Mind Sight: Should Melo and D’Antoni Have Tried Couples Therapy?

When couples get to the point where they are about to break up, that is when they often say, "Well, maybe we should give couples therapy a try." And sometimes when they sit down with a professional and talk things out, they reach a new understanding and a resolution.

Sports couples also experience difficulties at times, as in the recent case of New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately, they recently separated without trying couples therapy.

Should they have tried it?

The Knicks seem to be playing better under their new interim coach, Mike Woodson, blowing out the Portland Trail Blazers in their first outing under Woodson, 123-79. Still, I wonder if the personality conflict between D'Antoni and Anthony could have been resolved and, if so, the Knicks could have continued the progress they were making when new point guard Jeremy Lin emerged in late January and February.

According to reports, both former Knicks president Donnie Walsh and D'Antoni opposed the trade for Anthony last year. From the time Anthony put on a Knicks uniform, D'Antoni apparently had an attitude toward Anthony, who had a reputation for holding on to the ball and preferring an isolation offense that centered on him. D'Antoni, in contrast, pushed for a spread-the-ball offense led by the point guard, something that Jeremy Lin excelled at.

The conflict between Anthony and D'Antoni heated up when Anthony returned from a groin injury after the All-Star break this year. The Knicks lost six straight games, and at one point D'Antoni sat Anthony down during an entire fourth quarter. Another time, when he was in the starting lineup, Anthony refused to join the huddle during a timeout.

Rumors had been rife to the effect that Anthony had asked for a trade from the Knicks, rumors he denied. On the day he resigned, D'Antoni asked owner James Dolan if he would trade Anthony, and Dolan flatly said, "No." D'Antoni then said he would then resign, and the resignation was announced later that day.

I had misgivings when I heard this news. From a sports psychological perspective, I believe it would have made sense for Anthony and D'Antoni to meet with a psychologist and at least make the attempt to resolve their personality conflict. It works with marital couples, and even with business partners, so why wouldn't it work with sports couples?

When a couple goes through couples therapy, they have a chance to express their honest feelings to one another in a safe environment (mediated by the psychologist). Usually, people don't express their honest feelings; they hold them in and act them out by not talking to one another or, as in Anthony's case, by not joining a huddle.

In such a couples session, Anthony could have said things such as, "I think you've always had it in for me since I joined the Knicks. I feel you don't respect me as a player and that ticks me off. I feel as if I can't do anything right. You just want to get rid of me."

In such a session, D'Antoni might have said, "I don't feel I can reach you. I try to tell you things and I don't think you listen."

Anthony might have replied, "I don't listen to people when they treat me like I'm a bad or selfish person. You always have a look of disdain when you talk to me and that puts me off and makes me not want to do anything you tell me."

D'Antoni might have admitted, "Yes, I guess I have treated you that way, now that you mention it. I apologize for that. But I feel I have tried to get you to play my type of offense since you got here and you won't try it, so I get frustrated."

"Well, I do prefer an isolation offense. I know I can be stubborn at times and I apologize for that. But I'm willing to try your way if you change your attitude," Anthony might have said.

"What would I need to do?" D'Antoni might have replied.

"Well, you could start by treating me with the respect that somebody with my accomplishments deserves. If somebody talks to me with respect, I'm more likely to respond," Anthony might have responded.

"I can see that. From now on, I will talk to you with respect. You're right, you have accomplished a lot, and I should treat you that way. If I treat you that way, you'll really try my style of offense?" D'Antoni might have asked.

"Absolutely," Anthony might have replied.

This, of course, is a fantasy conversation, and it illustrates the ideal conversation between the coach and his player.

I have worked with many couples over the years, including business partners. Of course, not every couple is able to resolve their difficulties, but often they are successful when there is a safe environment and there is a professional who is able to gently prod both to express feelings they have been holding on to and which have polluted their relationship.

It seems to me that utilizing couples therapy and even team group therapy could become a useful tool for resolving conflicts between coaches and individual players, between two players, and among teams that are on a losing streak and are fighting among themselves. Closed-door rap sessions among players, which are sometimes used nowadays, can only go so far. Only a professional knows how to guide players into truly saying the things that lay on the deepest level of their consciousness.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D., is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.

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Updated Monday, Mar 19, 2012