The Problem of Guilt in Sports
  | By Dr. Tom Ferraro
Photo courtesy of Getty Images


Even though it’s rarely talked about, guilt is one of these hidden emotions that influences many athletes, whether they are amateurs or pros. Guilt is felt when a tennis player pities are weaker opponent, or when a player fails to win a match and chastises themselves with self-ridicule. If a player is guilty about making a mistake, they will get angry, ruminate, get distracted, feel deflated and be unable to get beyond their mistake. This is how guilt becomes self-punishment.

Sometimes winning will make an athlete feel separate from their past identity or their family and this can produce enough guilt to produce self-sabotage.

Most pros must learn how to handle guilt since they have no choice but to say “no” to the endless requests demanded of them from fans who want autographs, media who want interviews or endorsers who want time with them. And if the pro does not master the guilt of saying “no”, they will soon be saying yes to everyone and quickly burnout by overextending themselves.

There is little mention of the word guilt in standard sport psychology texts, since almost all of those authors abhor Freud, who was the first to talk seriously about guilt and how it impacts most people. Guilt is a complex moral emotion and is connected to many other emotions and is seated in an unconscious part of the mind referred to as our superego. When we feel we have compromised our standard of conduct, this produces shame, anxiety, anger, and the need for punishment. Examples of guilt are seen when a talented player tends to lose to weaker opponents. This often occurs because the more talented player unconsciously pities the weaker player and feels shame and remorse if they were to beat them.

I have collaborated with boxers who have extreme guilt about hurting their opponents in the ring and when we remove this inhibiting guilt they often result in TKO’s and first round knockout wins. Guilt is a necessary emotion for humans since it allows us to control our aggressive and our sexual impulses which insures a stable society. We learn to experience guilt through parents, teachers, religious and governmental institutions. Without guilt, civilization would quickly fall into chaos.

But too much guilt surely produces problems on the tennis court since it inhibits our aggression and our killer instinct. The way I work with tennis players to remove self-defeating guilt is first by discussing these dynamics which are unconscious. When we make it conscious, we have a chance of altering it to make it more reasonable which allows the player to contact their power and will to win without any conflict.

Guilt is often the player’s most difficult enemy largely because it is invisible. A tennis amateur or professional who wants to achieve world class status must master the unconscious tendency to feel guilty when winning or making mistakes.

This is one of the secret ingredients of the greats in tennis. And when guilt is removed one of the pleasant consequences is that they enjoy their matches much more and they win more as well.


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