A number of years ago in the movie “Airport” a passenger asks for a little light reading at which point the stewardess hands him a one page leaflet of “Jewish-American Sports heroes”. Everyone laughed. And, yet, that is reality.
I’m an anomaly. I’m Jewish. I like to think of myself as reasonably successful and well educated. I’m Jewish. But I also ran track and played football in high school. I’m Jewish? And I was All-Pacific Coast as a defensive tackle in college. I’m Jewish?? And I was a P.E. teacher and the head football and swimming coach at a local high school. Now you’re probably thinking, “No wonder he went into psychology. He needed help with his Jewish identity. But the effects must still be there because in addition to regular clinical work, he does sports psychology.”
Let’s go back a few years and stereotype. There you are at the end of junior high or the beginning of high school. You’re a chubby little kid who does reasonably or terrifically well in school and has gotten used to being pushed around a little bit. No big deal. Your emphasis was on education. You made everyone very proud at your Bar Mitzvah. But you were intimidated by all the jocks at school, so you either avoided them, or hung on as a wannabe, or dabbled in sports a bit. Maybe you were the tall, gangly kid who looked like, in today’s terms, a “geek.” Your parents rewarded you for academic or creative or business endeavors. Tom Kowalski’s parents, Juan Gonzalez’s parents, William Jackson’s parents rewarded those boys, in one way or another, for being tough and macho and physical, for going out for sports and succeeding. But Irving Goldsteins’s parents, when questioned by the coach as to why they would not allow Irving to go out for football, even though he was 6’1″, 200 lbs. responded, ” Becuz dets not sumting a nice Joosh boy does. Let de uders beat each uder up. Mine sohn vill be a dawkter and has no time for dat! Gut bye!!” So you grew up being at least a little intimidated by physical prowess because our culture and religion preaches that education is next to Godliness, and it leaves little time for any physical endeavors- “Nicht mit der handt!”. And even if you were considered tough among the Jewish kids, you were still no match for the “real” tough guys. So you exerted your force through student council, or the debate club, and gravitated to others like yourself.
This grated on you for a very long time. And whether you consciously knew it or not, you had to make up for it in some way. In psychological terms you developed a reaction formation. You compensated for this feeling of inadequacy. A liability became an asset. So you became a) a hard-nosed negotiator, feared and revered in business circles or b) an entrepreneur so that you could use your bravado or c) a doctor or lawyer or some other self-employed professional so that you were automatically at the top and didn’t have to fight for respect or d) a top notch salesman so that you could use your finely honed verbal skills or e) some other position that insulated you from what you were ultimately still afraid of. Some of you avoided sports completely, some dabbled; all the while blaming other if you did not make it. Some turned to material things to prove themselves, like the big thick gold chains with the enlarged chai to prove yourself and all other Jewish males. And many of you made it vicariously through your children, some, unfortunately, becoming the ultimate “little league parent.”
Yet even with a de-emphasis on the physical aspects of Jewish life in this country, we love to hear about “Little Israel” kicking someone’s hindquarters all over the Middle East. “There!! That’ll teach you to mess with a Jew!!
As a people we’ve become afraid of physical pursuits. Why? Are the mind and body separate? Can’t the two be compatible, and isn’t that the healthiest situation? Allow me to discuss not merely the informative aspects of sports psychology, but the benefits to our children. Judaism teaches that we are to pass down our teachings to our children. Why not pass down something new that we have learned?
Sports psychology actually deals with two issues. One is that of a person with problems that have detracted from his or her performance, whether that be poor concentration or the inability to cope with stress. The other is that of the individual who utilizes yet another tool toward an increased performance. This individual does not have a problem. He or she only seeks to improve the psychological aspects since sport has been labeled “90 % mental and 10% physical.”
Today we recognize that social life is always in the process of change and development. Relationships are ever-changing as people move in and out of the lives of others. Prior psychologies dealt more with the isolated person, and the recent focus has illuminated the idea that the self rests within the larger circle of society. What we see and do in the world, as well as within ourselves, is shaped by the interactions with the many people in our lives.
Entering into this emerging area comes the field of sports psychology. Athletics is an intensified microcosm of social psychology, yet with many of its own rules, regulations, and, of course, problems. While social psychology alone deals with the individual and her or his interactions with the group, the social psychology of athletics deals with a triad – the individual, the team, and the crowd. Whether sport should hold the position in our society that it does is probably debatable. That it, in fact, does hold a revered position is not a contestable point. No other aspect of society, other than business, has an entire section of every major newspaper dedicated to it. No other events stir the emotions like the traditional rivalries that occur on all levels of sport. Even for the crowds, the socialization process occurring during athletic events is quantitatively more, and is far more intense, than the average person is exposed to.
In dealing with athletics one needs to examine all the various aspects of the social psychology. The advocates of sport have for years suggested that the positive aspects of camaraderie, common goals, and team identity are carried over into everyday life. In their endeavors to promote their ideas, they, of course, have failed to mention that the negative aspects, such as substance abuse, a win-at-all-costs ethic, and the dehumanizing effects, are also often carried over. Perhaps the infatuation with sport stems from the early Greeks and before. But one thing is certain. The whole world, even the world of academia, appreciates a superior athletic performance. The lives of the top athletes are closely monitored, and they often become national heroes, exemplified by Babe Ruth, Joe Di Maggio, Pele, Nadia Comanici, Tiger Woods, and Michael Phelps, to name only a few. Muhammed Ali became somewhat of an unofficial ambassador for the United States as a result of his career.
The athlete actually goes through each process of social psychology twice, once on an individual basis and once on a team identity basis. Self-inquiry must take place in both individual and team psyches for the end result of a cohesive performance to be successful.
The normal pathologies that are present in society are also present on a team and very often magnified because of pressure. Such factors as prejudice in race, ethnicity, religion, sex roles, and age are all problems. Each piece needs to be worked on, polished, and then integrated into the whole. An outstanding team is actually greater than the sum of its parts. The team provides the environment for the individual to flourish and grow. That growing individual then has an obligation to add to that extra dimension of espirit de corps. One does not function successfully without the other. So athletics becomes the perfect practice ground for a broader social knowledge.
Every study done on the subject of survival in time of stress, particularly war indicates that, by and large, those individuals who have had exposure to athletics stand a much greater chance of making it. The survival rate among those having been involved in athletics during WWII and the Korean War was almost double. If you examine those who have had the drive to really make it in business, most have had a good background in athletics at some level.
So if this is the case – if athletics can contribute so much to the development of a person – why have the Jews been one of the last groups to utilize this vehicle? The health spas are full of people trying to create or recapture that good image of themselves because ultimately they will perform better in all other aspects of their lives. Studies now indicate that working out is a major means of coping with depression and stress. Athletes in Action is a Christian organization that takes successful athletes and provides positive role models for their children to relate to. Why should they be allowed to corner the market? Don’t we owe it to those who will follow to provide as many tools as possible for success? Certainly, I’m not suggesting that athletics is a panacea for everything, but it is another valuable tool.
I conclude by telling you that not long ago I talked with someone in our midst now about this very situation. The response was that “The Big Machers” in the Federation would not support such an idea. And lest I be accused of being sexist, let me say that I strongly advocate the same stance for our women. As it becomes increasingly more difficult to succeed in this society, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of all possible means with which to become successful. And, last but certainly not least, the time has come for a change if for no other reason than the Jewish youth of today can no longer relate to the short, stout, kid with glasses and a kippah that can deal only with academia and is afraid of his or her own shadow.
Copyright 2009 Yellen & Associates All rights reserved.