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VST n°98 - Addictions et travail - p 35-41
Addiction to muscular exercise
the limit of Somatopsychology when linked to sport.


Regular training and adaptation to stress in the practice of intensive sport re-forms the actual body. It becomes, temporarily, the incarnate basis for ideas of all-powerfulness which express the neutral, androgynous fantasy : mastering the natural body’s work over itself differentiates a successful duo. The question of the actor’s own sexual authenticity will be replaced by the assessment of the best compromise available to harmonise one’s inherited gender and the sporting sexual neutrality, whether biological, social or psychological. An analysis of this compromise will allow us to understand the model of the sportsperson in terms of health, somatopsychological economy of repetitive behaviours observed in the conduct used to adapt to stress, of the addictive type, to the demands for success imposed by the logic of a consumer culture.

To establish a parallel between the problem of making the distinction between the two sexes or even their conjunction, the psychological and the bodily reorganisation brought about by the practice of intense sport targeting high performance, seems relevant for somatopsychology linked with sport. Twelve years of clinical practice with sportspeople training with the INSEP (National Sport and Physical Education Institute, Paris) has given the author the chance to observe that the questions occur essentially at crucial times in a sportsperson’s career – selection, injury, victory, and especially the moment of moving into a post-career activity.

When the rhythm of the strain to perform calms down, when the demands to ’do’ unwind their grip, the consciousness of ’being’ is questioned : who am I ? what do I seem to be ?

The identifying definition is one of classification, whether it is concerned with objects, living beings, organisations. Deep within our innermost being, each person is identified by the personal characteristics of their outer shell and of their image : no one can take the place of someone else.

Thus, human identity isolates the body of one person from that of another ; it brings them together around a sign, be it static or behavioural, which defines a group, a population, a cohort.

One way of answering our sportsperson’s self-questioning is to study the gap between two of these criteria. The first, gender, is inscribed within the human race’s memory. The second, the specificity of body movement, is acquired artificially through repetitive training guided by sporting performance standards.

We can note that the body is the target of two synchronous transformation projects, each of which is associated with their psychological repercussions : on the one hand, puberty triggers adolescence, on the other hand, the constitution of a successful sporting body depends on the identifying mechanism with the ideal, successful Ego.

At puberty, human beings succumb to their natural human animality. Contained within the species’ history and the memory of its own genetic heritage, a priori the parameters of the transforming action are not known : the duration, as well as the moment when it starts, the final outcome (secondary sexual characteristics such as penis length or breast size in particular). The pubescent objective remains the survival of the species through maintaining its ability to reproduce. The result, is sexual identity (Chiland, 1977) : the feeling of sexual belonging entails recognition and acceptance of anatomical differences between the sexes.

This feeling becomes the aid in sexual orientation : homosexual and heterosexual. Furthermore, sexual activity reinforces sexual identity in most adolescents. The adolescent’s psychological work is anchored in the corporal variations, which lead to access to genital sexuality in the adult. The latter, therefore, abandons infantile beliefs in an absolute truth, accepts imperfection and trans-generational enrolment. Thanks to sexualisation in relationships, he or she directs the ability to seduce outwards towards others.

The athletic neo-body is that body which is permanently reorganised by muscles and an ever changing locomotive system, guided by personal willpower, as much through regular and even precociously intensive training programmes (constantly taken to the extent of tearing tissues, hence the frequent number of injuries) as through the action of technological and scientific assistance to which he or she is subjected. This is why he or she is essentially assisted by technical and scientific staff, the trainer being the principle intermediary.

Thus selection is artificially programmed by consumer logic : sport is one of the main dynamics in the modern economy. It testifies to the fact that there are positive societal values : unisex clothes, mobility, eternal youth, immediacy. This previewed, ordered product proves the efficaciousness of body control and of objectives : the athletic neo-body is intrinsically the cause, the product and the instrument of performance in sports. The sovereign individual is self-creating : in order to exist oblivious of sexual differentiation, it is iso-sexual.

For certain sport perfectionists, the repetitive training, the body’s addiction to movement, the ritualisation and the obsessive (but conscious) repetition of gestures can organise themselves in a compulsive manner : addiction to muscular exercise. These sportspeople feel the need to fill a thought vacuum or a vacuum of affection, and in this case, the designated objective is sport and movement. This addiction often manifests itself in a need to practise « his » or « her » specific gesture with no respite, to incessantly verify the mirror image and the image projected to others.

For some top-level sportspeople, sport intervenes in the same manner as a drug acts as a remedy for physical or psychological pain. Thus, sport, practised on a daily basis and in a repetitive manner, will prevent « painful thoughts » and will anaesthetise in the same way as heroin does.

For body-builders, fixation on the level of a search for sensation is paramount to the increased status of physical pain which is a consequence of repetitive muscular contraction in aerobics. For certain sportspeople, this is the passivity phobia (Carrier, 2000) which leads to the search for self-excitement, sometimes including taking medication and even drugs. In the case of body-builders, substances such as gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (or GHB) or currently even beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (or HMB) have been and still are widely used today. These substances where it is recognised that there is a risk of potential addiction (Hautefeuille, Véléa, 2002), produce a state of euphoria through dis-inhibition and a powerful analgesic effect. From a physiotherapist point of view, this effect helps to overcome pain that is sometimes unbearable : however, the effect that is the most sought after is the control of an orgasmic type of excitement.

This blockage evoking the incarnation of the androgynous mythology, magically cancels out the temporary transformation through work ; it revives infantile ideas of being all-powerful as regards the belief in an absolute truth in the winner/loser verdict.

The intra-psychological movement that is set off by these physical changes, or high-level sportsperson’s investment, ensures the continued existence of the fulfilment of these successful neo-bodies. The mechanism of the identification with the physical Ego is implied in the successful idealised body. Let us recall that Freud said (Freud, 1923) « the Ego is above all a physical Ego, it is not only a superficial being » (i.e. on the psyche’s surface) « but it is in itself the projection of a surface » (i.e. the body’s surface) Later he completes this (Freud, 1927) « the Ego is in the last resort derived from physical sensations, mainly those which are born on the surface of the body... It can thus be considered to be a mental projection of the body surface while at the same time it represents the surface area of the mental system »

Since this psychological work concerns the individual at the same time as the natural process of puberty and adolescence, its energy comes from a use other than that of vital development. As a type of dam, partially erected during the course of adolescence, this braking mechanism, this block, invokes the creation of a phobia. In the same way that there are counter-phobic reactions, the high-level sportsperson’s investment can be understood as a form of counter- adolescence.

Thus, in the project of achieving excellence, the sporting actor is called upon to follow two paths that are essentially paradoxical : adolescence and its opposite.

How can their interaction be explained from the dynamic axis of sexuation and sexuality ?

- Social, sexual neutrality in the high performance sportsperson.

The construction of sexual identity begins in the parents’ heads when they plan for or are expecting their baby to be a boy or a girl. At birth, the child is then given a name. Through this anthroponym, it is classified as part of human kind, within a given culture, a period, and an inheritance. In the Birth Register, the baby is inscribed, its inherited identity is completed with a first name which assigns its social, objective gender to it. In the case of the parents wishing to neutralise the sexuality, marking the lack of difference between masculine and feminine, this will be expressed through them selecting a name with an identical consonance in either case, ( Michel(le), René(e) …) or by keeping to a more precise grammatical similarity (Claude ; Camille ; Dominique…).

The sportsperson vanquishes his or her identity him or herself by abiding by the criteria for selection for the high level Lists. Family name : discipline and category : first name : record and personal biometrics. A doctor who has recently joined a top level centre is asked to examine « a basketball player from the junior French team ». It is up to the doctor to guess the other parameters - in particular the gender – regarding the identity of the young person. This neutrality reminds one of that which is implied in the Greek word, athlon, the etymological root of the word athlete : neither masculine nor feminine, it condenses both the performance and the reward. It is indeed the whole that is sufficient unto itself. Strengthened by his or her sexual appurtenance, the ordinary individual conforms to the conduct expected of him or her : gender roles as much as sexual roles : so as to sense that he or she conforms to his or her assigned gender. His or her construction of subjective gender identity usually happens in such a natural way that the faith aspect is masked. It is just as if it is obvious, a given « I am a man(a woman) ».

Strengthened by being selected, the young sportsperson will have to adapt to the gendered bipolarity of the rules and positions in the games : alternatively, attacker or defender ; practising a feminine discipline for a boy (figure skating) or on the other hand practising a masculine discipline for a girl, (combat, rugby) ; or neutral gender in the still rare mixed disciplines (trick horse riding). Their clothes, that « second skin », conform to the technical demands of the discipline during active periods and casual ones (tracksuits evoking the comfort of one piece pyjamas for young children) during rest periods. The result is that the sporty look often proclaims the unisex image, based on the evocation of muscular effort (financial product which wins and a sprinter’s legs, for example). These social references draw us towards a masculine atmosphere since, in the French language for a given word, the neutral generic form is often the same as the masculine one.

- Biological gendered neutrality in the high performance sportsperson

The muscle is that which organises the locomotive system and is neutral as far as sexuation is concerned. Biology and physiology demonstrate that a cubic centimetre sample of muscular tissue taken during a biopsy (particularly the richness in rapid fibres) is identical in a woman and a man. The variations in this tissue under the influence of sexual hormones are dependent on the level of hormones circulating in the body and not on the gender of the carrier. It is for this reason that female body-builders can transform their muscles by using exogenous male hormones, not secreted by their own organism. In a less caricaturial way, this phenomenon partially explains the early stages of the body’s virility in the sportsperson ((the lozenge of pubic hair and the decrease in volume of the breasts as shown by the tendency to smaller size bras......). In fact, in sporting disciplines (in endurance tests like the marathon, especially) where a lower fat mass is imperative (less than 14%) the original adrenal testosterone can usually no longer be metabolised into oestrogen in sufficient quantity in the adipose tissue area : its emasculating effect therefore remains active. Another argument is furnished with epidemic trauma in sport ; this doesn’t indicate any marked difference according to gender but much rather according to growth (via the reference to bone age) and especially the level of muscular tendon stress (fracture from fatigue indicating over training). Furthermore, we can note that the apparent gender based sculpture of the muscular sportsperson (endogenous type) is the result of the specific type of training within each discipline and not that of the sexual hormones’ action. Hypertrophy of the scapula belt in gymnasts is the result of the constant requirement to walk and balance on their hands. Gender appurtenance appears to be more significant however in the parameters for laying off sportpeople on sick leave by practitioners. They complain of the considerable problem caused by urinary leakage though making less and less effort. There are multiple causes of this : incompatibility between the hyperactivity of the ridged skeletal muscle structure, hence of the perineum, and the dynamic of the urethral sphincter ; increase in abdominal pressure coming from pressing down on the vesicular walls ; feminine uro genital anatomy having a short urethra ….. These symptoms, on which surgery only has a minor effect if the sporting activity persists, establish a parallel between the sportswoman and the postnatal woman following giving birth and especially those women of one or two older generations. They live through the disagreeable side of physiological femininity without having been through its fulfilment. Therefore a neutrality when faced with time is added : the sportperson’s eternal youth triumphs, their biological ageing bows down to it.

Bisexuation (hermaphroditiam ?) of the sportsperson’s neo-body is transformed into a new body image, from the functional adaptation of the new corporal design (central neurological reworking of deliberate motivity). Through streaming all the way along the cutaneous surface, effort’s sudoral production is in continuum with deliberate water intake. This latter has to balance out the hydrous losses due to effort, before compensation intervenes, the survival reflex, brought about by a sensation of thirst (indicating at least 10% extracellular dehydration, incompatible with central neuro-transmission of the high performing, deliberate kind) The image of this globally excited body, since it is hyper-thermionic and moving, is made up of two parts which are more or less split : one being the liquid-sweet, soft feminine part ; the other the solid, hard, compact (tensed muscles) masculine part. Working with sensations, as if they were cumulative objects, is the masculine way of talking of sensitiveness without appearing to be vulnerable, sensuality without evoking softness, tenderness flouting weakness. For the men as for the women the relationship with injury (breaking and entering, penetration) which bleeds is a way of subscribing to the body’s bisexuation. So, sexual life (the expression of partial urges diverted from their organisation in genital sexuality) is itself appraising the scale of high performance. The proof of sexual power comes to conjure up the hazards of muscular competence ; the sportsman as well as the sportswoman will be convinced that their well aimed hits at night come before a sports meeting which is decisive for their career.
- Sexual, psychological neutrality in the high performance sportsperson.

Unlike a child, product of the complementarity of sexes, and different from each of its progenitors, the actor in high performance sport would like to represent perfection in human creation. In so doing, he or she is similar to Aristophanes’ (Plato’s) understanding of a primitive humanity made up of three types : male, female, androgynous. Being situated at the top of the scale, these neutral monsters resemble male and female and a ball all at once. In order to put an end to their pretensions, Zeus cut these androgens in two. Then he noticed Love and the healer of nature, when split by Apollo. Each half regretted the passing of the missing part, and mated with itself. To reach happiness, would mean that each should be but one, totally fused with the beloved self. To find one’s old nature : that is perfection and with it the idealisation of lack and of the past within the truth of their well-known history.

The most perfect reality in our current psychological experience would be that of fusion for it comes closest to it : this is the definition of love-passion. Desire for that which the other sex has subscribes to a narcissistic continuity : each wishes above all to continue to be himself or herself and to have « over and above that » the advantages that he or she attributes to the other sex. Finally, it is not altogether perfect to belong to one’s own sex.

The myth, as a visible trace of collective memory (according to the narrator’s reading of it), is governed by a permanent principle of metamorphosis (Valabrega, 1992). Why not find that of the androgens in the figures of human success, immobilised by the images of sport ? In the same way, the more one corrects imperfection in the natural body through human willpower, the more the framework for the transformation of the natural body into a successful neo-body through the influence of the practice of intensive sport is transposed into an exclusively loving relationship. What is more, the transmission of knowledge between trainer and trainee is essentially non verbal. Body language is educated in the practice of self mastery and management of one’s emotional potential, of one’s human resources in a game, to the limits of the breaking point in continuity, between two opposites dominated/dominating, active/passive, pleasure/pain, to which it suffices to add masculine/feminine. The objective becomes : to persist as far as the extreme limit of vital forces, to their breaking point, there where excitement is efficient, at its peak, focalise a superior energy, that which is the act of the successful psycho motor. The balance for the sportsperson at the highest level, between taking extraordinary risks and safety reduction (Got, 2001) is the perfect example of this.

The originality and the specificity of the sport experience is that these two opposites become rooted in a collective and an individual belief in carnal bisexuation : they can confirm that « it is true because I feel it and I see it : ». The successful sporting act, this muscular, global, powerful erectility and virility of the body is less than the problem of sexual difference, as such it doesn’t interfere more with masculine than with feminine. Achieving virility through sport cannot be constructive for the individual without the fulfilment of the difference between the sexes. Thus, the difficulties of adapting in terms of sexual, behavioural disorder (premature ejaculation, painful sexual intercourse) concerns men as much as women. Mating and body to body experiences of the androgynous kind remain a reflexive movement within virility in its power and its effectiveness. We can find there a nigh experimental application of J Lacan’s Form theory (Lacan, 1966) taken from the description of the Mirror Stage : the feeling of being at one, crystallised in the perception of one’s own reflection, optically inverted in the mirror, which is the basis of the constitution of the subject while at the same time enfolding it in the risk of alienating it in an external form from itself. Sexual difference is not sought for and with reason : its invalidation is a marvellous counter for anxiety when faced with the encounter with the greatest stranger, the opposite sex.

Transcultural, fear of the other person is expressed in all civilisations. Making sense of the dissatisfaction and the autarcic failure to live, the quest for high performance in sport will become the positive aspect, for it is recognised as noble in the modern social context of repetitive behaviour. This same behaviour which organises social phobias and their sterility, stigmatised as being negative, of which behavioural addictions are a clear example : the psychometric dynamic draws an inefficient, unproductive, movement wrapped up in itself. However, the model of the psychometric, high-performing sportsperson does not need to confine itself to serving as a prestigious conversion system, a « marvellous » place for the feared other side of social addictions. It is a useful step in the strategy surrounding the undoing of training : it reinforces the psychotherapy type of approach using corporal mediation. If the advantage of this model is seen to be the proof of the richness of the organisation of the living, stemming from that corporal solicitation which we have called somatopsychological economy, it is not less certain, within a sexual neutrality which is more or less alienating. From its resistance to its bewitchment by its own image, which is witnessed by addiction to muscular exercise, for the living subject it will depend on the fulfilment of one’s sexuality and through that, of one’s humanity.


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