Dealing with loss at season’s end

words by Guy Little, Wednesday 11 September 2019

In the coming weeks, sirens around the country will be sounding at full time and both triumph and tragedy will be in the air. The hard work throughout the season will be either rewarded by winning the flag or be insufficient to raise a trophy. As heads hang after the siren, players are likely to feel a range of emotions. As a coach, how do you make sense of the players’ experiences and what can you do to help them? In this blog we’ll look at the advice that grief and loss experts tell us about dealing with loss.

Experience of loss is personal

You might be surprised that some players seem as low as they do, and as affected as they are, after they lose a game in a final series. There can be many reasons why a loss hits a player hard. The amount of effort they have put into the game or the season, the challenges or setbacks (e.g., injury) they have had to overcome during the season, or the meaning and importance they placed on winning. And that’s to name just a few. Equally, some players may not be affected at all by a loss. The key thing is to appreciate that there are a variety of reasons that people experience loss, however big or small the loss may seem to an outsider.  

One way to get players moving through the grief process is to let them know that it is ok to experience whatever they are experiencing. Practitioners tell us that judgement on people’s responses to loss brings shame, and shame is a barrier to working through, understanding, and processing loss. Statements like, “you’ll get over it” or “it’s only a game” maybe true in the long term, but they can invalidate the feelings or experiences a player is having at the time of the loss.

Grief is a natural process

When we experience loss in life, whether it is a loss of relationship or connection (a loved one passing away or a break up), a part of us (loss of function after an injury, loss of identity as a footy player when retiring), or of a cherished dream like winning a premiership, our bodies and brains respond in a range of natural ways. We can feel sadness, numbness (and cry a lot), anger, guilt, shame, blame, or relief (“phew, the struggle is over”), stress, anxiety, and a loss of interest. We can experience physical symptoms – change in appetite, headaches, and difficulties sleeping. We may also try and block out these feelings through throwing ourselves into activities to keep us distracted or substances to numb us – both of which, Lifeline tells us, often end up making things a lot worse. Suppressing our reactions can exacerbate the feelings and physical responses (despite sometimes offering temporary relief/numbing) that we need to feel and work through.

Losing a final game may not seem as important as the other events mentioned above, but, we can still experience a range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in relation to a loss in footy and what that loss represents for us.

Grief and loss have no road map 

The experience of grief and loss is personal and also varies across cultures. Despite there being some understanding of different phases or stages of grief, there is no set way that grieving occurs or time that grieving takes. It is good to be aware that players may recover quickly from a loss and others may take time. Removing expectations on a “healing time” can be useful – responding to players and their personal experiences is important.

Grief can be expressed in different ways, some do this through crying and others through isolating themselves and withdrawing. Experts at Lifeline suggest that people avoid responding with statements like, “I know how you feel”. Even if you’ve gone through the heartache yourself, the circumstances are almost never the same – everyone’s experience with grief and loss is unique.

Supporting someone who has experienced loss

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB) offers some useful strategies to get around those who experience loss (although worth noting that their content is often directed at those who have lost loved ones).

Be patient – people who experience loss may not want to talk and they also may not know what they need, and they may not seem like their usual selves. You can always ask questions as to what they might want from you, “do you want me to stick around?”, “can I do X or Y for you?”. Letting them know you are available is likely to be helpful and reassuring for them.

Ask questions – The ACGB suggests we ask open questions to people who experience loss like, “how are you feeling?”, “what is happening for you?” Rather than assuming what the player is experiencing or telling them that you know what they feel.

Keep in touch – people who experience loss may need time to themselves, but it is worth keeping connected and checking in.

Encourage players to stay healthy – regular exercise, sleep and healthy diet are all things that can help players maintain fit minds and process their experience of loss. It is also useful for people supporting those who have experienced loss to stay healthy too – it can be a stressful experience.

Lookout for signs of players being overwhelmed – some players may seem overwhelmed by strong feelings. When we notice these signs, it is recommended that we reach out to them and connect them with additional supports like professionals (see our links at the bottom of the page).   

So, there you have it. Some information about dealing with losses at the pointy end of the season and some suggestions from the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement on how to get around your players in a supportive way.

Guy Little is the Tackle Your Feelings Program Psychologist.

Click here to view the sources for this article.

Need Support? If you know someone who requires urgent assistance or support, please contact:

Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Emergency: 000

Support for AFL Players: If you are a current or past AFL Player and would like to know more about our specialised wellbeing and mental health services please contact the AFL Players’ Association at or Tel. 03-8651 4300 (Mon to Fri, 9am – 5pm).

Click here to read our disclaimer.