An analytical view of the past to understand contemporary sports psychology

Urban Johnson
Halmstad University

David Burston
In Depth Sport Psychology: Reclaiming the Lost Soul of the Athlete
204 pages, paperback, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019
ISBN 978-1-138-50098-3

In Depth Sport Psychology: Reclaiming the Lost Soul of the Athlete by David Burston (2019) is a new and exciting book in the field of clinical/analytical sports psychology, or as the author himself puts it, “Depth psychology is a branch of clinical psychology, and this relatively obscure term has to some extent replaced the older name “analytic psychology” (p. xi). The book is in many ways multifaceted to read, for example about the link between the way of thinking of the time and how this has shaped the contemporary view of the human body and soul related to sports (psychology). But also entertaining because the author uses a metaphoric and rich language to explain a blend of Jungian depth psychology and the sport world. This approach is unusual in the field of present-day sports psychology.

The book is divided into three parts and associated chapters. The first part is about “The Beginning” and, among other things, based on a chapter about the Greek legacy of sport. This chapter tells us, for instance, about the philosopher scientist Thales (625–545 BC) who by breaking away entirely from mythology, embraced a perspective and way of looking at the world we now call logos. This became the new “knowledge”, and a school of science was later consolidated by Athens with many great thinkers assembling there. I think many in the field of sports science, and not least in sports psychology, are thankful for ‘logos’ and surely this paradigm shift has influenced contemporary views on human sports and behavior. An interesting reflection from this introductory part of the book and related to sport is about the author’s favorable evaluation of the famous developmental psychologist Erik H Eriksson and his psychosocial development theory, which assumes that personality development takes place throughout life. Burston believes that good sport mentors and coaches, who understand the nature and importance of recognizing occurred psychosocial crises in a child’s, youth’s or adult’s life, such as identity vs role confusion (13–21 yrs.), are also skilled enough to carefully navigate the athletes for continued and favorable future development to take place. If we as mentors, says Burston, fail young sportsmen by abusing or neglecting them, we are more likely to see them dogged by inferiority, confusion and isolation. I totally agree on this point.

The Jungian approach, with its use of myth, art, storytelling and collective unconscious, is especially well-suited for teams and groups of athletes while the Freudian approach is especially suitable for individual athletes.

With the support of a historical review of the thinkers and philosophers of the time who shaped analytic (sports) psychology, the book’s second part “The middle: Performance and dealing with the opposition”, takes off in discussing the Jungian archetype ‘the shadow’ (often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos, and the unknown) and its force of competitive edge. Several readable chapters follow, partly based on Jung’s archetype of the human shadow and the idea that this may be the best place of all to discover the soul of the athlete. In this context, some exciting examples are given of how classic myths directly speaks to sport and how these clarify the importance of affirming “the dark and bright forces” in mankind to gain wisdom and further development, not least for the athlete. I was drawn to two myths in particular, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and “The young Man and the Lion” (Chapter 7). The sense of morality in the first myth testifies that bullying and force are incapable of creating healthy change, while the second myth is about the risk of separating ourselves from nature into a computer reality, which is not going to help develop important neural networks and capacities for interpersonal relationships and interactions with fellow athletes, coaches and friends.

In the final section of the book, “The ending”, the author tries to tie the bag together by stating that “[t]he world has not come so far since the early days of Greece and city life then, it would seem /…/ Change is in the air, and I have discovered that other depth practitioners are also achieving success by relating clinical models and perspectives to sport using philosophies from the East“ (p. 167–168). I agree with the author implying that the science of sports psychology is developing a distinctive depth-clinical wing and new connections are being made all over the world, and that the influence of philosophies from the East (characteristic of Jung’s theory is the dialogue between Western and Eastern traditions) is becoming more and more visible. Several leading scientific journals such as the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychologyregularly publish contributions with the character of depth sports psychology and, not so seldom, grounded in Western-Eastern traditions (e.g. mindfulness-based interventions).

In the closing chapter, Tom Ferraro, a world-renowned sports psychologist and board certified as a psychoanalyst, presents arguments for the use of depth sports psychology for the athlete. Among other things, he argues that the depth approach can be subdivided into a Jungian and Freudian approach. The Jungian approach, with its use of myth, art, storytelling and collective unconscious, is especially well-suited for teams and groups of athletes while the Freudian approach is especially suitable for individual athletes. This form of subdivision is in its infancy in Swedish sports psychology, but maybe it is on the rise?

My overall impression of the book is that it is readable and challenging in a positive way, but also demanding since the content, unlike traditional sports and exercise psychology texts, presupposes that the reader is having at least some basic knowledge/orientation of Jungian theory and, to some extent also clinical (sports) psychology. The link between the three sections of the book, the beginning, the middle and the end, is a Jungian way of looking at things that illustrate a natural order, and perhaps also underline the usefulness of considering the old adage suggesting that “if you want to know where you are going, you have to know where you have come from”. A final reflection comes back to the author’s exciting subtitle of his book. What might be behind this? Among other things, he writes that “The soul is needed more than ever in the world, and we cannot be ashamed to buy the word or take it lightly. Every myth suggests that if we do, we are heading for a fall” (p. 190). It is not particularly difficult to agree with the author that in today’s sports world it is perhaps more important than ever to always return to earth, to behave ethically, and to never give in.

Copyright © Urban Johnson 2020

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