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|Game On! - Page 3|
Taking the Game to the Office
Sports would one day shape my clinician's game, too. Not that they gave me a classic therapist's manner. A lifetime of going one-on-one with opponents elicited the reflex to confront, rather than accommodate. When I arrived in graduate school, in my mid-twenties, one classmate said to me that I seemed like the least likely person she'd ever met to become a clinical psychologist. In the therapy room, I had to remember to turn down my brash garrulousness and feign modest introspection. But from the outset of my clinical training, being a ballplayer gave me distinct advantages over my gently empathic colleagues.
I immediately had a knack for handling male aggression. Actually, I didn't even recognize it as aggression at first. I was so inured to hostility that it just seemed a normal variant of relating. My athletic experiences had taught me that, for many men, "the best defense is a good offense." If you could force the other guy into a scrambled retreat, then you were effectively protecting yourself. I'd seen thousands of trash-talking, chest-beating players who'd loudly argued calls ("No fucking way was I out of bounds!") and swung their arms about in threatening gestures like shrieking simians in an Animal Planet documentary. I'd see through their displays of rage to their vulnerability and fears of failure. I considered the rage to be just the game's background noise—to be tolerated or even tuned out.
This served me well in my first clinical practicum site while working with Alex, a 16-year-old African-American kid, who'd been court-ordered to undergo psychotherapy after beating another teen unconscious. He sat in my office during the first session with the cold stare and coiled tension of a juiced linebacker. I knew little about adolescent development or building alliances with resistant teens, but sensed a player accustomed to triumphing through intimidation. This was confirmed when, after I'd asked him what happened between him and the other teen, he said ominously, "I don't get pushed around by nobody." I assumed that meant me as well.
Without my background in sports, I might have been cowed, but, instead, I felt intrigued, even flattered. Friendly or not, he'd invited me to parry. My instinct was to show I could meet his challenge with cool resolve and then challenge him in return. I said quietly, "I can respect that. I don't push people and don't like it when they think they can push me." His eyes lit up; the game was on. He acted the withdrawn tough guy for the rest of the hour. He then failed to show up for the next two sessions. Like a good one-on-one defender, I had to demonstrate that I'd stick to him like glue and not be shaken off. I wrote to him that unless he appeared for the next appointment, I'd send a report to the judge on his case stating he'd dropped out of his mandated treatment.
Alex returned to therapy the following week angrier than ever. He leaned forward in his chair menacingly at times, and slouched back in sullen silence at others. I didn't flinch, but instead gave him my full attention, respecting his every move, admiring his gamesmanship. I also was intent, though, to prove that I cared enough about resolving the troubles in his life to hang in there with him and get past his show of rage. Much later on, after he'd settled in, we'd talk about how he felt about being one of the few black guys in his white suburban high school, how he thought his father rode him, how nobody believed he was any good. Today, however, was all about the flailing drama of his aggression meeting a competitor's calming embrace. It was only at the very end of the session that the rage began to subside and his tone softened to one of mild exhaustion or, perhaps, resignation. I, too, was drained, but felt thrillingly engaged. Even as he sat hunched over with a scowl still contorting his face, I said to him with all sincerity, "I look forward to seeing you next week."