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A brief history of sports psychology

Illustration of rock climber climbing wall
Credit: jcomp (Freepik)

Case study / by Conor D’Andrade

Behind any great modern-day athlete, the chances are that there's a great sport psychologist. But sport psychology wasn't always a well-respected discipline. Conor D'Andrade investigates its humble beginnings, and the key milestones it has passed on the way to becoming one of the most essential elements in sport and fitness today.

Sports psychology has undoubtedly become one of the most researched and valued areas of applied psychology, with not only professional athletes relying on it to improve performance, but also surgeons, actors and more. Essentially, for high-pressure jobs where “mental roadblocks” can significantly hinder performance, sports psychologists make all the difference.

Sports psychologists research how psychology influences performance, they also work directly with clients to teach them techniques and methods for coping with the demands of their work. This may vary from helping an athlete to cope with the stress of an injury, or techniques relating to arousal regulation for improved performance. Ultimately, sport psychologists help athletes maintain an optimal level of cognitive and psychological activation.

The beginnings of a discipline

As with sport in general, sports psychology has a long history. One of the earliest records of humans considering the link between mental state and physical performance appears to come from ancient Greece around 776 BCE – the year that saw the advent of the Olympics while the nation’s finest philosophers debated the influence of the mind on the performance of the body. In fact, many even suggest that the Greek “tetrad” system – a method used to prepare athletes using stages of preparation, concentration, moderation, and relaxation – resembles the modern method of “periodisation,” which also employs training in stages.

This type of thinking remained the pinnacle of sports psychology, until the late 1800s when the industrial revolution meant people had more time and resources to enjoy sports. It was around this time that conversation around the link between mind and body was revitalised until, eventually, academics began publishing papers using empirical techniques to measure the link between psychology and performance. The first was published in 1894 when the French physician Philippe Tissie studied endurance cyclists for changes in mental state.

The 1920s: the emergence of 'sports psychology'

However, it isn’t until the 1920s that we begin to see sports psychology emerge as a specialist field, rather than an extension of anatomy and philosophy. An example of this comes from Stanford University, where researchers wanted to examine how to improve the reactions of their American football team’s offensive linemen. Around the same time Coleman Griffith founded the first sports psychology lab at the University of Illinois in 1925, resulting in his being credited as the “father of sports psychology in America”.

Unfortunately, it would seem that these early researchers from around the globe, despite being pioneers, had little influence on athletes at the time – but they did set the stage for the discipline to truly rise.


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The 1960s: a global rise in interest

It wasn’t until 1965 that we truly saw sports psychology explode in Europe with the First World Congress of Sport Psychology, which was attended by 450 professionals from around the world and led to the formation of the International Society of Sport Psychology.

At around the same time in North America, people were beginning to pay attention to the teachings of sports psychology due to the popularity of physical education in schools and universities. From this came the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity – an organisation responsible for researching and teaching about the link between motor behaviour and psychology.

Even at this time, sports psychology was still in its infancy, with the first personality test attempting to predict the success of an athlete, published in 1966, being heavily criticised for its use of questionable science.

The 1970s: scientific recognition

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that we can truly begin to recognise the field as being scientific and professional, with researchers dedicating all their research to sports psychology and working directly with athletes and coaches.

Researchers also began to consider the ecological validity of their research much more closely, with Rainer Marten arguing in 1979 that it is almost impossible to apply the findings from a lab to real sporting situations. Thanks to this, researchers were encouraged to take their research out of the lab and began working directly with sports teams and athletes, with more value being placed on qualitative research than is typical in most areas of psychology.

In the same year, the first sport psychology journal was published:The Journal of Sport Psychology, which was the first place dedicated to publishing the findings of sports psychologists.

Modern-day sport psychology: an essential field

Modern-day sports psychology is a highly valued and established discipline. While many do still work directly with athletes in ways to improve performance, we have begun to see a slight shift in their role. For example, much more importance is being placed on helping athletes with their mental health, in particular anger management, and we have begun to see a strong focus on exercise motivation due to the rising rates of obesity in the West.

Although the importance and responsibilities of sports psychologists seem to be ever-changing, it is clear that not only is this a discipline of psychology that will remain for many years to come, but it is a discipline that deserves to remain for years to come. Its contributions to sports and public health are immeasurable, and without a doubt the incredible achievements we have seen from amateur and professional athletes would not have been possible without this wealth of research.


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