Therapy Lessons from Men's Relationship with Sports

Using Athletics to Tap into Male Emotions, Relationships, and Aggression

Barry 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.

By all sound reasoning, I should have outgrown this game. But I’m not alone. 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. 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.

Getting into the Game

My sports initiation was typical. I fell in love with hoops, instantly and irrevocably, at age 10 during a rare family vacation in Miami Beach. Under a scorching December sun, my father and I played in my first-ever pickup basketball game on the hotel's half-court.

From that point forward, the sport has taught me many lessons. Early on I learned to savor the game's textures and physics. In June, the ball bounced off the hot schoolyard asphalt as a spinning, shimmering orb, full of heat and life. Another lesson was diligence. My hard work produced skills that allowed me to dominate my ham-handed, middle-school classmates. The more masterful I felt, the more I bought into the gym-rat ethos of practice, practice, and more daily practice in drafty New York City rec centers and shabby playgrounds with faded lines and buckling blacktop.

I learned about trust, relationships, and teamwork. I learned the power of sports to regulate feelings. When my father died, I spent long hours alone on the schoolyard court, a 15-year-old in focused concentration/dissociation, settling myself into numbness with the mechanical repetitiveness of hundreds of foul shots. When a girlfriend left me a few years later for another guy, I worked out my anger by drilling countless line-drive jumpers from the baseline. My life sometimes felt out of control, but I had the predictability of the ball's bounce, the reliability of ready teammates, the surety of honed skills. I had game.

Taking the Game to the Office

Sports would one day shape my clinician's game, too. 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.

Staying in the Game

As my age has risen and the height of my jumps declined, I've taken my place in this gym's circle-of-hoops-life as one of the more senior players. Though I miss the old spring in my step and the eyesight to shoot as accurately as I once did, I still challenge all comers---19-year-old powerhouses like Lou, but also 40-year-olds who lack the legs or stomach to go near the basket and hug the court's perimeter---adjusting my game to their strengths and limitations. Occasionally, I'll play the role my father did on that long-ago Miami Beach day, of ushering young initiates into the game with easy passes under the basket. At other times, I'll tutor youth in the giving and receiving of sharp elbows. All the skills and athleticism I've lost over the years could be cause for overwhelming rue. Instead, I concentrate on achieving minor victories doing what I still can when I can---the crisp pass, the well-defended sequence, the perfectly banked jumper---to make some small difference in the game's outcome. I'm hoping to dribble out my days, taking my best shot at being the best man possible in whatever playing time I've been allotted.

This blog is excerpted from "Game On!" Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Professional Development | Aging

Tags: counseling | psychotherapy | relationships | sex | substance abuse | therapist | therapy | therapeutic alliance | networker | discipline | love | anger | Men | romance | men's issues

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