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Sports Man Therapy for Tough Times

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I envy Sports Man. He can rise above his own problems by focusing on the triumphs or setbacks of The Team.

Last October, the stock market was tanking and so was Sports Man's beloved Red Sox. Did Sports Man worry that his dreams of easy living were being dashed on the shoals of a stormy Dow? He did not. He was fixated on the Sox drama, and that crowded out depressing thoughts that he might never ever retire.

Psychologists specializing in cognitive therapy have long urged patients to do what Sports Man does naturally. The late Richard Wenzlaff, a University of Texas psychologist, conducted studies in the '80s showing the good uses of such distraction.

"The problem in depressed people is that they ruminate on their negative thoughts, which evoke a worse mood and which in turn primes more negative thoughts," Wenzlaff told science writer Daniel Goleman, who included the professor's findings in his book "Emotional Intelligence." The way to end this cycle is to move patients' attention to situations they enjoy -- "sporting events , " for instance.

Sports Man has no trouble moving his attention to sporting events. Thus, whatever the economy does on the last week of January makes no impression on him: That is when he prepares for the holiest day of the Sports Man calendar, Super Bowl Sunday.

"You don't want to go into the game like a virgin, so to speak," he explains. "You want a sense of what to look for in the strategy, offensively and defensively, of the two teams. You want to know the players." Since there are 45 men on each team, he has a lot of players to know.

Sports Man can find the sports angle in anything. He perked up when a panelist on "Meet the Press" mentioned former Secretary of State George Schultz. "Biggest calves in the Ivy League," Sports Man observed. Wha? Schultz had been a blocking back for Princeton University.

Now any ignoramus can bandy about sports terms applied to politics. A losing candidate's bold move is a "Hail Mary pass" -- or "throwing long." After the debate, the candidate does or does not "hit it out of the park." After a political primary, the leading contender has or has not "delivered a knockout punch."

Sports Man thinks in more complicated metaphors. The politician itching to make a salient point is "like a designated hitter who's been under the stadium swinging at fastballs from a pitching machine."

Doc, a question: Suppose Sports Man can't distinguish between his problems and those of The Team. In other words, what's the point of shifting attention from one's real woes to The Team's if Sports Man sees The Team's losses as his own personal tragedy?

Sports Man has a way out: No matter how well or poorly the team does, its ranking snaps back to zero at the end of the season. There's a total rebirth of hope.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average doesn't work that way. There's no automatic reset back to the glory days or even the beginning of the previous year. The Dow didn't return to its pre-1929 crash levels for over two decades.

"Life's like a ball game," goes a line in the 1945 thriller "Detour." "You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it's the ninth inning."

For Sports Man, however, life is not like a ball game. It is a ball game. And I've got to tell you, there's something to be said for a worldview in which, no matter what happens, the scorecard resets to zero at the end of the season -- and you start anew.

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