21 January 2015

posted in:

Sports, Athletes, and Mental Health

I am not a prodigious athlete. I have an inconsistent exercise regimen, which probably puts me in with the majority. That said, the one sport I do love more than any other (and that includes billiards) is soccer. If I was allowed to play soccer every day for the rest of my life, I would be the happiest man in the world. It’s an exhausting sport to play, both physically and mentally (I would perhaps only rate squash more tiring).

Not only do I play but I watch soccer. I was gripped by the announcement made last year that Marco van Basten, the Dutch superstar, was retiring from coaching the feisty Dutch league club, AZ Alkmaar. After only five games. This is the man who scored an odds-defying lob into the Russian net during the 1988 Euro Cup. The man who coached the nation team through two international competitions.

The reason: stress. Sort of. I mean, that’s what the press is saying, and yet as a therapist I cannot help but ask myself what might be amiss beyond that. You can read more about van Basten here.

I’ve always held, based upon my personal experiences playing with both friends and strangers, that competitive (even if only recreational) team sports are the quickest way to see one’s interpersonal demons display themselves publicly. Aggressiveness, self-admonishment, jealousy, chronic lack of patience. I know them well. I can barely imagine (and I write speculative fiction) what it must be like at the top international level of competition.

How can therapy help? I’ve posted before about confidence and self-esteem, and therapy is a way to unravel athletic anxiety: the defender who longs to see more front-line action, the captain who despite praise still can’t accept her casual mistakes. By exploring these modes of thinking, we might be able to tunnel through to some underlying presumptions about ourselves, presumptions which might be holding us back or creating unnecessarily negative ideas about ourselves.