SPORT, SOCIETY AND DEVELOPMENT:
HELPING KIDS FIELD THEIR DREAMS
On behalf of the Committee on Public Information
and the Committee on Sport and Psychoanalysis of
the American Psychoanalytic
to this year’s public forum:
SPORT, SOCIETY AND DEVELOPMENT: HELPING KIDS FIELD THEIR
I want to thank Mark Smaller and Leon Hoffman for their
help in developing and publicizing the program. Thanks
also to Carol Lindemann and the American Psychoanalytic
Foundation for support for this forum and development of a
website which will contain all of the content of the
Some 30 million American children are today involved in
organized sports and 20 million more participate actively
in less structured athletics. In our media, in the
schools, and in many families, sports play an increasingly
powerful role in shaping children’s images of success and
failure, whether in work or play.
And we have research documenting the general benefits of
sports participation in childhood, in domains of
self-perception, self-discipline, and social skills. We
all have seen heartening examples. There is no doubt:
sports can occupy a prominent place in kids’ dreams.
But if we want them to realize these goals, it is not
enough to simply ask if Jane or Johnny is athletically
active. Just to play the game is not enough. We have to
ask how sports are conceptualized and structured. For
there is potential for harm as well as benefit.
And the dangers lurking in today’s sports culture seem to
be on the increase. We see more reports of overly
competitive and pressured kids (an example - a Time
magazine cover story this year), abusive coaches (depicted
at its most egregious level by a gallery of mugshots of
convicted pedophile coaches on a recent cover of Sport
Illustrated). …..And there is widely shared concern about
the impact of a mostly male sports culture that too often
winks at substance abuse, unbridled aggression, on and off
the field, and mistreatment of women.
As psychoanalysts who think about how children develop
conscious and unconscious images of self and others and
their lifelong patterns of managing feelings and modes of
relating to others, we have a need and a responsibility to
delve into the psychological processes associated with
sports which may foster kids’ healthy development, on one
hand or, on the other hand, may stunt it.
As a psychoanalyst who regularly ventures out of my
office to Boston gyms and playing fields to work with
young athletes, their coaches and teachers, I see first
hand the pressures they face. Also, I see abundant
opportunities for personal growth that can be enhanced by
deeper understanding of the psychological forces at work.
For example, I have seen an inner city high school
basketball coach struggle to deal with the way the needs
many boys have for recognition and admiration fuel a
narrow focus on stardom few will achieve. (For every 2300
high school senior boys playing basketball, 40 will play
in college, 1 in the NBA.) The boys’narrow focus makes it
harder for them to be team players, but more importantly,
distracts attention from the need to do well enough in
school not only to stay eligible, but to prepare for the
future beyond their hoop dreams.This particular coach has
a strong vision of the balanced needs of the whole boy.
But he has to work hard against a cultural gradient and
the specific psychological vulnerabilities of some boys if
he is to help them share that vision, to see themselves as
whole persons who have a place for basketball and keep
basketball in its place.
I also saw a depressed college swimmer who is burnt out
and joyless in her performance of what she now calls "the
job of swimming." She is tired of a regimen of training at
which she has labored from age 7, often under coaches who
ignored her needs for down-time, play, and a say in
shaping her workouts. Research shows overtraining is the
leading cause of chronic fatigue and depression in high
school and college athletes.
Back in my office, working in psychotherapy or
psychoanalysis with adults who have come to me largely for
other reasons, I also see both the positive and negative
ways that engagement in sports contributes to enduring
images of self and other.
I have worked with a middle aged man whose inhibitions
and inability to assert himself, in action or in speech,
were relieved only on the football field of his youth. In
his rich memories of himself as an athlete he and I find a
portal to understanding the extreme and poorly integrated
images of assertiveness and aggression which have plagued
him throughout his life.
A woman I have seen was a prototypical soccer mom until
her two girls went off to college. Her empty nest was more
particularly emptied of the joy of sport which she had
enjoyed vicariously with her daughters, but which had not
been part of her own life, growing up in a time and place
where sports for girls were discouraged. Now, with the
encouragement of her daughters, she discovers with
pleasure a strong and effective dimension of herself,
previously unknown, as she rows on the Charles River in
the early morning.
In all of these examples reside the dynamic interplay of
the socially constructed culture of sports, the formative
crucible of family life, and the inner life of the
individual where enduring structures of personality are
created. With such an interplay in mind, we who care about
our youngest athletes wonder about questions to be
addressed here today, such as:
* How do the rigors of top-level training and
achievement (sought at ever younger ages) create
conditions which are harmful to personal development?
* How are current modes of managing aggression in sports,
on and off the field, damaging the role that competitive
sports play in helping young people channel aggression and
turn away from violence?
* What is the impact of a distorted or narrowed image of
masculinity on sports ethos? And how does such an image
affect the athletic experience of boys and men, of girls
* As girls and women bring their sensibilities and values
to the arena, how may the sports ethos be changed. Against
* What barriers against change in any these areas are
imposed by the value on winning and making money in a
world of sports as big business?
Our panel seeks to address these questions in an
interdisciplinary spirit, bringing together professionals
with diverse perspectives: those of the athlete, the sport
psychology researcher and consultant, the writer observing
the culture of sports, and the psychoanalyst whose focus
is on the development of an individual’s internal world
and modes of thinking and feeling.
Our panelists are all on the first team in their own
fields. I will introduce more fully before they speak:
Dr. Carole Oglesby,
Professor of Physical Education and Sport Psychology at
Mariah Burton Nelson,
author and former basketball standout at Stanford and in
the professional ranks
Robert Lipsyte, author,
journalist, and sports columnist for the New York Times.
For all in the audience, I would encourage you to think
about your own experience in regard to these and other
questions you may have as the panelists begin our
interchange, and bring them into the discussion period
which follows. We want to foster a dialogue that includes
the athlete in each of you, the problems and concerns
related to sport that mental health professionals see in
their offices, and the particular perspectives gained by
those of you who spend much of your time immersed in the
culture of sport.
Howard Katz, M.D.