THE ATHLETES AND THEIR MECHANISMS OF DEFENSE:
A PSYCHOANALYTIC APPROACH TO SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

Tom Ferraro, Ph.D.
(In press for Routledge Publishing; Rough draft)
(All Rights Reserved)

Preface: When I was asked to write a book about how athletes use their defenses to cope with stress, I accepted the challenge gladly. Exploring the nature of defense mechanisms is an uncharted area of sport psychology, yet numerous defenses are used by every athlete as they try to cope with performance anxiety. Defense mechanisms are the unconscious habits of thought, behavior or perception that are used to deal with underlying conflictual emotions that the athlete struggles with. The collection of defenses used by an athlete constitutes their personality structure and their attempt to minimize and deflect anxiety. Much has been written about the many coping skills that athletes need to be taught but virtually nothing about how athletes naturally deal with competitive anxiety through their defenses. This book is not intended to be a complete review of depth sport psychology. My last book, Unpacking Depth Sport Psychology: Case Studies in the Unconscious, provided an overall view of how to work with the athlete using a psychodynamic approach. This book will focus exclusively on the athletes’ defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms serve as character armor, which they use to manage stress.

The athlete’s mind works on two levels, a conscious and an unconscious one, and frequently, these two parts are at war. Despite the current belief in sport psychology, the unconscious has considerable power that affects every athlete’s performance. The unique value of depth sport psychology is that it addresses the athlete’s unconscious. Its methodology includes but is not limited to the coping methods taught in cognitive behavior therapy. This book presents the question of which methodology is most effective in treating athletes. This book will offer a taxonomic view of the defense mechanisms used by athletes. The broader psychoanalytic concepts used to treat athletes such as super ego function, free association, dream analysis, transference, countertransference, and resistance were addressed in my first book.

Every athlete and every sport psychologist knows how difficult it is to change an attitude, perception, mood or mindset. Many if not most sport psychology books promise a cure for performance issues through the application of goal setting, deep breathing, autogenics, thinking positively, cognitive behavior therapy or visualization. Every elite athlete I know has been taught these techniques before they left high school, yet they continue to struggle emotionally. The hope is that the athlete’s performance woes can be fixed with relative ease and within a short period of time. This is a myth. The reality is it’s exceedingly tough to make changes in an athlete’s mindset because their underlying conflicts are out of awareness and dictated by irrational and childlike perceptions. The “behavior modifiers” seek to circumvent these unconscious defense mechanisms by denying that they exist. I believe the field has reached a fork in the road. The time has come to take the next step and explore the athlete’s unconscious.

As a psychoanalyst, I work with professional and amateur athletes on ways to help them feel less stress and regain joy and pride in themselves. I’ve undertaken to write this book because the field needs a paradigm shift if it expects to remain relevant. The athlete’s defenses function like a skin or a suit of armor, which enables them to remain calm and poised while under stress. As of yet, there has not been a single book written on this subject. I couldn’t find a single reference to the term defense mechanism in any of the standard sport psychology textbooks now being used in undergraduate or graduate courses.

Every professional athlete I’ve worked with has physical gifts, natural talent, and a highly developed work ethic, but that is not enough. To win, one must be able to screen out distractions, cope with stress, remain confident, tap into aggression, and manage anxiety. When athletes lose power, choke, or self-defeat, it is often due to a failure in their defense mechanisms.

This book explores the most common defenses athletes use to cope with competitive stress. I will explore which defenses are most effective and which are not effective, and I will present case studies demonstrating how their defenses work, why they sometimes shatter and what to do about it. My thinking has been influenced by psychoanalytic pioneers such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud and George Vaillant as well as contemporaries like Christopher Bollas, Dan Dervin, Mark Nesti and David Burston. I think all these luminaries would agree that it’s time for a change in sport psychology. My guess is that the change must be by helping the athlete look deeply within.

Tom Ferraro, Ph.D. December 9, 2023, Long Island, New York.

References:

  • Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the Self, Defense Mechanisms in Action. The Guilford Press.
  • Dilal, F. (2018). CBT: The Cognitive Behavioral Tsunami. Routledge.
  • Gardner, F., & Moore, Z. (2006). Clinical Sport Psychology. Human Kinetics.
  • Kunh, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The Guilford Press.
  • Lawrence, D.H. (1923) Studies in Classic American Literature. Penguin Books.
  • O’Donohue, W., & Krasner, K. (Eds.) (1995). Theories in Behavior Therapy: Philosophical and Historical Contexts. In Theories of Behavior Therapy: Exploring Behavior Change. American Psychological Association.

INTRODUCTION:
“Temet Nosce” (Know Thyself)
Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo 500 B.C.

Abstract: This chapter introduces the thesis that athletes already have pre-established and habitual ways of handling stress. These are called defense mechanisms and are the athlete’s naturally established ways of coping with stress. Surprisingly, this topic has yet to be explored by have not been explored by sport psychology. Some of their defenses are quite effective in managing competitive stress while some are not. Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, George Vaillant and Phebe Cramer are some of the major theorists in the field. The chapter introduces the categories of defenses ranging from the most primitive through the mid-range or neurotic defenses up to the mature defenses. The structure of each chapter will include a definition of the defense, a case study, summary points, tips for best performance and recommended viewing or reading. Text boxes will also be used in each chapter to highlight the way defenses different across nations. >>

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The failure to address the athlete’s unconscious has produced a glaring weakness in sport psychology that needs to be rectified. For the last 70 years, the field has embraced the cognitive behavioral approach to treating the athlete’s performance woes. The results have been less than impressive (Gardner and Moore, 2006). I have worked as a sport psychologist for the last 25 years, and at the beginning of my career, I applied state-of-the-art behavioral techniques to help athletes cope with their anxiety, yips, anger, lack of focus, slumps, self-doubt and despair. Over time, I came to realize that cognitive behavioral techniques were quite weak in their ability to deal with the intense stress the competitive athlete must face. It also became very apparent that the repetitive application of self-talk mantras or deep breathing tips becomes boring and essentially meaningless within short order. I once asked Albert Ellis, the founder of RET, how he was able to cope with the repetitive nature of his techniques, and he laughed at me and said, “Don’t bother me with such questions.” For sport psychology to be used by athletes, it must be engaging and interesting to them and not mechanical, superficial or meaningless to them. Sport psychology sessions had better be interesting for both the athlete and the therapist or it’s quickly abandoned.

This book contains an introduction to the psychoanalytic approach to performance problems. I will demonstrate how the athlete’s underlying conflicts impact their performance through case studies from my practice. It is not easy to gain access to the unconscious and the therapist needs special training. In addition, the athlete must not be too disturbed, must not be overly sociopathic, must have good intelligence, must have some trust and be introspective or curious about his inner workings.

Depth sport psychology seeks to improve the athlete’s understanding of him or herself and seeks the meaning behind symptoms and performance problems. The basic quest is to gain insight into unconscious dynamics that is controlling behavior and producing symptoms.

<<On the value of insight: Harry Stack Sullivan, the noted Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst and interpersonalist, said this about the value of insight: “Once I had done the necessary brush-clearing and so on, it is almost uncanny the way things fade out of the picture when their raison d’etre is revealed. The brute fact is that man is so extraordinarily adaptive that given any chance of making a reasonably adequate analysis of the situation, he is quite likely to stumble into a series of experiments which will gradually approximate more successful living.” This quote appeared in his book, The Psychiatric Interview (1970), and suggests that once true insight is gained into the impact of the past, the human mind can quickly learn more adaptive ways of functioning.>>

The psychoanalytic view on growth is in stark contrast to the cognitive behavioral approach taken by sport psychology. The basic attitude of behavior modifiers is seen in the following anecdote. I received my Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook, whose faculty included some of the founders of behavior therapy. I was taught by Leonard Krasner, Herbert Kaye, Mary Goldfried and Dan O’Leary. One of my first-year classes was on Theories of Language Acquisition taught by Dr Russ Whitehurst. The course relied on reinforcement theory to explain language acquisition in children, and when I asked about the function of meaning or semantics in language acquisition, Dr. Whitehurst said, “Meaning of words had no relevance in language acquisition.” Behavior modifiers like observables whereas psychoanalysts like the unobservables, those things which lie beneath.

The way that athletes avoid being aware of what lies beneath is by using their defenses. People are familiar with many defense mechanisms including denial, regression, dissociation, somatization, repression, suppression, rationalization, humor, sublimation, and altruism. The immature defenses such as denial, somatization or dissociation tend to be maladaptive, whereas the higher defenses, such as humor and sublimation are considered to be useful and adaptive. This book will outline the way defense mechanisms are used by athletes as a primary way to cope with competitive stress. All of this is done unconsciously, and anxiety is felt when defenses begin to break down.

Defense mechanisms act like the Maginot Line, that military barrier built in France to guard against a German attack. Freud used this military metaphor to explicate the manner in which defenses are employed. The athlete’s defense mechanisms protect them from a breakthrough of uncomfortable emotions. This book is written to help the athlete and the sport psychologist to better understand these defenses and either shore them up or teach newer defenses. Just as a warrior would not give up their armor during battle, athletes do not give up their defenses easily nor should they. They will need to establish more self-esteem and ego strength prior to relinquishing more immature defenses.

We will be investigating the defense mechanisms used by highly skilled professional and Olympic-level athletes struggling with performance or emotional problems.

Sigmund Freud, along with his daughter Anna Freud, established the theory of defense mechanisms to help explain how we manage our aggressive and sexual drives. The world of sports requires aggression so there is an evident advantage to studying the athlete’s defenses to observe how they repress or release aggression.

Sport psychology has compulsively restricted itself to using coping skills that are based upon different theories (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, cognitive theory and acceptance theory). This has resulted in a hodgepodge of interventions that often do not hold together theoretically [. There are more than 400 schools of psychotherapy (O’Donohue, W. and Krasner, L. 1995), and the almost random use of these techniques leads to confusion and chaos in the field. In contrast to this, depth sport psychology is based on a single theory called psychoanalysis with a unified and elegant theory (see text box below).

<<FREUD ON THE UNCONSIOUS: Freud’s most significant discovery was that the unconscious exists and that it takes energy to repress or defend against the wishes, impulses and memories contained within the unconscious. As one resolves the unconscious problems, there will be less repetitive self-defeat and greater energy adaptive ability, spontaneity and problem-solving. As unconscious problems are resolved, energy is released, and the athlete regains this energy to perform. However, as Freud pointed out, society on the whole has a great fear and even dislike of the psychoanalyst (“Civilization and its Discontents”). The popularity of the Oscar-winning film The Silence of the Lambs and the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins attests to both the public’s tear as well as its fascination with the analytic couch. Hannibal Lecter was a charming, fascinating psychiatrist, but also happened to be a cannibal. The bias and fear of psychoanalysis are alive and well in the field of sports, and we will explore how this resistance is shown.>>

Athletes must continuously deal with pressure, large crowds, the media and expectations put upon them by fans and coaches. When their defenses fail them, they will feel anxiety which can disrupt performance. The cognitive behavioral approach suggests that if one teaches mental coping skills, the athlete will rationally employ these tools to cope with their anxiety, pain, anger or disappointment. However, the assumption that athletes are in control of their thoughts and feelings is unwarranted. As one athlete told me today, “My coach keeps telling me to relax, not worry so much and chill out. Is he kidding me or what? He actually thinks I can control these things.” If the athletes could employ logic and rational thinking, they would have done so long ago. There are deeply entrenched unconscious reasons for anxiety and self-defeat, which are hidden behind defenses and housed within the unconscious. These reasons include guilt, exaggerated fears of losing, extreme neediness regarding winning, feelings of undeservingness, a weak self-image or fears that victory may lead to loneliness or separation. These reasons for self-defeating will remain a mystery to the athletes until they discover what they are. Performance enhancement will not be achieved through consciously based, easy-to-teach, mental skills training that is applied over 6 to 20 sessions (Dilal, 2018). Real progress can only be achieved by working one’s way through their defense mechanisms. And the only way to change defenses is to gain insight into what they are and come to realize that many are not very effective. In addition, one must develop self-esteem or ego strength before one can afford to give up old defenses.

The book will be divided into sections athlete’s immature defenses, the neurotic defenses and the mature defenses. The immature defenses include denial, drug use, self-idealization, depersonalization, autistic fantasy, superstitions, regression, somatization, and identification with the aggressor. The neurotic defenses include repression, undoing, overcompensation, intellectualization, isolation, dissociation and reaction formation. The mature defenses include counterphobias, self-observation, altruistic surrender, anticipation, asceticism, humor, suppression and sublimation. A special ODDS & ENDS section will include the impact of aging on defense, meditation and a belief in a higher power as defense, mental health in the athlete, prescription drug use, depression as defense and cultural differences in the way defenses are used. Chapters will include a text box that will highlight certain theorists or discuss how athletes from different countries employ different defense mechanisms, a heretofore unexplored but crucial topic.

Surprisingly, some of the more primitive defenses, such as denial and identification with the aggressor, can be extremely effective for the athlete, whereas some of the more mature defenses like altruism, intellectualization, and reaction formation are largely ineffective on the playing field. Each chapter will also include Summary Points, Tips for Best Performance and Recommended Readings.

The outcomes observed in this book were not quick or easy. When treating any patient, one quickly learns that insights gained in a session quickly disappear, and it is only through patient repetitive exploration or “working through” will the patient slowly gain some awareness and some distance on their neurotic habits. Freud said neurosis is like glue: difficult to remove. One of the dangers of reading case studies is that the work seems straightforward and prescriptive in nature. Depth sport psychology is not a cookie-cutter approach where an athlete enters the therapy with a symptom that calls forth an intervention that is directly applied. The athlete’s symptoms are always self-evident and will include anxiety, despair, poor focus, exhaustion, psychosomatics, accident proneness, acting out, drug use, rage or some other form of neurotic self-defeat. What frequently occurs is that, after a few sessions, the athlete will begin to feel better and have symptom relief. This is when most premature terminations occur. This is called the transference cure and merely derives from the opportunity to ventilate anxiety. But no real change has occurred, and the symptoms will immediately return within days of the premature termination. The job is to establish a working alliance that encourages trust and the overall creation of ego strength. No matter what intervention you might apply, resistance will always be felt, resistance to the work, resistance to giving up the symptoms and resistance to trust. There is a vast psychoanalytic literature on the concept of resistance, and there is no reason to assume that athletes are less resistant than normal patients (Milman and Goldman, 1987). Skilled and seasoned sport psychologists are aware of this and do their best to help the athletes work through their resistance so that the real cure can unfold over time.

In every case study, identities will be protected by changing elements, like the sport being played, the sex or the age of the athlete, the nation of the athlete and many other elements making it impossible to identify the athlete.

References:

  • Dilal, F. (2018). CBT: The cognitive behavioral tsunami. Routledge
  • Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents. Newly translated by James Strachey. W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Freud, A. (Author), Cecil Baines, C. (Trans.) (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. International University Press.
  • Gardener, F., & Moore, Z. (2006). Clinical sport psychology. Human Kinetics.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
  • Milman, D., & Goldman, G. (1987). Techniques of working with resistance. Jason Aronson.
  • Modell, A.H. (1984). Psychoanalysis in a new context. International University Press.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organism: An experimental analysis. Appleton Century.
  • Sullivan, H.S. (1970). The psychiatric interview. W.W. Norton and Company.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

1) Defense Mechanisms Used by Athletes
2) Defenses Mechanisms Versus Coping Skills
3) Emotional Breakdowns in Athletes: Why They Happened and What to Do About Them

The Immature Defenses
4) Denial in the Aging Athlete
5) Acting Out, Impulsivity and Drug Use in Athletes
6) Self-Idealization and Narcissism in the Athlete
7) Depersonalization in a Golfer
8) Autistic Fantasies in a Long-Distance Swimmer
9) Perfectionism in Athletes
10) Superstitious Behavior Used by Athletes
11) Regression in a Professional Soccer Team
12) Somatization in Athletes
13) Scapegoating on Professional Teams
14) Identification With the Aggressor Used to Suppress Anxiety

The Neurotic Defenses
15) Displacement of Anger into the Athlete’s Spouse
16) Repression, Reaction Formation and Somatization in Asian Athletes
17) Overcompensation: Turning Inferiority into Superiority in an LPGA Golfer
18) The Athlete Who Doubts: The Intellectualization Defense
19) Why Athletes Choke or Undo Success
20) An Athlete’s Unique Ability to Conipartmentlize Emotions
21) Finding the Zone and the Dissociation Defense
22) Reaction Formation: The Problem of Being ‘Mr. Nice Guy’
23) The Yips in Golf: A Case of Repression

The Mature Defenses
24) Counterphobia: The Reason Athletes Love to Compete
25) Self-Observation in Athletes
26) Altruistic Surrender Why Athletes Give Away Leads
27) The Anticipation Defense Used in the Pre-Game Routine
28) Asceticism and the Renunciation of Pleasure in a Long-Distance Cyclist.
29) The Ways Athletes Use Humor to Manage Anxiety
30) Suppression Used to Manage Competitive Anxiety
31) The Sublimation of Aggression as the Best Way to Win
32) The Sublimation of Sexuality in Sports

Odds and Ends
33) The Weakening of the Defenses with Age
34) Meditation and Prayer as a Way to Enter the Zone
35) Using a ‘Higher Power’ as a Coping Mechanism
36) The Crisis of Mental Illness in Athletes
37) The Problem of Prescription Drug Use in Athletes
38) Depression Used as a Defense
39) Cultural Differences in Defensive Strategies
40) Ways To Identify Defenses in Athletes: Concluding Remarks

Chapter 1: DEFENSE MECHANISMS USED BY ATHLETES

Abstract: Athletes manage their anxiety by using defense mechanisms. Defenses are like a suit of armor that a warrior wears into battle. The chapter provides a taxonomic view of defenses. We will discuss the eleven most primitive defenses including denial, acting out, dissociation, autistic fantasy and somatization. The eight mid-level or so-called neurotic defenses will include undoing, intellectualization, displacement, reaction formation and repression. The mature defenses will be reviewed as well, and these include humor, anticipation, sublimation, suppression, asceticism and counter phobias. It will be shown how the more primitive defenses end up being rigid, maladaptive and consume too much energy.

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This chapter provides a brief overview of the most common defenses used by the athletes and will be categorized as either primitive, neurotic and mature. Although the more primitive defenses are often described in a negative fashion, we will see that some primitive defenses are actually helpful during competitive play. However, the categorization of immature versus neurotic versus mature defense is useful. The immature defenses, such as denial or autistic fantasy, require much energy, distort reality too much and in the end lead to exhaustion and self-defeat. The more mature defenses like humor, sublimation or suppression require less expenditure of energy, produce less distortion and usually will lead to success or at least less self-defeat (Vaillant, 1992).

The Primitive Defenses:

a) Denial: Denial is a primitive defense implying that the person is not recognizing reality. This defense is used as protection against overwhelming anxiety or despair. It is seen in situations that are beyond the athlete’s control, such as when an athlete ages but refuses to step away from a sport or when the athlete is told they have a serious injury but refuses to believe it. This defense is often dangerous and produces further injury (Chapter 5).

b) Acting out: Acting out is common in athletes and is defined as the tendency to give in to an impulse to avoid tension. As an example, impulsive acting out in tennis produces many unforced errors due to the inability to wait patiently for an opening. The use of alcohol is an acting out in order to avoid the discomfort and tension felt by remaining sober (Chapter 6).

c) Idealization of the Self: The use of idealization of the self leads to invariably problematic perfectionism. The athlete who idealizes who they are will inevitably devalue themselves after one or two mistakes. The athlete using idealization of the self is unable to realistically view themselves as an admixture of both good and bad attributes. This defense is commonly seen in American athletes and young athletes, is maladaptive and is the mark of an unsteady and immature sense of identity (Chapter 7).

d) Dissociation: This defense is defined as the disruption of memory, consciousness or perception as a way of retaining an illusion of control in the face of extreme stress. This mechanism is commonly referred to as being in the zone, and it is an example of an adaptive defense despite it being labeled as primitive. Tiger Woods would often describe falling into this state when he was in the lead and would say he had no recall of what had happened during the final few holes of play.

e) Autistic fantasy: Autistic fantasy is the defense of retreating into a private internal world to avoid anxiety about interpersonal situations. This primitive defense is used by many endurance athletes to good effect. The long hours of isolated practice that are required to get to the top is made easier if the athlete enjoys alone time and can lose themselves in fantasy as they toil away. Ben Hogan is considered one of the greatest ball strikers in golf history and is best characterized as a loner who spent hours on the range, digging it out of the dirt. He had an alter ego which he referred to as “Hennie Bogan.” Pete Sampras was a good example of an athlete who spent a long time alone hitting shots against his basement wall as a child and may have also used fantasy to remain focused.

f) Thought blocking: Thought blocking is defined as a temporary inhibition of thinking, emotion or behavior and gets little attention in the literature despite the fact that it is an exceedingly common problem. The yips in golf, tennis, and baseball pitching, popping jumps in figure skating and freezing in the blocks are all examples of thought blocking.

g) Regression: Regression is a return to a previous stage of development or functioning to avoid the anxieties felt in later stages. This is a problem often seen on teams where the structure of a team with coaches and players triggers a regression or pull to childhood behaviors associated with the family structure of parents and siblings. Wilfred Bion’s important work in this area will be used to describe regression in an NBA basketball team I worked with in Chapter 12.

h) Passive aggression: Passive aggression is seen when an athlete deals with anger by acting nice and smiling but also venting anger indirectly by passive non-compliance. This occurs frequently in younger players who resent being pushed by overly zealous parents or coaches, but I’ve seen this in professional ranks when a team despises a coach and set about intentionally losing games in order to express their anger and get the coach fired. Chapter 12 describes examples of passive aggression on teams.

i) Identification with the Aggressor: Introjection involves the taking in of characteristics of a feared other in order to establish a feeling of control. In chapter 15, I will outline two cases, one with a boxer and the other with a baseball player, to demonstrate the taking in of the character traits of a feared other. Internalizing the traits of an aggressive character can be used to help an athlete inhibit his anxiety or guilt.

j) Somatization: This is the tendency to convert psychological feelings into physical symptoms. Somatization is manifest as nausea, vomiting, headaches or back pain. In chapter 13, I will review a case of a world class soccer star who psychosomatically suffered from migraines, hives and stomach pain.

k) Identification with the victim: Identification is a process of internalizing traits from those you admire but when one identifies with the victim one feels exaggerated sympathy, empathy and pity, all of which are problematic in competitive sports. In a chapter, I will review examples of athletes with too much empathy, sympathy and pity, which prevented them from beating lesser opponents.

The Neurotic Defenses:

a) Displacement: This defense is used with athletes who hold back frustrations while playing their sport only to take out their frustration on a spouse when they get home. Domestic violence in sports is often due to displacement, which highlights the limits of this defense. Displacement is the unconscious shifting of an impulse from one person to another in order to finally express the anger. The case I will review in chapter 16 involves a star golfer who would systematically take out his frustration on his wife, who was exceptionally kind and supportive of him despite his abuse. Needless to say, the use of this defense puts many a marriage in jeopardy.

b) Repression: Repression is defined as the expelling or withholding from conscious awareness a feeling or a thought. Chapter 17 will contain the case of an Asian athlete whose ability to repress pain led to a career-ending back injury. Repression as defense will also be shown in chapter 23 in a case involving a well-known PGA golfer who had the ability to repress all feelings of fatigue but which then led to exhaustion, burnout and illness.

c) Undoing: Undoing is defined as the attempt to negate a previous action by doing the opposite and is commonly referred to as choking. The familiar “post-birdie screw-up” in golf is an example of undoing. Chapter 19 will have a case of a golfer who habitually undid his success before he finished the round by choking and giving up the lead.

d) Overcompensation: Alfred Adler was responsible for the development of this defense defined as the warding off feelings of inferiority by overcompensating through work so that you establish superiority in some domain. Goertzel and Goertzel’s 1962 classic study, “Cradles of Eminence,” explored the childhood of 300 famous men and women and concluded that the drive to excel derives in part from a sense of inferiority in childhood. Chapter 18 has a case of a world-famous soccer star who grew up in poverty, with no father and who had difficulty processing language. Despite this, she overcompensated and became world-renowned.

e) Isolation: Isolation can be extremely useful and is defined as the ability to separate emotions from thoughts. I will describe the case of a world-class golfer in Chapter 20 who had an astounding ability to isolate his emotions from competitive pressure in major golf tournaments.

f) Intellectualization: This is defined as the control of emotions and impulses by excessively thinking about them instead of experiencing them. This enables the athlete to avoid anxiety but at the cost of spontaneity, fluidity, power and grace. Chapter 21 reviews the case of an amateur golfer who was an attorney and how he used an overly intellectual approach to golf and by so doing, inhibited his club head speed and power.

g) Rationalization: Rationalization is defined as the justification of an unacceptable attitude or behavior to avoid feelings of shame or guilt. The case described in Chapter 21 is of a star tennis player who was caught cheating by a television camera but adamantly refused to admit guilt. The failure to admit guilt by rationalizing that he was unaware of what occurred wound up costing him more than $40 million in lost endorsement dollars. The hesitation to admit guilt by using a variety of rationalizations is now considered anathema, and every public relations firm counsels rapid admission of guilt to put the incident behind them.

h) Reaction formation: Reaction formation is the transforming of an unacceptable wish or impulse into its opposite. The sports environment requires aggression and dominance and if one inhibits these traits through reaction formation it will cost them victory. This defense is ineffective in sports, and it is crucial that the therapist understands this so that a more suitable defense can be used. Women who have often been trained to be nice, sweet and smiley, can show signs of reaction formation as do some men who are trained at a young age to always be nice. Chapter 22 describes cases in hockey, soccer and baseball where players had a hard time expressing negative aggressive emotions and how costly that was to them.

The Mature Defenses:

a) Counterphobias: Counterphobia is based upon a childhood fear, but rather than fleeing the source of the fear, it is sought out in order to overcome it. Freud suggested that thrill-seeking behaviors, including sports, are counterphobic in nature. When an athlete seeks out the challenge of competition, they may be unconsciously trying to prove that they are strong and not weak. Chapter 24 will have a description of a professional golfer who constantly provoked controversial situations in order to overcome the original fears he faced in childhood at the hands of a violent and threatening father.

b) Self-Observation: Self-observation is the ability to reflect upon one’s own feelings and behaviors without distortion, grandiosity or self-attack. It can be considered the sine qua non of mental health. This obtaining of this mature defense is a significant achievement and is elaborated in Chapter 25 with two cases, one of an amateur golfer who was able to pause and gather himself when experiencing tournament pressure. The other was of an ex-college pitcher who learned how to let minor incidents fall away without taking them personally.

c) Altruism and altruistic surrender: Altruism is seen as fulfilling the needs of others and by so doing obtaining some level of gratification and pride. This is the defining characteristic of a good team player and every coach’s dream. The altruistic athlete is non-envious, supportive of teammates and well-liked. However, too much altruism in sports is tantamount to what Anna Freud (1932) would call altruistic surrender or masochism and what Donald Winnicott (1950) referred to as the false self. Great athletes must have a balance of altruism and self-centeredness. We will review the case of an All-American rugby player who was exceptionally altruistic and which benefited her team but not necessarily herself.

d) Anticipation: Anticipation is the ability to plan ahead, prepare, worry and get ready for future discomfort. This is often referred to as Murphy’s Law, which was first developed by a mountaineer who realized that when climbing a mountain all problematic contingencies must be planned for or the hike could end in death. All athletes must be able to anticipate and be prepared for all contingencies, occurrences and problems, and this is one of the most useful aspects of standard cognitive behavioral sport psychology. In chapter 27, I will review a case that shows the proper anticipation in golf.

e) Asceticism: Asceticism is the renunciation of pleasurable aspects of an experience. This mechanism can be used in the service of spiritual or athletic goals. The well-known effort to remain celibate prior to a boxing match to enhance performance was demonstrated in the film classic Raging Bull where Jake LaMatta was able to withstand the charms of his beautiful wife for two weeks prior to a championship fight. Asceticism by renouncing rest, sleep, food or sex in order to practice more is used by many serious athletes. The case shown in chapter 28 is about a world-class professional lacrosse player who adhered to a schedule of five hours of sleep per night and endless hours of grueling workouts in order to get to the top in his field.

f) Humor: Humor is the ability to find comic or ironic elements in difficult situations to reduce unpleasant emotions. Humor is a highly valued defense and explains why comics like Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey command some of the largest salaries in the film industry. Dr. Mark Nesti of the English Premier League has observed that banter in the locker room is crucial for tension relief and characterizes the tone of many winning teams (Nesti, 2009). Chapter 29 contains three jokes told to me by athletes as examples of the use of humor to cope with dreadful situations.

g) Suppression: Suppression is the ability to temporarily avoid thinking about a disturbing problem or an upcoming occurrence. This is a valuable skill for athletes since it means they’re able to “stay in the moment”, that tough-to-find place where focus is maintained and fantasies of winning or losing are avoided. Chapter 30 explores the amazing ability of Asian women on the LPGA to use suppression to remain poised coming down the stretch.

h) Sublimation: Sublimation is the channeling of aggressive or sexual impulses into socially acceptable forms. Sports require the channeling of aggression into something socially valued. Sublimation allows for aggression, anger and hostility to be expressed but with social valence and usefulness. Nearly every athlete needs to tap into their aggression to win and if they sublimate rather than repress, act out or regress, they will perform much better. In Chapter 31, I will discuss two cases of young men who had much rage and needed help channeling it correctly. In Chapter 32, I discuss the way sexuality is also involved in sports, and how I helped a beautiful young tennis star deal with the leers and lechery of male fans.

References

  • Bion, W. (1968). Experiences in groups. Routledge.
  • Freud, A. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. International Universities Press.
  • Nesti, M. (2010). Psychology in football: Working with elite and professional players. Routledge.

Chapter 19: WHY ATHLETES CHOKE OR UNDO SUCCESS

Abstract: Why do so many athletes choke? Why do they seem to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? This chapter outlines the underlying dynamic that produces choking in sports. The undoing defense is defined as the tendency to erase or eradicate progress by undoing it due to either unconscious guilt or the perception that one is undeserving of progress. Freud was the first to describe undoing in his essay, “Those Wrecked by Success,” as he described the unaccountable manner in which many people undo success by either getting sick or injured. The chapter also describes Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which is similar to undoing and explains it by suggesting that one must behave in ways that confirm one’s self-belief. When applied to the athlete, this often means that the athlete must choke in order to remain aligned with their inner self-image. Two case studies of golfers show the way they undid their scores by choking.

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Undoing is the defense mechanism where a person cancels out some behavior perceived to be threatening, wrong or guilt-inducing. The process of doing and then undoing describes the self-defeating process so often seen in sports: When a golfer performs well on the front nine only to undo it on the back nine with a bad score. Many years ago Mark Cannizarro of the New York Post was doing a column about my sport psychology work and I invited him to my club to show him how I work. We played together, and I applied some standard focusing and visualization techniques, which allowed him to shoot a 39 on the front nine, the best nine holes of his career. He then promptly undid this by shooting a 51 on the back, thereby demonstrating the defense of undoing. Perhaps he felt he did not deserve it nor did he feel he was capable of duplicating his front nine score.

Sigmund Freud was the first to discuss the way success produces shame and must be undone. In his classic essay, “Those Wrecked by Success” (Freud, S., 1916), he wrote “Some people fall ill precisely when a deeply rooted and long cherished wish has come to fulfillment. It seems then as though they were not able to tolerate this happiness. For there can be no question that there is a causal connection between their success and their falling ill.” Freud felt many patients have an inability to perceive their own achievements, felt that success was too good to be true and managed to undo their success in a variety of ways. Anna Freud described the defense of doing/undoing with obsessives compulsives who repeat a behavior, anorexics who eat a full meal and throw it up or children who build a castle of blocks only to knock them down again (Freud, A., 1937).

Felix Deutsch (1959) was a pioneer in the field of psychosomatic disorders and followed up on Sigmund Freud’s essay “Those Wrecked by Success.” Deutsch outlined the way physical illness is often produced by any number of mysterious unconscious dynamics including guilt and distorted self-images. By now there is a vast literature on psychosomatic disorders that readily and regularly convert mental and emotional problems into the body. People get headaches when angry, diarrhea or nausea when anxious. It takes no leap of logic to therefore assume that athletes undo victory by choking based upon any number of unconscious problems including guilt, low self-image or feelings of inadequacy.

The behaviorist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is an elegant extension of the undoing defense and describes how a person’s self-belief about who they are clashes with what they have just achieved. This will result in an undoing of the achievement to regain a feeling of equilibrium and identity stability.

There are many examples of this doing-undoing defense in the world of sports. The way that Tiger Woods destroyed his reputation as one of the world’s most admired athletes may be a good example of this defense. He managed to undo a lifetime of achievement, status and financial success through sexual misbehavior. By recklessly engaging in sex with prostitutes, and getting caught, he single-handedly “wrecked his success” and undid his status and fame.

I will give two examples of athletes I have worked with who have used undoing as a defense and how it damaged them both on the playing field and off.

Case #1: This is a case of a middle-aged amateur golfer who had a tendency to choke when coming down the stretch in tournaments. It became so obvious that he had this pattern that one of his caddies, witnessing him implode on the 16th hole and failing to finish off an event, remarked, “Here we go again.” This golfer had a repetitive dream where he would hit a wonderful shot onto the green from 230 yards away only to watch as the ball first came close to the hole and then inexplicably rolled off the green and back to his feet. This dream expressed his undoing defense. And in golf tournaments, he would play well for about two-thirds of the round only to undo his success by bogeying in. Our job in this case was to help him to understand the meaning of his pattern of self-defeat on the course. He said continued success during a round of golf meant that he felt increasing anxiety. This produced a pattern in him of avoiding this experience by beating himself to the punch and getting away from the stress through self-defeat. And in this case, self-defeat was more attractive than experiencing the anxiety felt as one strived for victory. His anxiety was so intense that he had unconsciously decided to undo his success by failing.

<<Choking: Choking is a term for the athlete that undoes success in the end and exemplifies Anna Freud’s comments about the vomiting anorexic who would first eat food and then throw it up. And the case of the athlete, he first eats victory, swallows some of it and then chokes it up. Golfers sometimes use the phrase “throwing up on myself” when describing a round where they gave up their lead. Undoing to avoid the pressure of success is also nicely explained by Bibring (1953), who suggests that the feeling of helpless anxiety that occurs as one nears success is so problematic that many choose to avoid all risk. I will go into detail about this theory in Chapter 39 (“Depression Used as Defense by Athletes”).>>

Case #2: The second case showing the defense of undoing is seen in a professional golfer I work with who was stuck on the Korn Ferry Tour, the minor leagues of golf. Like most professional athletes, he had demonstrated considerable talent, but he was saddled with anxiety. He expressed his anxiety by worrying, doubting his ability and experiencing nausea, a choking feeling in his throat, and vomiting before tournaments, all classic signs of “undoing” as we discussed in the last case. He was seen twice weekly, and he was conscientious in keeping his appointments, despite his busy schedule. We spent weeks working through his anxieties, and as his earnings rose, he neared the point of qualifying for the PGA. On the eve of his next tournament, he was staying in a rental home, and as he was walking down the stairs in his socks, he fell and seriously hurt his back. Needless to say, this produced a lay-off of many weeks, and he did not qualify for the PGA. As Freud said, accidents are usually dictated by unconscious motives. In this case, we can see clearly that he once again had undone his success out of the fear that the next step would be intense, stressful and perhaps unmanageable. He defended against this upcoming opportunity with an injury that sidelined him for an extended period. His unconscious defense of undoing shielded him from experiencing the next phase of pressure which was sure to be felt on tour. Teeing it up against Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson is daunting.

Athletes have a host of ways of unconsciously protecting themselves from pressure and potential failure that is felt at the next level of the game. They can unconsciously fail before they get to the 18th green as we saw in the golfer. They can get an injury to remove themselves from competition at the next level. As Freud described in “Those Wrecked by Success,” the next level of achievement is only available to those strong enough and confident enough to withstand the pressure.

In the Oscar-winning film Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle, the main character was on the threshold of success, and before he was thrust into the spotlight, his agent sat him down in her opulent living room and directed him to say, “I want to drink for the poison chalice of fame and fortune.” He hesitated, and she repeated, “You must tell me you want to drink from the poison chalice of fame and fortune.” He finally was able to say it. The reason that scene was so compelling was because it dealt with inevitable the pressure of success and fame, something athletes face every time they step onto the playing field and every time, they have a chance to get to the next level. They must be ready to walk through Jung’s liminal space and be ready to face the fiercer competition. Most fear success because with it comes anxiety and the real possibility of public humiliation and failure. Success is accompanied by risk, pressure and pain. The undoing defense is the way many athletes opt out of success. and protect themselves.

Key Points:

  • The undoing defense occurs when a person cancels out or undoes some behavior perceived to be threatening, wrong or guilt-inducing.
  • Examples of the undoing defense are seen when athletes choke, which demonstrates the inability to take in and swallow success
  • Freud wrote “Those Wrecked By Success,” which was a character type with guilt
  • Tiger Woods is a good example of the way an athlete can undo all the success and fame built up over a career

Reflective Questions?

  • Why do you think athletes choke?
  • As victory approaches and the pressure mounts, some athletes shy away from the big moment. Why?
  • Self-belief seems to be important in coping with pressure. Why?

Exercise Drills for Best Performance: If you find yourself giving up leads, it maybe you are using the undoing defense. Ask yourself if you think you deserve to win and why you may feel undeserving of success. A good drill is to make a conscious effort to build esteem by listing your past sports accomplishments. Then you need to anticipate the pressure because it will come as victory nears. Rehearse the self-belief you will recite to yourself when under pressure. The late great singer Sammy Davis Jr. would kiss his ring before going on stage and say to himself, “You’re a star, you’re a star, you’re a star.”

Recommended Viewing: The film Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle. This film is about the pressures and challenges of success and how one musician comes to terms with it. Pay special attention to the scene in Malibu with the agent and the singer.

References:

  • Bibring, E. (1953). The mechanism of depression. In P. Greenacre (Ed.), Affective disorders, psychoanalytic contributions to their study. International Universities Press.
  • Deutsch, F. (1959). On the formation of the conversion symptom. In On the mysterious leap from the mind to the body: A study on the theory of conversion. International Universities Press.
  • Freud, A. (Author), Baines, C. (Transl.) (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. International Universities Press.
  • Freud, S. (1916). Those wrecked by success. In Some character-types met with in psycho-analytic work. Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud (Translated by Strachey). Hogarth Press.

Chapter 20: AN ATHLETE’S UNIQUE ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE EMOTIONS

Abstract: Some athletes seem to have a God-given ability to turn off and compartmentalize their emotions. This chapter describes the use of compartmentalization of emotions in athletes and how it enables them to stay calm and avoid anxiety during pressure moments. Although this defense is difficult to acquire, its use is of great value to the athlete. It will be shown how Korean athletes seem to have this defense in abundance and may account for their dominance in golf, a sport where one must control affect and compartmentalize it. A case study of a highly ranked world-class tennis player will be outlined, which demonstrates the genesis of this defense and how beneficial it is to him during major events.

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Isolation or compartmentalization is a defense where emotion is detached from an idea by rendering the affect unconscious and thereby transforming the thought into something bland and emotionally flat. This defense is of great benefit to elite athletes like pitchers, golfers and quarterbacks because they must remain poised, self-possessed and cool as they try to make a putt to win a tournament or throw a breaking curveball to win the World Series. The ability to screen out or isolate emotions is one of the keys to winning in sports. This ability is difficult to learn, and it may be a primary reason that athletes seek psychological help. Freud’s investigation of defenses focused primarily on repression and isolation. He defined isolation as the person’s ability to create a gap between an unpleasant cognition and feelings that accompany them by minimizing associative connections with other thoughts so that the threatening cognitions are remembered less often and are less likely to affect awareness (Freud, 1961).

The following case study is a professional tennis player I have treated for the last three years. His childhood was marked by traumatic physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father. As a teenager, if the patient failed to win a match, the father would physically pummel and hit him in the parking lot before they went home. His mother was neglectful and of little help in sheltering him from this abuse. He slowly developed the defense of isolation, which allowed him to detach from his emotions in a dissociative way in order to withstand the beating. The ability to isolate affect turned out to be of enormous benefit when playing tennis.

He referred to this ability as compartmentalization. I would watch him win match after match while in majors, and when I asked him if he felt any anxiety during the final points, he would say, “No, not really.” This skill is invaluable in any game that regularly requires you to stay emotionally calm but cognitively clear while under duress. It is also curious to me that he was able to use the exact term for what defense he was using. Compartmentalization is the precise term that theorists use when defining the defense of isolation. This defense is very effective for the competitive athlete, and thus no intervention is needed when they have use of it. But for the athlete who has not developed this defense, there will be guides in the Tips for Best Performance Section. The reason that drugs are so ineffective for athletes is that calming medications like tranquilizers or beta blockers blur cognitive acuity, the skill so necessary in all sports.

<<International text box; The isolation defense used by Korean golfers: Korean women currently dominate the LPGA and the question frequently asked is why. Their cool demeanor was expressed in a controversial statement made by LPGA star Jan Stephenson, who remarked that the Asian women all seemed so cold, unfriendly and aloof. However, when one interacts with them, they are far from cold and in fact are consistently kind, charming and friendly. However, their on-course demeanor during tournaments which was what Stephenson was referring to, is uniformly cool, calm and unflappable. Another good example of the Asian mind is Tiger Woods, whose mother was Thai. His ability to separate his emotions from the reality of the moment is remarkable. I can recall standing next to him on the putting green at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club prior to the U.S. Open. We were alone on the green, and his ability to remain isolated and focused was so keen that it remains the only time in my life that I experienced the sensation of being invisible and non-existent. It was as if I, along with the thousands of adoring fans who gazed at him, did not even exist. Such was the power of his defense of isolation. The question that remains is how does the Asian mind develop in this way? The Asian culture had Buddhist roots which emphasize stoicism. Their languages have far fewer words for pain than in the English language and does not have a language for emotions like pain. I go into greater detail about these Asian traits in Chapter 41 (Cultural Differences in the Way Athletes Use Defenses) but suffice it to say that Buddhism’s emphasis on stoicism and the repression of emotion, along with the 1,000-year-old practice of foot binding and the more recent Cultural Revolution, have combined to establish the defense of isolation of affect in its citizens.>>

However, based on the case study above, who was an American tennis player, it is apparent that the use of the isolation defense comes from a childhood under the influence of physically abusive or demanding parents. The well-known aphorism “no pain, no gain” sadly applies in this case. This tennis player made great gains in his career thanks to his ability to isolate his emotions from the reality of the moment. However, it was the pain of childhood abuse that enabled him to establish this ability.

Key Points:

  • Isolation is the ability to emotionally detach from an idea by placing your emotions into the unconscious
  • Isolation and repression were Freud’s central concerns when studying defenses
  • Many Asian golfers seem to employ the defense of compartmentalization.

Reflective Questions:

  • Define the defense of compartmentalization.
  • During the impeachment hearings of President Clinton, despite the stress he was under, he showed an ability to ignore the stress and carry on his duties as president. Explain how he may have used compartmentalization to do this.
  • Why do you think Asian athletes have this ability to compartmentalize emotions and remain calm under pressure?

Exercise Drills for Best Performance:

  • Exercise Drill #1: To isolate your thoughts from your emotions, you need to “reset” the mind by establishing a gap between thoughts. When you become aware of getting overwhelmed with anxious emotions, say “STOP!” take a deep breath and focus your eyes on the target you are hitting towards. This will give you time to separate your appropriate thoughts from those emotional ones that are producing the anxiety. This is called pre-shot routine in golf and golfers do this every time they are about to hit a shot. No matter what sport you play, you ought to have a pre-shot routine that helps you to compartmentalize your thoughts from extraneous emotions.

Recommended Viewing: Tiger: The Authorized DVD Collection

References

  • Freud, S. (1961) The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud (vol. 20). Hogarth Press

 

Chapter 21: FINDING THE ZONE AND THE DISSOCIATION DEFENSE

Abstract: Every athlete wants to get into the zone, that dissociated state of calm yet energized focus. In this chapter, we will investigate dissociation, the temporary but drastic modification of identity to avoid pain, anxiety, or distress. This defense often results from a history of abuse or post-traumatic stress and some athletes with an abuse history use this defense. I have found that long-distance runners and long-distance swimmers often use dissociation to cope with the pain and boredom of long-distance races like marathons, ultra-marathons or Iron Man events. Two cases will be examined, one with a golfer and the other with a long-distance swimmer.

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Dissociation is the temporary but drastic modification of identity employed to avoid pain, anxiety or high emotional distress. This neurotic defense is often associated with post-traumatic stress or an abuse history. Some athletes with an abuse history use this defense to cope with their pain, exhaustion, or stress. Dissociation and depersonalization develop in children based upon repeated experiences of traumas (Terr, 1999). Children dissociate to escape from feelings of helplessness, pain or repetitive shock. (Terr, 1999, p. 74).

Some controversy surrounds the mechanism of dissociation. Is this defense developed because of the traumatic experiences they have faced or is this a pre-existing personality trait (Horowitz, 1999)? Dissociation and hypnotizability are found in those with higher-than-average IQs, which suggests that this defense is partly related to genetic endowment and partly due to the experience of chronic abuse or pain (Spiegel, David, Hunt, Thurman, and Dondershine, Harvey, 1999). I have treated endurance athletes like long-distance swimmers or runners who use the dissociation defense to deal with pain and exhaustion.

The cases reviewed in this chapter will include a nationally ranked long-distance swimmer and a golfer who used dissociation to manage pain, fear or exhaustion. The defense of dissociation enables strong pain tolerance which athletes need to manage the many grueling moments they face as they compete. Both the benefits and the drawbacks of this defense will be outlined.

Case #1: The Long-Distance Swimmer who dissociated before races. Endurance athletes like marathoners enter into a dissociated almost hypnotic fugue-like state, enabling them to cope with pain. This swimmer came to me for a consultation because he was concerned about his mental health. He was an affable, gentle, soft-spoken athlete who was a nationally ranked swimmer who had been awarded a full scholarship to a Division I college and wanted to prepare himself for his college experience. His history revealed that he was raised by an abusive father who would have physical fights with him and would verbally abuse him on a daily basis. When I asked him about any swimming-related fears, he mentioned that he was afraid that someday he might drown. When I asked him why a talented swimmer would fear drowning, he remarked, “I turn into a different person during a race and call myself ‘The Animal’. When I race I have only one pace whether it’s an 800-meter race or a 1,600-meter race. I go all out every lap. And recently I passed out while swimming.” This level of extreme effort to the point of passing out indicates not only outstanding pain tolerance but also the tendency to enter a dissociative state. When I asked him to elaborate on his nickname “The Animal,” he said, “You wouldn’t want to be near me before any race. I actually become a different person altogether. I get nasty, aggressive, hostile.” This is evidence that he temporarily dissociated into a different person. These sudden changes in demeanor are less severe versions of multiple personality disorder and are not accompanied by amnesia for the altered states of being.

Case #2: This case is a 19-year-old golfer who came to me with the putting yips. He had been to multiple orthopedic surgeons and neurologists, but they did not find anything neurologically or physically wrong. He came to my office as a last resort. History revealed that he was an accomplished golfer who had won a number of AJGI events around the nation, but the putting yips were of great concern. When he put, the club would inadvertently jerk in his hands at impact. His family history revealed that his stepfather was a sinister, abusive and frightening figure. The patient told me that recently he had won a tournament in California and returned home to New Jersey the next day. It was snowing and the father insisted he hit shots rather than rest after this grueling tournament. Another incident between father and son again reveals the extreme terror and anxiety the son felt. One day while playing golf together, he hit a bad shot and was so terrified that his father would scream at him that he dropped his golf bag and ran home. This and many other incidents revealed that the father was abusive. After only a few interactions I had with the father, I told my patient that if I was ever forced to interact with the father again, I would terminate the case. An example of how this athlete dissociated was seen in his fitness workouts. I was concerned that he was working out too much and I asked him to describe his gym routines. He said that all of his routines were done until exhaustion or vomiting set in. This form of extreme punishing of the body and pain tolerance is evidence of dissociation. As mentioned above, Lenore Terr’s work on childhood trauma suggested that children who must deal with extremes of physical suffering undergo character reorganization and employ self-hypnosis or dissociation. I see evidence that some athletes, especially endurance athletes or those with abuse histories, develop dissociative, self-hypnotic techniques that allow them to tolerate pain.

Ronald Fairbairn was one of the founders of the object relation school of psychology and believed that children dissociated away from the internalized images of bad parents and over time these dissociated aspects became part of what he referred to as internal saboteurs. These dissociated internal saboteurs would eventually emerge later in life and produce self-defeat (Fairbairn, 1952). Fairbairn and most other object relations theorists rely on the defense of dissociation to explain what occurs when a child is raised abusively. They suggest that dissociation or vertical splitting is used as a defense rather than repression. This theory provides us with proof that one does not need a life-threatening trauma to develop dissociation. A history of abuse and the choice of any endurance sport is enough to have one develop and use this defense.

Key Points:

  • Dissociation is defined as the ability to temporarily modify one’s identity in order to avoid pain, anxiety or extreme stress.
  • Endurance athletes will sometimes use dissociation in order to cope with pain
  • The work of Ronald Fairbairn and other object-relations theorists believe that dissociation, rather than repression, is the primary defense used by people

Reflective Questions:

  • As you drive to work each day or as you are reading this sentence you are in a dissociated state. Explain.
  • How do hypnotists get people to dissociate so quickly?
  • Multiple Personality Disorder is an extreme use of dissociation based on a history of severe abuse. Describe a movie you have seen that has a character with multiple personalities.

Exercise Drills for Best Performance:

  • Exercise Drill #1: Although it is difficult to create the defense of dissociation in adults, one method that approximates it is to learn how to self-hypnotize. To do this you need to take a few deep breaths. As you inhale and exhale, let your mind become aware of the sensation of your lungs expanding and contracting. This is called the induction phase of hypnosis. After this, you choose to focus on any physical movement that relates to your sport. For a golfer, it may be your swing tempo or the target, for a runner, it may be the movement of your legs as they move up and down. And when you learn to focus on the rhythm of your body or an external target, you are briefly entering a dissociative state.
  • Exercise Drill #2: To learn the value of dissociation, do the following. Stand on one leg and try to maintain your balance. See how long you can do it. Then do it once again, but this time focus your eyes on a single spot on the wall, stand on one leg and see how long you do it this time. You can maintain balance much easier by focusing on a single spot, which means that you are visually dissociating away from leg imbalance by looking at the spot. This is a brief hypnotic state.

Recommended Viewing:  The film The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon, is based on the way a branch of the U.S. military trains its field agents to dissociate away from pain and fear into focused attention.

Readings: Roy Udolf’s Handbook of Hypnosis for Professionals. Second Edition