Year 2020, Skill #11: Play Like It’s Your Last Game

I held a moment in my hand, Brilliant as a star, Fragile as a flower, A tiny sliver of one hour. I dropped it carelessly.   Oh God! I knew not I held opportunity.         -Hazel Lee, What Might Have Been

Carpe diem. –Horace, Odes

Play like it’s your last game

Sound like a corny country song, huh? Before you roll your eyes because you don’t care about sports, bear with me, because it’s a metaphor for life. I’ve had the pleasure to consult with the UofSC athletic department for the last 5 years. College student athletes have been especially hard hit by COVID at this particularly vulnerable stage of life.

Back Story

c. 1980 UofSC Dance Company

I was a theater kid. Singing (at an early age), dancing, and drama. I’m just not competitive, except, I confess, maybe at cards. A friend once suggested I was dancing on a tennis court; in college intermurals, I was dubbed “the best player on the other team” in volleyball; and am a self-proclaimed “avid non-runner.” I absolutely hate group exercise classes in which someone wears headphones and yells at you. To me, it’s completely unnerving and leaves me agitated. I prefer the soothing music, aesthetics, and slow pace of a ballet class or yoga and competing only with myself.

You can like both theater and sports, huh Larry*?

Suffice to say, I’m not your typical sport psychologist. In my first SEC sport psych meeting, my peers said, “We’re going to have to find you a sport.” My thought bubble: Curling, maybe?

In fact, working with athletes literally fell into my lap after a tragedy in our campus community. Sport and performance psychology has become a shiny silver lining late in my career.

College student athletes are very vulnerable to injury. Sometimes it is career ending. Other times they have to make choices around basic functionality and whether or not to continue their passion. As one track athlete so poignantly stated while rehabbing after surgery, “I’d really just like to be able to walk the rest of my life.” Retirement from their sport is a common topic in our sessions. Because only about 1% of college athletes go on to play professional sports, most will stop competing after their senior year, if not before.

The end.

On March 12, 2020, the NCAA abruptly made the decision to cancel the winter and spring championships, with the entire spring season to quickly follow, due to COVID-19 and the desire to stop the spread which had already broken out in an NBA team. Some college teams were already on the road for away games, some students were on spring break, and many were gearing up for various NCAA finals and March Madness had begun.

Then it all just stopped. Done. College athletic careers over with no warning. No choice in how this would all end for them and no one saw it coming. There was no time to process it. And globally, it was no different.

I cannot imagine the unsettling anguish for the senior phenoms hopeful for a national championship. The culmination of years of training. Unceremoniously done. No national stage. No senior day of recognition—an important ritual for marking the end of an athletic career. No team banquet or awards.

more endings

Mid-semester, colleges and universities across the country shuttered their doors, stopped key card access to dorms and facilities, and sent everyone home. Classes continued online in various forms. I dare say this has never happened in the history of colleges and universities. I wanted to fact check this so I called a friend, Dr. Christian Anderson, who studies the history of higher education and is currently researching schools’ responses to the Spanish flu pandemic. He confirmed that actions ranged from shutting schools down completely to continuing on as usual. The football season basically only had 4-5 games that fall 1918. By comparison, the response in spring 2020 has been universal across colleges and universities while fall 2020 plans are varied and the reality remains to be determined.

One moment, your life looks one way and the next moment, it’s forever changed. And it can happen in so many ways. Click To Tweet


No one knows this better than Kym and Mark Hilinski. Unfortunately, the Hilinskis are now well-known in the college sports world. Their middle son of three, Tyler, was the beloved quarterback for Washington State University, who died by suicide just weeks after a bowl game. Even in hindsight, no one saw it coming. The Hilinski’s lives are forever changed. In just one moment. Mark and Kym have since worked faithfully to combat mental health stigma and to promote mental wellness among student athletes through their non-profit, Hilinkski’s Hope Foundation (H3H). (Read more of their moving story here.)

And how did sport psychology “fall into my lap”? My friend and colleague, Dr. Kendra Cusaac, sport and performance psychologist for our teams, collapsed and died at 45 years old. In just one moment.

Life is so tenderly tentative.

We know this but somehow we get busy and forget. For the families of the nearly 100,000 people who have now died in the US from COVID-19, the lesson is painfully obvious. Life is so tenderly tentative.

or carry on…

One of my sport psychologist friends, Dr. Josie Nicholson at Ole Miss, found a creative way to help student athletes while there are no ongoing sports. Working with Hilinski’s Hope, she is hosting a series of podcasts called UNIT3D (available on most podcast platforms). In these, Dr. Josie interviews various mental health professionals around the country on topics related to mental health and performance while the student athletes are away from their sports. While athletes and college students are the target audience, many of the interviews are relevant to us all.

A bonus podcast which dropped May 15 on UNIT3D, focused on 3 senior student athletes, David Bell (Men’s Tennis, BYU), Sydney Anderson (Women’s Lacrosse, Notre Dame), and Max Hazzard (Men’s Basketball, University of Arizona). David Bell started his own online community of athletes who had their seasons (and their collegiate sport careers) end abruptly due to COVID-19 called, Untold Athletes (find them here). David was motivated to recognize these athletes who were at the pinnacle of their careers and to give them an opportunity to get closure by sharing their stories. Sydney notes that is was very helpful in the process of achieving acceptance.  Max says, “Knowing that you’re not going through this alone is a beautiful thing.”

Dr. Josie notes several times by how “unceremonious” these endings were. I know that we have all experienced this in some ways during COVID: favorite restaurants and stores that abruptly close, small business owners who determine that they do not have the energy and capital to reopen, a colleague who takes this opportunity to go ahead and retire, someone who is fired because of necessary restructuring, a job that disappears, someone who dies alone because family cannot be present. There are already so many unceremonious endings. And we will have so many more.

More than just sports

As for you theater kids… March 12 was the same day that Broadway went dark. Originally anticipated as a one month closing, it will remain unopened into the fall. Josh Groban, on CBS Sunday Morning (May 24), said about the quarantine, “I hope to return with more gratitude.” Max the basketball player also concludes that he hopes student athletes “will return with a renewed appreciation.” For all of us who can return to what we were doing before March 12, I hope we will also return with more gratitude and to play like it’s our last game—with passion, heart, and determination. If you don’t feel that way, it’s OK, and maybe it’s time to rethink where you spend your time and energy and heart.

What about your “game”?

  • Are you putting 100% into your game or are you “half-assing” it?
  • Do you take the easy road due to apathy? Or are you in it to win it?
  • Do you come home consistently complaining about your day? Or are you able to see the small victories and sweet moments?
  • Do you take the people around you for granted? Or are you loving your important people like it’s the last time you’ll be with them?

Maybe this is one of the important lessons and a potential reset of this stay-at-home time from of our previous lives.

And finally, check in with the people you love—the ones who may be struggling silently. Ask important questions, not just social ones (like, “How are you?” “I’m fine.”) where we don’t really listen to the answers. There is some evidence that suicide rates may be rising and are predicted to rise more as “getting back to normal” eludes us.

The game of life is going to continue to be messy, but if we approach everyday as if it were our last to be engaged in whatever we are doing, we give ourselves opportunities to experience moments of marvelous.


Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…


Acknowledgments: A special, and very personal thank you out goes to Kym and Mark–you are touching lives. They are also some of the most lovely people I’ve had the honor to work with and get to know. Sometimes, athletic departments don’t fully understand mental illness or struggle in a culture built on strength, grit, determination, and competition. (Theater has their own challenges around mental health.) I have so much gratitude for the work that the Hilinskis are doing to shine a light on the struggles and pressure that these young people experience, in part for our entertainment. I also appreciate their willingness to share their painful story and their grief. They consistently reinforce the anti-stigma message, “It’s OK to not be OK.” #ForeverToThree

*Larry refers to the ineffable Larry Hembree, theater kid to this day, tireless arts advocate, and avid fan of all Clemson sports and women’s Gamecock basketball.

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