Defining Sports Psychology

Interdisciplinary Science: Defining Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary science which draws from research and knowledge from many related fields such as biomechanics, kinesiology, physiology, and psychology. In defining sports psychology it involves the study of how psychological factors affect performance and how participating in sports can affect psychological and physical factors.

Applied sports psychology may include work with athletes and coaches, as well as with parents regarding injury, rehabilitation, communication, team building, and career transitions.

Early History of Sports Psychology

There is a distinct lack of consistent history with regards to the early history of sports psychology owing to the fact that it was previously the domain of physical educators, not researchers, in its formation.

  • The birth of sports psychology took place largely in Germany as the first sports psychology lab was founded by Dr Carl Diem in Berlin in the early 1920s.
  • In Russia, numerous sport science programs were formed during the Cold War period (1946–1989) owing to the intense competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Emergence as a Discipline

  • 1938: Hari Charan began to study how different sport psychology factors can affect an athlete’s motor skills, how high altitudes affect performance, aeroembolism, decompression sickness, kinaesthetic perception, learning of motor skills, and neuromuscular reaction.
  • 1977: The Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (SCAPPS) was founded.
  • 1984: Sports psychology came to the fore at the Olympic Games when teams began hiring sport psychologists to assist their teams.
  • 1985: The United States Olympic team employed their first permanent sports psychologist.
  • 1985: The Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP) was formed headed by John Silva.
  • 1996: Over 20 sports psychologists are employed by the United States Olympic Teams to assist in the Summer Olympics.
  • 2000s: There have also been numerous studies on the psychology effects of gambling and sports betting, whether land-based or online at

America’s First Sport Psychologist

Coleman Griffith first performed extensive research and applied sports psychology while working as a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. By 1925, Griffith was being funded by the Research in Athletics Laboratory for his study of sports psychology, and he conducted research and practised the discipline in the field until the laboratory closed in 1932.

Griffith returned to the world of sport in 1938 when he was hired Philip Wrigley for $1,500 to serve as the sport psychologist consultant for the Chicago Cubs.

Applied Sports Psychology

Applied sports psychology and exercise psychology consists of instructing athletes, coaches, teams, parents, fitness professionals, and groups on the psychological aspects of their sport. The goal of the applied discipline is to use psychological skills, psychometrics, and psychological assessment to optimise performance and enjoyment.

Common Areas of Study and Use

  • Personality: the relationship between personality and performance
  • Youth sport: sport programs for children 18 years and younger
  • Coaching: improving coaching technique and their athletes’ performance
  • Team processes: focusing on team tendencies, issues, and beliefs at a group level
  • Evolutionary perspectives: recent studies have been influenced by an evolutionary psychology perspective.

Commonly Used Techniques

  • Goal setting: planning ways to achieve specific accomplishments within a specified time frame.
  • Arousal regulation: achieving and maintaining an optimum level of cognitive activation to maximise performance.
  • Imagery: using multiple senses to create or recreate experiences in the athlete’s mind.
  • Pre-performance routines: actions or behaviours used by athletes to prepare for a performance.
  • Self-talk: the thoughts and words used by athletes for preparation and motivation.