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Football, psychiatry, and the Willy Wonka way of leadership

February 24, 2014
by Steve Moffic
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Football and psychiatry are two fields under duress. Both are being criticized by those within and without the professions.

Psychiatrists, long criticized by the anti-psychiatry rhetoric of Scientology, is increasingly being criticized by those they serve, ex-patients and families. The main target seems to be medication, how well it really works and how dangerous long-term use may be. The journalist, Robert Whitaker, in his popular book Anatomy of an Epidemic: Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, and in his subsequent website, MadInAmerica, has seemed to be the pied piper of discontent.

In football, perhaps the last bastion of macho masculinity, former players and their families are becoming similarly critical. The potentially devastating brain damage of accumulative concussions, leading to dementia and sometimes even depression and suicide, is one of the criticisms. I take those quite personally myself, having had football concussions when I was younger, one of which caused about a week's unconsciousness. (Let me know if you detect any brain damage in my writings, please!). Another is clubhouse bullying, leading one Miami Dolphin professional player to quit the team. Racism seems to have been better overcome than in our greater society, but homophobia, and how well an openly gay player will be accepted, is connected to that bullying concern.

One football player, Brandon Marshall, portrayed in a prior blog here, Being Borderline: Marsha Linehan and Brandon Marshall, is a link between psychiatry and football. He also has the potential to be a model for improvement in both fields. Marshall, who has been open about being treated for Borderline Personality Disorder with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, was impressive for his successful control of his emotions last season. The frustrations of a season of ups and downs for his Chicago Bears team did not result in any of the public display of symptoms that he showed in prior years, yet he was just as productive a player as ever.

One other reason for Marshall's stability could be the leadership on the team. The Bears had a new head coach last year, Marc Trestman. Trestman looks more like a professor than the ex-player he is. What he seems to exude is the Emotional Intelligence (EI) that the particularly successful leaders in all fields seem to have or obtain. No wonder that his primary stated goal is teaching life lessons to players, concluding that this will contribute to winning games. He believes that greatness is more likely when people emotionally invest in one another. As he has been quoted:

"We're not just in the football business. We're in the people business and everybody matters. Everybody is important."

Mr. Trestman wasn't always that way. In prior coaching opportunities, he once viewed his players as live chess pieces. Maybe being fired seven times provided much soul-searching and psychological introspection.

Given his own encounters with adversity, it may be no surprise that how to address adversity is a prime component of his emotional stewardshp. Obviously, in a game where losses, and difficult losses, are common, adversity is common. Mr. Trestman has said:

"You cannot fight adversity. You have to embrace it. You have to smile in the face of it and know it's just temporary and it will pass, and we have to keep doing what we're doing."

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...