How Freud and Heidegger helped the Oxford rugby team to victory
John-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.
After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.
He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity - sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he'd been looking for - spirit, being, soul.
At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.
John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ - a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy - or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.
They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams - they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right - fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like 'fairy tale', 'magic', legend', 'talisman', with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.
The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland - that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning - for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life - is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.
As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting - on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.
One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows - it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.
How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy - We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play - the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.
In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’
Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’
I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male - but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.
John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.
But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for - more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.
In other news:
Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!
It's election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where's the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.
Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness - the Scandinavians are still the happiest!
Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.
Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.
And here's an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.
Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.
Something called 'the Society for Atheistic Spirituality' has a $500 million donation to build a cenotaph for Newton. Hang on - was he an atheist?? Oh well.
Here's a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.
Finally, it's Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans - an idea I happen to believe. Here's a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are 'just' chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?
See you next week,