Sport Psychology Research Paper

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Within recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize a new area that acknowledges the importance of incorporating psychological techniques into the improvement of athletic performance. Sport Psychology is the scientific study of people and their behavior in sport, and it includes the practical application of that knowledge in the field. Sport psychologists typically identify the relation between psychological factors and athletic performance as reciprocal in nature. That is, sport performance can affect psychological processes, and psychological processes can affect sport performance, which allows for more exciting and unique ways to study human behavior.

Despite its relatively recent introduction into psychology’s inventory, researchers have published thousands of articles on sport psychology topics, ranging from mental training to motivation, from leadership to loafing, and from cooperation to competition. This research-paper traces the history and development of sport psychology as a science in the United States; it also addresses current theory and use of sport psychology as well as effective research methods. Finally, we will cover the current application of sport psychology findings both on and off the field and consider some future directions.

History Of Sport Psychology

The first sport and social psychology experiment was conducted by Norman Triplett (1898). He was a bicycling enthusiast who noticed that cyclists competing alone rode more slowly than did cyclists riding against a pacer or against other athletes. To study the effect of coactors, he set up a study in which children turned fishing reels as quickly as possible alone or in the presence of another child. He found that reeling with another child produced faster results. From this research, Triplett produced his dynamogenic theory, which suggests that the presence of another person stimulates a competitive instinct that the competitor cannot produce on his or her own.

By the mid-1920s, Coleman Griffith was considered by many to be the father of sport psychology (Williams & Straub, 2006). He was hired by the University of Illinois in 1925 to help coaches improve the performance of their players. While he was there, he wrote two classics, Psychology of Coaching (1926) and Psychology of Athletics (1928). After working at the University, Griffith went on to work as the team psychologist for the Chicago Cubs and began a line of research on personality. After Griffith’s early work, sport psychology research languished until the 1960s, when Bruce Ogilvie and Tom Tutko energized the field again with their book Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them (1966). Because Ogilvie worked hard to increase public interest in sport psychology and was able to provide numerous contributions to the field, many professionals consider him to be the father of applied sport psychology. Despite the current overwhelmingly positive response to Ogilvie’s work, when he first began consulting with teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, athletes tried to maintain their anonymity. Working with a sport psychologist to improve performance has not always had the appeal that it has today.

The 1960s were a time of greater organization for psychologists who found interest in sport psychology. In 1965, the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) formed in Rome. Led by Dr. Ferruccio Antonelli, the ISSP publishes the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and hosts worldwide meetings. The first annual World Congress meeting was held in Rome, Italy, with more than 400 attendees. The 12th annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2009. Soon after the ISSP developed, several other organizations formed—for instance, in 1967, the first annual meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) was held in Las Vegas. In 1969, the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (CSPLSP) formed.

The 1970s opened the door to further organization. In 1975, the first Sport Psychology Academy formed with the goal of bringing research out of the lab and onto the field. In addition, researchers began to rethink athletes. Instead of thinking that athletes were primarily governed by their psychological traits, researchers began to consider the interaction between person and environment. The athletes’ traits and their environment could have an effect on behavior. This interactionism paradigm became the new lens through which researchers viewed athletes; this view continues to dominate sport psychology.

In the 1980s, researchers began examining the cognitive strategies that athletes used to affect performance. For instance, many athletes have considered “psyching up”—mental preparation—an important precursor to competition. In 1981, Weinberg, Gould, and Jackson asked students to get psyched up before a leg-strength task. They found that the process allowed for improved leg-strength performance over a control group, providing new support for the examination of the role of cognitive strategies in preparation for competition. Throughout the 1980s, researchers investigated specific characteristics of the cognitive process, such as the use of mental imagery and motivational thoughts aimed at improving performance.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) took a major step for sport psychology in 1993 by creating an official Sport Psychology Committee that consulted with Olympic athletes. The final step toward establishing sport psychology was the American Psychological Association’s (APA) decision to formally recognize sport psychology as a separate division, Division 47.

Sport Psychology Theory

Early research on preparation techniques revealed that athletes use a systematic process to prepare for a competition. For instance, before competing, some athletes complete ritualistic or superstitious behaviors. Continued research on the mental techniques included in preparation helped to shed light on those techniques that are most effective, such as increasing awareness, relaxation, and the use of mental imagery.

Increasing Awareness

Little league parents can tell you that their children have to work hard to concentrate on the game despite distractions from the sidelines. Awareness involves mentally taking oneself off of “autopilot” and gaining control of one’s behavior at the current moment (Ravizza, 2006). Many athletes make the mistake of concentrating on the end goal—making the point, completing the pass, winning the game—and thus fail to execute peak performance. Awareness allows athletes to concentrate on his or her routine behaviors under pressure so he or she can execute these moves despite intense external demands. The importance of awareness lies in the fact that one of the major roles of the athlete is to be able to adjust his or her behavior to fit a given competition. Of course, athletes cannot make such a change if they are not first aware that that is not where they need to be.

One way that athletes can work toward being more aware is by emphasizing awareness early in practice. During stretching, athletes may begin to focus on the feeling of the muscle as it lengthens, feeling the tension diminishing. U.S. Olympic archers cite body awareness as a key factor that aids in recognizing changes in their performance (Robazza & Bortoli, 1998). One archer said, “It’s important trying to listen to yourself and understand what you are doing to later recognize when you are not doing it.. .[because] it means something is wrong. That’s when you have to try and find the right perceptions, the right tension or muscle relaxation” (p. 224).

The result of practicing awareness along with the physical skill required for competition is that athletes become more confident in their ability to execute necessary skills while they gain more control of these skills (Ravizza, 2006). Weight lifters might exercise in front of mirrors to monitor the location of their bodies and adjust form accordingly, but few other sports allow for real-time monitoring of one’s movement, thus mental awareness is critical. In addition to an athlete’s awareness of his location in space, he or she must also be aware of his level of arousal. Athletes must recognize when they are able to perform at their peak, and the amount of arousal that they derive from different situations during competition.

One technique that athletes can use to improve awareness of bodily movement as well as mental state includes keeping a journal (Ravizza, 2006). In the journal, athletes can include information about how it feels when they are performing at their peak, how they felt about their teammates, what they did to concentrate before a competition, how confident they felt, and so on. Regular journaling not only provides athletes with information they can refer to but also provides the coach and sport psychologist with information essential to helping athletes make their way to peak performance during every game.

Relaxation and Energizing

Stress is a fact of life. We experience daily hassles, like waiting in line and spilling coffee on important documents; we experience physiological stressors, like illness and injury; and we experience emotional stressors, like getting married and losing a friend. All stressors lead to the same basic response—the fight-or-flight response (Lazarus, 1966). The fight-or-flight response is a period of heightened physiological arousal that allowed our ancestors to fight or escape a threat when necessary. After the threat was over, most of the body’s mechanisms returned to normal levels. Unfortunately, today, we have fewer situations that call for us to fight or flee a threat. Running from your first board meeting simply will not work. Thus, we need to learn to either work with stress or decrease our stress response. One natural defense to the stress response is relaxation.

Relaxation is a deliberate withdrawal from stress activity that is intended to allow an athlete to perform at his or her best, both mentally and physically (Keating & Hogg, 1999). A look inside nearly any health or fitness magazine will reveal that relaxation techniques have traveled from beginnings rooted in sport psychology to widespread use in popular culture. Relaxation can involve some nonspecific techniques. For instance, hockey players have reported that they become relaxed by chatting and joking with other team members, getting a feel for the ice, or retaping their stick before a game begins (Keating & Hogg, 1999). These hockey players may have been acting on a natural impulse to reduce the stress response. There are times, however, that the sport psychologist might train an athlete to reduce stress at will by using more formal techniques, such as controlled breathing or the release of muscle tension.

The sport psychologist might use a technique described by Jacobson (1962), in which the athlete is taught progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR borrows techniques used by psychologists to treat patients dealing with phobias through systematic desensitization. With PMR, the athlete follows the direction of the sport psychologist as she contracts and releases her muscles. After mastering this task and the accompanying feelings of relaxation, the athlete imagines herself in stressful competitive situations while attempting to maintain the same level of relaxation.

Another technique the sport psychologist might teach a client is deep and controlled, or diaphragmatic, breathing (Sherman & Poczwardowski, 2000). With controlled breathing, the psychologist is working to achieve the same basic goal as with PMR. The client breathes slowly and deeply, increasing a feeling of relaxation, in a manner similar to what is taught in many yoga classes. After achieving a feeling of deep relaxation, athletes practice imagining themselves in stressful competitive situations with the intent of maintaining the feeling of relaxation.

A third technique involves a form of self-hypnosis (Sherman & Poczwardowski, 2000). As the athletes learn to use the technique, the sport psychologist directs them by providing instruction that starts with deep breathing, sometimes providing instructions on a tape or CD. The sport psychologist then directs them to experience a feeling of heaviness in each arm, in the legs, and in the torso, all the while becoming more and more relaxed. At this point, the athletes (and nonathletes) may choose to stop and go to sleep. The athletes may continue, however, and complete the session with a period of reenergizing.

Using Mental Imagery

Imagining the world around us is nothing new, but sport psychologists have found that the directed and intentional use of imagery can be helpful in a number of different performance domains. The benefit of using imagery, rather than words, to explain movement is that words may fail to reveal a concept with the detail of an image. Take, for instance, the comparison between a scene in a movie and a written depiction of the scene; the written description often fails to capture the details so intricately captured on film. Imagery may be used in conjunction with the relaxation techniques mentioned previously to counter anxiety, to build confidence, and for skill development. Some athletes have found that the most effective way to prepare for a successful competition is to vividly imagine themselves in the process. For instance, golfers may use kinesthetic imagery to practice feeling the tension of the muscles in their neck and shoulders as they prepare the swing, the speed of the backswing, the weight in their hips, the moment that they stop the club at the top of the swing, and so on. One of the explanations for champion golfer Jack Nicklaus’s long preparation is his use of mental imagery before taking each shot.

Motivation In Sport Psychology

Motivation is a poorly understood concept outside of sport psychology. Some popular movies portray the coach delivering an amazing pregame speech, with triumphant music playing in the background. As the camera pans around, the expressions on the faces of the team begin to change from defeat to excitement. They are now ready to face their opponents because of the motivational speech delivered by their coach. Other movies portray a single star player who acts as a leader for a small-town team. He is motivated to win because it means that he can finally make something of himself and get out of this town. He convinces his team that they can do it and he leads them all to victory. In either case, we typically think of motivation as being rooted in team-directed speeches or being inherent in the players. In truth, motivation is a more complex concept than is often believed. There are four basic theories regarding motivation: (a) achievement goal theory, (b) self-efficacy theory, (c) self-determination theory, and (d) attribution theory.

Achievement Goal Theory

Achievement goal theory states that people want to feel successful and competent in achievement settings, but that their definitions of success and competence are affected by the type of goal orientation they have at any given time in the achievement setting (Duda & Nicholls, 1992). If a person has an ego orientation, he will base his judgments of success and competence against normative standards or against others playing around him. As long as he is winning, he will remain motivated to play and to achieve. If a person has a task orientation, she will base her judgments of success and competence on whether she is performing at her personal best. One interesting result of a task orientation is that the player does not have to win in order to remain motivated; instead, the player only needs to play at her best. In addition, goal orientation is not a static construct. Researchers have found that goal orientation—task or ego—can vary over time based upon the motivational climate created by coaches and parents of high school athletes (Waldron & Krane, 2005).

Self-Efficacy Theory

Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s evaluation of his or her ability to achieve in a given situation (Bandura, 1977). Self-efficacy is one motivational process that leads to improved performance, positive emotions, and persistence. Self-efficacy also varies on several dimensions. First, efficacy expectations can vary in their magnitude. A person may experience a feeling of efficacy for easy and moderate tasks, but not for difficult tasks. Second, efficacy expectations differ in their generality. That is, some people may have a general sense of efficacy (“I’m good at basketball”), while others have a very specific sense of efficacy (“I’m good at shooting free-throws when the clock is running out”). Finally, efficacy expectations may vary in their strength. A player with a very strong efficacy expectation may continue to persevere despite obstacles, while a player with a weak efficacy expectation may quit soon after encountering obstacles. Michael Jordan indicated strong self-efficacy when he said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Among other techniques, one way to improve self-efficacy is past performance. If athletes have experienced success with a particular task in the past, they are more likely to expect success in future attempts (J. Lane, A. M. Lane, & Kyprianou, 2004).

Self-Determination Theory

We are driven by different forms of motivation—amotivation, extrinsic motivation, or intrinsic motivation—that lie on a continuum from the lowest level of self-determination to the highest. According to self-determination theory, amotivation is a state of lacking a motivation to act. In this situation, a person either does not complete a behavior or completes a behavior without intent. Next, extrinsic motivation is divided into three forms, from least to most autonomous, or self-determined. The least autonomous form of extrinsically motivated behavior is said to be externally regulated. With this form of motivation, one may act in order to receive a reward or avoid punishment. The second form of extrinsically motivated behavior is referred to as introjected regulation. With this form of motivation, a person behaves because of a rule or value that is not fully accepted as one’s own. For instance, a person may strive to demonstrate ability in a given situation in order to avoid feelings of embarrassment and maintain feelings of worth. The person’s behavior, however, is still thought of as having an external locus of control. The third form of extrinsically motivated behavior is labeled regulation through identification. A person driven by regulation through identification might perform a behavior out of free choice but experience little pleasure from the activity. Finally, intrinsic motivation refers to the most autonomous form of motivation. When people are intrinsically motivated, they complete a behavior because of the inherent pleasure they derive from its completion.

Interestingly, internally motivated people tend to be more excited and confident and to express more interest in the task than do those who are extrinsically motivated (Ryan & Deci, 2000). As a result, the intrinsically motivated people also show other positive qualities, such as improved performance and self-esteem, that extrinsically motivated people do not. These results exist even if the people have equal levels of self-efficacy and perceived competence. Thus, it stands to reason that a coach would seek to encourage intrinsic motivation from her athletes. One key to doing so involves an internal locus of causality. In other words, if an athlete experiences success, this success will foster competence and intrinsic motivation only if the athlete feels that it was the result of his own doing, rather than luck. Athletes are more likely to attribute success to their own doing when they are in an environment that encourages autonomy—when the coach sets realistic, but challenging goals; when parents encourage autonomy in their children; and when teachers stress competence.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory refers to how people explain (or to what they attribute) successes and failures. Although Heider (1958) originated the idea, it was Weiner (1985) who expanded it and made it popular. According to attribution theory, we can attribute success or failure to three different types of sources: stability (Is the cause one that is lasting or unstable?), locus of causality (Is the cause internal or external to the athlete?), and locus of control (Is the cause within the athlete’s control?). Imagine that Mario just won in discus. With these three sources, he may be able to attribute his success to a stable factor (e.g., his talent) or an unstable factor (e. g., luck); an internal cause (e.g., his use of imagery) or an external cause (e.g., poor players on the opposing team); a factor within his control (e.g., spending the day preparing for the competition) or a factor outside of his control (e.g., a well-timed gust of wind).

Attributions are important because they affect expectations in future competitions. If Mario attributed his success in discus to an unstable factor, like luck, he is less likely to expect success in future competitions than if he explained past success as a result of his talent. In addition, if Mario explained his win as something within his control, such as his preparation for competition, he will be more motivated and confident in future competitions.

Elements Of Leadership And The Team Environment

Effective Coaching

Although the athlete is involved in the process of competing, the coach is often involved in determining plays, developing motivation, and encouraging team cohesion. Some early theories on leaders suggested that people who made effective leaders possessed certain traits that would make them effective in any domain. For instance, had these psychologists hypothesized about former Dallas Cowboys football coach Bill Parcells, they would have proposed that, because he was one of America’s best football coaches, he possesses the traits to take up other leadership positions effectively, such as president of the United States or CEO of a Fortune 500 business.

We now know that it is not only a leader’s traits that make him effective. Researchers have identified four components of effective leadership (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). The first component includes the leader’s qualities. Among other qualities, a leader should demonstrate optimism, empathy, patience, self-discipline, integrity, and intrinsic motivation. The second component, leadership styles, refers to the manner in which the leader motivates and directs the team. There are two basic leadership styles. The first, a democratic leader, tends to be a cooperative leader who is focused on the athletes and on fostering relationships. Autocratic leaders are more focused on the win and are more task-oriented. What is most important is not the leaders’ style, but how flexible leaders are is in adapting their style to each situation and to the team climate. Situational factors make up the third component contributing to leadership effectiveness. In order for leaders to be effective, they must consider the situational constraints. For instance, large teams often require a different type of leader than do small teams, and the coach’s leadership may have to adapt to changes brought on by the time constraints of competition. Finally, effective leaders must be sensitive to the qualities of the followers. Coaches and athletes must work well together. Also, in general, men and women prefer different types of coaching styles, as do experienced versus novice athletes.

Researchers have also found that high-achieving athletes have specific characteristics that require consideration from their coaches (Jones & Spooner, 2006). For instance, high achievers are demanding of themselves and others, thus they need a coach who is up to date on the latest techniques and theories to improve their performance. High achievers are confident, so they need a coach who demonstrates confidence in their ability. High achiever are sponges for information, thus they need a coach who provides regular feedback. Coaches play an important role in affecting athletes’ performance.


When we think of the word “competition,” we often think of a single event—a game, a match, or a race. But, many sport psychologists view competition as a process, rather than as a single event (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). The process includes four distinct, but connected, stages. The first stage, the objective competitive situation, includes a standard for comparison (e.g., improving on your last performance, beating a competitor, or another specific goal) and at least one person, other than the competitor, who is aware of the standard. Compare the following two situations. If you decide to run on the treadmill, you may choose to give yourself a goal of running continuously for an hour. This would not be considered competition, however, because no one other than you is aware of your standard of comparison. If, before heading to the treadmill, you notify a friend of your goal, your activity is now considered competition.

The second stage, the subjective competitive situation, draws on the way the competitor appraises the situation (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). For instance, some athletes may approach an upcoming competition with dread, whereas others approach the competition with excitement. Generally, people who are competitive will approach a competition with excitement, but like the concept of competition, competitiveness also has three types of orientations. Some athletes may approach a competition because they have a competitive orientation—that is, they enjoy competition for the sake of competing. Other athletes may have a win orientation. They seek out competition because of a strong desire to beat other competitors. Finally, some athletes may desire competition because they have a goal orientation, in which their greatest desire is to improve their own skills.

In the third stage of competition, response, athletes make a decision about whether they want to compete. This decision may be based on a number of factors, such as perceived skill, the skill of the other team, psychological readiness to compete, or even the weather.

If, during the third stage, the athlete makes the decision to compete, the fourth stage includes the result of that decision, or the consequences. Consequences are typically seen as positive or negative but do not have to correspond to a win or a loss. For instance, Rebecca entered a gymnastics competition only 6 months after taking up the sport. Rebecca was attracted to the competition because of her goal orientation. She knew that she was competing against practiced competitors, and her loss was no surprise. The consequences of her decision to compete were positive because she was able to perform better than she ever had before. Daniel also has a goal orientation. He has been playing basketball for the last 16 years. When his 5-year-old brother asked him to play, he easily won. But the win for Daniel did not provide particularly positive consequences because the game presented few challenges and did not allow him to improve his skills.


Cohesion refers to the dynamic process that binds group members together, either for interpersonal reasons or to obtain a common goal (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). There are two basic types of cohesion: task cohesion, which refers to the how well members of a group work together to obtain a common goal, and social cohesion, which refers to the degree to which group members are inter-personally attracted to one another. A number of different factors affect cohesion. Environmental factors are the most remote influences on cohesion. For example, high school basketball players may remain on the team because dropping out is viewed so poorly in their town, or professional players may continue to play because they have signed contracts. Personal factors rank second in their impact on cohesion. A major personal factor that contributes to cohesion is personal satisfaction as a member of the group. Third, leadership factors also contribute to group cohesion. Groups need a team leader who is effective for the task and compatible with the group. Team factors are the fourth source of influence on cohesion. Shared team experiences, such as a visit from a professional athlete, can serve as an example of a team factor that can enhance cohesion.

When teams are cohesive, they perform better (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). It should also be noted that good performance leads to greater cohesion. When groups are cohesive, the members also experience greater satisfaction with the team. This point is important not only to athletic teams but also to many other groups. Group exercise instructors and diet teams, like Weight Watchers, work to increase cohesion among members in order to foster performance and satisfaction. Cohesive teams also experience a heightened sense of conformity, so individual group members are more likely to adhere to group norms. Additionally, members of cohesive groups experience a greater sense of social support and make more stable group members. Because every team is different and includes different dynamics, coaches can implement a number of different strategies to encourage cohesiveness among team members. Not surprisingly, being a good communicator ranks at the top of the list. Coaches need to clearly indicate not only individual roles and the associated responsibilities but also group roles and the group identity. Coaches should also check in with the team regularly to assess the current state of the team and make sure to get to know the team members.

Implementation Of Psychological Skills Training Programs

Sport psychologists must not only understand the research and related theories behind many popular practices but also know when to implement the practices. Psychological skills training (PST) programs allow the sport psychologist to directly apply research findings to improve performance for athletes.

Chances are, most athletes have experienced a moment during which all of their practice seemed to account for none of their performance. At this time, it was likely that it wasn’t their physical readiness that failed them, but rather their mental readiness (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). PST is designed to encourage mental toughness—an attribute consisting of control, commitment, challenge, and confidence—in athletes. PST is important for a number of reasons. Anecdotally, many consider sports (especially sports like golf and tennis) at least 50 percent mental. Empirical research has also indicated that mental toughness is the most important factor in determining success in sport. So, all an athlete has to do is get his head in the game, right? Despite the suggestion that getting one’s head back in the game is a fairly simple process, many athletes fail to give this process enough attention. One reason might be that the athletes and their coaches misunderstand what is required to develop mental toughness. Perhaps they believe that developing mental skills is only for elite athletes or athletes with problems. Maybe the athletes and their coaches simply lack the time to devote to mental skills training. In order to dispel the myths and educate coaches and athletes about psychological skills, sport psychologists have completed research on the effectiveness of psychological skills.

Research on the psychological skills of elite athletes has revealed that they achieve their peak performance by actively using mental skills, such as relaxation, imagery, goal setting, arousal management, and coping strategies (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). The key, then, is to teach athletes how to incorporate these skills into their regular preparation. PST programs generally have three phases: education, acquisition, and practice.

During the education phase of PST programs, the sport psychologist generally starts by probing athletes about their opinions concerning the importance of mental skills in performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). Typical athletes will report that they find mental skills important but that they spend far less time practicing their mental skills than they do practicing their physical skills. Next, the sport psychologist will explain the importance of developing psychological skills. One psychological skill, controlling arousal, allows for clear demonstration of this point. When athletes have mastered the ability to control their arousal, they may be able to interpret their arousal as intensity and succeed, whereas an inexperienced player may interpret arousal as anxiety and fail. Finally, the sport psychologist will explain the importance of controlling mental states, possibly by including examples of other players in the field.

After the education phase, athletes move into the acquisition phase (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). The sport psychologist would complete formal and informal training in which the focus is using the techniques required for different types of psychological skills. During the formal training, the psychologists might work on relaxation, for instance. Then, this formal session would be followed by an informal session intended to help the athlete use the relaxation during a competitive situation and to ensure that the relaxation is targeted at the athlete’s unique needs.

The final phase of PST is the practice phase (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). The intent of the practice phase is to make psychological skills automatic through regular practice and to teach athletes to incorporate appropriate skills into a competitive situation. During this phase, it is important for athletes to keep a logbook and to record information such as which skills they used, when they were incorporated, how often, and how effective they felt the skills were. This information should help to further clarify which skills are most useful for each athlete.

After the PST program is complete, the goal is for the athlete to be able to self-regulate mental functioning in a way that allows him to adapt to changes in the environment (Weinberg & Gould, 2007). Self-regulation involves five stages. The first is problem identification. During this stage, athletes identify a problem and determine that they are capable of exacting change. During the second stage, commitment, the athlete commits to working on a solution to the problem despite the possibility of a long process. The third stage, execution, is the most crucial. During this stage, athletes implement the appropriate strategies to deal with the problem that they have identified. Environment management is the fourth stage. In this stage, the athlete plans to manage the physical and social environment. Finally, during the fifth stage, generalization, the athlete extends coping strategies to new situations.

Research Methods

Sport psychologists use a number of different methods to gather data and conduct research. Here are a few examples to familiarize the reader. Studies in sport psychology often involve in-depth interviews or questionnaires with open-ended responses about topics such as the practices that athletes incorporate into their repertoire to improve their performance. For instance, Eys and his colleagues (2005) used open-ended questionnaires to gauge athletes’ feelings about the sources of role ambiguity. In their research, they asked college athletes to answer four questions regarding the sources of role ambiguity as well as some possible results. This design helps researchers to identify new areas of research by examining the responses of the participants.

Other researchers use standardized questionnaires and surveys to investigate the team environment. Murray (2006) used the Group Environment Questionnaire and the Leadership Scale for Sport to investigate the relationship between team cohesion, coaching behavior, and performance. Researchers might utilize this research design in order to examine the direction of the relationship between variables.

Researchers may conduct studies that incorporate the use of unique electronic devices to improve performance. This design allows for a clearer identification of the impact of the treatment on the problem. Davis and Sime (2005) used video, internal imagery, and an electroencephalogram biofeedback apparatus to train a college-level baseball player after he was hit in the head by a pitch. His injury negatively affected his performance by increasing anxiety. To combat that anxiety, the researchers used biofeedback, along with other relaxation techniques, to teach the athlete to decrease his anxiety and increase his awareness and concentration while at bat.

Additional research includes experiments designed to determine what factors improve or harm performance. Experimental research allows for clear assignment of causality. Yopyk and Prentice (2005) conducted a stereotype threat experiment in which student athletes were reminded of their identity either as a student or as an athlete. Afterward, they completed a math test. Student-athletes reminded of their student identity just before the test performed better than did student athletes reminded of their athlete identity just before the test.

Application Of Sport Psychology

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are three basic roles that a sport psychologist plays: (a) As a researcher, the sport psychologist seeks to expand current knowledge in sport psychology in an effort to improve upon or further investigate current techniques. (b) As an educator, the primary responsibilities of the sport psychologist are taking new research findings and sharing that information with students, athletes, coaches, and other researchers. (c) As a practitioner, the primary responsibilities of the sport psychologist are working directly with athletes and coaches. Many of the career paths that a sport psychologist may take do not fit into one of the basic roles; instead, many sport psychologists play a combination of roles in their careers.

The first career path is for the person whose goal is primarily education and research in the sport sciences at the university level. In addition, persons on this career path have the opportunity to consult with amateur and professional sports teams. In order to achieve this goal, it is essential to earn a doctoral degree in the sport sciences, incorporating a specialty in sport psychology as well as core sport science classes such as biomechanics and exercise science. When applying for a job with a university, teaching experience and research are of primary importance, rather than previous consulting experience. This career path may be especially appealing to someone who finds tenure, and its relatively secure attributes, appealing. A person who follows this career path might also have the opportunity to hold workshops intended to teach coaches, athletes, and other sport psychologists how to apply their research findings.

The second career path is appropriate for a person who has earned a doctorate in psychology, educational psychology, or counseling and plans to teach in related areas. In addition to teaching, the person may have the opportunity to work with athletes at the amateur or professional level as a part-time consultant. Thus, preparatory course work should also include a significant number of hours in the sport sciences.

The third career path is for the person who is primarily interested in a counseling position with athletes and non-athletes. This path requires a doctoral degree at an APA-accredited program that includes a one-year internship program. Rarely do psychologists earn their entire income working with athletes; instead, many also have nonathlete clients, or work part time teaching at a university. Also rare are full-time counseling positions. Professionals following the first three career paths may also have the opportunity to undertake freelance work, in which they might be self-employed as a consultant for athletes at all levels, from middle and high school athletes to professional and Olympic athletes.

Of all of the career paths, the fourth requires the least amount of formal education, typically requiring a master’s degree, rather than a doctoral degree, in clinical or counseling psychology with an emphasis in the sport sciences, or a master’s degree in the sport sciences with an emphasis in psychology. Choosing this career path might lead to working closely with college athletes as an athletic academic advisor. Another opportunity might lie in health-care promotion, in sports rehabilitation clinics, or in employee wellness programs. Finally, the fourth career path might result in a university coaching job.

Health Psychology

Because sport and health are fairly similar concepts to the average person, many people may believe that sport psychology and health psychology are the same field. On the contrary, health psychology involves psychologists who seek to understand how our biology, our behavior, and social factors influence our health and our illness. Whereas health psychologists and sport psychologists might both work with athletes, health psychologists will take a different approach in their studies.

Health psychologists have a variety of career settings to choose from. Among others, they might work in hospitals and other medical centers, colleges and universities, public health agencies, or as private consultants working with major corporations. Some specific areas of study might include smoking cessation, exercise adoption, psychosomatic illness, stress, chronic pain, and sleep disorders.


Sport psychology is an exciting and relatively new field that opens up new ways of understanding human behavior. Although researchers have made a number of discoveries and advancements in very few years, there is still much to discover. What comes next for the sport psychologist? Some sport psychologists, like Don Greene, are using techniques originally designed for athletes and teaching them to competitors in other fields. Like athletes, performing artists experience many of the same problems associated with arousal and performance, but of course there are some key differences (Hamilton & Robson, 2006). Greene has worked with well-known groups, like the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, on controlling arousal before auditions and performances.

Health psychologists have already made an impact on the workplace. Major corporations have realized several dollars’ gain for every dollar spent on health promotion by keeping employees healthy and making fewer insurance claims. Sport psychologists now also join health psychologists in rejuvenating the workplace (Lloyd & Foster, 2006). They are introducing mental training methods such as mental imagery, strategic planning, and self-talk to employees and reaping considerable benefits. Further advancements in the field of sport psychology are likely to be far reaching. Who else can be helped? What else will be discovered? The future is wide open.


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