Sport Psychology and Its History (2023)

My boyfriend, an avid golfer, always says that golf is mainly a game of the brain. That is, your mental state has a lot to do with your success on the course.

And, not surprisingly, it’s like that with other sports. Psychology can give players an edge. As Ludy Benjamin and David Baker write in From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America, “Indeed, in so many instances when physical talents seem evenly matched, it is the mental factors that will make the difference in winning or losing.”

That’s where sport psychology — also sometimes referred to as sports psychology — comes in. So how did sport psychology start and evolve?

Early Experiments

In America, sport psychology’s roots date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when several psychologists started conducting sports-related studies.

In 1898, psychologist Norman Triplett (1861-1934) found that cyclists made better time when they were competing against others in races versus when they cycled alone (read more here). Edward W. Scripture (1864-1945), a psychologist at Yale University, studied the reaction time of runners.

In the 1920s psychologist Walter Miles (1885-1978), along with grad student B.C. Graves and college football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, focused their attention on football. They wanted to find out the quickest way for offensive linemen to move in harmony after the center hiked the ball. Miles created his own equipment for the experiment to ascertain the players’ reaction times.

(Video) The History of Sport Psychology from the Clinical Perspective

According to Monitor on Psychology,

The ingenious device tested the individual reaction times of seven linemen simultaneously. When a lineman moved, he triggered the release of a golf ball that fell onto a rotating drum. The drum was covered with paper stretched over a wire mesh, and the ball made a definite impression on the paper that allowed measurement of the lineman’s quickness. Coaches agreed that the initial charge of the line was a great advantage for the offense, and they were interested in ways to quicken that movement.

The significance of this experiment extends beyond faster linemen on some football team. According to the article: “In retrospect, Miles and Graves were in the forefront of a movement that is everywhere in sports today: using psychological insights and experimental techniques to get every possible advantage over opponents.”

The Founder of Sport Psychology

“The more mind is made use of in athletic competition, the greater will be the skill of our athletes.”

While the above psychologists dabbled in sports research, Coleman R. Griffith (1893-1966) is credited as the founder of sport psychology. (Here’s a photo of him working.)

He started studying sport psychology as a graduate student in 1918. His research then focused on how vision and attention predicted basketball and football performance (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

A few years later, he was teaching a course specifically on “Psychology and Athletics.” He also was appointed assistant professor at the University of Illinois.

(Video) An International History of Sport Psychology

In 1925, he opened the first-ever research lab on athletic performance at the university. There, he conducted lots of research in sport psychology, which featured:

a) the relation between physical exercise and learning, b) the effects of extreme physical exercise on longevity and disease resistance, c) the nature of sleep in athletes, d) methods of teaching psychological skills in football, e) measurement of physical fitness, f) the effects of emotion on learning of habits, g) muscular coordination, h) persistence of errors, i) the effects of fatigue on performance, j) measures of motor aptitude, and k) mental variables associated with excellent athletic performance.

(as cited in Benjamin & Baker, 2004)

Unfortunately, because of the Great Depression and the rumored loss of support from Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke — who didn’t see any improvements from Griffith’s research — the lab would be shut down in 1932.

In 1925, Griffith also published what is considered his most important article, “Psychology and Its Relation to Athletic Competition” (Green, 2003). In it, he talked about why psychology was so valuable for athletic performance. He wrote:

The more mind is made use of in athletic competition, the greater will be the skill of our athletes, the finer will be the contest, the higher will be the ideals of sportsmanship displayed, the longer will our games persist in our national life, and the more truly will they lead to those rich personal and social products which we ought to expect of them.

Because of these facts, the psychologist may hope to break into the realm of athletic competition, just as he has already broken into the realms of industry, commerce, medicine, education, and art.

(Video) 02 | History Of Sports Psychology | Eng

He also published two textbooks on sports psychology. In 1926, he published Psychology of Coaching and two years later, Psychology and Athletics.

In 1938, Griffith got the opportunity to work in the field as a consultant to the Chicago Cubs. (He’d already worked with college teams.) The owner, Philip K. Wrigley — yes, the gum guy — hired Griffith.

But his work with the Cubs didn’t last long — ending in 1940 — and wasn’t successful either. The Cubs’ manager, Charlie Grimm, viewed Griffith’s involvement as interference and implemented only a few of his suggestions. (Griffith wrote 600 pages about his work with the team in those two years.)

Sport Psychology in Baseball

According to Green (2003), after Griffith, other psychologists followed suit in helping baseball teams. He writes:

Ten years later, in an admittedly somewhat different vein, New York psychologist and hypnotist David F. Tracy would be hired to help the St. Louis Browns (Tracy, 1951). In the 1950s, baseball scout Jim McLaughlin began bringing to player recruitment the kind of “scientific attitude” that Griffith had promoted in the 1930s (Kerrane, 1984, chap. 7). In the 1960s, the Philadelphia Phillies teamed up with some University of Delaware professors to found a “Research Program for Baseball” (Kerrane, 1984, p. 153). In the 1970s, the Kansas City Royals created a science-based “academy” of baseball development. By the 1980s, tests such as the Athletic Motivation Inventory (Tutko, Lyon, & Ogilvie, 1969) were becoming a standard tool of professional baseball scouts and managers. Also in the 1980s, then-Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s manager Tony LaRussa brought the laptop computer and the digital database into the dugout to stay. So, although it seems that Griffith personally “struck out” with the Cubs, one might say that the “batting form” he pioneered was later developed by others, and its descendents today are a standard practice in professional baseball and in other sports.

Sport Psychology Today

Sport psychologists work in a variety of settings. They have their own private practices, offer consulting services, help professional sports teams, conduct research and hold positions at the NCAA, among other roles.

And a lot of this work also is very interesting. Here’s one example: “One sport psychologist taught sharpshooters to be cognizant of their heartbeats (by using a biofeedback device) and to learn to fire the gun between heartbeats, thus giving them a slight advantage in steadiness” (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

(Video) History of Sports Psychology

According to the APA, here’s what sport psychologists can help athletes with:

Enhance performance. Various mental strategies, such as visualization, self-talk and relaxation techniques, can help athletes overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

Cope with the pressures of competition. Sport psychologists can help athletes at all levels deal with pressure from parents, coaches or even their own expectations.

Recover from injuries. After an injury, athletes may need help tolerating pain, adhering to their physical therapy regimens or adjusting to being sidelined.

Keep up an exercise program. Even those who want to exercise regularly may find themselves unable to fulfill their goal. Sport psychologists can help these individuals increase their motivation and tackle any related concerns.

Enjoy sports. Sports organizations for young people may hire a sport psychologist to educate coaches about how to help kids enjoy sports and how to promote healthy self-esteem in participants.


Who started sport psychology? ›

The Father of Sport Psychology

Triplett broke some ground, but Coleman Griffith is considered the founder of sport psychology, as the first researcher to specialize in the area. He taught a course called “Psychology and Athletics,” and in 1925, opened the first research lab specializing in sport psychology topics.

What are the 6 periods of sport psychology? ›

The TTM is a stages of change model that illustrates how behavior changes over time, progressing through six discrete stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination (see figure 1.1). Following is a brief definition of each stage (Prochaska, 2008) with implications for MPCs.

Who is the father founder of sport psychology? ›

Coleman Roberts Griffith: "Father" of North American sport psychology.

What is sport psychology and why is it important? ›

The main purpose of Sport Psychology is to enhance an individual's athletic performance. Mental skills and strategies help athletes concentrate better, deal more effectively with competitive stress, and practice and train more efficiently.

What is called sport psychology? ›

Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.

What are the 2 branches of sport psychology? ›

Imagery and simulation training and techniques form the second branch of sport psychology. Although commonly treated as a single entity, imagery and simulation are two distinct psychological approaches to sport training and preparation.

What are the 10 areas of sport psychology? ›

Common areas of study
  • Personality. One common area of study within sport psychology is the relationship between personality and performance. ...
  • Athletic Performance. ...
  • Youth sport. ...
  • Coaching. ...
  • Team processes. ...
  • Organizational Sport Psychology. ...
  • Motivation in sport. ...
  • Recovery from Injury.

What are the 3 main roles of sports psychologist? ›

Sports psychology career skills include: Assessing athletic performance and how psychological tools can improve performance. Identifying and treating psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Using technology or advising athletes and coaches on technology, such as biofeedback methods.

Who is father of sports? ›

It's fair to say that Charles Alcock is mostly forgotten except to historians of sport, but as the title of this book declares, he was the father of modern sport. As a footballer, he captained Wanderers to FA Cup success and refereed an FA Cup Final.

Who defined the term sport psychologist? ›

Griffith (1893-1966) is commonly recognized as the first sports psychologist. Griffith opened an athletic research laboratory at the University of Illinois in 1925. In 1925 he published an article, ''Psychology and Its Relation to Athletic Competition,'' which is considered one of his most important works/writings.

What is sports psychology and examples? ›

Sports psychology acknowledges the major impact of emotional and psychological factors can have on athletes competing in sports. For example, confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and determination are just a few of the psychological components that can influence how an individual athlete or team performs.

What are the two main objectives of sports psychology? ›

Most people study sport and exercise psychology with two objectives in mind: (1) to understand how psychological and social factors influence an individual's behavioural outcomes (e.g., sport performance, exercise motivation) and (2) to understand how participation in sport and exercise influences psychological and ...

What are two benefits of sports psychology? ›

Here are some of the key benefits of sports psychology:
  • Better Stress Management. Being an athlete is extremely stressful. ...
  • Improved Focus. Sports require an incredible amount of mental effort. ...
  • Increased Confidence. ...
  • Improved Athletic Performance. ...
  • Team Building. ...
  • Goal Setting. ...
  • Reduced Risk of Burnout. ...
  • Better Mental Health Overall.
20 Oct 2022

What are the types of sports psychology? ›

Sports psychologists are divided into two types—educational sports psychologists, and clinical sports psychologists. Educational sports psychologists use techniques like goal-setting, imagery, or self-talk to help clients manage their mental and psychological thought processes to perform optimally on the field.

Who uses sports psychology? ›

Clinical sports psychologists work with athletes who have mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. This work involves using strategies from both sports psychology and psychotherapy. 5 A clinical sports psychologist helps athletes improve their mental health and sports performance at the same time.

What is the scope of sports psychology? ›

Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.

What famous athletes use sports psychology? ›

Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O'Neal all say that working with sports psychologist George Mumford was an integral part of their success.

What do sports psychologists focus on? ›

Sport psychologists focus primarily on: - Helping athletes use psychological principles and skills to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance. - Understanding how individuals' participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity affects their psychological development, health, and well-being.

What are the 4 major areas of psychology? ›

What Are the Four Types of Psychology?
  • Clinical psychology.
  • Cognitive psychology.
  • Behavioral psychology.
  • Biopsychology.
21 Jun 2021

What are the most important features of sports psychologists? ›

The best sports psychologists were perceived to have the following characteristics: Likable and had something very applied and concrete to offer. Flexible and able to meet individual needs by providing person-specific input. Accessible enough to establish a rapport with individual athletes, caring attitude.

What are the 5 main psychological theories? ›

Psychology Perspectives

There may be several different theories within an approach, but they all share these common assumptions. The five major perspectives in psychology are biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive and humanistic.

What type of psychology is sports psychology? ›

Sports psychologists teach cognitive and behavioral strategies to help athletes improve their experiences, athletic performance, and mental wellness when participating in sports. They can assist with performance enhancement, motivation, stress management, anxiety control, or mental toughness.

Who invented the first sport? ›

With the first Olympic Games in 776 BC—which included events such as foot and chariot races, wrestling, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing—the Ancient Greeks introduced formal sports to the world.

Who was the first sport? ›

Wrestling is regarded the oldest sports in the world and we have proof. The famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France, dating back to 15,300 years ago, depict wrestlers.

Who is known as God of sports? ›

Lord Shiva can be the one if one presses.

What is the impact of sports psychology? ›

Sports psychology, or performance coaching, helps teach and apply psychological strategies to manage an athlete's mental health issues. These doctors of human behavior and the mind help clients recognize strengths and identify and eliminate the mental obstacles that impact sports performance and physical healing.

Who wrote sports psychology? ›

Griffith also published two major works during this time: The Psychology of Coaching (1926) and The Psychology of Athletics (1928). Coleman Griffith was also the first person to describe the job of sport psychologists and talk about the main tasks that they should be capable of carrying out.

Who created sports Analytics? ›

Early statisticians like Bill James, however, started challenging those subjective assumptions with data in the 1980s. James came up with a mathematical system to evaluate baseball players called Sabermetrics, which he released to the public in a book titled The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Where was the first sport psychology program in the world established? ›

In 1897, an Indiana University psychologist, Dr. Norman Triplett, wrote what was considered the first scientific paper on sport psychology, on the social facilitation behavior of bicyclists. In the early 1920's, the first sport psychology laboratory was created in Berlin, Germany, by Dr. Carl Diem.

When did sports psychology become popular? ›

As the name of the era implies, it was between the late 1970s and 1990s that sport psychology came of age as both a science and an area of professional practice.

What are the two main areas of sport psychology? ›

Sport psychologists are interested in two main areas: (a) helping athletes use psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (performance enhancement) and (b) understanding how participation in sport, exercise and physical activity affects an individual's psychological development ...

What are the 4 pillars of sports analytics? ›

The four pillars are Communication, Statistics, Programming, and domain knowledge: Sports.

When was analytics first used in sports? ›

The first usage of analytics in sports is known to be in a baseball sport. Henry Chadwick, a sportswriter, developed a metric called the box score back in 1858.

What tools are used in sports analytics? ›

Sport Performance Analysis
  • Sportscode by Hudl. Sportscode is widely used across the industry. ...
  • Dartfish. ...
  • Nacsport. ...
  • Opta by Perform Group. ...
  • StatsBomb.
  • Quintic. ...
  • Coach Paint. ...
  • KlipDraw.

Who is the world's first psychologist? ›

Wundt, who distinguished psychology as a science from philosophy and biology, was the first person ever to call himself a psychologist. He is widely regarded as the "father of experimental psychology". In 1879, at the University of Leipzig, Wundt founded the first formal laboratory for psychological research.

How many sports psychology branches are there? ›

As sport psychology evolved over the twentieth century, two different kinds of sport psychologists emerged. Clinical sport psychologists are trained primarily in applied areas of psychology such as abnormal, clinical, counseling, and personality psychology and are usually licensed psychologists.


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