Student Services Overview

DATE: Friday, February 10, 2012
TIME: 5:30 p.m.
PLACE: Studio, Lambert Road campus
CANDIDATE: Kristen Kirchner
DISSERTATION TITLE: "Playing in Pain: A Depth Psychological Investigation of Adolescent Athletes"
CHAIR: Dr. Richard Kelliher
READER: Dr. Barbara Lipinski
EXTERNAL READER: Dr. Kirsten Roessler

Kirchner, K. (2011). Playing in Pain: A Depth Psychological Investigation of Adolescent Athletes (Doctoral dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2011)


The present study sought to examine the psychic process that underlies an athlete’s decision to play despite physical pain. In order to understand and conceptualize the phenomenon, two objectives emerged: first was to examine the phenomena of somatic dissociation, as it relates to the intrapsychic conflict between mind and body when physical pain is present and an athletes’ ability to play is threatened; second was to introduce the term athlete complex, the Jungian phenomenon of the complex, as it appears in the world of athletics. The athlete complex is comprised of largely unconscious ideas and feelings, which concentrate on the desire to achieve archetypal athletic perfection while psychically negotiating real physical limitations.

The research design consists of a hermeneutic phenomenological investigation of eight male adolescent football players that had experienced a past sports-related injury, and chose to play in physical pain. Five overlapping themes captured the essence of the adolescents’ experiences: over-identification of athletic identity with ego-identity; intentional and unconscious use of somatic dissociation; conditional regard for somatic experience; primary emphasis on external approval; and the action of hitting having meaning.

There is an absence of pre-established research specific to the athlete complex, and limited recent research on complexes in general. The nature and process of a complex is unconscious and illusive, which made it challenging to qualify. Although, phenomenological findings cannot be generalized, the individual stories of the adolescents confirmed the presence of opposing impulses, the existence of a psychic struggle, and social parameters that authorize conditional regard for somatic experience.

The research concludes that psychic reality and the voice of the body are under acknowledged in sports culture. The study revealed a need for those involved to recognize that a psychic imbalance underlies somatic disconnection in sports (not exceptional character). Future research could examine the athlete complex in various sports with an eventual cross sport comparison to further establish the phenomenon beyond the precedent set by this research. Longitudinal studies that allow for more information about the long-term impact of somatic dissociation that originates before or during adolescence might be beneficial.


Please note: All oral defense attendees must shuttle from the Best Western Hotel in Carpinteria.