Sports and Psychoanalysis





On behalf of the Committee on Public Information and the Committee on Sport and Psychoanalysis of the American Psychoanalytic Association, welcome to this year’s public forum:
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 forum.

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 and women?

* As girls and women bring their sensibilities and values to the arena, how may the sports ethos be changed. Against what resistance?

* 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 Temple University

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.
Panel Moderator