| By Dr. Tom Ferraro
Photo courtesy of Getty Images


Just like a dancer needs music, or an actor needs an audience, an athlete needs a rival in order to grow and develop.

There are many well- known rivalries in sports. We have the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees, which pitted Ted Williams against Joe DiMaggio and climaxed in the 2003 ALCS when Boston’s Pedro Martinez ran across the field during the brawl in Game 3 and tossed New York bench coach Don Zimmer so violently that good old Don Zimmer spun in the air and landed on his back.

Golf has had many a mesmerizing rivalry including Sam Snead versus Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus. In more recent times, and as Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated pointed out early on, Tiger Woods would ultimately have but one rival which was fame itself. And unfortunately for Woods, fame proved to be a sinister foe indeed, resulting in all sorts of interesting addictions for Mr. Woods.

Rivalries are very good for the sport since it brings out the best in both players, it guarantees close endings and exciting matches and it draws in screaming fans like bees to honey. When I was younger I remember being at the Belmont Stakes to witness the great rivalry between two of the greatest thoroughbreds in history, Affirmed and Alydar. The crowd was so large that I was unable to see a single step as Affirmed beat Alydar by a nose. Baseball, basketball, soccer and golf have had great rivalries but tennis, as it pits individual against individual, is made to foster great rivalries.

This fact was not lost on Andy Roddick’s father who wisely located and imported the best young player in Florida to live with his young son Andy. Mardy Fish was the import and as Andy played against him, they both developed their talent. This strategy worked well for both with Roddick ascending to #1 in the world rankings and after he retired, Fish climbed to the top of the United States rankings.

Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, also knew a thing about rivalry. They lived on the tough streets of Compton, Calif. and he started them young, pushed them hard and encouraged their sibling rivalry, all of which served to catapult them to the top of tennis. As is often the case, the youngest of the the sibling pair developed greater drive and ambition. Thus, the world watched as Serena became the dominant player in the world for many years. The sibling rivalry has been around for as long as the Old Testament, starting with the infamous story of Cain killing Abel out of envy. Science began considering the importance of rivalry when the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, a peer to Sigmund Freud, began writing about birth order and sibling rivalry at the beginning of the 20th century.

His theories still hold true today, some 120 years later. The power of sibling rivalry was seen in the family of the artist Jackson Pollock. Most people know Pollack as the guy that gave birth to abstract expressionism with his action splatter paintings. But what people do not realize is that two of his older brothers were far better painters. In fact, Jackson Pollock flunked out of more than one art school and was told to turn to tennis or plumbing as a profession. But Jackson had the one thing that his siblings did not have: something to prove. And that is exactly how he came to dominate the world of art.

Great tennis rivalries include Connors versus McEnroe, McEnroe versus Borg, Sampras versus Agassi and more recently Federer versus Nadal versus Djokovic. I recall when McEnroe defeated Borg at Wimbledon, it was painful enough to prompt Bjorn to quit tennis for good.

One can wonder why it is so important to wind up on top as #1 with second best not good at all. Maybe this comes from the family dynamic of siblings wanting to be the most loved in the family, the best of all the kids; mom’s favorite. The 1970’s comedy team of The Smothers Brothers capitalized on the theme of sibling rivalry as Tommy Smothers would angrily complain to his older brother at the end of every joke that “Mom loved you best!” The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers also used the theme of sibling rivalry to get laughs.

In sibling rivalry, the younger sibling often winds up feeling low, mean, small and defeated, and the older sibling feels bigger, better, stronger and more confident. The ultimate irony is that it is usually the younger sibling that goes on to great heights. They have a burning need to prove that after all is said and done, they are good, big and strong. The early childhood experience of pain, shame and humiliation is the necessary fuel which an athlete must possess in order to persevere along his or her climb to the top. Only when an athlete feels they have something to prove, will they persevere against all odds and finally wind up on top.

So if you had a childhood as the middle child, or had older siblings who tormented and beat you down, do not be discouraged for that is the fuel you will need to win the race.


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 DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.