Sports—which involve emotion, competition, cooperation, achievement, and play—provide a rich area for psychological study. People involved in sports attempt to master very difficult skills, often subjecting themselves to intense physical stress as well as social pressure.
When psychologists began studying sports in the 1930s and 1940s, they focused on motor performance and the acquisition of motor skills. Sports psychology emerged as a distinct discipline in the 1960s, dominated by theories of social psychology.
Since then, research has expanded into numerous areas such as imagery training, hypnosis, relaxation training, motivation, socialization, conflict and competition, counseling, and coaching. Specific sports and recreational specialties studied include baseball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, fencing, dance, and many others.
Three primary areas of sports research are personality, motivation, and social influence. Personality studies have investigated whether there are specific traits that distinguish athletes from non-athletes.
Although most of these studies failed to yield significant results, some valid connections were made between success in athletics and positive mental health. Research on wrestlers, runners, and oarsmen found lower levels of depression, tension, hostility, and fatigue among more successful athletes when compared with their peers and with the general population.
Individual differences within a sport have also been studied. One instrument devised for this type of investigation is the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT), developed by Rainer Martens, which measures levels of anxiety in competitive sport. Studies of motivation have focused on optimum arousal levels for athletes.
Mostly such studies have corroborated existing research on arousal by relating peak performance to a moderate, optimum arousal level, with performance diminishing if arousal is either increased or decreased from that level. Negative effects of excess arousal include inefficient movement patterns and loss of sensitivity to environmental cues.
In successful athletes, the ability to control arousal and focus attention has proven to be as important as the level of arousal itself. Motivation in sports has also been approached from the angle of behavior modification, with attention to such issues as the effects of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards.
Studies of social influence, which were predominant in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on such issues as the influence of spectators, teammates, and competitors. Sports psychologists have also studied specific types of behavior.
For example, the origin and effect of aggression in sports have been investigated by researchers testing the concept of sport as a cathartic release of aggression. (It was found that aggressive sports tend to increase rather than diminish hostility and aggression.)
The social dynamics of team sports have also been studied. Psychological theories from other subfields, such as social psychology and behavioral psychology, have been applied successfully to the study of sports and recreation. At times, research has yielded findings which are different from those seen in these more traditional areas.
Contrary to what a behavioral psychologist might predict, for instance, some studies done on coaching behaviors reveal that effective methods of instruction are not always related to high levels of praise or positive reinforcement.
The common behavior of coaches, even successful ones, is disproportionately composed of scolding and “hustling,” or urging on, rather than providing supportive feedback. Another finding that goes against conventional wisdom is that team cohesiveness in team-oriented sports does not necessarily lead to top performance.
Following the already existing practice in Europe, sports psychologists in North America now work directly with professional athletes and teams to help improve performance. Techniques applied include anxiety management, progressive relaxation, autogenic training, biofeedback, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Mental imagery, attention control, goal-setting, and work on interpersonal skills are also part of sports psychology programs for athletes. Positive results have been reported in enhancing performance and controlling anxiety.
As the study of sports psychology has grown, it has borrowed less from other specialties, such as behaviorism, making its own contributions to the field of psychology. The unique findings in this discipline have contributed to other, more conventional areas of psychology and are recognized as having significant applications to the mental health of the general population.
One example can be seen in numerous research reports which have cited the benefits of jogging and other sports in alleviating depression. (Some studies have found that running is equal to psychotherapy in its ability to relieve depressive symptoms.)
Sports psychology has also gained recognition through the popularity of such books as Thaddeus Kostrubala’s The Joy of Running, David Kauss’s Peak Performance, and Timothy Gallwey’s “inner game” books.
Psychologically-oriented instruction books, such as Vic Braden’s Tennis for the Future, have also gained wide audiences. Principles developed through sports research, such as attention control training, have also been adapted for use in business and other organizational settings.
Coaching and fitness models and other sports psychology concepts have been used in training managers and supervisors. Books on this topic include Coaching for Improved Work Performance by Ferdinand Fournies and Coaching, Learning, and Action by B.C. Lovin and E. Casstevens.
As medical findings continue to support the role of exercise and fitness in building and maintaining health, people are interested in learning how they can apply related information to build skills and enjoy their activities more fully. These individuals become likely subjects, along with athletes, for psychologists seeking to do research or to provide counseling in the area of sports and recreation.
While there is no specific division devoted to sports psychology within the American Psychological Association, those involved in the discipline may join the Academy of Sport Psychology International (ASPI), the American College of Sports Medicine, the International Society of Sports Psychology, or various other organizations.
English-language journals in the field include the Journal of Sport Psychology, the International Journal of Sport Psychology, the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and Psychology of Motor Behavior and Sport.