This book explores how we think about and understand sport from the perspective of psychoanalysis. As a cultural product, sport constitutes an entertainment and a pastime – a break that acts like a “psychological moratorium”. It breaks us away from the miseries of everyday realities and worries, transporting us to another reality—that of the ‘game’. Sport also represents a transaction through which personal and social feelings of aggression can be constructively released and harnessed in a controlled and contained space.
Sport is, above all else, movement. In my new book, Sports on the Couch, I analyse why physical exercise is considered beneficial and recommended as a healthy activity: what makes us feel so good when we go for a run or play a game? A great variety of psychological and biological causes (including releasing tensions, the pleasure of movement, and the liberation of stimulating substances such as endorphins) come together to achieve a psychosomatic balance that is both comforting and liberating. The element of play in sport allows us access to another world, a transition space where the possibilities of self-expression are more allowed, where the child within us is freed.
If movement is its essence, competition is the irreplaceable factor in sport. Who is the rival that must be defeated? What does it mean to identify oneself with, say, a football team? The representations of the father figure, brother, or neighbor, will account for the various ways of positioning oneself in front of the opponent, and sometimes even foreshadow the result of the contest.
Transference—ways of positioning oneself originally in terms of primary relationships—will determine if we feel accepted and protected by the coach or supporters, or if, on the contrary, we feel under observation and criticised. Undoubtedly, this will have an impact on the level and quality of the game. Also, the power of suggestion, together with transference, acts upon the mind to mobilise and create heroic atmospheres. What are the secrets of a successful, motivating coach? How does a team prepare or ‘psyche itself up’ before a grand final?
In this book I ask what it means to cheer and encourage a team; what influence the fans have, and explore how playing in one’s local stadium can profoundly affect an athlete. Is there something about the “oceanic” feeling – the fusion with the multitude – that manages to relax so many players and teams and make them feel uninhibited, allowing them to reach peaks of performance? Why did the All Blacks, playing the best rugby in the world, lower their performance in 2011 when they reached the World Cup finals, preventing them from becoming champions? In the Champions League final against Liverpool in 2005, how could Milan be winning 3-0, and yet later tie and end up losing? And how was it possible for the Argentinian Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata to lose the first of two matches of the 2009 Championships and later, in the second match, turn their performance around against a second division team to avoid relegation?
Is it mere chance or do psychological factors intervene? Pressure in sport is experienced as a feeling of being weighed down, like wearing a heavy backpack or sitting an exam, which can be expressed at both a mental level and also at a physical level. There are internal and external factors that generate it. Such pressure is nearly always manifested during an important competition, and has a substantial effect on the level of performance. What occurs most frequently is that the inhibiting factor will operate and start to kick in, reducing the player’s potential and generating the feeling of heaviness and the hardening of the legs and hands and a “cold chest”; or it will affect the player by means of indirect manifestations (such as bad passes, emotional turmoil, aggression, fights, arguments with the referee).
On the other hand, ideals and expectations also intervene, both positively and negatively: they can either guide us, showing us the way, or can turn out to be detrimental, perhaps because they are impossible to accomplish or because they are family (external) mandates rather than personal choices. They weigh on our feelings of satisfaction and our sense of self-worth, distancing us from fulfilment.
Finally, talking about injuries allows us to separate physical alterations from their psychological repercussions, which we understand as trauma, and which will be determined by the protagonist’s own history, the identification with his/her peers and by the fortitude to assimilate and recover from injuries. This set of factors (not only the magnitude of the injury) will have an impact on recovery and the speed of the player’s comeback. Internal conflicts can also lead to injuries; sometimes they are the only way of expressing psychological problems.
Sports and physical exercise, especially since the latter half of the twentieth century, are among the most disseminated of our customs and practices and have become part of our everyday life and culture in a similar way that the internet and the products of the technological revolution have. Doing physical exercise has widely spread both as the aesthetic regard of our personal image, as recreation during our free time, and as a therapeutic-preventive measure for health concerns such as cardiovascular issues or weight reduction.
The globalisation of sports has allowed the participation of increasing segments of the world’s population. This applies not only to participants of sports but also to spectators, affecting the range and extent of emotions generated in the stadiums or from watching in the comfort of our homes on television screens.
In my case, as a child I took part in sporting events. Taken at first by my parents as part of our weekend recreation or during summer holidays, sports became associated with making friends and the possibility of entertainment; they were activities that complemented intellectual tasks. I learned to play several sports, such as football, tennis, volley, softball, basketball, swimming, skating and chess at the GEBA Club (Gimnasia & Esgrima Buenos Aires), which strongly supported diversity. As the years went by, I selected two of these to focus on (football and tennis), competing at an amateur level. My vocation, medical at first and then psychoanalytic, meant I was able to successfully blend my clinical work with study and research.
In the midst of this process began my curiosity and research into this field, which brings together mind and body in a singular way; that is, the psychological and the somatic come together but without the rifts that we frequently observe in psychosomatic pathology, the latter also being one of my areas of interest.
Many questions crossed my mind as I undertook my research: what is sport all about? What role does it play in life? What psychological dynamics underlie its practice? As I probed into the literature on these topics, I found the studies limited to the description of phenomena, behaviours and thoughts rated as positive or negative. The psychological functions (perception, attention, concentration, motivation) were carefully registered, measured, and statistically correlated, but I found that the person/athlete was not considered as a whole—as someone whose interior life significantly influenced his or her performance. The interior life was not correlated with his or her family history, the successful and traumatic experiences throughout life, the non-conscious conflicts that could betray or distance a person from his or her objective, etc. I must also point out that if we segment the psychological functions or simplify the intention of certain behaviours, we are unable to integrate the psychological complexity of a subject in a situation of competitive challenge.
Delving, then, into psychoanalytical literature, I observed that this was not a field that had been broadly covered by authors. The scarcity of literature on this topic raised my concern as to the causes for such an exclusion.
In all of Freud’s works I was only able to rescue one footnote concerning physical activity, from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905d), perhaps influenced by his disposition as a tireless worker and intellectual whose physical exercise consisted mainly of long walks during his free time, added to the fact that he came from a traditional nineteenth-century Jewish family where the emphasis lay mainly in intellectual pursuits rather than physical development.
We may conjecture the persistence of an identification model that endures to this day among psychoanalysts; the continuity of a dissociation—separating mind and body in academic training and separating the practice of doctors and psychologists.
I also observed Issaharoff’s quote that “psychoanalysis has privileged the analysis of meanings over that of action and its structure”. In this regard, what has exerted great influence has been “the use of the couch (technique that aims at immobility and distance from action) and emphasis on a return from the external world to the world of fantasy, as a previous step to reflection, putting off action” (Avenburg). The work of psychoanalysis has to do with reflective and introspective processes, which require time. In addition, the exploration of unconscious processes is not a search for a predetermined result. Sport, on the other hand, is connected to action and aims at results. Its timings are brief and pressing.
Finally, we know that many psychoanalytical speculations are carried out through clinical practice and psychopathology and that medical consultations sought by athletes in our sphere have been relatively infrequent until recently. This could be due to the fact that many of them use sport as a way of substituting the mental elaboration in conflictive situations. Nevertheless, from Freud up to now, psychoanalysts have probed into the diverse human productions for scientific, clinical and speculative purposes. We should, therefore, do the same with an activity so profoundly integrated in our society.
Ricardo Alejandro Rubinstein is a doctor, psychiatrist, training psychoanalyst of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association, and full member of the International Psychoanalytical Association. He is also Professor at the Center of Psychoanalytical Teaching, and has published various works presented at Congresses in Argentina and overseas (Brazil, Colombia, USA, Spain, Holland, Italy and Greece). He is the director of Sportmind, a consulting firm that works with athletes and competition teams, where he also gives courses and seminars about sport topics. He has frequently appeared on radio and television, and written articles for the press and giving his views as a psychoanalyst about topics of general and social interest, but particularly in matters related to sport.
His book, Sports on the Couch, has just been published by Karnac.
Reviews and Endorsements
‘This new collection of ideas by Ricardo Rubinstein opens a new and original field of reflection. Western culture, from its Graeco-Roman origins, has loved, valued and protected the tournament, the competition, and the desire to overcome physical and mental challenges. This book, written by a lover of sport, reveals new horizons of unpredictable partnership and development. The author has deep understanding of the levels of the psyche, tensions, traumas, fantasies and conflicts that sports bring into play. This book is indispensable and wonderfully enriching for those who have the joy of participating in one way or another in the universal game of sport.’
– Dr Andrés Sergio Rascovsky, psychoanalyst, and former president of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association
‘This book takes us on an impeccable and profound tour of all aspects of the sport phenomenon, with a psychoanalytic perspective that deals with scientific aspects, but also considers their psychological and emotional implications. And the author explains all this in simple and direct language in order to make it accessible to the general public. For this reason, it is highly recommended to all those readers who want to delve into the soul of the sport world from an original and thrilling perspective.’
– Horacio Pagani, TV, radio and newspaper journalist