What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology and athletics
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Sports psychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity. Some sports psychologists work with professional athletes and coaches to improve performance and increase motivation. Other professionals utilize exercise and sports to enhance people’s lives and well-being throughout the entire lifespan.

Professional sports psychologists often help athletes cope with the intense pressure that comes from competition and overcome problems with focus and motivation.

They also work with athletes to improve performance and recover from injuries. But sports psychologists do not just work with elite and professional athletes. They also help regular people learn how to enjoy sports and learn to stick to an exercise program.

History of Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is a relatively young discipline within psychology. In 1920, Carl Diem founded the world’s first sports psychology laboratory at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Berlin, Germany. In 1925, two more sports psychology labs were established – one by A.Z. Puni at the Institute of Physical Culture in Leningrad and the other by Coleman Griffith at the University of Illinois.

Griffith began offering the first course in sports psychology in 1923, and later published the first book on the subject titled The Psychology of Coaching (1926). Unfortunately, Griffith’s lab was closed in 1932 due to lack of funds.

After the lab was shut down, there was very little research on sports psychology until the subject experienced a revival of interest during the 1960s.

Ferruccio Antonelli established the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) in 1965 and by the 1970s sports psychology had been introduced to university course offerings throughout North America.

The first academic journal, the International Journal of Sport Psychology, was introduced in 1970, which was then followed by the establishment of the Journal of Sport Psychology in 1979.

By the 1980s, sports psychology became the subject of a more rigorous scientific focus as researchers began to explore how psychology could be used to improve athletic performance, as well as how exercise could be utilized to improve mental well-being and lower stress levels.

Sports Psychology Today

Contemporary sports psychology is a diverse field. While finding ways to help athletes is certainly an important part of sports psychology, the application of exercise and physical activity for improving the lives of non-athletes is also a major focus.

Major Topics Within Sports Psychology

There are a number of different topics that are of special interest to sports psychologists. Some professionals focus on a specific area, while others study a wide range of techniques.

  • Imagery: Involves visualizing performing a task, such as participating in an athletic event or successfully performing a particular skill.
  • Motivation: A major subject within 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.
  • Attentional Focus: Involves the ability to tune out distractions, such as a crowd of screaming fans, and focus attention on the task at hand.

Careers in Sports Psychology

Becoming a sports psychologist could be an exciting career choice for many psychology students, especially those who have a strong interest in sports and physical activity. The American Psychological Association 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, learn more about the educational requirements, job duties, salaries and other considerations in this profile of careers in sports psychology.


American Psychological Association. (n.d). Sports psychologists help professional and amateur athletes. Psychology Help Center. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sport-psychologists.aspx.

Voelker, R. (2012). Hot careers: Sports psychology. GradPSYCH Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/11/sport-psychology.aspx.

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