An Overview of Sports Psychology

Author: Elizabeth Quinn | | Categories: mental , mental training

Defence first

Athletes and coaches generally focus on the physical training and discipline to master sports skills. However, mental and emotional skills training can be just as important for success in sports and in life beyond sports. The aim of sports psychology is to address the mental and emotional needs of athletes. This enhances their overall well-being and boosts their sports performance to the highest level possible.

Everyone experiences stress, but many athletes experience unique internal and external pressure to excel both on and off the playing field. Sports psychologists work with athletes to help manage these stressors, improve their sports performance, and develop emotional balance.

Today, mental skills training has become as much a part of athletic success as strength, power, and endurance training. This is thanks to the mindfulness movement and the popularity of meditation, yoga, and visualization practice in mainstream media. Research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation on resilience and stress management have carried over to the field of sports psychology. And many athletes continue to benefit from adding mental skills training to their fitness training routine.

Early History

The origin of sports psychology is not easy to identify. Some believe it developed out of the field of psychology and others believe it emerged from a branch of physical fitness training. The first serious attempts by researchers to study how the mental and emotional landscape of athletes affects their athletic performance can be traced to the 1920's when dedicated sports psychology labs began emerging in Germany, Russia, and the United States.

Many consider Dr. Coleman R. Griffith the father and founder of sports psychology as we know it in the United States today. He created a research lab and taught courses in sports psychology at the University of Illinois in the 1920's and authored two books focused exclusively on the psychology of sport: The Psychology of Coaching published in 1926 and The Psychology of Athletics in 1928.

Today's Landscape 

No longer a fad or a luxury, sports psychologists are routinely employed by a large majority of professional athletes and teams. Even amateur athletes are finding value in adding mental skills training to their workouts.

The current academic and practical side of sports psychology includes specific and uniform standards of training, research, and implementation. In 1986, the American Psychological Association (APA) created Division 47which is focused specifically on exercise and sport psychology. There are also several academic journals, including The International Journal of Sports Psychology, that are dedicated exclusively to the study of sports psychology.

Common Techniques

The field of sports psychology continues to grow as research accumulates, but there are some common areas of focus employed by the majority of sports psychology practitioners. These areas tend to address three core aspects of mental and emotional training in athletes:

1. Performance Enhancement: Visualization and mental rehearsal has long been the cornerstone of sports psychology research and training. Its main focus is to help improve an athlete's performance. Such practice allows an athlete to prepare mentally for the perfect scenario and develop a mental 'map' of a given outcome. The science of visualization, also called imagery or self-hypnosis, indicates that an imagined experience is interpreted similarly to an actual event and therefore leads to improved confidence and competence in an athlete.

  • Some studies even indicate that visualization may lead to strength gains in athletes. Similar to visualization, self-talk and cultivating a positive attitude can be a critical feature of regular mental skills training. Whether an athlete needs to work on attention, centering and focus, or reducing and managing anxiety during stressful situations, these techniques all aim to reduce distractions in order to improve an athlete's sports performance. Some experts point out the very real impact of the so-called placebo effect produced by an athlete's beliefs as highlighted by the many superstitions and rituals some athletes swear by.

2. Resilience and Injury Recovery: Another area where a sports psychologist can make an impact on an athlete is by helping them develop mental and emotional resilience, particularly after a major setback, loss, or injury. This skill is essential for injured athletes who may succumb to the emotional stress of injuries by becoming depressed, isolated, or withdrawn. Learning how to use specific mental skills for coping with an injury—and to use the power of the mind to facilitate physical healing—may sound far-fetched. But sports psychologists and athletes have found real benefits to practicing these mental skills.

3. Motivation and Emotional Stress: Any athlete may occasionally feel fatigued, washed out, or simply unmotivated to train day after day. But sometimes it indicates a deeper issue. Motivation—and the lack of motivation—is another area in which a qualified sports psychologist may step in to help athletes discover the root of their issues. Perhaps they are physically or mentally fatigued, overtraining, or even facing other emotional stresses.

  • Motivation isn't always a matter of finding the right music playlist or reading a motivational quote. Sometimes, the real issue with lacking motivation is psychological, physical, or social stress. A qualified sports psychologist can uncover the core issue and help an athlete design a strategy and set appropriate goals to rekindle the desire to play.

What Is a Sports Psychologist?

A sports psychologist is a specific type of practitioner who works with athletes to improve their emotional and mental well-being in efforts to promote optimal athleticism. In the process of working with a sports psychologist, many athletes will see their sports performance improve dramatically. But, even if this doesn't happen, most clients will experience an increase in their emotional balance and stability on and off the playing field.

The world of sports psychology is large and varied. Some experts work with professional athletes either one-on-one or in teams. Others prefer working with amateur athletes, children, or athletes of a specific sport.

Becoming a qualified sports psychologist requires both academic and practical experience. The educational routes are also varied with applied psychology at the core of most academic programs. The gold standard requires an advanced degree, such as a PhD in Psychology, and specific training with athletes. However, many Master's degreed professionals also have a specialization in sports psychology.

Though less common, some personal trainers and hypnotherapists have also joined the growing number of experts who help athletes manage stress, anxiety, and performance issues related to their thoughts and underlying beliefs. If you are interested in learning more about sports psychology as an athlete or as a practitioner, there are many resources to explore.


Article Courtesy: - By Elizabeth Quinn | Reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD