The Psychology of Tennis According to Carl Jung and Dr. David Burston

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Sports psychology has become a wide and diverse field. Not only do we work with an ever-growing variety of sports, we use a variety of approaches. Standard sports psychology uses what we called “suppressive techniques,” which help the athlete to control any unwanted emotion, such as anxiety, anger or despair.

But the field is no longer limited to these behavior modification methods. Tennis rackets improve, footwear improves, and so does sports psychology. My method as a practicing psychoanalyst allows the athlete to talk at length about all areas of their life, analyze dreams and make an effort to understand their unconscious. Interpretations are made which help explain the athlete’s tendency toward self-defeat. We can now say with certainty that often the athlete’s greatest foe is him or herself. This method is called “supportive insight-oriented psychotherapy.”

Recently, thanks to my contacts overseas, I have come to learn that there is another form of sport psychotherapy which has been pioneered by Dr. David Burston who works at Tottenham Hotspur Training Center in London, one of the world’s premier soccer academies.

Dr. Burston is a Jungian analyst and uses Carl Jung’s concepts, like archetypes, collective unconscious and the shadow to explore the deepest aspects of the athletes unconscious. His book, Psychological, Archetypal and Phenomenological Perspectives on Soccer, is based upon his interviews with premier soccer players in the U.S. and England.

His book is related to tennis as well. Tennis is a game that has, for a long time, attracted the musings of the finest writers and poets on Earth.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita had a chapter where Humbert Humbert describes the beauty of Lolita as she plays tennis with him.

William Scammell’s poem, Bjorn Borg, contains the following description of Borg’s groundstroke: “He struck them as stepmothers once brushed their daughter’s hair.”

E.B. White’s poem, The Tennis, is a wonderful and gentle soliloquy on the marvels of an afternoon tennis match at a private club.

David Foster Wallace, who was once a high-level amateur tennis player and perhaps our greatest young American novelist, wrote the essay “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart,” a review of Austin’s autobiography. Wallace was stunned to see all the superficial platitudes that the book contained. But isn’t this the nature of athletics? An athlete’s comments are usually remarkably shallow and repetitive, with most answers being scripted. They show great courage on the field, but in interviews, they take the safe and guarded route. I have met and interviewed many world famous athletes, and early on, I realized that if the article was going to be of any sustaining interest, I had better come up with most of the ideas myself. Thank goodness for Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and new journalism.

This is why Dr. Bruston’s book and his works are so important. He is one of the very few sport psychologists in the world who has attempted to look beneath the surface to bring some depth into the field. He is one of the first that has the skills to dive into the collective unconscious of a soccer team and surfaced to tell us what he found. He talks about the meaning of rituals in sport and about the hidden strivings in athletes. He refers to losses as a social death and that the wins are the athlete’s way of transcending his former self.

Tennis is a game filled with grunts and friendly handshakes, cursing and fine etiquette, low-cut dresses and proper white uniforms. It is now a game with worldwide interest and a game rich in meaning. It attracts our greatest writers, eminent philosophers like Albert Camus and religious heads like Pope John Paul II. The psychoanalyst, Dan Dervin, likes to talk about the ball as a representation of the helpless self that requires control. South American psychoanalyst Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco would say that the ball’s successful penetration into your court is tantamount to a sexual conquest.

Or as Vladimir Nabokov said, “My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-slung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.”

Tennis inspires players to play and writers to write. And we now have a Jungian sport psychologist who happens to be smart enough and courageous enough to look under the surface and see what’s there. Yeats called this the “Spiritus Mundi.” Jung called this our “collective unconscious.” I call it “The magic of tennis.”

Thank you Dr. David Burston for reminding us of just how filled with wonder the world of sports actually is.