Sport Psychology

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The discipline of sport psychology is dedicated to the investigation of the relationship between psychological factors and exercise and sport. Sport scientists and sport psychologists use physical activity settings to examine issues of competition, performance enhancement, skill acquisition, children's development through sport, team interaction, and the maintenance of physical and mental health.

In 1897 Triplett (1897) conducted what is considered to be the first sport psychology experiment. He found that cyclists competing against other individuals performed better than those performing against the clock or against a standard goal. Coleman Griffith is often credited with founding the first sport psychology laboratory in 1925 at the University of Illinois. He was known for his rigorous investigations of psychomotor skill development, learning theory applied to sport, and the role of personality in performance. In the 1930s he joined the Chicago Cubs organization and became the first psychologist in professional sports.

Development in the field proceeded slowly until the 1960s, when Olgive and Tutko (1966) attempted to integrate psychological assessment and personality theory into sport psychology by developing a test that they hoped would help predict athletic performance. During this same period, Richardson (1967) and other researchers began exploring imagery or mental practice interventions for performance enhancement. However, it was not until 1972 that Richard Suinn (1972) brought sport psychology into contact with contemporary clinical psychology when he applied cognitive-behavioral interventions to athletes in an attempt to improve performance. He reported that training elite skiers in relaxation and imagery skills, combined with a behavioral rehearsal technique, improved performance. Based on Suinn's (1972) work, mental practice interventions for performance enhancement became more intricate and began to resemble the growing body of clinical interventions.

In addition to imagery and mental rehearsal, modern sport psychology encompasses a broad range of interventions directed at improving performance. Amajor focus of these efforts has been on athletes' ability to manage arousal and anxiety. Many interventions include an anxiety management component intended to allow athletes to modify their level of arousal to match the demands of competition. These interventions mirror the clinical anxiety reduction, stress management, and problem-solving motivational work prevalent with clients experiencing anxiety or depression.

Sport psychologists are also interested in goal setting and its effects on performance. This work has been influenced by industrial-organizational psychology, in which the use of goal setting has become a reliable technique for behavior change. Goal setting is thought to enhance motivation for involvement and promote more positive self-evaluation of training and competitive performance. These changes may facilitate task performance and thus lead to performance change.

Kirschenbaum (Kirschenbaum & Bale, 1980) proposed that athletic skill development can be viewed as a self-regulatory process and that performance is a test of the athlete's skill in self-directed cognition and action. Self-monitoring and self-instruction interventions are used to teach athletes successfully to execute a physical skill, monitor their performance, evaluate their performance against some standard or goal, and alter the execution of physical skills. Such processes are intended to enable athletes to transfer their performance-improvement skills to other tasks and settings.

Although these intervention strategies for performance enhancement should be relevant to athletes of all ages and skill levels, most controlled evaluations of these interventions occur with nonelite and recreational athletes. Aquantitative review of such studies found that these interventions are more effective than control conditions (Whelan, Meyers, & Donovan, 1995).

Although performance enhancement is the most visible component of sport psychology, the field is much broader. Another major area of research is sport and exercise behavior across the life span. Sport psychologists are interested in physical skill acquisition and development and focus on such areas as modeling of skills, attention in skill acquisition and performance, and decision making. Other topics include children's psychological development through sport, children's motivation for participation in sport, why children discontinue participation in sport, stress and burnout, and effective coaching practices in youth sport.

Much of sport and exercise takes place in a group or team context. Thus, sport psychologists are also interested in group dynamics. Attention is given to issues such as what makes a group successful, the development and characteristics of leaders of successful groups, and the development and deterioration of group cohesion.

It is accepted that regular participation in sport and exercise enhances an individual's physical health. Sport psychologists also attempt to understand how participating in physical activity affects an individual's psychological well-being. Research has indicated that aerobic exercise is associated with reductions in levels of anxiety and depression. Exercise has also shown positive effects on other aspects of emotional life, including increasing feelings of control as well as improving self-confidence and cognitive functioning. The psychological and physiological benefits associated with exercise throughout the life span support the increasing importance of exercise as one ages.

Exposure at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games brought a dramatic increase in attention to the field of sport psychology, as well as a corresponding increase in the growth of the field. Several journals dedicated to disseminating information in the area of sport and exercise psychology were introduced. These journals include the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, and the Sport Psychologist. Several professional organizations are dedicated to the advance ment of sport and exercise psychology, including the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Division 47 of the American Psychological Association, and the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. Members of these organizations include psychologists and sport scientists who study psychological influences on sport and physical activity. In addition to the dissemination of new and relevant research, these organizations are also committed to establishing and upholding professional standards for the competent and ethical practice of sport psychology.

Although it has been over a century since the initial empirical investigation of psychological influences on sport behavior, the science and profession of sport psychology are broad and vibrant. Performance enhancement may be the most visible domain of sport psychology, but the field includes the study of children and the elderly, teams and leaders, and emotional as well as physical health. With sport and exercise continuing to play a meaningful role in our culture, the study of these behaviors will continue to have a place in the science and practice of psychology.


Kirschenbaum, D. S., & Bale, R. M. (1980). Cognitive-behavioral skills in golf: Brain power golf. In R. M. Suinn (Ed.), Psychology in sports: Methods and application (pp. 334-343). Minneapolis: Burgess.

Ogilve, B. C., & Tutko, T. A. (1966). Problem athletes and how to handle them. London: Pelham. Richardson, A. (1967). Mental Practice: A review and discussion:

Part I. The Research Quarterly, 38, 95-107. Suinn, R. M. (1972). Behavioral rehearsal training for ski racers.

Behavior Therapy, 3, 519-520. Triplett, N. (1897). The dynamic factors in peacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533. Whelan, J. P, Meyers, A. W., & Donovan, C. (1995). Competitive recreational athletes: Amultisystemic model. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), Sport psychology interventions (pp. 71-110). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Ryan K. May Marietta College

Andrew W. Meyers University of Memphis gardless of the particular problem and techniques employed. On the basis of a sample, the researcher wishes to make statements about what is probably true of the population.

Measures taken on samples are called statistics; comparable measures of the population are called population parameters. A statistic is calculated on a specific and finite set of data. It will not necessarily equal the population parameter unless the sample is infinitely large, thus including the whole population. Instead, any sample is likely to yield statistics that differ from the true population parameters. The problem becomes one of deciding how accurately each statistic reflects the corresponding population parameters. The application of statistical inference, therefore, requires knowledge of probability theory.

The actual process of statistical inference often begins with setting up the null hypothesis (H0): The researcher assumes that a sample statistic (commonly a mean) was drawn from a population with known parameters. If comparisons between samples are required, the researcher assumes that each group (and its corresponding statistics) was sampled from the same population.

The null hypothesis is retained or rejected on the basis of how likely the observed outcome is. Standardized test statistics (such as z, t, F and chi-square), whose values have known probabilities, are used to evaluate sample statistics in relation to variability. If the difference between groups is largely relative to the amount of variability in the data, the researcher rejects the null hypothesis and concludes that the observed difference was unlikely to have occurred by chance alone: The result is statistically significant. In psychology, researchers customarily reject the null hypothesis if the observed outcome (in effect, the computed test statistic) is so extreme that it could have occurred by chance with a probability of less than 5% (p < 0.05).

Because statistical inferences are based on probability estimates, two incorrect decisions are possible: Type 1 errors, in which the null hypothesis is rejected although true, and Type 2 errors, in which the null hypothesis is retained although invalid. The former results in incorrect confirmation of the research hypothesis and the latter in the failure to identify a statistically significant result.

A. Myers

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