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Sport psychologists identify principles and guidelines that professionals can use to help adults and children participate in and benefit from sport and exercise activities in both team and individual environments. Sport psychologists have two objectives in mind: (a) to understand how psychological factors affect an individual's physical performance and (b) to understand how participation in sport and exercise affects a person's psychological development, health and well-being. Sport psychology deals with increasing performance by managing emotions and minimizing the psychological effects of injury and poor performance. Some of the most important skills taught are goal setting, relaxation, visualization, self-talk, awareness and control, concentration, confidence, using rituals, attribution training, and periodization.

What do Sport Psychologists Do?

The contemporary sport psychologist (also know as a sports psychologist and also a performance psychologist) is expected to fill three primary roles, they are: Research, Teaching and Consulting.

  • Research: The primary role of any participant in tertiary education is to further the knowledge in that field. Sport psychologists conduct research in many areas. They may study the arousal levels of athletes before a hockey game, or ask children why they play a certain sport. The findings are then shared with colleagues, allowing others to benefit from this research.
  • Teaching: Many trained sport psychologists are expected to teach in their chosen field, whether it be at a tertiary level or teaching an intern in the field of psychology. This is so the skill is passed on and sport psychology remains strong around the world.
  • Consulting: The consulting process is very important as one has to consult with individual athletes or team athletes to derive skills to enhance performance levels. Some sport and exercise psychologists work in the fitness industry to design exercise programs that maximize participation and promote psychological well-being.[1]
  • Coaching: Similar to consulting but on a more permanent or regular basis some sport psychologists are moving into coaching with the realization that their skills may be even more suited to a head coach role than a traditional technical coach. If the three primary areas of performance enhancement are physical, technical and mental and there now exists experts in all three of these area then sports psychologists can either make up one part of a coaching trio or oversee all coaching with technical and physical assistants.

The History of Sport Psychology

The history of sport psychology dates back to the late 1800s and from there has grown in to a scientific phenomenon to enhance the performance of individuals in the area of sport. The history of sport psychology falls into six periods, they are; Period 1: The Early years (1895-1920), Period 2: The Griffith Era (1921-1938), Period 3: Preparation for the Future (1939-1965), Period 4: the Establishment of Academic Sport psychology (1966-1977), Period 5: Multidsciplinary Science and Practice in Sport and Exercise Psychology (1978-2000), Period 6: Contemporary Sport and Exercise Psychology (2000-Present).

The Early Years (1895-1920)

  • 1897: Norman Triplett a psychologist from Indiana University conducts the first social psychology and sport psychology experiment. Triplett studied the effects that others had on cyclists. His conclusions were clear that cyclists cycle faster when in groups rather than riding solo. To test this further Triplett conducted an experiment with children reeling in fishing lines. He found that like the cyclists the children reeled their lines in faster when other children were present.
  • 1899: E.W. Scripture of Yale describes personality traits that he feels can grow via sport participation
  • 1903: G.T.W. Patrick discusses the psychology of play
  • 1914: R. Cummins assesses reaction time, attention, skills and abilities as they relate to sport.
  • 1918: As a student, Coleman Griffith begins conducting informal studies of football and basketball players at the University of Illinois.

The Griffith Era (1921-1938)

Coleman Griffith was the first North American to devote such a significant portion of his career to sport psychology. Griffith focused on the factors effecting athletic performance such as: Reaction time, mental awareness, muscular tension and relaxation. For this commitment Griffith is now regarded as the father of American Sport psychology. Griffith a University of Illinois psychologist founded his own sports laboratory in 1925 and wrote two classic sports psychology books.

Griffith founded his own sport psychology laboratory but it was not the first. The privilege of founding the world's first sport psychology laboratory went to German Carl Diem. Diem an influential historian opened his sport psychology laboratory in 1920 at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Berlin Germany. Followed five years later by A.Z. Puni who opened a sport psychology laboratory at the Institute of Physical Culture in Leningrad and in the same year Coleman Griffith opened the first sport psychology laboratory in North America [1]

  • 1920: The world's first sport psychology laboratory is established by Carl Diem in Berlin Germany.
  • 1921-1931: Griffith publishes 25 research articles about sport psychology.
  • 1925: A.Z. Puni establishes a sport psychology laboratory at the Institute of Physical Culture in Leningrad. The University of Illinois research-in-athletics laboratory is established: Griffith is appointed director.
  • 1926: Griffith publishes Psychology of Coaching
  • 1928: Griffith publishes Psychology of Athletics[2]

Preparation for the future (1939-1965)

This period consists of the development of the scientific aspect of the sport psychology field, this was largely done by Franklin Henry at the University of California. Henry devoted his career to the study of the psychological aspects of sport and motor skill acquisition. Henry also devoted a large portion of his career to training and educating other enthusiastic physical educators who were to later become university professors and systematic researchers. Other investigators in this period include Warren Johnson and Arthur Slatter-Hammel who helped lay the groundwork for future study of sport and leisure.[3]

  • 1938: Franklin Henry Assumes position in Department of Physical Education at the university of California, Berkeley, and establishes psychology of physical activity graduate programme.
  • 1949: Warren Johnson assesses precompetitive emotions of athletes.
  • 1951 John Lawther writes Psychology of Coaching.
  • 1965 First World Congress of Sport Psychology is held in Rome.
  • 1965: The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was formed by Dr. Ferruccio Antonelli of Italy.

The Establishment of Academic Sport Psychology (1966-1977)

This era saw physical education become an academic discipline, and sport psychology became a separate component of physical education, distinct from motor learning. Motor learning specialist focused on the development of motor skills and on conditions of practice, feedback and timing. On the other hand Sport psychologists studied how psychological factors such as personality, self-esteem, and anxiety influence motor skill performance.

  • 1966: A group of sport psychologists met in Chicago to form the North American Society of Sport Psychology and Physical Activity (NASPSPA).
  • 1966: Clinical psychologists Bruce Olgilvie and Thomas Tutko write Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them and begin to consult with athletes and teams.
  • 1967: B. Cratty of UCLA writes Psychology of Physical Activity.
  • 1967: First Annual North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) conference is held.
  • 1974: Proceedings of NASPSPA conference are published for the first time.

Multidisciplinary Science and Practice in Sport and Exercise Psychology (1978-2000)

This era was the era of major growth and development in sport psychology. This growth was due to the ongoing acceptance and respect of the general public towards this area of study. This was also the time where a definitive line was drawn separating sport psychology from other psychologically related exercise and sport science specializations. This era saw the publishing of numerous journals and books to accompany the subject of sport psychology. Training in the field took a more professional approach, rules and regulations were introduced to ensure not just anyone could administer sport psychology.

  • 1979: Journal of Sport Psychology (now called Sport and Exercise Psychology) is established.
  • 1980: The U.S. Olympic Committee develops Sport Psychology Advisory Board.
  • 1984: World wide coverage of Olympic Games emphasizes sport psychology
  • 1985: The U.S. Olympic Committee hires first full-time sport psychologist.
  • 1986: The first applied scholarly journal. The Sport Psychologist. is established.
  • 1986: The Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP) is established.
  • 1989: Journal of Applied Sport Psychology begins.
  • 1991: AAASP establishes the "certified consultant" designation.]][4]

Contemporary Sport and Exercise Psychology (2000-Present)

Today, sport and exercise psychologists have begun to research and provide information in the ways that psychological well-being and vigorous physical activity are related. This idea of psychophysiology, monitoring brain activity during exercise has aided in this research. Also, sport psychologists are beginning to consider exercise to be a therapeutic addition to healthy mental adjustment.

Just recently have sport psychologists begun to be recognized for the valuable contributions they make in assisting athletes and their coaches in improving performance during competitive situations, as well as understanding how physical exercise may contribute to the psychological well-being of non-athletes. Many can benefit from sport psychologists: athletes who are trying to improve their performance, injured athletes who are looking for motivation, individuals looking to overcome the pressure of competition, and young children involved in youth sports as well as their parents. Special focus is geared towards psychological assessment of athletes. Assessment can be both, focused on selection of athletes and the team set up of rosters as well as on professional guidance and counseling of single athletes.

Psychological Skills Training

Psychological skills training (PST) refers to consistent practice of mental or psychological skills. Coaches and athletes know that physical skills need to be regularly practiced to become better. Similar to physical skills, psychological skills such as maintaining concentration and regulating arousal levels also need to be practiced. Psychological skills training programmes are very common but not limited to the sporting arena. These PST programmes should be planned, implemented and supervised by a trained sport psychologist.

Why is Psychological Skills Training Important?

All sport and exercise participants fall victim to mistakes and mental letdowns. Mental and emotional components often overshadow the purely physical and technical aspects of the performance. To overcome this, one must become equally fit both mentally and physically, an individuals success or failure in the sport and exercise arena lies in the ability of the individual to practice both physical and mental skills.[5]

Sport Psychology terminology

A few terms used in sport psychology:

  • Cohesion – Group cohesion refers to the extent to which a team or group shares a sense of shared task or social bond
  • Imagery – Refers to 'imagined' sensations, for example visual imagery is known as 'visualization'
  • Attention Focus – Being able to block everything out, e.g., a crowd.
  • Motivation – There are two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation, meaning inner motivation, e.g., self accomplishment, and extrinsic motivation, meaning outer motivation, e.g., money or awards.
  • Internal Monologue - Maintaining positive thoughts during competition by keeping a running conversation going in one's mind
  • Criticism - A tenet of motivational theory that is necessary to improve performance. The delivery is imperative as criticism can either better performance or drastically reduce it. There are three types of criticism- Destructive, Self, and Constructive. The best utilization of constructive criticism is through the sandwich approach. In using the sandwich approach, you would first a compliment, then offer directions and critical feedback, and then follow up with another compliment.

Violence in Sports

Violence in sports is also an inherent part of certain sports, as well as being a part of fan behavior in some sports. Pro and college level football, rugby, and boxing are considered to be sports with inherent violence.[6] Brain injuries in pro-football are believed to have led to depression and suicide[7] in some players, and injuries sustained by pro-football players are comparable to those in boxing. Professional hockey as it is played in the NHL is also considered to be a violent sport. Football hooliganism (European) is a phenomena where the violence is largely relegated to the fans, and most European, South American and even Asian countries have had many striking examples of violence in the stands through soccer hooliganism. While baseball is not considered to be a violent sport, one reference describes the act of the pitcher throwing the ball towards the plate as a violent act, and nineteen pitchers have experienced ruptured disks on the mound as a result.[8]

There are three major theories that attempt a verifiable explanation of violent aggression in sports. The biological theory, proposed most notably by Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, sees aggression as a basic, inherent human characteristic. Within this context, sports is seen as a socially acceptable way to discharge built-up aggression, a safety valve. The psychological theory states that aggression is caused by frustration; it is situational. The social learning theory has received the most empirical verification and maintains that aggressive behavior is learned through modeling and reinforced by rewards and punishments. Young athletes take sports heroes as role models and imitate their behavior. Parents, coaches and teammates are also models who may demonstrate support for an aggressive style of play.[9]

Psychological Benefits of Recreational and Team Sports

Recreational sports and exercise can have a positive benefit psychologically. Brisk walking, biking or swimming can result in changes in the chemical balance of our mind, which induce positive emotions and have proven to be an effective therapy for mild to moderate depression, as or more effective than medication.[10] Additionally, team sports can help one to not feel isolated, which can be one factor in many mental health difficulties and disorders. In terms of Positive Psychology, recreational sports can be a healthy part of life and contribute to a positive viewpoint, as well as being a preventive measure in terms of psychological fortitude.

See also

  • Sports - Sports psychology resource bank


  1. Weinberg, R., & Gould, D (2003). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Third Edition (Chapter 1, pp. 3-23). ISBN 0471335495, pp. 31-41
  2. Weinberg, R., & Gould, D (2003). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Third Edition (Chapter 1, pp. 3-23). ISBN 0471335495, pp. 31-41
  3. Weinberg, R., & Gould, D (2003). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Third Edition (Chapter 1, pp. 3-23). ISBN 0471335495, pp. 31-41
  4. Weinberg, R., & Gould, D (2003). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Third Edition (Chapter 1, pp. 3-23). ISBN 0471335495, pp. 31-41
  5. Weinberg, R., & Gould, D. (1999). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology(2nd ed.) (pp.223-264). Champaigne, II: Human Kinetics. ISBN 0-88011-824-5
  6. Violence in Sports. ERIC Digest 1-89
  7. Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide to Brain Damage
  8. Stadler, M. (2007). The Psychology of Baseball, Inside the Mental Game of the Major League Player.
  9. Violence in Sports. ERIC Digest
  10. Exercise and Depression. Harvard Mental Health Letter

External links

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Sports psychology - Academic support materials

  • Sports psychology - Lecture slides
  • Sports psychology - Lecture notes
  • Sports psychology - Lecture handouts
  • Sports psychology - Multimedia materials
  • Sports psychology - Other academic support materials
  • Sports psychology - Anonymous fictional case studies for training
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