The psychological hangover of Hamlin’s collapse: Emotions, fear, guilt…

The collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during the NFL’s Monday Night Football game between his team and the Cincinnati Bengals shocked the world of sports.

Hamlin, who has now been released to continue his recovery at home, suffered a concussion or cardiac contusion after receiving a strong impact that triggered a cardiac arrest. The incident that has kept the entire NFL in suspense for days.

Once Hamlin‘s physiological improvement has been confirmed, with no neurological damage, psychological consequences may follow.

Some voices, including that of U.S. president Joe Biden, emphasized the possibility that the game protocols may need to be revised after what happened to Hamlin, because what did work well was the quick medical assistance – key in cases of cardiac arrest – that the player received.

“Correct regulations are part of what players should feel confident about,” explains Maria Martinez, sports psychologist.

“The athletes should be able to focus on playing. It is good to review what is being done without crossing the line of fear. Surely, in the return to the playing fields, they increase caution, but that should not be transferred to fear, because in the end you expose yourself more and block a behavior that should be normal.”

Players from the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals have already played in one game, against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens respectively. That included Tee Higgins, the player Hamlin collided with before his cardiac arrest.

“Obviously it’s been difficult, just knowing that I had something to do with the play,” he said hours after Damar was admitted to the hospital. “Everyone has been comforting me. I talked to his mom and everything is fine, he’s getting better, and so I’m at peace right now.”

Psychological work

Although the percentage of cardiac arrests – or other types of potentially fatal accidents – is very low in elite sports, professional athletes and teams are increasingly aware of the importance of mental health and most of them have teams of psychologists who can help improve the player’s wellbeing.

“After what happened to Hamlin, these teams will probably work on the issue, deal with all those emotions, which can range from fear to responsibility or guilt,” says Maria Martinez.

The NFL is one of the sports with the most contact, with significant injuries due to blows, and therefore has protocols which have been revised in recent months, aimed at minimizing risks to always put the players’ health at the forefront.

“The high-performance athlete works at the limit, plays with the physical extremes of the body,” explains the sports psychologist.

“They are more exposed to injuries, bruises or damage resulting from the game and they are aware of it. What happens when they experience a traumatic incident is that it can awaken something that is dormant, it’s like if we went out to drive thinking we were going to have an accident, we wouldn’t do it. And yet we are aware that it can happen.”

What is clear is that an event like the one on the Paul Brown Stadium turf also affects the indirect protagonists.

“Life is more important than this game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “This is a humbling moment for all of us.”

“I think over the next few weeks this will be on everyone’s mind, especially the players, but I don’t think it will alter the way we play,” Baltimore RavensMark Andrews said days after Hamlin‘s collapse.

“I think you go out there, you’re yourself and everything else will work itself out.”