Hank is a sports fanatic. What sport does he like best? "Whatever is
currently playing!" he replies. However, his wife confides that he does
have a favorite—golf.
"I don't see what he sees in the game," she sighs.
Golfers, however, see a lot. And so do some psychoanalysts who attended the
session "Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Teaching, Learning, and Playing
Golf" at the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting in New York
City in January.
Participants included Richard Harris, M.D., a Chicago psychoanalyst in
private practice; Howard Katz, M.D., a psychiatry instructor at Harvard
Medical School and a training and supervising analyst at Boston Psychoanalytic
Society and Institute; and Phil Lebovitz, M.D., an assistant clinical
professor of psychiatry at Chicago Medical School and a training and
supervising analyst at Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. A professional
golfer who teaches at Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., Bob Farrell,
also attended the session and contributed thoughts on the subject. Farrell is
the third generation in his family to teach golf. His grandfather is a U.S.
Golf Association Open champion.
Golf is an effort to master one's environment, Katz reported. The drive to
master one's environment is fundamental to building an ego. Therefore, a big
part of one's self-respect is involved in playing golf.
Emotional equilibrium is also crucial for the game, Lebovitz pointed out.
Thus, when psychological issues intrude on one's golf game, they can really
mess it up, several anecdotes reported during the session revealed.
One concerned a high school student, "Jim." He was anxious
about his putting ability and wanted to quit playing golf. During analysis,
Jim revealed that his father wanted him to go to college on a golf
scholarship, yet he did not want to do so and feared telling his father that.
His conflict over the matter was interfering with his golf game.
The other anecdote concerned Lebovitz. Once he was accompanied on a round
of golf by a friend who was dying from cancer. "I played as though I
were a rank beginner," Lebovitz lamented. "I had a slice like I
hadn't had for years. I chopped up the ground; I went into sand traps and
couldn't get out of them."
Lebovitz attributed his miserable performance to sadness over his friend's
imminent demise, as well as to the round reminding him of his father. The last
time Lebovitz and his father had golfed together, his father was dying from
Golfers who want to improve their game may work with golf teachers, who
then combine golf-stroke assistance with some psychology, said Lebovitz.
Lebovitz cited as an example, Jim Suttie, Ph.D., a golf professional and
teacher from whom Lebovitz has taken some golf lessons. Suttie videotapes a
student's strokes, then shows the student how they compare with the strokes of
a professional golfer. During his most recent golf lesson with Suttie,
Lebovitz said, "one side of the screen was me; on the other side was
Suttie also evaluates the student's learning style—is the student a
visual or auditory learner?—and attempts to establish a relationship
with the student to relax him or her. It is akin to an analyst trying to
establish an analyst-patient alliance, Lebovitz observed. Farrell employs a
similar tactic with students. During the first 10 minutes of a lesson, he
tries to get students to relax. "You can tell if they are tense,"
Suttie likewise uses a clever psychological ploy that he calls "going
through the back door to teach." Lebovitz calls it "disarming a
narcissistic defense against learning." The ploy consists of convincing
a student that a golf-stroke change was his or her idea, not the teacher's;
this way the student is more receptive to it.
Still other golfers who want to improve their game may visit sports
psychologists, Lebovitz said. Sports psychologists usually push positive
thinking. Their typical advice: "Stay in the present; golf is a game of
confidence." And certainly the power of positive thinking in golf should
not be underestimated. What matters isn't whether the swing is right, but
whether you believe in it, Farrell pointed out. Some students have beautiful
swings but do not play golf well, he said.
Nonetheless, sports psychologists generally do not deal with psychological
conflicts that may be interfering with a golfer's game, an analyst
participating in the session said, and that is where analysts can especially
A case cited by Lebovitz illustrates the point. A 32-year-old woman,"
Sandy," entered analysis because of embarrassing outbursts of
anger in social settings. However, during analysis her golf game deteriorated,
and for a while she talked about nothing else. Then she had a dream about
looking for a lost golf ball. Her analyst helped her realize that she was
searching for her mother, who had died while she was in college. This
realization helped her work through unresolved grief, and her golf game
Still another example of how analysts can help psychologically conflicted
golfers can be seen in the case of 15-year-old "Jason." Whenever
Jason played golf poorly, he would explode in anger at himself, and his fury
would lead to an even worse golf performance. So Jason sought sports
psychology help from Katz.
In addition to doing analysis, Katz engages in some sports-psychology work.
Although such work is quite different from psychoanalysis—it often
involves visiting an athlete at a practice facility—Katz applies what he
knows about people and relationships from analysis in that work.
For example, while Jason played nine holes of golf, Katz walked along. As
he observed what Jason was doing, he asked him questions about what he was
thinking. Katz came to realize that Jason's outbursts of anger over playing
poorly were due to his obsession with perfection, and that this obsession
arose from his upbringing.
The way most golfers can improve their game, however, is by risking
failure, Farrell stressed. Yet the biggest problem that golf students have is
the fear of failure, a golf teacher told Katz. And such anxiety, Lebovitz
added, is akin to an analytic patient's experimenting with new forms of
intimacy or some other behavior change.
"It is going to feel wrong until it feels right," an analyst
attending the session commented. "That is how you grow in any domain,
that is how you change for the better."
Moving from one level of golf to another is like taking a step forward in
child development, Harris said. Golfers who want to improve their game must"
develop themselves psychologically as well." ▪