Thomas Ferraro’s book, Unpicking Depth Sport Psychology: Cases Studies in the Unconscious, is being published by Routledge. The author is a longtime member of the Psychohistory Forum who occasionally publishes in Clio’s Psyche. He makes his living as a sports psychoanalyst and is also a columnist for various

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papers with syndicated columns in the newspapers of Blank Slate Media and United Sports Publications. He received his PhD in psychology from SUNY Stony Brook and his psychoanalytic degree from Long Island Institute of Psychoanalysis. Over his career he has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The London Times, as well as appeared in the baseball documentary Six Innings to Destiny. Paul H. Elovitz (PHE) interviewed Thomas Ferraro (TF) over the Internet in June 2022.

PHE: What brought you to your interest in sports?

TF: I was raised in a sports family. My father bred, owned, and raced lots of thoroughbreds. Throughout my childhood, I was taken to the races and exposed to the glamor of the racing business. I got to know and play golf with many of the greatest jockeys in the world. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were kind of bred into my bones. I was also lucky enough to be introduced to the game of golf at a young age, became good at it, and played on a Division I golf team during my college years.

PHE: What brought you into the world of psychoanalysis, a world far from sports?

TF: I always wanted to be a psychologist since I was a teenager. I was introspective, shy, and I think I liked the idea of working in a private secret world. After college, I was admitted into the doctoral program at SUNY Stony Brook where some of the founders of behavior therapy were professors. People like Leonard Krasner, Marvin Goldfried, and Dan O’Leary. Herb Kaye was my mentor and advisor. When I finally got my PhD, I was hired by a clinic that treated only obsessive-compulsive disorders. Within a year or so, I realized that even though the treatments we used were cutting edge, behavioral interventions were of limited effectiveness. I returned for four more years of psychoanalytic training at the Long Island Institute of Psychoanalysis and have been using psychoanalysis ever since.

PHE: The fields of sport and psychoanalysis seem miles apart. How and why did you blend these two fields?

TF: Well, I love sport and I love psychoanalysis, so I figured, why not try to bring them together. I did this in the 1980s when the field of sports psychology was relatively new. At the outset, I used mostly behavioral techniques to help the athlete to suppress anxiety and manage anger better. This seems to work okay but I found that,

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just like in my first job treating obsessive-compulsive patients, the behavioral techniques seemed short-lived in effectiveness. I began using more psychoanalytic techniques like dream analysis, free association, resistance analysis, and transference interpretations with the athletes. I found that the athletes get better faster, and they enjoyed the treatment much more. I am writing a new book for Routledge, which goes into some detail about how I use analysis to treat professional athletes and teams.

PHE: While sports are so incredibly important in American life, I’m often puzzled by the disinclination of intellectuals, including psychoanalysts/psychohistorians, to want to probe these. Many decades ago, when I organized two meetings on sports, one through the Psychohistory Forum and the other through the International Psychohistorical Association, I was disappointed by the failure of most of our regular attendees to attend. How do you explain this phenomenon?

TF: I think you are quite right that psychoanalysts have shown little interest in sports, perhaps because Freud showed little interest in games. However, as you point out, sports are the primary sublimation that humans use to alleviate stress, face anxiety, and express both aggressive and sexual impulses. Over the last hundred years, there have been a few analysts who have looked carefully at sports, including Helene Deutsch, Otto Fenichel, Dan Dervin, Christopher Bollas, David Burston, and myself. My book is being published to rectify this neglect.

PHE: Please provide a case study or two on treating sports figures.

TF: I will give you a segment of a dream analysis with an elite Division I soccer player to demonstrate how psychoanalysis is used with athletes. The dream was complicated and concerned taking a bus trip with his team. At the end of the trip, the team went into the stadium, but he was unable to locate his duffle bag. Panicking, he realized that he was about to miss the game. This type of issue for athletes is very common and suggests an extreme inhibition of aggression and fear of competition. We were able to discuss this dynamic, which eventually allowed him to get more in touch with his aggression and play soccer better.

PHE: How and to what extent do you use your countertransference as a sports psychologist?

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TF: Countertransference is a very useful tool and when it is felt and verbalized back to the athlete it often opens up dialogue. When working with superstar athletes, the countertransference is multilayered and often exceptionally intense. The example I like to use is how difficult it was for the noted analyst Ralph Greenson to treat Marilyn Monroe. She was so fragile, beautiful, and seductive that he wound up inviting her into his home each evening to have dinner with his family and himself. We all know how that case turned out. One must deal with personal feelings of awe when dealing with celebrities. This holds true for my work with star athletes as well. One must also deal with the distrust that stars have with others, including the analyst, based upon the excessive attention they have received and how depleting that becomes. In addition, one must deal with their childhood sources of transference that will elicit countertransference feelings. In short, countertransference is a primary tool that helps when working with athletes.

PHE: What can psychoanalysis teach us about the group psychology of teams in terms of their success and failure? Please provide a case study or two.

TF: It is my belief that an adequate theory of team dynamics has yet to be created, and when it is created, it will be based upon Wilfred Bion’s brilliant work. I will often observe his concept of team regression, fight-flight, dependency, and paired assumptions take place in the teams I work with. But overall, coaches, general managers, and team owners are not close to being ready to accept these explanations. Part of this is due to the extreme time pressure felt on teams where, more often than not, the sports psychologist is only given a chance to have a few team meetings. When I work with teams, I see the players regress into childhood dynamics, meaning that the coaches feel drained by their demandingness. I try to treat the coaches in these cases with insight and supportive interventions so that they can establish better boundaries.

PHE: Your reference to “regress into childhood dynamics” reminds me of something I heard on Saturday at a celebration of the life and work of Michael Maccoby, the noted psychoanalytic student of leadership. The owner of several sports teams noted the childish problems of athletes off the playing field.

I want to wish you the best of luck with your book, Unpicking Depth Sport Psychology: Cases Studies in the Unconscious and to thank you for your many insights. I also look forward to your

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September 17th Psychohistory Forum meeting on this subject, which is insufficiently studied psychohistorically.

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Authors:

Paul H Elovitz

Dr. Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, began organizing scholarly meetings when he started as a faculty member at Ramapo College and then as convener of the Institute for Psychohistory Saturday Workshops (1975-1982). In 1982 he founded the Psychohistory Forum to nurture psychohistorical research and continues to lead its Executive Council. In 1994 he created Clio’s Psyche (cliospsyche.org) to publish its scholarship, of which he is Editor-in-Chief. Prof. Elovitz is a historian, psychoanalytic researcher, and author of about 400 publications, covering presidential psychobiography, teaching, documenting the field of psychohistory, and much more. After taking his doctoral degree in history, he trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst, and in 2019 was made the first Research Psychoanalyst by the New Jersey Institute for Psychoanalysis. Elovitz is the author of The Making of Psychohistory, editor of The Many Roads of the Builders of Psychohistory, and edited or wrote eight other books. He is a founding member and past president of the International Psychohistorical Association (1978-) who serves on its leadership council and presents at all meetings. Prof. Elovitz is a founding faculty member at Ramapo College who previously taught at Temple, Rutgers, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. He may be contacted at cliospsycheeditor@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Elovitz, P. H. (2022). Interview with Thomas Ferraro: Using psychoanalysis to understand and treat athletes. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 111-115.

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