CELEBRATE! Profile: Sydney Brown

An exercise science major explores the effectiveness of applying grief-response models to student-athletes who are injured. 

CELEBRATE! Week offers an annual opportunity to highlight the academic and artistic achievements of Elon students and faculty. Each day this week, we’ll be putting the spotlight on a student scholar’s research — what they are seeking to find out, and who they became interested in their project.

Name: Sydney Brown ’18

Major: Exercise Science

Minor: Psychology

Faculty mentor: Eric E. Hall, professor of exercise science

Title of research: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Applying Grief-Response Models to Sport Injury in Collegiate Student-Athletes


Injury is not uncommon to athletes, and although the physical effects of injury are most obvious, the psychological effects can be just as detrimental, and have long-lasting impacts. For an athlete whose identity is contingent upon their participation in sport, an injury that forces them to cease participation can represent a significant loss.

As a result, grief models are often applied to the context of sport injury. However, most models may be outdated, and little empirical research has been done to test their applicability to sport injury. The effectiveness of grief-response models in describing emotional responses to injury was evaluated in collegiate student-athletes. Additionally, the role of social support in determining emotional response was investigated. Fifteen collegiate student-athletes (10 female, five male) across six NCAA Division I sports participated in this study by completing a semi-structured interview regarding the individual’s injury experience.

Athletes most frequently reported feeling upset during the injury diagnosis stage. For those athletes whose injury required surgical intervention, their top reported emotional response during that time was anxiety. Frustration was the most commonly expressed emotion during the rehabilitation stage. Finally, in returning to play, the top emotional response reported among participants was anxiety.

Regarding social support, participants reported one or both of their parents as their greatest source of social support, while coaches were the primary source that the student-athletes wished they had received more support from. Preliminary findings suggest that grief models should redirect focus from shock and depression and be reworked to account for the prevalence of anxiety and frustration in multiple stages of recovery. Additionally, results identified a need for increased availability of social support resources on campus, as well as, training for coaching staff on how to better meet the expectations and needs of injured athletes.

In other words:

This study sought to evaluate the effectiveness of various grief-response models in describing a student-athlete’s emotional response to injury, as well as investigate the role of social support in determining emotional response. Through semi-structured interviews with 15 Division I student-athletes, it was determined that grief models should be reworked to address the unique circumstances experienced during the sport injury recovery process.

This study also identifies the need for additional on-campus resources for athletes to help them better cope with their injuries, and potentially training for trainers and coaching staff so that they are better able to support student-athletes throughout the process.

Explanation of study:

A qualitative approach was used to investigate how the injury experiences of student-athletes compares to those described by grief models, as well as how social support affects their experience. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gain a comprehensive understanding of the student-athlete’s personal experience with and response to injury. Interviews were conducted face-to-face or via telephone, depending on the availability of the participant.

Guiding questions were developed by the researcher to aid with the flow of the conversation. The questions addressed relevant information regarding emotional response and social support throughout different stages of the recovery process including diagnosis, pre- and post-surgery (if applicable), rehabilitation, and return to play (if applicable).

Student-athletes were then able to elaborate on aspects of their experience in as much detail as they desired. Following transcription, participants’ responses were categorized into four stages: diagnosis, surgery, rehabilitation, and return to play. The data was then coded and analyzed to determine the most common emotional responses at each stage, as well as the most prominent sources of social support and the course and consistency of their support throughout the entire process.

What made this research interesting to you? How did you get started?

My interest in the broad topic of the psychology of sport injury came after my own personal experience with injury. In between my junior and senior year of high school, I sustained a severe knee injury that required two surgeries and over a year away from sports. The psychological impacts that the injury had on me were substantial, and my mental health suffered greatly during that time.

I found that many people didn’t understand my emotional response to the injury and why I was so impacted by it. However, when I began researching the psychological impacts of injury, I realized that my emotions were valid. That validation immediately sparked my interest and I wanted to learn more.

I came into Elon with that in mind, and eventually found a wonderful mentor in Dr. Eric Hall, who helped me read through the literature and identify the gaps to come up with my current research topic.