Authors explore sport literature, athlete psyche

The Book Page

The Sporting Spirit: Athletes in Literature and Life, edited by Robert J. Higgs and Neil D. Isaacs. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 304 pp., paperback.

One story from The Sporting Spirit is so powerful and beautiful I find myself thinking about it constantly. It’s “Open Letter to a Young Negro”, written by Jesse Owens and Paul G. Neimark and published in 1970.

The theme of the letter — an argument against the use of violence by young American blacks to gain equality — is secondary, by far, to the story Owens uses to illustrate his main point: blacks should not fall into the same trap many whites have of not looking beyond the colour of another’s skin.

Owens of course, is the legendary winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler had intended as a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Of all Owens’ opponents, one seemed to him to represent all the Nazis stood for. He was Luz Long, a tall, fair-haired long jumper, who was, before the Games, rumoured to have jumped more than 26 feet in training, better than Owens’s world record.

In the preliminaries, under Hitler’s approving gaze, Long broke the Olympic record on his first jump. As Owens prepared for his first attempt, Hitler left the stadium. This second snub — Hitler had previously refused an Olympic Committee request to have Owens sit with him in his box — rattled Owens badly. He fouled his first try and jumped well short of qualifying on his second. With only one attempt left to qualify for the event in which he was considered the world’s best, Owens began to panic. Trembling with fear, he knew if he failed, not only would he lose his chance at the long jump medal, the psychological damage could hurt his performances in the upcoming sprints and relays.

When it came time for his third jump, Owens was convinced he couldn’t make it. He looked over at the powerful blond Luz Long and imagined Long was laughing at him. “Ten years and 4500 miles to make a nigger of myself and not even reach the finals!”

Almost faint from terror, Owens suddenly felt a hand on his arm. He turned and saw Long and Long asked in broken English: “What has taken your goat? Is it what Hitler did?” Long told Owens to jump without fear, which he managed to do, and the next day, in the final, although both jumpers broke the Olympic record, it was Owens who came away with the gold medal. The two men became close friends and wrote to each other regularly until Long, a reluctant soldier in the German army, died in the war.

The Sporting Spirit is a collection of short stories, essays, memoirs, and poems about sport, with contributions from, among others, Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, Robert Frost, and Norman Mailer. Its editors, Higgs and Isaacs, teach a course called “Sport’s Culture, USA” at the University of Maryland, and they have compiled this collection more as a textbook than anything. It’s divided into four sections: The Athlete in Literature, The Athlete Speaks, Social and Cultural Criticism, and Essays on History and Philosophy.

The shortest section is the second, stories written by athletes themselves. It’s a shame, because Owens’s reminiscence (and a short piece by marathon swimmer Diana Nyad) hold a special power. It’s the power of firsthand experience, the kind of material you search for in vain in the sports pages.

Some of the selections, especially the essays, are repetitious, suffering perhaps from a tendency to over-analysis. As well, probably with the classroom in mind, the editors have attempted to pack in too much. But there are some gems, such as the Owens piece, which make this unique collection worthwhile.

Paul McLaughlin

The Inner Athlete: Mind Plus Muscle for Winning, by Robert Nideffer. Thomas Y. Crowell, hardback.

Athletes are often told, “Relax, take it easy,” ‘ or, “Winning is 10% physical and 90% mental.” However, they are seldom told how to relax or how to achieve their potential in the mental aspects of their performance. It rarely occurs that the training and development of mental skills is given the same attention as physical skills. In The Inner Athlete, Robert Nideffer, a former university diver and now a sport psychologist, attempts to correct this situation. Nideffer explains, through charts and anecdotes, techniques whereby an athlete can prevent mental factors from inhibiting performance.

Nideffer begins with a theoretical discussion of focus of attention, anxiety, and arousal. These factors feed upon each other in a self- fulfilling prophecy that impairs performance. The scenario goes like this: as competition approaches, the athlete gradually becomes more attuned, pays more attention, to his own feelings. This “internalization” causes anxieties to surface, which in turn causes more internalization, and so on. These increases in arousal and anxiety cause increases in muscle tension and other physiological occurrences that are detrimental to performance.

Once the physiological and psychological stage is set, the real value of the book appears. Ways in which to assess your own level of arousal and attentional style are presented and discussed. Charts are given to help develop awareness of your own anxiety level and how it affects your attentional processes. Once you understand yourself, chapters on biofeedback, hypnosis, and mental rehearsal are provided. The ultimate aim of this exercise is to train yourself to recognize relevant cues of arousal and anxiety so you will be in a position to select the best technique to improve your performance.

Treatments of mental relaxation techniques — hypnosis, meditation, mental rehearsal — are well presented. Nideffer is careful to point out that hypnotic suggestions do not give powers or cause athletes to excel. Hypnosis, by controlling anxiety, merely allows you to do the things which you are already capable of doing. As is the case with the descriptions of self-induced relaxation procedures, transcendental meditation, and mental rehearsal, the athlete is presented with a step-by-step guide through the various stages of each technique.

Though he tends to be somewhat pedantic and ramble a bit with his anecdotes, Nideffer does score highly on explaining the scientific principles in this particular area of sport psychology and how these principles can be applied to improve performance. Once the athlete has determined where he currently is, Nideffer provides the directions to where he should be going. Too often the refrain from coaches and athletes to sport scientists is: “How do we get there from here?” The Inner Athlete is must reading if you are truly interested in getting there.

Bob Neil

The Psychic Side of Sports, by Michael Murphy and Rhea A. White. Addison-Wesley, 227 pp., paperback, $6.95.

A book devoted entirely to psychic events in sport (the “spiritual underground”) is a relatively new, but not uncommon, event. And now that the public’s interest in pop psychology is booming, more books of this nature will undoubtedly appear. The Psychic Side of Sports attempts to uncover the psychic dimension of sport and draw parallels between uncanny experiences and the fabled powers of mystics and yogis. Surprisingly objective, well documented, and referenced (528 references, as well as a suggested reading list), Murphy and White’s effort should be of interest to any athlete interested in parapsychology or simply looking for a book with more substance than the latest Robert Ludlum or Harold Robbins.

The authors believe that the evolutionary stage is almost set for the appearance of the “mind-body athlete”, who will “resolve the conflict of matter and mind, body and spirit . . . (and) create that state of being in which ‘flesh helps soul no less than soul helps flesh’.” It is easy to be skeptical of such statements and, unfortunately, the skepticism is reinforced by several farfetched examples (John Brodie, former NFL quarterback, “willing” the football around a defender into a receiver’s hands for a touchdown, would certainly cause even Howard Cosell to be tongue-tied). Overall, however, the psychic phenomena presented are thought-provoking.

The book covers a wide range of parapsychological topics: mystical sensations (acute wellbeing, detachment, freedom, feelings of immortality, etc.); altered perceptions (extrasensory perception, out-of-body experiences, alterations in time perception, etc.); and extraordinary feats (exceptional energy, the ‘invisible barrier’, etc.). There are many examples of these psychic occurrences and it is highly likely that the reader will be able to identify with some of them. Bruce Jenner, Bob Beamon, Satchel Paige, Pele, Babe Ruth, and Vince Lombardi are only a few of the recognizable figures mentioned.

A chapter titled “Sport and Mysticism” attempts to explain and link sport psychic phenomena to the philosophies and teachings of eastern mystics. Through this link, the authors endeavour to provide a language, context, and philosophy to prevent these sport experiences from slipping away because they find no place in the experiencer’s ordinary frame of reference. The final chapters contain suggestions on how an athlete can better tap his store of psychic energy for his own means. An example of this is a training program for runners and joggers that lays out the mileage and meditation needed to integrate mind and body into a more perfect machine.

The Psychic Side of Sports is an attempt at a scholarly treatment of a somewhat controversial area. As is often the case with books in the parapsychology field, readers will probably base their judgement of the book on whether in fact they believe that the mind is capable of feats currently not scientifically explainable, or whether they see such literature as a further indication that no one ever went broke underestimating the gullibility of the reading public. I found Murphy and White’s book to be well written and easy to read as long as the authors stick to sport anecdotes and experiences. Their attempts to link the sporting world with the world of eastern mystics, however, is not as convincing. Overall, I would recommend it though, if only for the sporting anecdotes.

Bob Neil

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