Got Tennis
  | By Dr. Tom Ferraro
Photo credit: Getty Images/Marc Debnam

I have been treating athletes for the last 20 years, and after all this time, I can conclude that their issues fall into one of the following two categories: They will fail either out of a fear of success or due growing self-doubt. In this article, let us explore the former issue, the so-called “Fear of Success,” something the lay public usually calls “Choking.”

The choke

When an athlete under-performs during a high-stakes event, it is called “Choking.” This phenomena has been well-studied and is characterized by symptoms which include mental blankness, focusing on irrelevant details, heightened alertness, intrusive and ruminative thoughts, restlessness, catastrophe, dizziness, dry mouth, racing heart rate, perspiration, and/or muscle weakness. It is obvious to any observer when an athlete is choking and it’s painful to watch and even more painful to experience.

Causes of choking

This issue has been widely discussed in the cognitive/behavioral literature they have failed to provide an adequate understanding of the causes or the cures for this common problem in sports. I have learned that it is necessary to look beneath the surface and to help the athlete understanding what is going on unconsciously. And I have also learned that usually the most gifted athletes and the most promising are the ones who fear success the most.

The founder of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, provided some helpful hints as to why athletes tend to destroy their own success. He referred to these dynamics as being “Wrecked by success,” and are due to “The calamites of childhood.” He believed that childhood fears of abandonment, fears of retaliatory injury, fears of loss of affection and guilt were responsible for the adult tendency to run from their own success. These fears are unconscious and produce exaggerated reactions to positive things like victory and normal aggression.

The cure

In order to gain control over this fear of success and self-defeat, one needs to obtain insight. Insight is defined as:

►The understanding of your psychological symptoms,

►What triggers these symptoms in the present,

►The unconscious childhood roots of these problems, and finally

►The ability to ignore and remove the symptoms when they arrive.

Each of these four steps is necessary for the cure to happen. The failure of most therapeutic efforts is due to the neglect of the person’s past and thus denying the power of their unconscious.

All humans have experienced these “calamities of childhood” including fears of abandonment, fear of losing parental affection and exaggerated guilt.

A vast variety of behavioral interventions have been tried in order to help remove symptoms and all have proven largely unsuccessful because they neglect the influence of one’s unconscious history. Until real insight into the problem and its cause is achieved, all the psychological tools on earth will prove to be useless and like attempting to stop a tidal wave with a small sand castle on the beach. But when insight is achieved, one finds that virtually any intervention that the patient is given will prove to have a salutary effect on behavior, performance and mood.

Most athletes think they have a fear of failure, but in fact, they usually have a far greater fear of success and this is the reason they choke. Depth sport psychology is designed to help them to understand their fears of success so that they achieve all of their rightful ambitions.


Dr. Tom Ferraro

For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail or visit