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Definition: sports psychology from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

The study of psychological aspects of sport (e.g. playing, training, etc.).


Summary Article: Sport and Exercise Psychology
from Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine

In the past 30 years, sport psychology has been recognized as a distinct area of study in human behavior. Sport psychology is concerned with the psychological and emotional factors that influence both participation in sports and performance activities and the psychological effects derived from them. There are many dimensions to participation in sports, exercise, and performance activity that are influenced by psychological factors. Sport psychologists study motivation, personality, leadership, team building and cohesion, coaching styles, athletic identity, the psychology of injury rehabilitation, and variables related to achieving optimal performance. Sport psychologists work with individuals, teams, parenting organizations, coaches, and health care providers. The field has grown and has become integrated into the overall development of athletes and performers. Psychological factors are considered to be critical in achieving optimal performance after the talent playing field is leveled. Psychologists also contribute to understanding the effects that participating in physical activity has on psychological development, health, and well-being. While some sport psychologists work exclusively with athletic performance, many focus on the psychological factors involved in exercise-developing strategies to encourage sedentary people to exercise or evaluating the effectiveness of exercise as a treatment for depression. The field has been broadened and is now called sport and exercise psychology. Sport psychology has two primary specialties: (1) clinical sport psychology and (2) educational sport psychology. A significant distinction is made in the field between the two. Clinical sport psychologists have extensive training in clinical and/or counseling psychology and have developed their skills to detect and treat individuals with emotional disorders. Clinical sport psychologists are typically licensed by state boards to practice and have augmented their training to include the subspecialty of sport and exercise psychology and the sports sciences. Educational sport psychology consultants have extensive training in sport and exercise science, physical education, and kinesiology. They also understand the psychology of human movement as it manifests in sport and exercise environments. Educational sport psychology consultants often provide “mental coaching” and psychological skills training. They are often called on to work with teams and individual athletes to teach anxiety management strategies, improve athletic confidence, improve coach-athlete communication, and build team cohesion.

History of Sport Psychology

The first known sport psychology laboratory was established in Germany in 1920. Coleman Griffith has been recognized as the father of this science in the United States. In 1925, he established the first ever sport psychology facility in the nation, the Athletic Research Laboratory. Griffith focused his research on various sport science and psychology issues in 1918, and he introduced the first university-level courses in sport psychology at the University of Illinois in 1923. Coaches showed interest in the psychological aspects of athletic performance in competition even before there was a science called sport psychology. The “pep talk” was highlighted by Knute Rockne-the football coach of the fighting Irish of Notre Dame-in the 1920s. Academic sport psychology was established by the mid-1960s. Physical education had become an academic discipline (now called kinesiology or exercise and sport science), and sport psychology had become a separate component within this discipline. Sport psychologists had also developed the applied side of their field and started to work with athletes and teams.

The field is thriving and vibrant, with many applications in sports, exercise, physical health, and sports medicine. Applied sport psychologists find their skills and application of knowledge helpful in many domains. In coach-training programs, the sport psychologist can help coaches understand the complex relationship between thought, emotions, motivational factors, and behaviors when an athlete is both acquiring a specific sport skill and applying it in athletic situations (with teammates, opponents, officials, and their coaches). Education is provided to help the coach understand the differences between using positive and aversive approaches to influencing behavior-as well as helping coaches use tools to assess their own effectiveness.

In sports medicine, the clinical sport psychologist is called on to treat injured or physically challenged athletes (those with overtraining, eating disorders, burnout, or overuse injuries or on post-surgical rehab) with emotional disorders. In addition, the sport psychologist assists athletes with the psychological process that goes alongside physical rehabilitation from acute and chronic sports injuries. The psychologist assists with the intricate recovery from sports concussions-both in the psychological assessment and in the counseling process. In addition, athletes often face challenges to their athletic identity when confronted with injuries and career-ending situations. The overall adjustment of the athlete is often improved by the specific skill set of a psychologist trained to work with athletes and high performers.

Sport psychology specialists provide consultation, education, and counseling to youth sports organizations. In the United States alone, an estimated 45 million children younger than 18 years are involved in school and extracurricular physical activity programs. Many children are intensively involved in organized sports. On average, youth sports activities require 11 hours weekly in the specific sport for about an 18-week season. Children are offered the opportunity through sports to participate actively in an activity that has meaningful consequences for themselves, their peers, their family, and the community around them. Most children peak in sports around age 12. Developmental psychology has provided the research to help us understand the critical periods for children that have important consequences on their self-esteem, body image, and social development. Hence, the youth sports experience can have important lifelong effects on the personality and psychological development of children. There are few hotter topics in parenting arenas than those surrounding the current challenges and opportunities facing youth sports. The professionalization and early specialization of young athletes have raised important questions about the developmental appropriateness of competition, sports selection, overuse injuries, overscheduled children, and the overzealous coach or parent.

Violence and Aggression in Sports

Another headlining topic that brings in the sport psychology consultant is violence and aggression in sports. Psychologists use the working definition of aggression as “any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment.” Psychologists further divide the term into two types of aggression. Hostile aggression has as its primary goal the infliction of harm or injury (physically or emotionally). Instrumental aggression, on the other hand, occurs as part of a non-harmful goal. A hockey check and a boxer's solid blow to an opponent's head are examples of instrumental aggression. Anger and violence often erupt in sporting situations because the line between instrumental and hostile aggression becomes blurry. Deaths have occurred when a player or spectator has not been able to regulate the aggressive arousal often stirred by high-contact play. The sport psychology consultant provides opportunities for coaches and players to address how to maintain the fine line between instrumental and hostile aggression and develop strategies for dealing with impulsive actions if an athlete, coach, or spectator feels out of control.

College Athletics and Sport Psychology

Many college athletic departments have begun to use and integrate the services of sport psychology consultants. College students and most student-athletes find themselves in a flux of emotionally taxing life transitions-some of which are predictable and result from the athletic commitments made and others that are developmental in nature. Student-athletes are a diverse group of individuals often trying to find their way in a more complex world than that of their predecessors. The commercialization of college athletics has brought new stressors to these athletes and their coaches. Navigating through the complicated National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules and contractual obligations of scholarship monies leaves the student-athlete often unprepared for the stressful fallout from such a relished position. The NCAA has come to recognize the significance of counseling and mental health issues in the lives of student-athletes. The sport psychologist is available to assist with performance-based issues in the sports or game situation. He or she is also available to help the athlete balance academic demands, injury, time management, drug and alcohol use, and postcareer planning and transitions.

Professional sports and high-profile competitions such as the Olympics draw attention to the mental side of sports and have made it a “no-brainer” that the mind is often the defining factor in winning and losing. Specific mental skills are honed over time by well-trained and highly competitive athletes-including performing optimally under pressure, with optimal regulation of mood, anxiety, and thought-so that their performance is at a peak. When needed, the sport psychology consultant teaches a range of psychological skills to improve the mental side of the athlete's performance. These skills usually include goal setting, arousal control, self-talk, visualization, imagery, concentration and attention control training, and communication. These skills are used to address and improve performance issues. Sport psychology consultants also help athletes distinguish between performance enhancement and more problematic emotional issues. Depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, and other mental health issues often affect athletic performance and can be disguised by the athlete or coach's perception that the struggle is performance based.

Exercise and Rehabilitation Psychology

Exercise psychology is an emerging field that separates itself somewhat from applied sport psychology but often shares many of the same underlying principles and tools. Exercise psychology is concerned with the application of psychological principles to the promotion and maintenance of exercise and physical activity and the psychological and emotional consequences of recreational physical activity. A field closely related to exercise psychology is rehabilitation psychology, which deals with the relationship between psychological factors and the physical rehabilitation process.

Exercise rehabilitation is broader than recovery from sports injuries. It includes exercise rehabilitation from cardiac events, Type I and Type II diabetes, obesity, spinal cord injuries, and other medical events requiring exercise as a part of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation psychology also addresses the role of physical activity as a complementary strategy for treating disease and disability.

Some of the critical concepts in exercise psychology include studying the psychological antecedents of exercise behavior. While the American College of Sports Medicine recommends being physically active “most” days per week, the rate of exercise adoption and adherence is sluggish. They report that only 20% of adults engage in the minimal recommended amount of activity. Health care professionals frequently recommend exercise regimens as they relate to physical and mental health. However, compliance rates are often low, and adherence is primarily seen as related to psychological factors. In view of the alarming rates of inactivity in most industrialized nations, exercise psychology provides research and intervention strategies to address this epidemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that lack of physical activity, along with poor diet, is responsible for at least 300,000 “preventable” deaths per year.

Exercise psychology relies on several theories and models to build understanding and interventions of physical activity behavior. At the core of the predominantly used exercise psychology theories is a common core construct-self-referenced thought. For example, self-determination theory begins with the basic assumption that individuals possess three primary psychosocial needs: (1) the need for self-determination (autonomy, self-dependent behavior), (2) the need to demonstrate competence, and (3) the need for relatedness. They hypothesize that individuals who exercise for reasons related to low self-determination (e.g., improving appearance) would be less likely to adhere to exercise interventions than someone who exercises for the pure pleasure of it. This theory predicts that improvements in intrinsic motivation to exercise would be aimed at enhancing an individual's sense of competence and autonomy in an environment that is supportive of satisfying social interactions. The systematic identification of the relevant psychological variables allows physical educators, trainers, and rehabilitation specialists to design a program making the best use of the strategies that should lead to long-term adoption of and adherence to exercise.

Practitioners and researchers in exercise psychology have extensively addressed questions related to mental health and physical activity. Considerable research has been done on the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress and the role that exercise can play in the alleviation of symptoms. Exercise is also studied for its self-esteem benefits and the overall contribution it makes to emotional well-being. Of course, the physical correlates of positive emotional well-being have been documented for decades and extend the value of this field well beyond the mental domain.

Sport Psychology in Sports Medicine

Only very recently has the sport psychologist also become part of an interdisciplinary orthopedic or sports medicine practice. There is a growing interest and need among sports medicine professionals to include the emotional component of the patient in rehabilitation from acute and chronic sports injuries. The sport psychologist works in coordination with sports medicine physicians, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, athletic trainers, nutritionists, fellows, and interns in training. Many sports injuries-both acute and overuse-respond well to a sport psychology counseling consultation. Acute injuries that are rather straightforward-broken bones, fractures, sprains, and strains-do not often even make it to the psychologist's office. Patients with recurrent or chronic injuries (e.g., multiple anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] injuries, which require long periods of rehabilitation; chronic back pain; regional pain syndrome) often suffer long periods of frustration, loss, and at times career-ending consequences. Counseling targeting the physical and emotional rehabilitation process often helps with injury recovery and overall adjustment. Children and adults who strongly identify with their sport/performance domain have difficulties making the transition to other activities while injured. As noted earlier, where an ACL repair can take up to 9 months before return to play is possible, athletes find it difficult to manage the unstructured time that is often consistent with being injured.

Coordinating care around concussion management is particularly useful, as return-to-play decisions are often based on very subtle symptom recovery, requiring care and supervision from the treating physician or athletic trainer. In families with young athletes with concussions that last more than a few weeks, the psychologist can facilitate the implementation of physician recommendations for brain rest, academic accommodations, and modified physical activity. Based on anecdotal report, many young athletes recover more quickly from concussion symptoms when the treatment includes a psychological consultation.

Many athletes find the line between maintaining a healthy body weight and a strong performance weight to be a challenge. Sports medicine patients who are identified as possibly having nutritional, body image, or eating disorder issues are frequently referred for both nutritional and psychological counseling. The importance of maintaining a healthy body weight is significant for long-term performance issues in both men and women. Female athlete triad is a well-known condition for women who push the line in their athletic pursuits, creating conditions that prevent them from enjoying full physiological health. In many cases, these athletes do not resemble the psychological profile of the clinical eating disorder. In other cases, sports performancebased eating issues can become full-blown cases of anorexia and bulimia and need to be treated as such.

It is not always clear to the medical professional, athletic trainer, or coach as to when an athlete should be referred for counseling or psychotherapy. In much of the performance enhancement literature, most problems in performance are related to competition anxiety, motivational problems, and poor self-talk and concentration. However, sometimes athletes are struggling for reasons related to longer-term emotional issues that need to be identified. As noted at the beginning of this entry, there are sport psychologists who treat performance issues only and others with clinical/counseling training who can facilitate the care of athletes with emotionally based issues. When anxiety generalizes beyond the performance domain, it is usually indicative of issues that extend beyond athletic performance. Other kinds of issues facing athletes who benefit from counseling are identity issues, sexual orientation and homophobia, sexuality and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-related issues, eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse issues, anger and aggression control, and relationship issues.

See also

Anger and Violence in Sports, Imagery and Visualization, Psychological Aspects of Injury and Rehabilitation, Psychological Assessment in Sports, Psychology of the Young Athlete

Further Readings
  • Abrams, M. Anger Management in Sport: Understanding and Controlling Violence in Athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2010..
  • Lox, C, Martin, K, Petruzzello, S. The Psychology of Exercise: Integrating Theory and Practice. Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway; 2003..
  • Williams, J, ed. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield; 1998..
  • Winberg, R, Gould, D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2003..
  • Chirban, Sharon A.
    Copyright © 2011 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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