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It's how you play the game

June 16, 2008
by Dinny McClintock, LCSW-R, CASAC
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A counselor who's no sports fan ends up finding parallels between athletics and the recovery journey

I am not a sports person. I don't play any sports and when it comes to professional sports, I don't watch. I have never known the answer to a single sports question in Trivial Pursuit. I might watch the Olympics, but I might not. I don't understand what a shortstop is. One of the reasons I'm still married after 24 years is that my husband isn't a sports person either.

So why do I long for softball season? Why do I go to watch the guys from my residential drug treatment center play basketball at the Y? Why do I go every so often to watch them play touch football? What I have discovered is that hidden client strengths can be revealed on the playing field. What is shown in these athletic contests can give me another weapon in the battle against addiction.

At my agency, the Hospitality House TC program in Albany, New York, not every staff member goes to our softball games. But on Fridays, which are typically game days, almost every staff member wears the team T-shirt. With 70 male clients, and numerous program graduates, we have enough players to field about three top-notch teams.

Competition for a place on the team is fierce, with tryouts conducted by staff. Some clients do not handle the rejection well, but others find their own spot, whether it's handling the equipment, keeping score, or cheering, even heckling. The heckling is a delicate balance (any kind of balance poses a challenge for an addict) of finding a way to get under the other team's skin without pushing the envelope too far and starting a brawl.

I am generally surprised by the choice for team captain. It is rarely the most popular guy or the best player. Like the position of house manager, the captain spot often goes to the guy who needs this opportunity for leadership the most.

Some of the newer clients are reluctant to go to the games at first. It seems too hokey to them, and something they have not done in the past. These men were the high school rejects, the “druggies” who belonged to nothing except their own culture of substance abuse. But then the weather will be great, their roommates will cajole them, or their best friend will be on the team and they finally decide to give it a chance, just to get out of the house. The next thing they know, they're yelling and cheering or taking a quiet walk around the field with another guy and having a great time.

On any Friday, about 15 guys will ask me if I am going to the game. I almost always go, but they want reassurance—or a ride if the game is farther away. I'm sure some of them wonder why I go, especially when they realize just how sports-illiterate I am. But like a detective, I go to see what will be revealed. Who will be this game's hero? Who will be a good sport? Who, secretly, is a strong leader and will start to realize his potential? And who, for the first time in years, will find that passion inside himself for something other than getting high?

Client stories

These are the kinds of revelations that occur on the micro level, such as the one I had with Eric. I'm at the gym—not working out, of course, but watching the guys warm up to play an intramural basketball game. On his way out of the gym, Eric stops by and stands on the sidelines, watching his peers, seemingly transfixed with a slight smile on his face. I watch him for a bit and then summon him over. We make small talk and then my tone grows more serious and I ask him, “Where would you rather be right now?” He pauses, thinks, and with a widening smile that reflects his total contentment with his life at the moment replies, “Nowhere.” We grin at each other and I am more aware than ever of his commitment to working on his recovery.

Sometimes things go awry on the field and here again arises an opportunity to see if the team will remain a team. Such was the case a few summers ago with Ray. A ball was hit high, a small speck against the blue sky. I saw Joe, Ray, and Josh run toward it, positioning themselves to catch it. “Call it,” I thought, “before you crash into one another,” and finally Ray did call it and I saw Joe and Josh reluctantly drop back. Ray caught it, but then seemed to struggle, and then I saw Joe and Josh move toward him.

Voices got louder and Ray started to walk off the field. Was that blood? Then Ray was on his knees and Joe and Josh were on each side of him. Other guys grabbed towels and rushed out to him. Slowly they walked him off the field. Now the voices were clearer. Josh: “I could hear the sound as the ball hit him! Should we call an ambulance?” Ray: “No ambulance. Give me a minute.” Ray gets to the side of the field and sits on the grass. I ask him to move the towel and I can see the nasty cut through his eyebrow. Stefon, my colleague, says, “You need stitches, kid. You've gotta go to the hospital.” Then I hear three voices in unison say, “Dinny will take him.” I think, “How come I, who have no children, am nominated to be the mom?”

We go the emergency room and Ray gets registered. A cute young resident appears. Ray is quite pleased. “Yup, about nine stitches,” the resident says. “It'll hurt a little, despite the Novocain. Want something for the pain?” I clear my throat. Ray laughs. “I'd love something for the pain but she's making me tell you I'm an addict and there won't be enough drugs in this hospital to satisfy me. So no thanks, I'll be fine.”

Throughout the game we check on the score, and this gives Ray's teammates a chance to check on his condition. The next day Ray has one hell of a shiner and appears to be the team's hero, despite his having played for all of five minutes.

A pep talk for recovery

Over the years of watching (in which I have learned very little about the sports themselves), this is what have I learned to watch for and how I believe it relates to recovery, and the messages I share with clients.