Athletes on the Couch: Depth Sport Psychology
by Tom Ferraro PhD Sports Psychologist

      As the world of sports grows, so does the world of sport psychology and so it is no surprise that the field has begun to sub-specialize. As a psychoanalyst, I have attempted to further the field of depth sport psychology which now consists of Jungian and Freudian psychology. Since most people know very little about sport psychology and what sport psychologists actually do let me explain:

All competitive sports are highly emotionally charged. Go to any football game and you will know what I mean. Standard sport psychology interventions such as relaxation techniques, positive self-talk visualization or hypnosis are often not strong enough to contain the tidal wave of emotions that are felt by the athlete. A psychoanalytic approach to the athlete’s problems means that their issues are taken more seriously and assumed to be largely unconscious. The athlete is given regular appointments and following an intake and diagnosis, the treatment begins. We use free association, exploration of past traumas and loss, dream interpretation, insight-oriented interventions, transference, clarification, confrontation, support and resistance analysis to alleviate their suffering. Professional treatment means more lasting and effective results. Here are the areas of what is now called ‘depth sport psychology’:

1) Anxiety: Disruptive anxiety in sports can end an athlete’s career. Chuck Knoblauch of the Yankees is a good example of a professional athlete who had so much anxiety, he lost the ability to make a simple throw. I have worked with more than one athlete who has told me they have passed out with anxiety before matches. Anxiety is felt as tension, panic, sweating, dry mouth, jitteriness, nausea, and lightheadedness. Standard sport psychology like hypnosis or deep breathing will only take care of about 15% of this kind of anxiety. Depth sport psychology will spend time to build up ego strength through mirroring, ventilation, insight, solace and supportive psychotherapy. And when this occurs over time, the athlete is able to make use of standard sport psychology techniques. Without enough ego strength, the standard suppressive techniques will typically collapse under intense competitive pressure.

2) Depression: The sports fan demands perfection but perfection is hard to come by. These kinds of demands are eventually internalized by the athlete and this often leads to internalized anger, shame, despair, loss of energy and then giving up. This is evidence of a harsh super ego and it must be addressed if the athlete is to return to confident play. Sport requires the use of aggression but when aggression is turned inward, the player will almost certainly lose. Pep talks or positive self-talk will rarely be enough. In order to develop a good sense of forgiveness, the player must be given a chance to ventilate, be given solace and then problem solve the mistakes that may have occurred. This is the domain of depth sport psychology.

3) Team Dynamics: The treatment of team dynamics is the most undeveloped area in sport psychology thanks to its complexity. The combination of strong emotions, an ever changing roster of players, endless injuries and the unconscious dynamics within every team is very tough to manage. Wilfred Boon, the father of group therapy, taught us that when one enters any group, a person will tend to regress to childhood dynamics which includes sibling rivalry, jealousy, infighting and dependency on the leader. This explains why so many coaches feel stress and sometimes drink to control these feelings. Inevitably, they become overwhelmed and depleted by the childish demands most players put upon them. Some players get scapegoated and others will sabotage the coach’s efforts by losing intentionally to get back at the coach.

4) Family dynamics: The last area the depth sport psychologist works in is family dynamics. Sports are very exciting to watch and if you are related to the athlete on the field, it can become very hard to contain ones emotions. The feeling of helplessness in the parent can sometimes lead to screaming or those depressing conversations on the car ride home. It is often necessary to provide counseling to the parents in these cases by teaching them how to listen, establish better boundaries, learn patience and how to provide solace to the athlete rather than reprimands or advice.

Athletes are subject to anxiety, depression, drug use and many forms of self-sabotage. The field of psychoanalysis and the field of depth sport psychology takes all this seriously and provides each athlete a chance to ventilate, problem solve, receive solace, gain insight and ego build so their sports career can prosper. This method is not a band aid approach, but rather is a serious treatment designed to cope with the intense, overwhelming and disruptive emotions often felt on the playing field.

Dr. Tom Ferraro has specialized in sport psychology for the last 20 years and works in the fields of golf, tennis, soccer, baseball, fencing, figure skating, gymnastics, swimming, running, biking and more. Dr. Ferraro is available to speak at school, running clubs, libraries and gyms. He can be reached at drtferraro@aol.com or by calling (516) 248-7189. His website is www.drtomferraro.com