SUNY Geneseo: A study on how to coach through a tragedy

When a person chooses coaching as a profession there are some likely dreams and expectations for their job — like winning the big championship game, watching their team rejoice at a well-earned victory, and even consoling and giving players perspective after a hard-fought loss.Scott Hemer

It’s part of the coaching experience, and good coaches know who they will be in those moments. The speeches are written in their heads, and they wait anxiously for when they can put their preparation into practice.

When real tragedy strikes, however, there is no playbook. One must simply hope that when that time comes, a coach and an athletic department rise to the challenge, help players process and move past their grief, find strength in their team and community, and, ultimately, rebuild.

Scott Hemer, in his ninth season as head coach at State University of New York at Geneseo, was faced with such a situation on January 17, 2016, when one of his players — Kelsey Annese — was a victim of a murder-suicide committed by her ex-boyfriend.

The recipient of the 2016 Russell Athletic ‘Together We R’ Team Award, Hemer and his school shared with us their efforts, insights and lessons on how they managed this event:

The administration’s response:

“Our administration was extremely supportive, which in my opinion was critical to our players’ ability to rebound quickly. Immediately following the incident, they provided counselors for our student-athletes as well as a secluded area on campus where our team and families could gather without distractions. ​

“We were provided continued support from countless people in the days and weeks that followed, ​ranging from transportation to the calling hours and memorial services as well as having a counselor assigned to our team for additional sessions as needed.

“They even put together a remembrance ceremony on campus in just two days that was as meaningful and well​-​planned as any event ​I've experienced, especially with several thousand people in attendance as well as viewing via live stream.

“In terms of basketball, our ​administration was fully supportive of whatever direction we decided to go in with the remainder of the season, whether it was taking time away, not playing at all, postponing games, etc. ​​Overall, we were provided with almost anything you could ask for in wake of a tragedy such as this.”

The coaching staff’s response:

“As a staff, we believed it was our job to stay strong for the players and that our time to deal with it personally would have to wait. I felt it was best if we focused on providing direction for the players first and foremost.

“The players were back playing the evening of the memorial service which I feel looking back was a good thing. Our remaining schedule was loaded with three games per week, which helped keep their focus partially away from constant thoughts of their missing teammate.

“Over that time, we had access to counseling to help us maneuver through our ‘rough patches.’ Other than that, we simply leaned on each other, ​ which only made them stronger, and in my opinion, was what really kept us moving forward.”

Working together with the parents of athletes:

“Our families were tremendous throughout all of this. Since the majority of them were on campus immediately following the incident, they knew that the college was trying to do everything they could to assist their daughters. We've always tried to embrace family as part of our program, so the parents are all close to each other and as well as each other’s daughters.”

Honoring Kelsey:

“Within days, the college held a remembrance ceremony that was extremely well done. Our players attended the event, and I spoke to the thousands who attended along with other campus, community and student leaders.

“We had number 32 patches sewn on every player’s uniform as well as warm-up shirts made in her honor that the team wore before tip-off the rest of the season.

“During our senior day event, we unveiled a banner with her name, number and years played that will permanently hang above the scoreboard. It was extremely emotional for everyone but also a significant way to honor what she meant to our program.”

The effect on team culture:

“One of the main keys to our program's success is chemistry. That's part of what made this so challenging; yet, at the same time, it got us through it. 

“When we got together immediately following the incident, I told the team that we would never move on from this, but that together, we would move forward — simply by placing one foot in front of the other every day. Since they were so close, it was easier for them to lean on each other to accomplish that goal. 

“They never wavered about playing again. With Kelsey being a team captain, they knew she would never stand for that, and they didn't want to let her down.”

Motivating your team in the weeks after:

“We decided to travel to Postdam, New York, ​following the memorial service on Saturday, January 23, to play a conference game. I wasn't sure how the players would respond, but they felt it was important to try. In short, I told them that we'd get off the bus and, ​if they could play, we would. If not, we would get back on the bus and head for Plattsburgh, where we had our game the following day.

“The team played inspired against Potsdam and we won the game 75-32. The girls were very in tune with the significance of holding the opponent to 32 points (Kelsey's number). Afterwards, it was very emotional but we got through it.

“The following day was very similar in their level of focus, leading to a 62-43 victory at Plattsburgh. We returned home for a game on January 26 against our rival​, ​Cortland, which had beaten us by a​ point a few weeks prior. The student body and campus community packed the gym to max capacity. Media was everywhere. The crowd was electric. To be quite honest, I don't think it mattered who we played that day, our opponent was in trouble. In a very emotion -​filled game, we won 65-38.

“It didn't matter what I said to them prior to those three games. They had one goal in mind and that was to make Kelsey proud of them.”

Learn more about Kelsey, Coach Scott Hemer, and the Geneseo Knights’ 2016-17 season in their Russell Athletic “Together We R” Award video.

Release Date: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016