Everyone, it seems, loves Ted Lasso. His fans include Diane Sawyer, Dolly Parton, and Ryan Reynolds — no small feat for a fictional football coach from Kansas City who finds himself in charge of a struggling English Premier League soccer team. “Ted Lasso”, the winsome Emmy-winning comedy series on Apple+ TV, is a sleeper success and a tonic for troubled times, in large part because its lead character’s refreshing sincerity, friendliness, and lack of cynicism are as hard to resist as his signature shortbread.
But it’s not all easy laughs on the popular streaming show. In a departure from his usually sunny demeanor, America’s favorite soccer coach does not hide his disdain for therapy in Season 2’s “Headspace” episode, which first aired in September. “I think it’s bullshit,” Lasso says, addressing the sports psychologist hired by his team.
“You expect me to spill my guts about the gory details of my life: the fights, the mistakes, my deep, dark secrets,” says Lasso, whose typical relentless positivity and obsessive optimism are nowhere to be found. Gone, too, is the normally disarming grin. The soccer coach is meeting with Dr. Sharon Fieldstone because disabling panic attacks are messing with his head. “You’re only listening to me ‘cause you’re paid to listen to me,” taunts Lasso, played by “”Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis. British actor Sarah Niles, who is not a doctor but plays one on TV, is unfazed but not unkind. She handles the rude outburst like a total pro. It is, after all, not her first rodeo.
Hands up if you saw through Lasso’s cheery schtick for the coping mechanism and deflection that it is? Despite his hokey aphorisms and aw-shucks platitudes, Ted Lasso clearly has his own demons to deal with. All that emotional availability and folksy charm serve as cover for how shut down Lasso is when it comes to dealing with his own complicated feelings and traumas, including a childhood ordeal and a recent divorce.
If Season 1 of “Ted Lasso,” which aired in 2020, was the “feel-good show in one of the most feel-bad years in memory,” the second season saw the sports dramedy shift gears, as it explored mental ill health among athletes and their long-suffering coach. The show received praise from therapists for its depiction of a skeptical client who finally found some solace – and clues to his psychological triggers – in a series of sessions. By exploring Ted’s initial reticence to participate in talk therapy, the show also makes a case for how it might be of benefit.
Initially hired to help a player get his mojo back following an accident involving the team mascot, Fieldstone is kept on for the season by popular demand as teammates seek her counsel. Eventually, even Ted Lasso comes around: He finds himself curled up in the fetal position on her couch in a cry for help. Clearly, his players aren’t the only ones with problems.
That Lasso, a sports-obsessed male, is a reluctant client only makes him more relatable. “There’s a bit of Ted in every therapy client I’ve ever worked with, and an instinctual pushback to therapy is understandable, given there are deeply entrenched societal stigmas associated with reaching out for help,” notes Erin Qualey, a therapist who specializes in addiction and trauma in an essay in the Los Angeles Times.
To channel Lasso himself, he needs to “believe in believe” when he shows up for his appointments. “It takes a leap of faith to engage in therapy, as it’s a process often filled with challenging emotions,” writes Qualey. “’Ted Lasso’ delivers a raw and honest portrayal of how—with the right therapist—a person can overcome their fears and begin to pursue a more hopeful path.” Qualey also points out that this TV version of therapy includes an accomplished, available professional, a convenient location, and no cost concerns – not always a typical scenario for people seeking help in real life.
Still, it takes time for Lasso to reveal his true self. A perpetually upbeat transplant with a marked Midwestern accent and strong Ned Flanders vibes, Lasso leaves the United States for London to coach AFC Richmond, an imaginary professional soccer team. Lasso has no experience and only a rudimentary understanding of this brand of football. The hiring of a U.S. college football coach – designed as a divorce revenge plot on the part of jilted new team owner Rebecca Welton – is intended to sabotage and humiliate Lasso and the team. The plan backfires as the earnest Lasso wins over the players with his kindness, compassion, and empathy – and even his conniving boss, to whom he brings homemade biscuits every day. He’s just so…nice.
There’s more to Ted Lasso, though, than irresistible shortbread and head-scratching sayings like “I do love a locker room. It smells like potential.” As the series unfolds, viewers see Lasso struggle with crushing anxiety, divorce-related depression, and unresolved trauma from his father’s suicide when Ted was the tender age of 16. Bubbling just beneath that sunny surface is a sea of inner turmoil. Like the best of TV dramas in the sports genre – think “Friday Night Lights,” “Pitch” and “A League of Their Own” – the show is more about what it means to be human than what it means to play with a ball.
Hints that Lasso was heading for a breakdown begin late in Season 1, following his divorce, in an episode featuring a karaoke scene. It’s supposed to be a bit of harmless fun, a way for the team to bond and blow off steam and celebrate an overdue win. Instead, Lasso finds himself in the throes of a full-on panic attack, triggered by Welton singing “Let it Go” from the Disney film “Frozen” no less – and rushes out of the nightclub to try to regain his composure.
Early in Season 2, Lasso battles another crippling bout of anxiety – this time inconveniently in the middle of coaching a crucial game. Humbled, he ends up in a crumpled heap in Fieldstone’s office. “Ted Lasso” makes clear that no matter how far from home we roam, there’s nowhere to hide from uncomfortable emotions, psychological pain and devastating trauma. Over time Lasso learns that he needs to treat himself with the type of kindness and forgiveness he showers on everyone else. In psychological terms, Ted’s anxious attachment (wanting to win people over) and Welton’s avoidant attachment (pushing people away) are simply opposite responses to deal with similar issues: childhood trauma and fear of abandonment.
That Lasso moves beyond being a reluctant client to a willing participant serves the narrative arc of the show—but it also helps to dispel entrenched stigma associated with going to therapy, especially among men. And it’s a case of art – or at least popular culture – mirroring real life. We live in anxious times: a global pandemic, racial reckoning, economic uncertainty, political volatility, climate crisis. Mental health matters are front and center right now, even for elite athletes.
In recent years the sports world has seen a number of star athletes publicly disclose their mental health challenges. Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love has discussed his ongoing battles with depression. Former San Francisco Giants baseballer Drew Robinson, who lost an eye in a suicide attempt, now serves as a team mental health advocate. Gymnast Simone Biles removed herself from competition for most of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo to “put mental health first.” Earlier this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, pointing to the psychological toll of participating in such high-profile tournaments. The most decorated Olympic athlete, swimmer Michael Phelps, a spokesperson for the online therapy service Talkspace, has been candid about his issues with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Not that long ago, acknowledging mental health vulnerability might have been considered weakness in a field with a long history of stoicism. But these days, athletes mostly receive praise for their frankness and bravery in airing their concerns and putting self-care over gold medals and championship trophies.
When it comes to mental health, it turns out, major athletes are just like the rest of us. Sports has always played well as a microcosm for the larger culture. And soccer, as “Ted Lasso” shows, is an especially apt metaphor for society, as it celebrates both exceptional individualism and the value to be found in teamwork. Why not offer insights into mental ill health as well?
Of course, mental health representation on TV doesn’t always ring true. Too often it’s played for sensationalistic drama or dark humor. But series like Showtime’s “Wakefield,” set in a psych ward, and “Ted Lasso” are attempting to move the needle on mental health depictions on the screen. “Ted Lasso” has gotten nods from inside the profession for doing a decent job exploring the perspective of someone who is wary of therapy, showing how panic attacks can be overwhelming, and acknowledging that even therapists see therapists take care of their own mental health.
A word or two about TV therapists, particularly Black female TV therapists. Critics have pointed to a long and troubling history of competent Black women characters – such as Fieldstone – serving as sounding boards/saviors for white people’s problems. “Shows like “You’re the Worst,” “Never Have I Ever,’ “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Broad City,” “Grace and Frankie,” “In Treatment,” and many others have all presented arcs of growth and self-improvement that were helped along by the professional wisdom of Black women,” notes Amma Marfo, writing for Vulture. The Black Lady Therapist trope, identified by writer Aisha Harris as a pop culture trend back in 2018, places Black professionals “in these narratives for the sole purpose of listening to the woes of their white patients, not unlike the BBF (Black Best Friend), and helping them arrive at a process for fixing themselves.” Black Lady Therapists (BLTs), writes Harris, “serve the narrative only as a vessel through which the protagonist can reach an epiphany about whatever trauma or personal conundrum they are dealing with at the moment.”
Still, Harris argues that Dr. Fieldstone – whose name we know, and whose own mental and physical health concerns are explored – appears to break through the confines of this stereotype because she’s a fully-fledged character with her own emotional baggage. “Her struggles to get Ted to be more honest about what he feels are tied to her own reluctance to express vulnerability with him in return,” writes Harris for NPR. “As her own therapist advises her, she must meet Ted halfway.” So, while she is a Black Lady Therapist, she isn’t just a BLT, which, Harris maintains, signals progress.
Some quibble with certain aspects of how therapy is conveyed on the show. It’s still TV, so there are limitations in what can be covered in a 30-minute episode with multiple subplots. The blurred client-therapist boundaries and questionable ethics make some professionals cringe. Dr. Fieldstone does make several missteps. “There are things I love about the character and things that drive me nuts. Like the fact that she went to Ted’s house and vice versa. This is a huge violation of boundaries and would very rarely happen in real life,” notes one psychologist on a Reddit thread about the character. “It also drives me nuts how she has the two chairs in front of her desk. It would make any conversation awkward.” True that: The pair sit uncomfortably close on the screen. And she’s not a fan of the therapist going around boasting that she is the best at what she does.
But a former therapist on the thread is willing to let some things slide for the sake of entertainment: “No show will ever accurately depict a profession in the helping field. If it did, it would be long, drawn out and boring.” Another in the profession points out that the work of a team sports psychologist is a little different from an individual therapist or family and marriage counsellor in that consultations could occur on the team bus, in the air, on the pitch, at practice or on the bench. And simply stating “I’m the best” may be intended to resonate with an athlete’s competitive nature.
Still, the laundry list of unprofessional behaviors starts to stack up if you’re counting, as one counseling student did on Reddit: house calls, accepting gifts, lack of confidentiality, continuing sessions out of the office when other people are in earshot, drinking alcohol with clients, failure to obtain informed consent before offering services, dual roles with clients, and client abandonment (the good doctor tries to leave without saying goodbye). But she sees merit in the show, too. “I liked that therapy was reframed as a practice everyone, especially men, can benefit from,” she wrote, “and showed a woman clinician effectively working with men.”
Despite these flaws, Dr. Fieldstone has been a hit on and off the screen. Even though she took her leave at the end of Season 2, she is slated to continue to dispense advice in Season 3, scheduled to air in August 2022.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the therapy storyline comes from a viewer. “I’ve been struggling a lot with depression, anxiety, and PTSD,” writes another Reddit contributor. “But last week, when I saw Ted Lasso, a fictional hero of mine, say he didn’t need to see a therapist, I kept thinking how dumb he was not to want to address his issues. It then occurred to me that I’m not addressing my own issues… I decided I should make my own call to see a counselor.”
His first session, he noted, was extremely helpful.
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