic Trainers and Parents

Here are some tips for athletes’ coaches, trainers and parents to support athletes as they transition out of their sport.

  • Keep the discussion open through their whole career about what kind of person they are outside of sport.
  • Ask the athlete what they would do if their days and weeks were not centered around the sport.
  • Normalize for the athlete how tough this transition can be and that you will be there for them and help them find resources, if needed.

From a Recovered Runner, Now a Running Coach

“Before injuries even occur, I believe it’s important for coaches to show that they are open to listening when an athlete feels pain, and to distinguish injury pain from soreness pain (pain that is achy and dissipates versus pain that is sharp, persistent and worsens). We are responsible for giving them the knowledge to avoid injury by training SMART (not overdoing mileage, workouts, taking easy runs easy, etc.), and fueling and hydrating throughout the day.

When an athlete is injured, we might address these potential risk factors to see what we can improve on in the future, and then move forward with the proper treatment options. This, of course, is the way to handle the physical side of the injury, but mentally, we want our athletes to know that we care for them. Whether they are running or not, we will always support the decision that is in the best interest of their bodies and minds.” Rachael Steil, former collegiate runner and author of Running in Silence.

When the door is left open for dialogue and conversation, it leaves the opportunity for that athlete to feel like they are in a safe place. Help can be requested and provided.

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Rebecca McConville

Registered Dietitian specializing in RED-S (relative energy deficiency in Sport) and author of Finding your Sweet Spot-How to avoid RED-S.

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