The Sporting Psyche


The Next Great Athlete: “Xuxuh”


During work last Friday I decided to do my usual online sport-site trolling new articles concerning my favorite teams.  I make visits to several college football sites, a Seattle Sounders blog,, and hoping to encounter something of interest.  On Friday I ran into an article entitled: 12-year-old Chivas USA standout John Kenneth Xuxuh Hilton has caught the eye of Manchester City.  Being driven by nothing but curiosity I clicked the article and scrolled down immediately to watch the several videos showcasing this young phenom’s talent.  To my horror, what I found was less of a commentary on this young boy’s greatness, but a troubling picture of the state of youth sports in this culture.

Watch the first 18 seconds of this video:

One of the primary categories of interest to me in my work with athletes is in how an athlete’s identity develops throughout their lives as mediated by their involvement in sports.  Lately I’ve been particularly focused on the relational roots of this conversation, which can be explored through the lens of attachment (evidenced by my first blog).  One of the questions that I’ll be asking a lot throughout this blog is “how is this _____ (interaction, behavior, abuse, trauma…etc…) forming and impacting this athlete’s understanding of themselves, others, the world, and God.”  This amalgamation of understandings, as compiled in experiences throughout our lives, lends us a sense of who we are…or in other words, our identity.  The linchpin of this discussion revolves around the belief that although there are certain factors that inherently make us unique (nature: genetics, biology, physiology…), we have each come to be formed primarily through our experiences in relationship with others (nurture: family, friends, culture etc…).

Let me use an example from my own life.  I used to believe that my ability to counsel and give advice to friends was just a product of a unique gift set that I was born with.  I assumed that these qualities were always in me from the beginning of my life…that being a counselor was “who I was” (identity).  During the course of several years of work in grad school and psychotherapy I began to see that it was no accident that I found myself pursuing jobs in the helping professions.  I learned at an early age that in order to exist in my family I needed to listen and solve problems.  I didn’t become a counselor by a certain set of genes…that identity was a product of a far more complicated and disturbing process.

Let’s look back at what was said to Xuxuh by his trainer with the understanding that what is happening is forming and shaping who this boy is and will become.  What you are watching is no small thing when wearing this lens.  “You don’t express pain, right?”  Readers, you are watching much more than a training session forming the physical conditioning of a young athlete…you are watching the internal conditioning of him as well.

Xuxuh seems to be on the way towards a long and rich athletic career.  If things go well he will fulfill the hopes of many people who long for his success (or are they actually longing to fulfill their own?).  The blog that released this story, and the agency training Xuxuh, goes on to say that “[Xuxuh] has the mental strength and stability to endure the sacrifices required.”  I have little doubt that what this young boy is doing at this training facility has had a huge impact on his ability to set himself apart from his peers athletically.  In an age where players must be “bigger, stronger, faster, and tougher” this may actually be on the tamer side of what young boys are being asked to do by coaches, trainers, and parents.  The question that we all must ponder much more seriously though is “at what cost?”

Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as Leprosy, is often lethal because it destroys the central nervous systems ability to communicate effectively.  By attacking the skin’s ability to feel appropriately and communicate pain to the brain, lepers often die because of secondary injuries they were unaware of suffering.

Pain tells us something.  It lets us know when our body/mind/soul is saying “no”.  It communicates limitations and warns us of danger.  It tells us our boundaries.  Without the ability to communicate such pain we are unable to respond appropriately to what is harming us.  We are, in some sense, lepers.  We are people who have had one of our most important and precious senses infected, leaving us open to a whole host of harmful toxins.

When we are young, like Xuxuh, we don’t yet know these boundaries.  A child who reaches for a flame has no idea about the potential and consequence of such a venture.  Without the guidance of those who are older, stronger, and wiser, we would have no way of knowing how to maneuver what our developing minds are too young to fully understand.  The impact then of a coach who tells a young athlete to keep silent about his pain can be very, very formative.  This communication is teaching a boy to discard one of his most important senses…one that would give him permission to say “no” to what destroys his body, soul, and mind.

But like Xuxuh’s coach said, such damages are just a part of the “sacrifices required” for a child who longs to become the Next Great Athlete…



Now I have your eyes…

“The greatest gift you can give to a child is your face.”  -Dr. Steve Call, Professor @ The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology

My wife and I took a trip to the coast of Oregon for our anniversary.  The Oregon coast is stunning.  It is also quite cold, much too cold for us to take advantage of the beach outside our hotel.  This would have been much more disappointing had it not been for The Inn at Spanish Head’s heated outdoor pool and hot-tub.  During one of our visits to the pool I found myself mindlessly observing a young boy, probably around the age of 11, brimming with excitement as he showed off his diving prowess to his mother.  I really only became consciously aware of his activity after I noticed that he had been doing it for thirty minutes…continuously.  After I started actually paying attention I quickly attuned to his rhythmic water dance.  “Mom…Mom!  Watch this!”  (dive).  “Hey Mom, watch this one!” (dive).  “Mom, you gotta see this one! (same dive as before).  I realized some things about myself during this exercise in repetition.  1)  I am not ready for kids, 2) I get bored easily, 3) I get anxious watching children play (more on this another time).
These realizations aside, I couldn’t help thinking about what story was being told in this poolside serenade.  More than anything else, this child wanted the eyes of his mother.  His mother’s attention was for him the most lovely and enjoyable feeling his body could metabolize.  He was content to do the same thing over and over again if it brought to him these eyes.  If he had even the slightest inkling that it could bring another pleasure…that he could bring another pleasure, he would have no reason to do anything different.
Before me was a stunning display of this boy’s deepest longing.  Dan Allender says that all of humanity was meant to “give and receive pleasure for the Glory of God.”  This inherent quality was both exhibited and richly present that day on the Oregon shores.  For this particular child it only took a dive to get the attention of his mother.  The pleasure that it brought him was so intense that he did it over and over again.  I was awestruck and inspired by this mother’s patience and attentiveness over such a long period of time.  It would have been so easy for her to get tired of observing the scene.  It would have been so easy for her to direct her eyes elsewhere.
It was not the child’s diving that captivated this mother, the diving itself was only fair and expelled way too much water to get a decent score from a judge.  The boy in all his joy, however, was quite mesmerizing.  The glory that was him was evident to us all.  In other words, it wasn’t the brilliance of boy’s activity that garnered the gift of his mother’s eyes, it was solely his being that allowed this mundane moment to sparkle.
In the midst of this drama I also saw some implications that troubled me.  What happens to children who can’t get their mother’s/father’s attention?  What happens to a child who is malnourished with the food of attention?  What would that child begin to think about themselves as they tried all their best dives to no avail?  Would they question their loveliness and worthiness to be seen and attuned to?  Would they retreat to an internal world or would they begin desperately grasping for any breadcrumbs at the table of attention?  If the eyes of another, the face of another, the attention of another was hard to come by, how furiously would a child strive to cling to these pleasures if they were realized?  A pattern suddenly begins here.  A child must find something to make him valuable, something that his life experiences tell him he wasn’t born with…something that comes from without instead of within.
Imagine this quest for value and worth present in the heart of an athlete.  Imagine if that boy just so happens to be good at baseball or football.  Imagine what that boy feels as the eyes of a crowd of onlookers befall him during his activity.  Imagine what feasting would happen in his soul if he was cheered for.  He might make the connection that he can get the food he most longs for if he performs well.  “As long as I score ____ points, get ____ number of hits, score ___ amount of touchdowns, they will watch me!  Maybe I’ll be worthy of their eyes then!  You can probably write the rest of this story now…

What a dilemma lies at the heart of so many of our pursuits.  The problem with athletics, especially the older you get, is that the nature of sport brings an answer to this dilemma for a time.  It encourages the meaning making of doing over being.  It reinforces that it is not who we are but what we do that makes us worthy of attention…of love.  Now, think for a moment what happens when an athlete can no longer prove him/herself through these means.  Imagine the soul shriveling that would happen when nobody is cheering, or worse, when people are booing and cursing your decline.

Welcome to the Sporting Psyche…