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How to help young athletes process Kobe's death

Kobe Bryant contemplates on hanging it up at the end of the season.
Kobe Bryant contemplates on hanging it up at the end of the season. | REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

For many Americans, basketball legend, Kobe Bryant was a household name synonymous with genuine sportsmanship and inspiring dedication to the athlete’s craft. This week, I felt shock and grief when news broke about his tragic death in a helicopter crash, along with his daughter and seven others. Everything about it felt wrong. He was too young. It was too random, should have just been a memorable daddy-daughter moment. I am not alone. Thousands of fans, reporters, and celebrities took to TV and social media channels to pay tribute to a man they either knew or felt like they knew.

Sports are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our nation. It’s no surprise we look up to professional athletes who are often viewed as heroes in the eyes of children and adults alike. Throughout his NBA career, Kobe Bryant was a national and global celebrity. Such a sudden, tragic loss of a public figure is difficult to process, especially for our children.

That is why we must lean into heartbreak with our kids, so that they may grow to understand death, develop healthy methods for processing tragedy, lean on each other and turn to truth in times of confusion. At the time of the accident, a basketball tournament was underway at Bryant’s sports academy in California. When the news reached the coaches, players, parents, and officials, everything stopped. Gyms, formerly filled with squeaking shoes, shouts, sweat, the joy of a basket, the anger of a missed block, the screech of a buzzer, a ref’s whistle, went still. Everyone went down to a knee and prayed.

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What an incredible example they have set for us. When tragedy hits, we are all quickly made aware just how fragile and fleeting our lives really are. But from here we have two choices: We can grow cold, calloused and angry, calling the world a cruel place, or we can recognize that something, someone, has greater perspective and still, a good plan, for our futures. In other words, we can see how little control we have and lose hope, or we can see how little control we have and cast our cares on God. Youth sports leaders, whether a coach or parent or referee, have a significant role in shaping this binary decision for the children they have come alongside.

There are important lessons to be shared in this difficult moment. In Romans 12:15, Christians are called to “mourn with those who mourn.” This Biblical principle teaches us the importance of empathizing with our friends experiencing the pain of deep loss, heartache, and sorrow. Another lesson is about the fact that death is a part of the human experience, but for Christians, we look to eternity with hope. John 3:16 teaches us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s important to note that these lessons – while it may hit hard in the aftermath of tragedy – are best taught over time. That’s what we really seek to do at Upward Sports. It’s natural to turn to prayer in shock, but what if we also turned to God when nothing was going wrong, when we win the game? For us, we believe developing those habits in victory ensures that they are with us in the face of defeat, adversity, and injustice. Sports are playful, fun, exciting, and relationship building, but they also present an opportunity for kids to build character and learn life skills that will benefit them long into adulthood.

Let’s allow some good come out of this tragedy, as we point our kids to the ways in which Bryant used his influence well, as we help them process death and injustice. Let’s take this difficult moment to engage kids for teachable moments that will build character. And let’s all take this time in our history, just days before the Super Bowl, to reset and remember that sports represent so much more than winning a game.

Drew Provence serves as partner engagement manager at Upward Sports.

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