By Dan Short, Ph.D. Dallas, TX
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds.
The 21-year-old client did not want to be in therapy. Charged with assault on his girlfriend, he had been ordered to counseling as a condition of probation. The intake, conducted by another therapist, noted, “Client is reluctant to focus on violence-related issues.”
The client, muscular and sullen, entered the first session in silence and sat slouched in his chair with a cap concealing most of his face. He had described himself as “a boxer” and had explained that counseling should not interfere with his “career,” which consisted solely of daily sparring at a local gym.
After preliminaries, I began giving the client an explanation of the negative effects of emotional stress. I told him how “industrial psychologists are paid high wages to ensure workers have their lives in order at home.” The role of sports psychologists was also described in detail with some impressive statistics about successful results. The client was then offered psychological training in order to benefit his boxing career. He responded with increased enthusiasm toward treatment.
First, the client was trained in hypnotic time distortion and rapid relaxation. This allowed him to experience, subjectively, 15 to 20 minutes of rest in a three-minute period. This was important because it allowed him to “gather strength more quickly between boxing rounds.” He also was given training for increased tolerance of frustration “to ensure clearness of thought while in the boxing ring.” The client was told to practice these skills at home with his girlfriend.
During the first few sessions, the client came with specific requests aimed at helping him with his boxing. For example, he said his coach told him he didn’t do as well while sparring with people he liked and that he needed to stop being “so nice.” We explored the concept of respect. Respect for a friend demonstrated by sitting at lunch and asking “how things are going” was differentiated from sparring in the ring “where one wants to show respect by doing one’s very best.”
In the following sessions, our topics changed from specific boxing tactics to more general principles. These included moral strength, responsibility for self and self-respect. The client was given both direct and indirect suggestions about transferring the abilities for the self-discipline required in boxing to the self-discipline required for healthy relationships.
After a few weeks, the client no longer mentioned his boxing career. Instead he began to ask for advice about his relationship with his female partner. He also talked extensively about his current relations with his extended family and his desire to be a son of whom his deceased mother “would be proud.” Toward the end of his counseling, the client was discussing plans to retire early from boxing and become an accountant. After the mandated ten visits, the client was given a letter of completion. Three months later, he returned for a social visit. A six-month follow-up revealed he had enrolled at a local junior college and has had no further reported acts of violence.
Commentary: The Boxer
by Tina Foster Jansen, M.S.
Court-ordered clients are typically unmotivated. Faced with this type of client, Short used an opening strategy that would encourage the client to be involved in counseling to the “benefit of his boxing career.” As Cormier and Cormier state, “A productive assumption in converting involuntariness into a commitment to be counseled is that the client’s chief interest is himself.” (p.575) Short’s adroit therapeutic intervention began the changes that eventually alleviated further violence, and also had positive influences in other areas of the client’s life.
The treatment in this case is a study in reframing and utilization. Short used the strengths, weaknesses, and temperament of the client to reframe inherent abilities so destructive behaviors could be changed. Haley (Nichols, 1984) maintains reframing is a necessary step in altering problem-maintaining sequences. Proper reframing changes a viewpoint to the meanings of interactions that are changed while the facts of that interaction remain the same. Short reframed respect for the client. This new definition allowed the client to change behaviors while keeping and building on the client’s wish for personal respect. Haley (1971) concludes that, on a general level, the goal of the therapist is to change the maladaptive behavior of the individual. An additional and subsidiary goal is to extend the client’s personal range of experience. By getting this client to change his violent behavior, Short was able to open the door for further change by the client. The man’s personal range of experience could be extended. He could consider ways of obtaining respect other than through violence – he could consider becoming the son his mother “could be proud of.” He then could begin to extend his idea of a career and investigate choices.
Utilization is a cornerstone of Ericksonian psychotherapy. Short demonstrated a superb ability to enter his client’s world and regard that world as having the material for productive change. He took the problem behavior, violence, and gave the client ways in which to reframe that behavior so his needs to be respected and strong were productively met. Short should be congratulated for his insightfulness and creativity in using negative behaviors as material for productive change.
Cormier, W. H. & Cormier, L. S. 1985. Interviewer Strategies for Helpers. Brooks/Cole, Publishing Company. Monterey, CA.
Haley, Jay. 1973. Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. W.W. Norton. NY.
Nichols, M. T. 1984. Family Therapy Concepts and Methods. Gardner Press, Inc. NY.