Keeping Your Head in the Game: Untold Stories of the Highs and Lows of a Life in Sport

ISBN 978-0-241-45131-1, £14.99, Gary Bloom

‘Shame is the withering of our…sense of who we are, our worth in the world, our validity,’ Bloom writes on page 11 of this insightful guide into the psychological state of many athletes – current, former and those close to retirement. It is one of the better lines in the book and sadly relates to his grandfather who took his own life aged 45.

Such a back story is important because it not only informs us who we expect Bloom to be (given such a tragedy), but conversely disrupts the idea that Bowen and Jung were on to something with their family scripts and archetypes.

Put simply, Bloom can appear insensitive. Whether this reflects the competitive world of sport and the more immediate need to ‘shake’ clients out of their malaise, despair and delusions I do not know, but how you enter this book has a definite impact on how you regard the therapist. From the cast of ten sportsmen and women across six sports (horse racing, snooker, athletics, football, cricket and rugby) and their emotional pilgrimage from shame, anger, fear, jealousy/envy to love, I opted to follow Richard Davies (jockey), Mark Silver (snooker player) and Tony Oldfield (football commentator) first.

Coincidentally or unfortunately, I believe, these are Bloom’s least impressive sessions, filled as they are with clunky, assertive sentences and thoughts early on before he has gained his clients’ trust (‘You don’t look too gutted’, ‘It feels like you don’t want to be here today’, ‘Regardless of our previous connection, it struck me that he was likely to be uneasy at our different roles now’). Language is one thing you can never hand to a therapist – his/her ability to show tact, restraint and eloquence. Years of training may result in skills, knowledge and congruence, but if respect, empathy and non-possessive warmth are missing then one inconsiderate word can ruin 50 minutes of progress.

That said, the gamy, inner world of therapy with its errant interactions, randomness and sheer beauty is amply conveyed and exhibited in Keeping Your Head. Fellow counsellors reading it may naturally put themselves ‘in the room’ and wish to do things differently – lambaste Bloom’s seemingly ruthless pursuit of the truth at times and premature evaluation – but in his defence I would argue that this breed of clients, this subset of sports people, come with added aggression and entitlement. And counselling clients who are in the public eye brings with it pressures and preconceptions which ultimately necessitate a different approach.

Bloom isn’t R D Laing. He’s never going to mesmerise you with his writing style. But in his blunt, combative and sometimes tender words (noticeably when in the company of coach Eddie Stamp, cricketer James Holmes and heptathlete Jane Lovell) he manages to peel back the exterior of an intriguing world; one regularly misunderstood given its penchant for toughness. Beneath such single-mindedness and arrogance lie the same old vulnerabilities that we all feel: loneliness, insecurity and fear.

Bloom displays this admirably through candid dialogue and it does make you wonder if he records each counselling session even though the usual anonymity and composite characters are employed. Humour, naivety and learnedness peer out from the pages of this work and such a brazen mix of qualities evidently reveal to us the character of the author. For it is Bloom we really analyse throughout this work. Not his clients, but him. It is Bloom who tells you what ‘Fine’ truly means (Fucked off, Insecure, Neurotic & Emotional), Bloom who readily pronounces that you require training not to retaliate when called an ‘Utter bastard’ in therapy, and Bloom who asks the pertinent question of where to take a session when it’s not going well.

Like I said – humour, naivety and learnedness.

In 1991 my own grandfather died aged 79. That same year, I lost a close friend in a fell walking accident. Slip. Fall. Gone. He was barely 21. We’re all thrown in the kiln and shaped by certain moments. Bloom at least says it as it is. No matter how that’s perceived.

This review was first published in Private Practice, September 2021 issue, © BACP

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