This week the NCAA women’s basketball team at Middle Tennessee State University suffered the most devastating loss imaginable. It had nothing to do with an opponent on the hardwood. Tina Stewart, a junior guard, was stabbed to death by her roommate. My deepest condolences go out to all those touched by this senseless loss. When the cameras go away and the world stops watching her teammates and coaching staff have a choice. Will they work together to grow more cohesive through this challenge or will it fracture them into groups of individuals dealing with the loss in their own way?
There is no doubt the university is offering school psychologists to the team. In my experience that means a statement such as “counselors are available”. Individual students, of their own volition, have to find time in their schedule, contact the counseling center, and make an appointment. I hope many of them do so.
I would also assume that there will be some team time set aside by the coach to talk about Tina and what her loss means to her team. It is in this team meeting that I believe many coaches and their administration miss the boat. As a team expert and drawing on my experience working with female NCAA teams, I offer these suggestions/questions to consider so this team can come through this tragedy a stronger, more unified team. If I know anything about athletes I can say for certain that Tina Stewart would want that for her team.
It is imperative that the coach bring in a specialist to work with the team. Expecting each young woman to seek out help on her own is not acceptable. Additionally, if they are all working through their grief alone or in small groups the team will develop fissures and cliques.
Dealing with this trauma is not something they can do once and everyone moves on. Tributes and vigils are a wonderful way to show support. Accepting the loss and dealing with the grief will take time. Assuming the team trusts the specialist he/she should check in with the team regularly, maybe once a week. The team will know when they are in a good place and able to support themselves.
That brings us to an some important questions. Was this team ever given the skills to talk to each other about strong emotions? Do they trust each other enough to be open and real? Is their team environment safe enough for a team member to drop the ‘tough athlete’ facade and say, “I’m not okay”. Will the team respond with support or expect a ‘game face’?
At some point in the future there will be a player who has been able to move beyond this heartbreak. She will think in her mind, “Yes, what happened was awful. It has been long enough. It is time to move on.” What happens if that teammate actually voices those thoughts and the other young women aren’t there yet? Does this team have a strategy to have a conversation so fraught with emotion?
Finally – the coaching staff is going to be the example the team follows. They shouldn’t be afraid to grieve with them. Putting up a tough front for the team and grieving in private will make them think that is what is expected. Their minds will make up things like, “Coach doesn’t really care.” “Coach doesn’t understand us and how hard this is.” “We aren’t allowed to be emotional.” “We have to be tough.” I have no doubt Coach Rick Insell believes none of those things. Sharing it will help the team trust him.
I am sure the Lady Raiders are resilient and determined. I know they will come through this loss. It is my hope that the university and their coaching staff will provide them with the support and guidance they need to do more then make it through. They have to opportunity to become a better team for their loss and pain. If they can make at least that one good thing can come from this pointless violence, don’t they owe that to Tina?
Grow strong Lady Raiders. I for one am rooting for you.
Update: After this article was written Wes Leonard, 16, of Fennville High School collapsed and died on the basketball court after making the winning shot. Our condolences are extended to his team, family, friends and coaches.
Tags :athlete stabbing, Blue Raiders, Champion Performance Development, dealing with grief, death of a teammate, Doc Robyn, Fennville High School, Middle Tenn, middle tennessee state university stabbing, MTSU Lady Raider, NCAA stabbing, Rick Insell, Robyn Odegaard, roommate stabbing, Ryan Klingler, Tim Schipper, Tina Stewart, Wes Leonard