Don Bradman

Few sportsmen are so preeminent in their field that their achievements cannot be located in the ordinary run of human affairs. Occasionally someone comes along who redefines the limits of human capability, but rarely do we see someone truly ‘incomparable’.

Don Bradman was such a person. If I say he was like Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali all rolled into one, it would only undervalue his achievements. Bradman’s record as a batsman will never be beaten. His batting average for international (or ‘Test’) matches was an astonishing 99.94. The best international batsman in the world today has an average of less than 55. Wherever cricket is played, Bradman is acknowledged as the indisputable greatest of all time.

If one is reluctant to admit that Bradman was in fact a god, one is still left with the enigmatic problem of his genius and where it came from. Freud said that psychoanalysis has to lay down its arms when faced with the problem of genius. All it can do is offer a few hints, or use the genius to explain psychological processes which might apply to the rest of us. We have to assume that Bradman was ‘human’ – what else can we do? – and existed somewhere on a continuum with other eminent figures and sporting heroes.

Two aspects of Bradman’s genius are relevant in the present context. The first concerns his mature technique, the second the early development of his skills. We will take it for granted that he had ‘good eyesight’, as Viv Richards, another batting maestro, once remarked to explain his own capacious talent.
In his various coaching manuals Bradman emphasised the cardinal rule of keeping the head still when facing the bowler. The eyes must be looking down the pitch, perfectly horizontal to the ground; the head must be still. The batsman must not prejudge the ball but wait for the ball to be bowled, and play each ball according to its merits. The batsman must be in a state of non-anticipatory alertness, ready for whatever is thrown at him. He must be without memory and desire – the memory of the last ball, and the desire for heroic feats with the next – often manifested as a phantasy of wacking the ball over the boundary for a six or some other such show of daring do.

Strangely enough, this state of alert unprejudiced readiness – one is tempted to use the Buddhist term ‘mindfulness’ – corresponds to Freud’s description of the stance that the analyst must take in the analytic situation. This is what he says in ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psychoanalysis’ (1912) when trying to explain how the psychoanalyst can remember so much detailed material from his patients:

“The technique, however, is a very simple one. .. It consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same ‘evenly-suspended attention’ (as I have called it) in the face of all that one hears… For as soon as anyone deliberately concentrates his attention to a certain degree, he begins to select from the material before him; one point will be fixed in his mind with particular clearness and some other will be correspondingly disregarded, and in making this selection he will be following his expectations or inclinations. This, however, is precisely what must not be done. In making the selection, if he follows his expectations he is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows; and if he follows his inclinations he will certainly falsify what he may perceive.”

Freud is saying that another form of memory comes into play for the analyst – unconscious memory – which allows him his ‘superhuman’ feats, just as another form of memory – perhaps what has been called ‘procedural’ memory (Mollon 2000) – is activated for the batsman. Lesser mortals, perhaps, try a different approach. They exhort themselves to ‘concentrate’, they rehearse the stroke they would like to play, they run through a checklist of technical requirements, or, like children, they try to emulate a great player by adopting the outward signs of his professional persona. It is perhaps only rarely that one finds a sportsman who is truly on a ‘different plane of consiousness’ as I am saying Don Bradman may have been.

How did Bradman attain this transcendent state? How did he achieve the enviable position for a professional sportsman, of letting his body do the thinking? Where did it develop from?

This receptive state of consciousness developed from a much more agitated state. The story goes that Bradman would practice as a child with a golf ball, hitting it time and again against a wall, over and over again, honing the skill that was eventually to make him what he became. But he did not hit the ball with a cricket bat. He used a stump, one of the three wooden stakes which make up the ‘wicket’ that the batsman defends when he is batting. If the bowler hits the wicket the batsman is out. Young Donald would be there, perhaps on the porch of his house, or against a wall in the garden, hour after hour, day after day, hitting a bouncing ball with a one-inch-wide cylindrical piece of wood. Many great sportsmen tell of similar experiences, and many of the not-so-great. I well remember my own latency years, kicking a football against a wall for hours, again and again with my left foot.

These common forms of repetitive behaviour smack of what Freud would call a repetitive ritual. In the ritual something is being expressed and something is being controlled. Don didn’t just wack a ball with a stick, he hit it in a highly controlled and ‘inhibited’ way, with the factor of repetition as predominant. This inhibition links the early repetitive actions to the later transcendent control. The ultimate obsessional ritual is, in a sense, to do nothing, just as the Buddha attains Nirvana through demonstrating quiesence.

Freud would also say that the action symbolises something.

I suspect that most readers, even after the obvious hints, may not have arrived at the conclusion I am about to draw. Bradman’s repetitive ritual – like my own and those of countless others – was a substitute for masturbation. Or rather, the ritual is a ‘compromise formation’ – it does many jobs at once. It is a surrogate masturbation activity, but it also embodies the prohibition against masturbation; it expresses aggression and it controls aggression; it enacts a phantasy of (oedipal) triumph and ‘transcendence’ (think of the joy as you pass each milestone of ritual achievement), while it expresses submission to reality (as represented by ‘the laws of nature’ and an acknowledgement of the child’s physical insufficiency). In engaging in a socially accepted activity the child controls both the inner world and the outer. As Freud might put it – the libidinal currents are ‘tamed’ and diverted in their course.

Embodied in these simple repetitive acts, then, are the sublimated fears and desires of a latency-aged child. And even if we cannot predict their final outcome, in their unconscious meaning lies the deep well of emotion from which can spring future greatness.

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