Sport Psychology

The “American Psychology Association” defines sport psychology as a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and the well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.
It must also be noted that it is an interdisciplinary science, as it comprises both sports science and psychology subdisciplines.

Sport science subdisciplines:

  • Exercise physiology

  • Biomechanics

  • Sports medicine

  • Motor learning

  • Sport and exercise sociology
  • Sport and exercise pedagogy
  • Coaching science

Psychology subdisciplines:

  • Clinical and counselling psychology
  • Organizational psychology
  • Developmental psychology

  • Personality psychology

  • Psychophysiology

  • Abnormal psychology

  • Health psychology

Although sport psychology has only recently been recognized as an important part of an athlete´s training, its history can be tracked back almost 120 years, with the publication of the first recognized study exploring the influence of other riders on individuals’ cycling time (Triplett, 1898). That study proved that cyclists make better times when riding in groups, as opposed to cycling alone.

Today, almost all professional athletes, and increasingly more amateurs, use the services of sports psychologists. Most professional teams, when the budget permits, have a sports psychologist as a member of their backroom staff, while others hire sport psychology clinics and outside counselors to help prepare their players and coaches mentally for high pressured situations in which they find themselves almost every day.

The services they provide mostly relate to helping athletes cope with performance anxiety, improve mental skills for performance, mentally prepare for competition, return after injury, develop pre-game and pre-shot routines, improve practice efficiency and provide support to players and coaches alike, dealing with any problems they might have outside the world of sport.

To prepare for those tasks, they must be well educated on the topics researched in the field of sport psychology.

Sport Psychology Personality

Main topics cover:


The blend of characteristics (thoughts, feelings and behaviours) that make individuals unique. It can be separated into 3 levels:

  1. Psychological core – the most internal, deepest and stable level that includes our beliefs, attitudes, motivations, needs and values.
  2. Typical responses – the way that people most commonly respond to others, events and situations.
  3. The role-related behavior – the most changeable aspect and refers to the ways people behave based on their perception of their social environment.

Sport Psychology Motivation


Vallerand and Thill define the concept of motivation as the hypothetical construct used to describe the internal and or external forces that produce the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behavior. Out of that we can derive two basic types of motivation:

1. Intrinsic motivation – motivation to do something for its own sake in the absence of external rewards. (Biddle and Murtrie, 2001)

Intrinsic motives:
  • Having fun
  • Pleasure of participating, learning and perfecting of an activity
  • Feeling of self-worth
  • Excitement
  • Feeling of competence
  • Control
  • Integration

2. Extrinsic motivation – participating in an activity to gain some satisfaction of an external demand. (Ryan and Deci, 2000)

Extrinsic motives:
  • Recognition
  • Social approval (parents, coaches, public…)
  • Status
  • Rewards, medals, rankings
  • Records
  • Money


Aggression is the characteristic of an interpersonal response characteristic of a person’s social behavior. Relatively, it is a persistent and stable feature that directs behavior in social situations, and manifests itself in the experience of anger, and in the easy reach of numerous targets for direct and indirect attack, negativity and conflict with authority.

Athletes’ aggressive behaviours in sports are influenced by different personal, social and environmental factors. Some of these factors may be manipulated through modelling non-aggressive behavior, to help athletes manage their aggression.


According to Sage (1984), arousal is an energizing mechanism that allows us to recruit the resources needed to engage in intense and vigorous activity.

If the athletes’ pre-competition arousal levels are not optimal, they may not perform at their highest level. That is where a sport psychologist can help with setting up a pre-game or a pre-performance routine. Some of the other strategies used can be self-talk, imagery or relaxation, depending on whether the arousal level needs to be lowered or raised.


Anxiety in sports is the consequence of foreseeing negative outcomes in one´s own performance. It occurs when there is an imbalance between the athletes’ abilities, and the goals that they set for themselves. It is a common occurrence in sports. Even the best athletes fear a bad performance; however, they control and accept that fear.

Sport Psychology Self-confidence


When talking about sports, self-confidence represents the athlete´s belief that he has the abilities to perform successfully. Low self-confidence can lead to high levels of anxiety. Many coaches believe that self-confidence is a key ingredient to a successful performance. Main sources for athletes’ self-confidence are recognition (praise, good results, medals…), vicarious experiences, positive verbal feedback, good self-imagery and self-esteem.

Some other topics covered by sport psychology are group cohesion, audience effects, leadership, burnout and overtraining, doping and drug use, body image, eating disorders and the general mental health of athletes.

Although sport is, in general, a positive experience and most people do it because they enjoy it, sometimes it can also be a source of stress, especially in the world of professional sport. That is when sport psychologists can make a big difference by using their expertise and all the knowledge at their disposal.

Claude Littner Bachelor in Sport Management

Sport Psychology was last modified: June 4th, 2018 by MIUC
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