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Sport Psychologists and the History of Sport Psychology

sport psychologistAlthough sport and exercise psychology are probably more popular then at any previous time, their development dates back to about the turn of the 20th century. Some (Weinberg & Gould, 1999) have considered the first North American sports psychologist to be a psychologist from Indiana University named Norman Triplett. Triplett was the first researcher to confirm that bicyclists sometimes rode faster when they raced in groups or pairs than when they rode alone.

The field of sport psychology has come a long way since the early days of Norman Triplett. Modern-day sports psychologists may engage in several different roles including conducting research, teaching, and consulting with athletes and exercisers. Not all sports psychologists are trained in the same way.

"Clinical sport and exercise psychologists are trained specifically in psychology to treat athletes and exercisers with severe emotional disorders, such as substance abuse or anorexia. Educational sport psychology specialists receive training in exercise and sport science and related fields and serve as mental coaches, educating athletes and exercisers about psychological skills and their development. They're not trained to assist people with severe emotional disorders" (Weinberg & Gould, 1999, p. 19).


Sports psychologists may utilize various approaches (Silva & Weinberg, 1984) to working with athletes, coaches and other interested parties in athletic situations and with patients in clinical settings. The approaches used in working in sport and exercise psychology include social-psychological, psychophysiological, and cognitive-behavior orientations. "Social-psychological sport psychologists focus on how complex interactions between the social environment and personal makeup of the athlete or exerciser influence behavior. Psychophysiological sport psychologists study the physiological processes of the brain and their influence on physical activity, whereas cognitive-behavioral sport psychologists examine how individual thoughts determine behavior" (Weinberg & Gould, 1999, p. 20).

In addition to assisting athletes and coaches in coping with various emotional concerns which may inhibit their opportunities to perform athletic functions including symptoms of depression, anxiety management and substance abuse, of particular interest to many are the various techniques and methods which sports psychologists have developed to assist in promoting the optimum performance of those in the athletic arena. Major areas of interest (Silva & Weinberg, 1984) which help in the accomplishment of these athletic goals include issues related to anxiety, arousal and performance, motivation, aggression in sports, group dynamics and exercise and psychological well-being.

The issue of anxiety is an important aspect of athletic performance. Sports psychologists may consider how to optimize the level of arousal and how feelings of stress and anxiety may influence the performance of the competitor. Both situational and individual trait anxiety are considered in developing mental preparation strategies to enhance performance. Relaxation techniques and mental imagery are classic techniques utilized to achieve these goals.

Motivation is also a key factor in successful athletic competition. Both external rewards and internal motivation are important considerations in achieving athletic goals. Realistic goal setting in itself, may be an important motivational factor.

Sports psychologists also continue to try to understand issues related to aggression in sports and group dynamics. Factors related to the acquisition and exhibition of aggressive behavior may be considered as well as how aggression correlates with performance in sports. Group dynamics may consider how the audience effects the competition from both the perspective of competitor and viewer.

Sport and exercise psychologists have began to research and provide information in the ways that psychological well-being and vigorous physical activity are related. Also, sport psychologists are beginning to consider exercise to be a therapeutic adjunct to healthy mental adjustment.

In summary, sport psychologists are really beginning to be recognized for the valuable contributions they make to assisting athletes and coaches in optimizing performance in competitive situations, as well as understanding how physical exercise may contribute to the psychological well-being of the everyday man or woman.

By   Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist 


Silva, J.M. & Weinberg, R.S. (1984). Psychological foundations of sport. Champaign, Illinois : Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (1999). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. (2nd. ed.). Champaign, Illinois : Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

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