Sidelined: Helping young athletes navigate a new path forward
By Greg Bach
Around the country every season young athletes are hit with heart-breaking news that their sports participation is being terminated.
Whether it’s due to a career-ending injury, sustaining multiple concussions, or the discovery of an underlying health condition, the sports they love to play are snatched from them.
And their lives are instantly changed forever.
“No one is prepared for that conversation where you tell your kid that they have to give up their dream,” says Christine Pinalto, co-founder and executive director of Sidelined USA, a nonprofit organization which helps reunite permanently sidelined athletes with their passions and equips young athletes and their families with tools and resources to help navigate a new and meaningful path forward. “In the athlete’s mind it’s always about don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you’ll go out and prove it. But that mentality doesn’t work so great when the doctors are telling you ‘no’ and so that is another layer of why it’s so hard for these kids because it goes against everything they’ve been taught in sports culture.”
Pinalto knows the immense challenges that confront families when a child is no longer able to compete in sports and all the practices, games and social activities that accompany a season vanish.
When her son Cade was in the seventh grade, he was on the receiving end of news that took a sledgehammer to his basketball dreams.
“One day we were sitting in the cardiomyopathy doctor’s office and were told he had a heart condition and wouldn’t be cleared for basketball or any sports that include cardio,” Pinalto says. “It was completely devastating for us both. Unfortunately for those who are medically disqualified, there’s no amount of grit or determination that is going to change that unless you are going to flat out go against medical advice. We didn’t want to play with our kid’s life no matter what the cost.”
What followed was years of struggle for someone who loved the sport, the competition, and the pursuit of improvement.
“It was just a painful experience,” Pinalto says. “He went through a ton of depression and just feeling completely lost with all of his friends playing and he wasn’t. It affected his motivation and his drive, and he had a lot of anger to work through.”
Fast forward to Cade’s ninth grade year, where the high school basketball coach he had looked forward to playing for turned out to be his English teacher.
He heard Cade’s story and committed to helping him, and soon that bridge to recovery was in progress. He began mentoring him in coaching and re-connecting him to the sport that meant so much to him.
“It just transformed everything for him,” Pinalto says. “He was back to being part of a sport that he loved, and he had a role that was significant.”
What she witnessed sparked a conversation with her son that she will remember forever.
She asked him what he thought about starting a support group to help others.
“He had an even better idea,” she says. “He told me what was really meaningful for him was getting back involved so what if we did a nonprofit and tried to help kids get back involved in their sport through alternate avenues. I loved that and so we launched that.”
She quit her job and they started Sidelined Chicago in 2016; and two years later they unveiled Sidelined USA, which now provides a gold mine of resources and support to help young athletes nationwide who have been forced out of sports due to injury or health issues embrace their challenging new realities in meaningful ways.
“I’m a mom, first and foremost,” Pinalto says. “And when I heard other kids’ stories of how they were feeling there were a whole lot of families out there that certainly felt just as lost as I had felt. Their stories just pulled on my heart and those who know better do better and I know this topic and I knew that somebody had to do something.”
Among all the free resources Sidelined USA provides: a podcast series featuring inspiring interviews with athletes who were forced to give up their sport who share the ups and downs of their journey; a compilation of articles and research; and connection groups where athletes and families can speak with others who are facing similar situations.
POINTERS FOR PARENTS
Pinalto shares these tips for parents in the early stages of a young athlete’s exit from sports:
Encourage expression: “First and foremost it’s important to create an opportunity for your child to express how they are feeling and what they are thinking,” she says. “They are going through a significant crisis and it’s really important for them to talk it through. It really is the grief process – athletes report to us constantly phrases like ‘it felt like a part of me died’ and ‘my family doesn’t understand.’ Healing can begin when the student athlete feels understood and being heard is the first step.”
Walking athletes through the grief: “We all want to jump in and help and there’s definitely strategic ways to do that,” she says. “But we tend to jump into that first by trying to offer ideas of other things to do, but we just have to learn how to walk our kids through the grief. We need to give them permission to feel whatever they are feeling.”
Pointing out new paths – and being patient: “Eventually parents can offer encouragement about the greater perspective of helping them look at themselves as more than an athlete,” she says. “There are still great things ahead for that child but it’s just going to be a process to figure out what that is and that’s ok that it takes some time.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Among all the resources and support that Sidelined USA provides, Pinalto is also there to help any way she can.
“I always make myself available to talk to parents because I’ve been there and I know that there’s this grief that parents go through as well as their child,” she says. “Whenever we can get somebody to a better place, that’s what it’s all about.”
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