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Bringing the locker room into the consulting room
by Barry J. Jacobs
In the parlance of the game, the guy is brutalizing me under the boards. When Lou, a burly 19-year-old, whips his elbow into my chest, I lurch backward like a drunk. When he swings his rump against my hip, I go spinning out of bounds into the wall. He lays the basketball through the rim and glances back at me with teeth bared. I curse under my breath. At age 50, I shouldn't feel the need to prove myself against some brash, buff kid. As I hustle down to the other end of the court, however, I call for the ball.
This isn't just about hoops. It's about answering the questions that press on me daily: What am I capable of doing? Will I make a mark or leave no trace? Will I help my team or feel humiliated? After 40 years of dribbling and driving, dishing and shooting, I have few illusions about being a superstar, a.k.a. "the man." I aspire to just being a competent man. Some days, even that seems unattainable. In my middle-aged years, in the twilight of my playing, my career as a psychotherapist is a slow grind and my family life is built on compromises. The game of basketball, with its stark, decisive moments, seems a surer test of my worth.
My teammates swing the ball from side to side before hitting me with a bounce pass to the left of the foul lane. Twice before in this game, I've sunk 17-foot bank shots from that spot; Lou will expect me to shoot another. Instead, I fake the jumper and dribble quickly past him before extending my right arm with the ball on my fingertips to scoop in a layup. But young reflexes are cat-quick: Lou pivots around to smack the ball out of the air in an orange blur against the white backboard, and then snatches the rebound and starts rumbling back down court. I bolt frantically after him. When I get my body between him and the basket, he turns his back and shoves me out of the way again with his big butt before scoring his team's winning point.
Watching him amble triumphantly off the court, I remain doubled over with exhaustion and shame. Then I feel two hard slaps on my back. One of my teammates, nearly as old as I am, says empathically, "The guy's a monster." Another adds, "You did your best to stop him." Their redemptive words surprise me. They recognize my effort; I failed, but still have their respect. My eyes, already stinging from perspiration, start welling with tears.
By all sound reasoning, I should have outgrown this game. My loved ones, physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons have pleaded with me for years to give it up. But after every injury and operation (thumb, back, knee—and, soon, elbow), I've limped back to the gym and struggled to get back into playing shape. I'm not the only one. Sitting with my male clients nowadays, I hear their reluctance, too, to relinquish their favorite athletic pursuits, to abandon the "glory days" about which Bruce Springsteen sang. I see us all as men moving through life as a prolonged sports season, infused in our heads with infield chatter and locker-room rituals, punctuated by flashbacks of grandstanding feats and the roar of cheering crowds. Like me, my male clients spend hours clicking through all-sports cable channels, gaping at the highlights of home-run blasts and rib-smashing tackles, gazing at the latest LeBron and Shaq product endorsements. Each spring, we snap up the new crop of nostalgia baseball books, featuring Dizzy, Jackie, and the Babe. Each fall, we hunch over stat sheets, bedecked in our vintage jerseys, trying to get a leg up in our online fantasy football leagues. At work, we speak a language replete with metaphors like "end-run" strategies and "slam-dunk" conclusions. At home, we raise our children to be "team players" but also, first and foremost, "winners."
I understand and relate to the passion these men have for sports. At the same time, I'm aware of a counternarrative held by many of my psychotherapist colleagues: sports breeds competition, which causes decreased empathy, which foments injustice; game-day get-togethers of sports-crazed buddies are occasions for substance abuse and indulgence in misogyny; aging jocks are frozen in too-narrow definitions of what it means to be a man. I admit there's truth to these assumptions. And yet, there's so much more here: rich drama, with which to understand the strivings, insecurities, and identities of many of our male clients. There are also telling lessons with which to deepen clinical reach. Psychotherapists needn't be weekend warriors or box-score analysts, but they'll conduct better therapy with many men if they're cognoscenti of male fandom.