History of Sports Psychology
Back in 1925, Coleman Griffith (soon to become known as the Grandfather of Sport Psychology) became the first person to make a career out of Sport Psychology by working with the athletes at the University of Illinois. In the 1960s Sport Psychology gathered momentum and saw Soviet Bloc countries adopting key principles. This then led to a significant interest in the application of Sport Science in the Western cultures in the 1980s. Since this time and particularly in the last 30 years, Sport Psychology has seen a tremendous surge of interest and slowly Sport Psychologists and their applications are becoming increasingly valued and are increasingly welcome as an integral part of the Sport Science support teams. Sport Psychology was influenced by Physical Education and Sports Sciences and draws on principles from Kinesiology and general Psychology. It soon established its own value after it was realised just how important the mental aspect of sport was and how having the “right mental approach” was positively influential to performance outcome and personal wellbeing.
Despite rising interest and increased applications of Sport Psychology principles in today’s sporting and organisational domains, many people are still unsure of what exactly Sport Psychology is. It is not uncommon, for example when listening to sports commentary, analysis shows, or reading newspaper articles on a Monday morning that you read such statements as, “they look mentality fatigued”, “he showed great mental toughness in the game”, “they don’t have the right mental attitude to beat them”, “he was frustrated and lost his cool”. How often however, are such comments made with true understanding of the theory behind the words? How little is still known and how much is still assumed about what Sport Psychology is and how Sport Psychologists work?
Sport Psychology focuses on the relationship and interactions between psychological functioning and athletic performance. It aims to positively influence this relationship and create the best possible opportunity for the athlete or athletes to experience optimal performance levels. The psychological component of sport is often the last of the 4 corners considered (technical, tactical, physical and psychological) despite the large influential role it plays on performance ability. Elka Graham, Australian Swimming legend once said, “in training everyone focuses on 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental, but in the races its 90 mental because there’s very little that separates us physically at the elite level”. This percentage ratio is not uncommonly referred to amongst those in the sports industry, but important to note here is the value that Sport Psychology also plays at junior, academy and amateur levels too.
So how do Sport Psychologists achieve their aim to maximise opportunities for athletes to experience optimal levels of performance? Karageorghis and Terry (2011) have suggested that Sport Psychology is a “science and an art”. The key theoretical principles of sport psychology form the scientific foundations by which to practice as a Sport Psychologist. The art is the ability of the Sport Psychologist to apply the right mix of interventions using imagination and creativity to best suit the clients personal needs. This highlights the differing roles a Sport Psychologist can play; an academic role, research role or applied role. Having the ability to transform theoretical knowledge into an applied setting is considered an art form and can be a difficult process. However, it is imperative that in order to work successfully, Sport Psychologists must understand their clients’ personal needs, often as a human before an athlete. Prioritising their needs to ensure the best results moving forward and enhance personal wellbeing and therefore performance ability is crucial.
Clients’ needs can vary immensely and can stem from a range of various factors. Often these factors can fall under either performance enhancement or psychological wellbeing. Typically therefore, a Sport Psychologist could have two perspectives – a performance enhancement philosophy or a more holistic approach whereby a combination of performance enhancement and psychological wellbeing principles are adopted. In recent times, there has been a larger consensus that the life outside of sport and our general psychological wellbeing plays an influential role on performance enhancement and therefore play an equally important role as performance levels do.
Therefore, Sport Psychology is an applied practice of sound methodologies from a specifically trained and accredited consultant, who aims to enhance psychological readiness and psychological wellbeing and provide a foundation to maximise opportunities to experience optimal performance based on the clients personal needs.
Topics in Sports Psychology
Contemporary sports psychology is a diverse field. There are a number of different topics that are of special interest to sports psychologists. Some professionals focus on a specific area, while others study a wide range of techniques.
Attentional focus involves the ability to tune out distractions, such as a crowd of screaming fans, and focus attention on the task at hand. This allows athletes to manage their mental focus even in the face of other things that are vying for attention.
Common strategies that might be used include things like deep breathing to help focus attention, paying attention to bodily signals and sensations, and mindfulness to help stay focused on the present moment.
Visualization and Goal-Setting
This involves visualizing performing a task, such as participating in an athletic event or successfully performing a particular skill. This area of sports psychology is centered on helping athletes mentally prepare for a performance or competition.
Visualization involves creating a mental image of what you “intend” to happen. Athletes can use these skills to envision the outcome they are pursuing. They might visualize themselves winning an event or performing a difficult movement. It can also be useful for helping athletes feel calmer and more focused before an event.
Motivation and Team-Building
Some sports psychologists work with professional athletes and coaches to improve performance and increase motivation. A major subject in sports psychology, the study of motivation looks at both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators
Extrinsic motivators are external rewards, such as trophies, money, medals, or social recognition. Intrinsic motivators arise from within, such as a personal desire to win or the sense of pride that comes from performing a skill.
Team building is also an important topic in this field. Sports psychologists might work with coaches and athletes to help them develop a sense of comradery and assist them in working together efficiently and effectively.
Professional sports psychologists often help athletes cope with the intense pressure that comes from competition. This often involves finding ways to reduce performance anxiety and combat burnout.
It isn’t uncommon for athletes to get nervous before a game, performance, or competition. These nerves can have an impact on performance, so learning tactics to help stay calm are important for helping athletes perform their best.
Tactics that might be the focus of this area include things like relaxation techniques, changing negative thoughts, building self-confidence, and findings distractions to reduce the focus on anxiety.
Burnout can also happen to athletes who frequently experience pressure, anxiety, and intense practice schedules. Helping athletes restore their sense of balance, learn to relax, and keep up their motivation can help combat these feelings of burnout.
Before you learn how to manage the symptoms of anxiety during competitions, it is critical to understand the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance.
Another important focus of sports psychology is on helping athletes recover and return to their sport after an injury. A sports injury can lead people to experience emotional reactions in addition to their physical injury, which can include feelings of anger, frustration, hopelessness, and fear.
Sports psychologists work with people to help them mentally cope with the recovery process and restore their confidence once they are ready to return to their sport.
American Psychological Association. Sports psychologists help professional and amateur athletes. Published 2012.
Voelker R. American Psychological Association. Hot careers: Sport psychology. GradPSYCH Magazine. 2012.
Joyce M. Baker DB. The early days of sport psychology. Monitor on Psychology. 2008;39(7):28.