The Sporting Psyche


An Intro to Concussions

It has been quite an interesting few weeks in the world of sports. It seems the more I turned my focus towards investigating the impact of this world on its participants the more I have noticed just how much is boiling underneath its’ surface undiscovered. For reasons nobody is ready to confess, the world of sports has been vastly unexplored and tragically un-critiqued. Few examples are more evident than the recent headlines exposing the impact of sports related concussions. PBS Frontline released a documentary detailing the impact of concussions on athletes called League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Headlines have been alive with commentary on this issue and the question of whether or not playing football can have long term health consequences on participants. The NFL is working hard to downplay this latter question, but the answer is unquestionably YES. As is the case with most culture challenging inquiries, it often takes the “hard” sciences years longer to discover what the “soft” sciences have theorized about for years. Fortunately for those of us in the mental health field, the body has a way of communicating the “mysteries” of the mind in data that nobody can ignore.

When I first heard news of the documentary and its’ implications on the game of football I was filled with competing emotions. One part of me was relieved that this information was being released to the general public and that the NFL’s powers that attempted to hide this information from players and the public could no longer do so. On the other hand I was terrified. I love watching football. Heck I even get together with a bunch of guys every Sunday and play tackle football with no pads! I felt sick to my stomach even thinking about not being able to watch my Auburn Tigers on Saturdays in the fall. So was it hard for me to imagine why people are not just afraid of this but maybe even angry at anyone who is pushing the conversation? That answer is No. I would expect this reaction from anyone who loves the game. I can understand this reaction from anyone who is seeing something very important to them begin to slip away. We are seeing the grieving process on a massive scale…and we all know that the first step is denial. With every new study we see more clearly that there is something toxic to what we are playing, coaching, and cheering. There is a price to pay for anyone who longs for glory and fame.

308201_7286One of the reasons I began pursuing this work with and for the mental health of athletes was birthed out of this research on concussions and its linkage to the struggles and deaths of several current and former players. It was Junior Seau’s death in particular, and the firestorm of concussion related news that followed, that made me wonder about what else contributed to the decline of such a beloved figure in sports. At the time, my understanding of concussions, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), and their effects on the health of a person was fairly limited. I had little knowledge of what neurologically was happening to sufferers of CTE and was unaware of what such a brain disease would expedite. At the time I simply found an interest in the fact that someone was finally talking about the dark side of sports and I knew that there was more to the story than just CTE. The repetitive brain injuries incurred in sports like football or boxing can impair and destroy extremely important parts of our brains. Brain trauma deeply effects mental health. However, this is not the only thing happening in athletes that cause their decline.

To get a glimpse of what many athletes are facing, I’ll just include some baseline realities that come with pursuing this dream. There are the effects of years of psychological and emotional abuse, years of having to use pain killers or other substances to ease chronic pain (not everyone but many), the anxiety that accompanies the pressure of performance, and the deep confusion and shame each athlete suffers as they try to come to terms with losing a core sense of identity. I do not know an athlete who has not had to deal with every single one of these listed above…and these psychological, emotional, and physical abuses are just the tip of the iceberg if you look at the spectrum of experiences that come with pursuing competitive sports. But through relationship, particularly through the process of psychotherapy and counseling, an athlete can begin to move towards awareness and healing. What is most troubling about the effects of TBI/concussions/CTE is that it seems to impair the parts of our brain that allow for this other healing to take place. So what you have are a bunch of athletes who have been through an intense amount of trauma and abuse; experiences and effects not unlike what veterans experience after fighting in battle. These alone (and there is much more than just this trauma to deal with) could send any person into depression, mania, and/or crisis, but with CTE a person will find these issues more severe and unavoidable in everyday life. So these players find themselves angrier, more confused, more disconnected in relationship, and less able to deal with the impending storm of losing their identity as an athlete and celebrity.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be looking at several aspects of this discussion on concussions and CTE. The Sporting Psyche will take a look at the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury on our ability to express and mediate our emotions, empathize with others, and be able to change (the ability to be flexible in our identity). I’m also going to take a look at the interesting and telling reactions of NFL players who are now learning about the consequences of sports on their health.
Stay tuned…



Photo of 2014 football recruit Jalen Tabor, first published on

Photo of 2014 football recruit Jalen Tabor, first published on

I watched the new Superman movie with my wife a couple of weeks ago at our local discount theatre.  I am a more of an Iron Man guy myself, but thought it would be a fun movie to see on the big screen.  Unfortunately, the movie lost my interest pretty quickly after it became obvious that both Superman and the arch-villain were invincible.  Bullets, missiles, fires, lasers, falling debri, and, literally everything else that someone could concoct to kill a man was rendered useless.  Their “Superness” was on another level and the laws that limited the rest of humanity did not apply.  Neither hero or villain had any concern or fear of danger because their strength and superhuman abilities could always overcome…even death apparently.  This dynamic made for a pretty boring story for all us normal humans sitting in the audience.  Without the danger of death, a reality that is common to every normal person, the beauty and triumph of the story was lost on us.  We couldn’t relate.  At best we could only wish that we were “Super” too, living in a reality where the laws of this world didn’t apply.

When it comes to most elite athletes there is a something of this “superhumanness” that is the lifeblood of each athlete’s identity.  No obstacle is too big, no problem is too difficult, no injury too severe.  What limits and humbles the rest of the human race doesn’t apply to these elite men and women, a belief that most take deep pride in.  Interestingly enough, there has been some research done on the characteristics of an athletes personality and one of the markers that distinguishes athletes from non-athletes is an increase in resilience.  An athlete can often mentally and physically overcome quit a deal more in comparison to most non-athletes.  I would hypothesize that this is a trait that is born out of the physical and mental conditioning that comes with the territory of elite competition.  An athlete must learn to overcome obstacles, limitations, and even abuse(s) if they intend on reaching an elite level.  If they don’t, they will eventually fall by the wayside because in the current world of sports the aforementioned realities are just the name of the game.  Somewhere in this process athletes must block out any reservation or worry and begin to believe that they can and will be able to rise above the rest.  At some point the mantra, “do whatever it takes” becomes a mandate to continue pushing.


I’ve been reading a memoir by Tim Green, a former NFL lineman that has been especially intriguing as to the natural consequences of this mentality in the world of sports.  He actually believes that the pursuit of this image, for an athlete eventually encourages steroid use, drug abuse, and a dismissal of health risks in order to delay decline and limitation. In one chapter he talks about how the act of “taking the needle” (a medical treatment that allows athletes to disregard immense pain and further injury in order to keep playing) is considered a mark of honor and admiration in the NFL.  He says, “[taking the needle] demonstrates the complete disregard for one’s well being that is admired in the NFL (Green, p. 125).” On the one hand it has been this superhuman belief that has allowed mere mortals to get to the pinnacle of athletics, but simultaneously it is this same belief that leads athletes to abuse themselves as they try to delay what is inevitable.  Green points out that without this invincible belief one could never face the dark realities of football.  He also points out that by the time a player has to look their humanity in the face they are so attached to this superhuman identity that they would often rather die than accept their own defeat. 

To be sure, there has, and will never be, an athlete that can defeat the shriveling effects of death.  But the call of fame and fortune, or maybe more deeply the desire to hold onto one’s identity, for an athlete can cause even the most sane man to make a deal with the devil.  This plays out in the most simple of ways.  A fringe linebacker smacks his head against another helmet jarring his brain to a swell and causing what is called a concussion.  Although having a wealth of information and new rules on his side protecting him from endangering himself and his swelling brain, the athlete lies to team doctors about his condition for fear of being given a moniker of “injury prone” or “damaged goods”.  He runs back out on the field…because he is invincible.  He won’t be stopped by a traumatic brain injury.  After all, when one is pumped full of all kinds of different numbing agents and armed with a Superhero Costume of sorts it becomes quite easy to believe in invincibility.  Unfortunately there is always a price to pay when trying to play God.  Our mortality will not be disregarded regardless of what we believe in our mind.  One way or another we are all humbled and reminded of our limitations.  But this hard reality won’t stop the next person from trying.  Every time a superhero costume is retired there is always another hungry soul to pick it up.  We all want to be Superman.



Johnny “Pinata”

Last year a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M burst onto the SEC scene with one of the single greatest single seasons in college football history.  The player, Johnny Manziel, led his team past the Alabama Crimson Tide and became the first freshman in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy, an award given to the best player in College Football.  Johnny Manziel went from being an unknown college freshman to a celebrity in a matter of months.  His exploits were so incredible he was given the moniker “Johnny Football” by the Texas A&M faithful.  His rising fame landed him on various prime-time television shows, magazine covers, and sports talk radio stations.  It was quite a year.

Since his Heisman crowning however, the headlines have been far less positive and complementary.  Manziel got arrested for public intoxication, was thrown out of a rival schools frat-party, was dismissed from a prestigious passing camp, and most recently accused of selling autographs for profit (a practice prohibited for College athletes).  Suddenly the people who stood in awe of his abilities, praised his greatness, and lived vicariously through his victories, turned on him.  He went from being a sports god to a villain.  From being a target of worship to a target for hatred and anger.

A couple of weeks ago an embattled Johnny Manziel led his Texas A&M Aggies against Alabama in what was dubbed the biggest game of the college football regular season.  For those of you who follow college football you know what happened.  Alabama won the game, but Manziel was brilliant (leading the Aggies to a record high points against Alabama).  The game certainly lived up to the hype.

The Monday before the showdown an article was posted on about a bar in Alabama that had created a Johnny Manziel piñata imaging the player and reflecting his recent personal struggles.  The bar invited its patrons to mark up the piñata with a sharpie, take comedic pictures of themselves with the image, and gather together during the bars’ trivia night to take swings at the source of their envy and hatred.  In the interview, the bar assured everyone that it was all in good fun…J  Sounds like it!

To be sure, it feels good to beat a piñata…especially when the piñata represents something or someone who has brought you misery or shame.  I would actually say that beating a piñata can be fairly therapeutic.  Rather than have all that anger bottled up inside, a piñata allows us to externalize our emotions in a safe and harmless way.  We are afforded the same opportunity at sporting events or in front of our televisions.  We can yell and scream at players, coaches, and referees who disappoint our expectations without having to carry the burden of feeling like we have done something inappropriate or harmful.  Even though some fan behavior would be considered incredibly inappropriate and concerning in any other situation, in the world of sports much different rules apply.  As onlookers, we are given the opportunity to project our own personal frustrations onto the participants of the sporting drama.  A new freedom is afforded us to unleash our own unconscious demons.  We are allowed to rage against futility, curse at the limitations that curb our dreams, and identify ourselves onto the victorious.  Every play can send us into adoration or despair.  One thing is for sure, what is happening in us is much more intense and important than the word “fan” depicts.  Our very sense of self if tied to these moments.

A couple of years ago my father told me that he had quit watching Auburn University play football.  Upon hearing this I was confused and curious because watching Auburn play football on Saturdays was always an important ritual in our family.  I pressed my dad further and he eventually described how difficult it had been for him to watch Auburn lose.  I understood this in my own way, I was not a fun person to be around after an Auburn loss.  For him though, the experience of watching Auburn play football stirred many old insecurities and a large amount of shame.  Auburn has played second fiddle to The University of Alabama for most of their existence…a reality that is carried in the hearts of everyone who has grown up in Alabama.  In Alabama, like many southern states, choosing your allegiance to a team is deeply personal reality.  My father and I are more than Auburn “fans”, we “bleed” Orange and Blue.  When Auburn loses, we lose.  When Auburn is embarrassed on the field, we carry the shame of defeat with us.  Their victory is our victory, their press is our press, and their hope is our hope.

During Auburn games I remind myself often, “it’s just a game Knox, just a game…breathe…you’re okay.”  The grief and disappointment of my own limitations as an athlete hover over me like a cloud in these moments.  At my best as a fan I can attempt soothing myself with the reminder that I am worth more than the outcome on the field.  In my worst moments I find myself fused with my team.  Their outcome is my outcome.  My very sense of worth hanging in the balance.

So it is with our favorite athletes.  So it is with Johnny Manziel.  Whether you find yourself celebrating or envying his athletic abilities, you can rest assured that his performance will evoke much more than any box score could narrate.  In one second we are Johnny Manziel’s biggest fans, his performance acting as the salve that cleanses our own insecurities and shame…or he is the reason for our demise, an object that intensifies and exposes what we long to cover up.  A villain worth beating with a stick.

Read the last few sentences again.  What you see here is a projection of sorts that can work as a two way mirror for our souls.

In it lies a formula that reveals a lot more about how we view ourselves than it does about Johnny Manziel the football player.  You see sports fanatics…our rage was never at Johnny Manziel.  Our rage was only at who and what he reminded us of.