Sports Psychology
Common Defense Mechanisms

    Defense Mechanisms help us deal with our internal conflicts, but they can be both helpful and harmful to us.  As you look at the chart below, think about how the Mechanism could have both a positive application, and a negative one.  (I'll give you an example at the end of the chart.)  Understanding the defense mechanisms we use is a key to understanding why some of us realize our full potential, and others do not.  Even healthy individuals use defense mechanisms to deal with certain types of stress, so this process is not at all unusual.  If we take the mechanism to an extreme, though, it can eventually prevent us from having a proper connection to reality.
    In the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual IV, defense mechanisms are defined as "automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors".  (The DSM is the book that psychologists use to define all types of psychological processes, explain their functions and implications, and suggest treatment for unhealthy situations.)  These mechanisms are structured into Defense Levels, or families, based on how they work and their measured effectiveness.  The levels range from those that are most healthy and productive to those that are least healthy.  Level 1 is called the High Adaptive Level, in which we are fully aware of our feelings, ideas, and consequences,  but feel satisfied that we are handling our anxiety well, and are staying in balance.  This level is frequently used by healthy individuals to handle the common but sometimes overwhelming feelings we encounter.  Level 2 is the Mental Inhibitions Level, in which we simply put threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears outside our awareness - we choose not to think about them.  Level 3 is the Minor Image-Distorting Level, in which we make subtle changes to our image of ourself in order to change the way we feel about ourselves.  Level 4 is the Disavowal Level, in which we keep unpleasant stressors outside our awareness, sometimes altering reality to suit our purposes.  Level 5 is the Major Image-distorting Level, in which we make major changes in reality so it will fit our image of it.  Level 6 is the Action Level, in which we respond to stressors through physical, in addition to mental, action.  This also includes a complete lack of action, known as withdrawal.  Level 7, which is not dealt with here, is the Level of Defensive Dysregulation, in which our defense mechanisms have failed completely, and there is an exaggerated break with reality, so we will not have to face fears and ideas that we find totally overwhelming.
    Again, the defense mechanism itself does not indicate how "messed up" we are, but the extent to which we use that mechanism contains important information about our level of mental health.

We turn to others for help or support
You ask a friend or teacher to help you remember your keys for dealing with stress.
We feel better about our problems when we help others with theirs.
Your coach feels good when you succeed because she taught you how to perform.
We experience our emotional reactions to situations in advance.
You know just what you are going to say when you win the championship, because you've already "seen" it in your mind.
Humor We laugh at our mistakes because we can see the amusing or ironic aspects
"I guess that mistake I made really did look pretty funny on the videotape!"
We openly express our feelings, but not in a way that will manipulate others
"I'm really devastated about that loss, but I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me, I'll survive."
We reflect on our own thoughts and feelings and respond appropriately.
"I know why I made the mistakes I did, and I have a list of 3 things to do that will fix them."
Sublimation We channel our undesireable impulses into a socially-acceptable form One reason you play football is because it's a good way to get out your aggression and anger.
Suppression We actively avoid thinking about things that disturb us
Most athletes who have been injured avoid thinking about their fear that it could occur again.
Displacement We aim our anger and bad feelings away from what is really bothering us You yelled at your teammates because you just had an argument with your parents
Dissociation We have a break in the way our emotional, intellectual, and physical self usually connect.
"I don't even feel the pain in my leg right now, because my team is losing and I'm just sitting here."
Intellectualization We turn our feelings into abstract thoughts or generalizations.
"It would be alright for me to get angry because scientific studies prove that 88% of people get angry about this."
Isolation of Affect
We separate what is happening to us from what we really feel or think. "I don't care at all that we lost the championship, it's just another game."
Reaction Formation We exaggerate one feeling or thought so we can hide the opposite one "I want to pass the ball 20 times tonight because I need to prove that I'm not a ballhog."
Repression We push bad thoughts and feelings out of our conscious mind.
"I know I did the wrong thing today, but I am just not going to think about it.
Undoing We try to take back the bad thing we did, as though it never really happened You feel bad about yelling at your teammate yesterday so you brought them a candy bar today.
Devaluation We exaggerate the negative feelings we have about an event or person
"Look how cheap those trophies are!  Who'd want to win a state championship for that thing?"
Idealization We overly exaggerate the good qualities of a person we admire. "My father is the strongest, smartest, most handsome man in the entire world!"
We act as though we have special powers or abilities, and are superior to others.
"I can read my teammates' minds, but despite what they think, I'm the best player on this team."
We refuse to accept the reality of a situation that is obvious to others.
"This cannot be happening to ME!  I did not miss that shot - maybe there was an earthquake."
Projection We put our own bad traits, thoughts, or feelings off onto others You constantly accuse a teammate of being selfish because it diverts attention from your selfishness
4 Rationalization We justify our action by making up a "reason" for it "I failed because it rained.  Or maybe it was because I forgot my lucky charm."
Autistic Fantasy
We daydream about solutions instead of taking effective action.
You imagine that attractive classmate takes you to the dance instead of calling and talking to them.
Projective Identification
We project our thoughts and feelings, but see our reactions as justifiable.
"I know that Coach hates me as much as I hate him, but I've got a right to because he disrespects me."
Splitting We divide the world into only opposites, making everything bad OR good "That referee never calls our games right.  He hates us.  Every call he makes goes against us.  He's evil."
Acting Out We use attention-getting behaviors to cover up our lack of real skill. "I can't believe I just made that mistake, but if I fall down right now, everyone will laugh and forget it."
Apathetic Withdrawal
We pretend that we do not care, and remove ourselves from the situation.
"I don't care about my sport anymore at all, and I quit."
Help-Rejecting Complaining
We ask for help from someone who annoys us, then reject their assistance.
You asked your coach for extra practice drills, but then did the exact opposite of what was recommended.
Passive Aggression
We minimally do what is asked of us, but are angry about it all along.
"If that's what Coach wants, OK, but I can still think whatever I want to, and I think this is stupid!"

    To show you how these mechanisms can function in more than one way, let's look at Denial, which is considered one of the potentially less healthy mechanisms.  As a productive mechanism, denial allows a team that is behind by a huge number of points to keep exerting their best effort, even though they "know" they cannot win.  In athletics, it is considered a great characteristic of a team or player to "refuse to lose", even when all statistical probability and common sense indicate that continued effort is futile.  On the other hand, denial can work against us if we fail to give our opponents proper respect.  If we actually believe that "they have no right to be on this field with you - you're far better than they are", we may find ourselves unable to perform at our best, because we have denied even the possibility that we can lose.  In its most extreme form, denial causes us to refuse to believe even the most obvious things.  Maybe years later, a player really "remembers" winning that most important of games, because they have continued to deny their loss.

~   Using this list for reference, write a journal that discusses the 5 defense mechanisms you use most often to deal with disappointment in your athletic life.  Are you using these mechanisms in a healthy way?  Are you using them in a positive or negative manner?  Are they helping you develop as an athlete, or are they holding you back?  Write down 3 mechanisms you think you should use more often, especially if you can use them to replace ones that are not currently working well for you.  When you have completed this assignment, see me for a strategy that will help you be healthier.

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