Sports and Psychoanalysis


Carole Oglesby, Ph.D.


A person, not here today, but a looming presence in New York, has said "It takes a village to raise a child." (laugh) Hillary notwithstanding - this being a psychoanalytic society, I begin with a story of my parents - and my early years.

They lived and died athletics. My father played 18 holes of golf, every day that he could, throughout his life and was a semi-pro catcher in baseball in his youth. For my mother, as far as I could tell, one of the "dreams" of her life was playing in an Oklahoma state high school basketball championship game... losing to a team coached by Basketball Hall of Famer, Bertha Teague. So - unusual for a girl raised in the 1940s and 1950s, I was an athlete and my entire mid-western and California extended family trooped to every game that they could and cheered the victories and did the best they could to console me in every defeat.

I say all this to affirm my deep belief in, and commitment to, the potentialities of sport . . including what has become in my scholar/clinician jargon achieving a "body-integrated consciousness." It is fair to say I have spent a major portion of my life advocating, cajoling, demonstrating, protesting, writing, cheering, for the masses of girls and women to claim sport as their own. I think it is a pursuit which can greatly aid kids - of any age to field the important dreams of life.

Often in my work, I say explicitly how strongly I connect with sport because a lot of what (for all of us on the panel) has to be said about sport sounds critical. To achieve the potential of sport as an instrument of human development, it constantly needs transforming. If the question be posed, "Are you a fan/ supporter of sport?" we may reply, "which sport?"

The media - our own memories - are complete with images of a -crude and cruel context, characterized by the objectification of the body and its segments; manipulation and exploitation, callous disregard for humane standards of behavior and shameless materialism and greed? Rollarball is a nightmare and not a dream.

There is another sport experience - equally as real characterized by peak experience consciousness, flow state, discipline and mastery, integration, and nobility of spirit.

Which sport will it be, that our children experience? Increasingly I believe the answer to this question must be made -conscious; a committed intention which we must pledge to our children and to ourselves.

One of the reasons I think my own journey (in regard to sport advocacy) has traveled so far into psychology - is that the answer (to my "which sport" question) entails achieving a heightened awareness to what I see as the full truth about sport.

It is paradoxical that it is an embodied Rorschach . . . it can be the corner stone of a healthy life and (as Mariah has poignantly expressed on many occasions) it can be the exquisite eraser which takes out all traces of connective tissue in your knees and shoulders. It teaches positive lessons that last all through the decades of life and it is full of trauma . . . Let me pause on trauma for a moment.

I recently conducted a study of 30 young adult athletes; asking them to describe a greatest and worst moment in sport. On a 0-10 scale, they were asked to give a number to the pain of the worst moment. The average score was 8.5. The content of these worst moments was endless

+ Losing at crucial times; championships (as had my mother) trials for honor or select teams, Olympic trials.

+ Humiliation in personal performance; we seldom talk out loud about "personal worsts" but they remain in memory.

+ Injury.

+ Disappointing or 'letting down' significant others; parents, coach, teammates.

+ Fights with teammates, especially coaches.

+ One's program being ended, teams folding, a former powerhouse becoming a "doormat."

+ Retirement from sport.

+ Harassment from a trusted person.

In processing these experiences with athletes, I was struck anew with the total serendipity of the support, or more often the lack of it, in working through their "traumas" with these occurrences. The very lucky ones had wise, mature, caring parents, coaches, friends to guide the process. Most just "sucked it up" and went on but with some deep bruises.

We do not have time to do more today than open these discussions. What I want to leave in your memory banks is this argument:

1. Sport involvement is an arresting phenomenon. In this computer-dominated, virtual age, it offers one of the most holistic-integrated human activities which is generally available. As such, it can become deeply associated with identity. Thus, it has much derived psychic power.

2. Because there is so much "identity" to be gained and lost in this involvement, it has become too powerful a tool to leave to chance. Yes, best sport is play - in the true meaning of that word but we (adults, professionals, leaders) must do what is necessary to "clear the play space" (so to speak) in order that a positive, developmentally sound activity is promulgated.

3. We do this (clear the space) by the following steps:

+ Create and develop accountable systems - possibly even government coordination.

+ Demand that sport be resourced as community good and basic human right (Beijing Platform for Action, 3 planks).

+ Provide trained professionals (or at least humane and principled volunteer) to be available for sport leadership. Sport psychology and psychiatry input is part of the future with all these steps.