The ice-man melts

Shock and alarm gripped English rugby fans when the England team were nearly defeated in the Rugby World Cup by tiny Samoa.

Without underestimating the skill and commitment of the Samoan team, it cannot be denied that it was an under par performance by the World Cup favourites.

Particular disappointment was felt at the lacklustre contribution of fly half Jonny Wilkinson, whose recent rise to sports super-stardom is best illustrated by his pairing with David Beckham in a TV commercial. Jonny seemed out of sorts and, for the most part, out of the game. Clearly the manager was partly to blame for strange tactical decisions which were presumably designed to protect the precious asset, but which in fact only served to make him ineffective. However, it is impossible to see how the tactical mistakes can be blamed for Wilkinson’s poor place kicking.

Jonny Wilkinson is frequently depicted by pundits as someone without ‘nerves’. He is the ice-man whose unerring accuracy with the boot has been a constant in England’s all conquering game over the last two years. With each kick, no matter how simple, he goes through a careful sequence of actions, which inevitably end with the ball soaring over the bar. How did it fall apart so disasterously against Samoa? He missed two kicks in front of the posts which the match commentator described as ‘unbelievable’.

Freud would not have been surprised at Wilkinson’s unaccountable loss of form. He would have classified it as an “inhibition in work” in which “the subject feels a decrease in his pleasure in it or becomes less able to do it well” (Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety).

Freud shows that underperformance in work can come from a surprising source. Not fear of failure, but an unconscious fear of success.

Apart from the (Oedipal) dangers of ‘going further than one’s father’, success raises us above our peers, loses us the security of the group (the band of brothers), and opens us to attack. When Asdiwal bags four polar bears while his fellow hunters come back with nothing, his companions express their disappointment at the result by leaving him on a ice flow to die. (Levi-Strauss ‘The story of Asdiwal’ in Structural Anthroplogy, Volume II). For Freud, it is the ‘superego’ which embodies the ties which bind us to the group.


“There are clearly also inhibitions which serve the purpose of self punishment. This is often the case in inhibitions of professional activities. The ego is not allowed to carry on those activities, because they would bring success and gain, and these are things which the severe superego has forbidden. So the ego gives them up too, in order to avoid coming into conflict with the superego.” (pp6-7)

Jonny Wilkinson, the man without nerves, was getting too big for his boots … and that was dangerous.

Freud would have understood Jonny Wilkinson’s diffculty and may also have been able to predict it. On the day before the match there appeared a taunting headline in an Australian newspaper which brilliantly separated the player from the rest of his team and thus created the conditions for an enormous intensification of his anxiety (‘stress’). Over a full page picture of Wilkinson were emblazoned the words:


More on inhibition

In his remarks on inhibition, Freud first turns to the way activities of the ego may take on sexual significance and thus throw our self possession into disarray. In one passage he writes:

“Analysis shows that when activities like playing the piano, writing or even walking are subjected to neurotic inhibitions it is because the physical organs brought into play – the fingers or the legs – have become too strongly erotized. It has been discovered as a general fact that the ego functions of an organ is impaired if its erotogenicity – its sexual significance – is increased. It behaves, if I may be allowed a rather absurd analogy, like a maidservant who refuses to go on cooking because her master had started a love affair with her. As soon as writing, which entails making a liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper, assumes the significance of copulation, or as soon as walking becomes a symbolic substitute for treading upon the body of mother earth, both writing and walking are stopped because they represent the performance of a forbidden sexual act.”

Could rugby have sexual significance? Most women see at once the homoerotic quality of the game and are not slow in making their perception the basis of ridicule. It may sound ‘rather absurd’, but walking on the pitch or kicking goals may have started to assume the significance of a forbidden sexual act for Jonny Wilkinson. A significance which the obsessional ritual which he goes through with each kick is no longer able to contain.

If Freud’s views seem unbelievably absurd or even comical, we might reflect on the mental content of Wilkinson’s kicking ritual, published in The Guardian Newspaper a few days after I wrote the above.

Richard Williams writes:

“Linked by a shared obsession, he and his kicking coach Dave Alred have devised a set of techniques aimed at giving him accuracy, power and consistency. In one … he imagines a jeering mouth behind the goal and attempts to send the ball down its throat. Another involves an imaginary woman called Doris, who sits in a particular seat in the stand behind the goal, holding a can of Coke. As Wilkinson prepares to kick, he visualises the flight of the ball ending up in Doris’s lap, knocking the drink out of her hands”.

These visualisations, no matter how much under conscious control, are in the nature of fantasies. I will leave it to the reader to assess their Oedipal and sexual significance.

Note: In the euphoria that followed England’s victory in the final, with Wilkinson’s last-minute-of-extra-time drop goal decider, it was forgotten (not by Wilkinson himself, I bet, or his manager Clive Woodwood), that England nearly lost a game they completely dominated because of Wilkinson’s failure with the boot. He missed three drop goals, a conversion and a penalty. Had I had a heart attack during the game, I would have sued Jonny and Doris.

Schools question:
Why does Doris have a Coke in her lap rather than a Pepsi?

An alternative view on Johnny Wilkinson

While searching for a picture of Jonny Wilkinson on the internet I was astonished and delighted to find a reference on the website of the British Psychoanalytical Society. It was in their ‘quote of the month’ section for March 2002.

“I’ll never be as fast as Dan Luger but I can be faster than I am – I’ll never be as agile as Jason Robinson but I can be better than I am now”
Jonny Wilkinson, England Rugby Team, 2 March 2002

The gloss attached to this quote, written by a member of the Society which includes former England cricket captain Mike Brearley, was as follows:

“Jonny Wilkinson compares his current abilities less with those players who he feels are more talented than he is, than with how he might become if he were to improve. He realises that there are players who outshine him, possess more talent, but he seems not to be the sort of person to feel especially downcast by such comparisons.

In Our Adult World and its Roots in Infancy (1959) Melanie Klein writes of the mental qualities which make it more likely that we will admire the achievements of others. She explains that if we can’t stand that some people are better than we are at something that matters to us, we are deprived of the possibility that we may be inspired to reach inwards for, or to obtain from others, the resources necessary for us to improve.

She writes:

“The world would be in our eyes a much poorer place if we had no opportunities of realizing that greatness exists and will go on existing in the future. Such admiration also stirs up something in us and increases indirectly our belief in ourselves. This is one of the many ways in which identifications derived from infancy become an important part of our personality. The ability to admire another person’s achievements is one of the factors making successful team work possible. If envy is not too great, we can take pleasure and pride in working with people who sometimes outstrip our capacities, for we identify with these outstanding members of the team”.

Whereas Freud saw everyone as basically neurotic and conflict-riven, Klein is surprisingly optimistic in this passage. I think I would lean towards Freud’s pessimism. Jonny Wilkinson has psychical conflicts like the rest of us – unconscious psychical conflicts – and in certain circumstances they will express themselves in a way which undermines his talent and potential. The problem I am addressing is: what happens when Wilkinson himself becomes the “outstanding member of the team”?

I leave it to the reader to decide whether the quotation above (“I don’t want to be better than anybody else”) confirms Klein or Freud in this instance – or whether Jonny Wilkinson is indeed the perfectly adjusted ice-man that the sports commentators like to portray him as.

Added 21 May 2018:

When I wrote about Jonny Wilkinson 15 years ago I had little evidence to support my thesis apart from his strangely inadequate (and strangely unrecognised) World Cup performances, and the fantasy content of his kicking ritual. The headline of an article in the London Evening Standard today may offer additional support. ‘We need to talk about our anxiety to beat it, says Jonny Wilkinson’.

I’d like to say ‘I rest my case’ but sadly, despite acknowledging the crippling anxiety he suffered during his career, which he also discussed in his autobiography of 2012, the article was less than enlightening. It turned out to be a promotion for a new range of fermented drinks that Wilkinson and his wife were launching and for which they claim (mental) health-giving benefits. Little chance of much ‘talking’ while swigging your new Ginger and Turmeric Kombucha, but let’s wish them good luck with with the new venture and hope that other forms of mental health support are available as well.

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