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Sport Psychology

Sport psychology is a frontier area on the boundary of psychology and athletics. Modern sport psychology is also closely allied with the fields of exercise psych­ology and exercise physiology and kinesiology (the mechanics of body movement). The American Psychological Association's Division 47 is devoted to "Exercise and Sports."

What is kinesiology about?

Sports are big business, with $400 billion in revenue each year in the U.S. alone. Competition is international. Perfor­mance levels continue to rise to levels thought impossible years ago. Colleges, professional sports teams, and Olympic committees all employ sport psycholo­gists to help maximize performance.

Sport psychology can be traced back to the 1890s. One of the first sport psych­ologists was Norman Triplett, a psychologist at Indiana University.

What phenomenon did Triplett observe among bicycle racers?

Triplett was a big fan of bicycle racing. He noticed that bicyclists who rode in groups often posted faster times than bicyclists who road alone.

Triplett gathered data from races, which verified his hypothesis. He published an article about his findings in 1898. He reported the same phenomenon in other situations. For example, children asked to reel in fishing line as quickly as possible performed faster if other children were present.

Triplett had discovered social facili­tation. In general, animals perform a behavior more intensely or for a longer period of time if others are present.

For example, a pet cat will spend longer at a food bowl if a human stands nearby. Social facilitation occurs in sports when athletes perform better in a group or in front of an audience.

What is social facilitation?

The first sport psychology laboratories were founded by Carl Diem in Germany in 1920. Coleman Griffith of the Univer­sity of Illinois developed a sport psychology laboratory in 1925. He is sometimes called the father of Ameri­can sport psychology. Also in 1925, Piotr Antonovich Roudik founded the first sport psychology lab in Russia.

Griffith wrote two influential books: Psychology of Athletics (1928) and Psychology of Coaching (1926). Griffith studied famous athletes such as Dizzy Dean (of the nearby Chicago Cubs) and Red Grange (a famous football player at the University of Illinois). He corresponded with Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach at Notre Dame.

Griffith's sport psychology laboratory at the University of Illinois was shut down in 1932. Ostensibly it was because of financial pressures from the Great Depression, but a contributing factor was Griffith's bad relationship with football coach Robert Zuppke.

For a time Griffith worked with the Chicago Cubs, but again he had a falling out with the management. His association with the team ended after two years (Gallucci, 2012).

What did Griffith do? What was early evidence that sport psychologists must get along with coaches?

Sport psychology developed rapidly in the late 20th Century. The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was formed in Europe in 1965 and held its first World Congress that year. The International Journal of Sport Psychology was established in 1970. The Journal of Sport Psychology was born in 1979.

By 1984 sport psychologists were working with international teams at the Olympic games. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) hired its first full-time sport psychologist in 1985.

By the 1996 Summer Olympics, over 20 American sport psychologists were working with athletes, and a permanent sport psychology facility for Olympic athletes was built in Colorado Springs.

Activities of a Sport Psychologist

Some sport psychology consultants say they spend about half their time talking with an athlete about relationships, family and other non-sport issues. These concerns affect an athlete's state of mind and ability to respond to competition with peak perform­ance.

Leonard D. Zaichkowsky of Boston University wrote that, if anything, clinical expertise has become more necessary over the years:

I have been in the field for nearly 30 years and have been training graduate students in sport psychology for nearly 20 of those years. I have witnessed a dramatic increase in 'clinical' cases at all levels of competitive sport.

I am seeing many clients with significant clinical issues such as: substance abuse problems, eating disorders, and depres­sion. As such I have taken steps to modify our graduate program so that students can be better prepared clinically and become license eligible. (Zaichkowsky, 2006)

Zaichkowsky set up cooperative arrange­ments and internships so graduates of Boston Univer­sity's program could apply for certification as Licensed Mental Health Counselors. That made them better able to counsel athletes about such problems as "anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, injury, post-traumatic stress, grief/loss, and mood disorder."

What changes did Zaichkowsky see over 30 years training graduate students in sport psychology?

Former track star Nicki Moore, PhD, had a serious hip injury during her senior year. A year of "physical and mental rehabilitation" returned her to the team and also inspired her to earn a doctorate in counseling psychology.

Before taking her current position as Senior Associate Athletics Director at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Moore was a counseling and sport psychologist at the University of Okla­homa. The athletic admini­stration encou­raged her to put emphasis on the counseling part of the job.

Moore said that her job at Okla­homa ended up being "about 20 percent sport psychology, 60 percent traditional counseling (dealing with issues like family problems, relationship concerns, or depression), and 20% a combin­ation of the two. "They're separate areas, but they intersect," she said.

"In a way, counseling is about getting someone up to par, and sport psych­ology is about moving someone from doing fine to doing even better. Sport psychology has more of a coaching feel—it is training the mind to support the physical execution of sport." (Winerman, 2005)

How did Moore see the relationship between counseling and sport psychology?

Moore thought it was helpful to be an ex-athlete, even when performing the function of a counselor. "Someone who's not familiar with the intense level of significant that sport plays in the life of a student-athlete—particularly at a Division I school—can be well intentioned but have a disconnect with the student."

While clinical and counseling expertise is helpful to a sport psychology, the main emphasis continues to be upon improv­ing performance. This gives sport psychology a relevance beyond sports. Mark Aoyagi of the University of Denver puts it this way:

We believe the field really is perfor­mance psychology. This isn't speci­fic to sports, even though it develop­ed from sports. (Voelker, 2012)

As Aoyagi pointed out, sport psychology is about performance. But it is specific­ally about psychological effects on performance. Sport psychologists are interested in any cognitive or behavioral practices that give an athlete an edge, or take that edge away.

Many successful athletes empha­size the psychological side of sports. Swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the Olympics, was quoted as saying, "At this level of physical skill, the differ­ence between winning and losing is 99 percent psychological."

What belief is common among successful athletes, regarding the "mental" side of sports?

Jack Nicklaus, the famous golfer, was said to assert that "golf is 90 percent mental," to which Jim Flick replied, "The other 10% is mental, too." The percent­age values cannot be taken literally, of course, any more than when athletes talk about giving 150%. The point is that world-class athletes view psycho­logical factors as very important.

What gives sport psychology "a relevance beyond sports"?

Sport psychologists study both positive and negative influences on performance. Gallucci (2013) listed the following as performance inhibitors:

Among performance enhancers Gallucci mentions techniques involving:

We have discussed many of these topics. For example, self-talk was the main focus of Albert Ellis's cognitive behavior therapy called REBT, described in Chapter 13. Self-efficacy was a focus of Albert Bandura's social learning theory. We discussed it in connection with willpower.

Here are links to sport psychology journals. For a quick review of current events in the any discipline, not just sport psychology, tables of contents from major journals are revealing, and they are free online.

Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology

The Sport Psychologist

Journal of Applied Sport Psychology

Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise

Some journals make a few full-length articles available online without registration fees. Abstracts (short summaries) of each article are usually available free. Other articles are often available somewhere on the internet in pdf form, e.g. at the author's home institution, depending on journal policies.


Gallucci, N. T. (2013) Sport Psychology: Performance Enhancement, Performance Inhibition, Individuals, and Teams. Oxfordshire, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.

Voelker, R. (2012) Hot careers: Sport psychology. gradPSYCH Magazine. Retrieved from:

Winerman, L. (2005, April) Monitor on Psychology, 36, p.50.

Zaichkowsky, L. D. (2006) Industry challenges facing sport psychology. Athletic Insight, 8. Retrieved from:

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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