Ask the Coach: "How Do I Play Through Grief?"
Arizona's Adia Barnes tells a tennis player how to use the memory of her mother to become a better athlete.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
It feels kind of weird to write this to a stranger, but my mum passed away about a year ago. It's been hard, but I've had amazing support from friends, family and a pretty awesome therapist. The reason I'm writing to you is because besides being a great parent, my mum was also my first tennis coach and my biggest cheerleader. She came to every one of my matches and most of my training sessions. Now that she's gone, I'm realising just how much she motivated me. A year ago, I was absolutely sure tennis would continue to be a main focus in my life. Now, playing feels hollow. I still train most days, but I have to push myself to show up. I hear about how great players have this inner fire, and I'm worried that I've lost mine. How do I find a new fire? Or should I find a new focus altogether?
Missing Amazing Tennis Coach and Helper
17-year-old tennis player
I'm so sorry, MATCH. That's a huge loss.
You are who you are because of your mum. And being a tennis player is part of that.
I hope you know it's OK to grieve her loss. And it's OK to not want to play tennis right now because things have changed so much. Change is almost always uncomfortable.
I went through a different kind of loss two years ago. I had a miscarriage, and it was really hard. I had so much hope wrapped up in that pregnancy. I know it's not the same thing, but I imagine when you lose a parent when you're young, you might also feel a loss of hope. You have all of these plans together, but now that person's gone.
But she's not completely gone, right? She's still a presence in your heart, and in that way, she's still there for you.
I'm a mum too—I have a 5-year-old boy and a newborn baby girl—and I know that if anything ever happened to me, I'd want them to keep going. When you think about your mum, think about what she would want for you. It sounds like she loved being part of your game, loved watching you play. If that's true, use that as motivation to keep pushing. Use your love for her as your fire. You can honour her by beating the socks off someone, you know? I think she'd like that. I believe in that stuff! Put your heart into it.
This may sound odd, but sometimes I think about what my mum would want me to do after she passes.
I know she would kick me if I were sitting there crying about her. I'm not saying you shouldn't cry! You should. I definitely would. But if I were only crying, my mum's ghost would probably set off a fire alarm in my house, and I'd realise that would be her telling me, "Adia, get off your bum and get going! Let's go!"
... reach out to people who can understand your experience.
But what do you have to get going for if competition isn't calling right now? You're someone who really benefited from being mentored, so I think you could get a lot out of paying that forward. Maybe volunteer to coach a young player. Or get involved in some kind of fundraising in your mum's name.
I can't imagine not doing this kind of work. I started a non-profit a while ago. I collected athletic clothes and shoes from players who'd worn them once, then I gave them to boys and girls who couldn't afford those things. It was so easy to do, and the looks on the kids' faces were amazing.
You might also want to reach out to people who can understand your experience. It was really powerful for me to talk about my miscarriage with other women who'd gone through the same thing, and for them to share their stories with me. A year after I spoke about it in a public forum, women were still coming up to me on campus to tell me how it helped them. I think it might help you too, to find a bereavement group for people your age and share stories.
... playing a sport teaches you so much. Kids who play sports have better coping skills than those who don't.
If you want to explore passions outside tennis, you should do that. But I wouldn't make any big decisions immediately, including deciding to give up your sport. Tennis might feel hard right now, and it might take some time to get your fire back, so be gentle with yourself. Just know that playing a sport teaches you so much. Kids who play sports have better coping skills than those who don't. Like my sister. She didn't play sports, and she can't handle adversity like I can. She'll be like, "How do you go forwards after such a life-altering thing?" and I'm like, "How could I not?" Tennis could be what helps you get through this incredibly painful time.
It sounds like your mum wanted you to have that resiliency, and that comes with time, practise and leaning into your sport when you need it. Trust me. I believe that your love of the game will come back. That you'll find your resiliency, channel your mum's memory and be even more amazing than before.
Adia Barnes is the head women's basketball coach at the University of Arizona. In 2011 and 2020, she was a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. Previously an assistant coach at the University of Washington, she has also worked in broadcasting; played seven seasons in the WNBA, helping to lead the Seattle Storm to a championship; and bolstered international teams in five countries. As a player at Arizona, Barnes set 22 individual records for the Wildcats, many of which are still unbroken. She has won multiple awards for her involvement in the community.
Illustration: Harrison Freeman