What Is Sports Psychology?

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What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology is the study of how psychological factors influence sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity. Sports psychologists investigate how participating in sports can improve health and well-being. They also help athletes utilize psychology to improve their athletic performance and mental wellness.

A sports psychologist doesn't just work with elite and professional athletes either. This type of professional also helps non-athletes and everyday exercisers learn how to enjoy sports and stick to an exercise program. They utilize exercise and athletics to enhance people’s lives and mental well-being.

History of Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is a relatively young discipline in psychology; the first research lab devoted to the topic opened in 1925. The first U.S. lab closed a short while later (in the early 1930s) and American research did not resume in this area until the late 1960s when there was a revival of interest.

In 1965, the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was established. By the 1970s, sports psychology had been introduced as a university course offered at educational institutions throughout North America.

By the 1980s, sports psychology became the subject of a more rigorous scientific focus. Researchers began to explore how psychology could be used to improve athletic performance. They also looked at how exercise could be utilized to improve mood and lower stress levels.

Types of Sports Psychologists

Just as there are different types of psychologists—such as clinical psychologists, developmental psychologists, and forensic psychologists—there are also different types of sports psychologists.

Educational Sports Psychologists

An educational sports psychologist uses psychological methods to help athletes improve sports performance. This includes teaching them how to use certain techniques such as imagery, goal setting, or self talk to perform better on the court or field.

Clinical Sports Psychologists

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. A clinical sports psychologist helps athletes improve their mental health and sports performance at the same time.

Exercise Psychologists

An exercise psychologist works with non-athlete clients or everyday exercisers to help them learn how to make working out a habit. This work can include some of the same techniques used by other sports psychologists, such as goal setting, practicing mindfulness, and the use of motivational techniques.

Uses of Sports Psychology

Contemporary sports psychology is a diverse field and there are a number of different topics that are of special interest to sports psychologists.

Attentional Focus

Attentional focus involves the ability to tune out distractions (such as a crowd of screaming fans) and focus on the task at hand. This allows athletes to manage their mental focus, even in the face of other things that are vying for their attention.

Common strategies that might be used for this purpose include deep breathing, paying attention to bodily signals and sensations, and mindfulness. All of these can help athletes stay focused on the present moment.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness has become an area of increasing interest in sports psychology. The term referrs to the psychological characteristics that are important for an athlete reaching optimal performance.

Among these characteristics are having an unshakeable belief in one's self, the ability to bounce back from setbacks, and an insatiable desire to succeed. Reacting to situations positively, remaining calm under pressure, and retaining control are a few others that contribute to mental toughness.

Visualization and Goal-Setting

Setting a goal then visualizing each step needed to reach that goal can help mentally prepare the athlete for training or competition. Visualization involves creating a mental image of what you "intend" to happen. Athletes can use this skill to envision the outcome they are pursuing. They might visualize themselves winning an event, for instance, or going through the steps needed to complete a difficult movement.

Visualization can also be useful for helping athletes feel calmer and more focused before an event.

Motivation and Team-Building

Some sports psychologists work with professional athletes and coaches to improve performance by increasing motivation. A major subject in sports psychology, the study of motivation looks at both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic motivators are external rewards such as trophies, money, medals, or social recognition. Intrinsic motivators arise from within, such as a personal desire to win or the sense of pride that comes from performing a skill.

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Team building is also an important topic in this field. Sports psychologists might work with coaches and athletes to help develop a sense of comradery and assist them in working together efficiently and effectively.

Anxiety

Professional sports psychologists help athletes cope with the intense pressure that comes from competition. This often involves finding ways to reduce performance anxiety and combat burnout.

It is common for athletes to get nervous before a game, performance, or competition. But these nerves can have a negative impact on performance. So, learning tactics to stay calm is important for helping athletes perform their best.

Tactics that might be the focus of this area of sports psychology include things like relaxation techniques, changing negative thoughts, building self-confidence, and findings distractions to reduce the focus on anxiety.

Burnout can also happen to athletes who frequently experience pressure, anxiety, and intense practice schedules. Helping athletes restore their sense of balance, learn to relax, and keep up their motivation can help combat feelings of burnout.

Rehabilitation

Another important focus of sports psychology is on helping athletes recover and return to their sport after an injury. A sports injury can lead to emotional reactions in addition to their physical injury, which can include feelings of anger, frustration, hopelessness, and fear.

Sports psychologists work with these athletes to help them mentally cope with the recovery process and to restore their confidence once they are ready to return to their sport.

Impact of Sports Psychology

Research indicates that using various sports psychology techniques can help improve the performance of all types of athletes, from very young gymnasts (aged 8 to 13) to some of the top Olympians. Sports psychology also has impact that extends into other areas of wellness.

For example, one study noted that it's common for doctors to have negative reactions when treating acutely unwell patients. Yet, when the doctors used the same psychological routines as athletes, they were able to better control these reactions. It also improved their patient care.

Others suggest that sports psychologists can play an important role in reducing obesity, particularly in children. By helping kids increase their physical activity and their enjoyment of the activity, a sports psychologist can help kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Techniques in Sports Psychology

Some professionals use one specific technique when helping their clients while others use a wide range of sports psychology techniques.

Progressive Relaxation

Relaxation techniques offer athletes many benefits. Among them are an increase in self-confidence, better concentration, and lower levels of anxiety and stress—all of which work together to improve performance.

One of the relaxation strategies sports psychologists use with their clients is progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves having them tense a group of muscles, hold them tense for a few seconds, then allow them to relax.

Hypnosis

Some health professionals use hypnosis to help their patients quit smoking. A sports psychologist might use this same technique to help their clients perform better in their sport of choice.

Research indicates that hypnosis (which involves putting someone in a state of focused attention with increased suggestibility) can be used to improve performance for athletes participating in a variety of sports, from basketball to golf to soccer.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback involves using feedback provided by the body to notice how it feels physiologically in times of stress (elevated heart rate, tense muscles, etc.). This information can then be used to help control these effects, providing a more positive biological response.

One systematic review noted that using heart rate variability biofeedback improved sports performance in more than 85% of the studies. Other research supports using biofeedback to reduce an athlete's stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to help all kinds of people identify and change destructive thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, it would only stand to reason that athletes would also benefit from its effects.

One case study involving a 17-year-old female cross country skier noted that CBT helped reduce performance anxiety while improving sport-specific behaviors. Another piece of research involved 16 NCAA Division I athletes with severe injuries and found that CBT enhanced their emotional well-being during recovery.

Becoming a Sports Psychologist

Becoming a sports psychologist could be an exciting career choice for many psychology students, especially those with a strong interest in sports and physical activity.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes sports psychology as a "hot career," suggesting that those working in university athletic departments earn around $60,000 to $80,000 per year. 

If you are interested in this career, start by learning more about the educational requirements, job duties, salaries, and other considerations about careers in sports psychology.

A Word From Verywell

Sports psychology, or the use of psychological techniques in exercise and sport, offers benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike. It also encompasses a wide variety of techniques designed to boost performance and strengthen exercise adherence.

If you have a passion for sports and psychology, becoming a sports psychologist could be a good career choice. And it offers a few different career options, enabling you to choose the one that interests you most.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is sports psychology important?

    Sports psychology offers athletes many benefits, from improved performance to a healthier mental recovery after sustaining a physical injury. It can help these athletes stay engaged in the sports they love. Sports psychology also offers benefits for non-athletes, such as by helping them stick to an exercise program. Getting regular exercise improves brain health, reduces the risk of disease, strengthens bones and muscles, and makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight—while also increasing longevity.

  • How does sports psychology help athletes?

    Different sports psychology techniques work in different ways. Some are used to promote self-confidence. Others are designed to reduce anxiety. Though they all have one goal in common and that goal is to help the athlete improve their performance.

  • What can you do with a sports psychology degree?

    Sports psychologists can take a few different career paths. If you want to teach athletes how to improve their performance through psychological techniques, you can do this as an educational sports psychologist. If you want to work with athletes who have a mental illness, a clinical sports psychologist offers this service. If you want to work with the everyday exerciser versus athletes, becoming an exercise psychologist might be a good career choice for you.

  • Where can you study sports psychology?

    A number of colleges and universities offer a sports psychology program. Some are undergraduate programs, offering a bachelor's degree in sports psychology. Others are higher-level programs, providing a master's degree or above. Depending on the educational institution, you may also be able to study sports psychology online.

  • How can sports psychology improve performance?

    In some cases, sports psychology improves performance by reducing anxiety. In others, it works by improving focus or increasing mental toughness. A sports psychologist can help uncover issues that might be limiting the athlete's performance. This information is then used to determine which psychological techniques can offer the best results.

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