The Origins of Sport Psychology

Categories: Coaching,Sport Psychology,Sports | August 1, 2008

I’m going to tell you a little about sport psychology and where it came from. When many people think of sport psychology they have an image of a high priced consultant helping Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong to lock-in their incredible ability to focus by using some advanced scientific technique or perhaps by means of an ancient mystical method. People might also imagine a sport psychologist using some complicated hypnotic procedure to assist A-Rod to break out of a batting slump.

The fact is that most of sport psychology is applying, pragmatic, common-sense principles to regular people like you and me. Eight year-old kids in both recreation and travel teams, high school and college athletes and weekend golfers benefit every day from sport psychology techniques. These same mental fitness strategies are used by elite amateur, Olympic and professional athletes. While these principles and techniques have been scientifically studied, many of them have been around since ancient times.

The ancient Greeks and the Romans believed it was important to for people to bring out their personal best. This notion is captured in the Latin phrase written in the 2nd century A.D. “mens sana in corpore sano” which translates as “a strong mind in a healthy body”. Indeed it was believed to be important for people to challenge their personal limits and in doing so develop a powerful personal presence governed by humility. The concept of the “noble warrior” that now adays sometimes is used to describe scholar athletes who play full-out, yet honorably and who are also dedicated students in the classroom, is an extension of this thought. Another example from the ancient Western Tradition is how Aristotle believed in Telos which he considered to be an individual’s greatest potential. The U.S..Army’s recruiting slogan, “Be all that you can be” is a modern application of this philosophy.

The ancient Eastern world of Taoism and Zen Buddhism also developed philosophies that are very compatible sport psychology. In the Zen of an action we are without thought and without a sense of self in moments of transcendence. This is exactly what happens when we say an athlete is “in the zone” or sometimes when sportscasters comment about a basketball player who is sinking basket after basket, when they say, “He’s unconscious out there!” This was said on many occasions about Michael Jordon.

Eastern philosophy also considers ego attachment to a success, a failure or a goal as a hindrance to success. This ties directly into what sport psychologists teach about the importance of being present in the moment. An example from baseball would be when a player is up at bat, rather than getting consumed with having to hit a homerun, we encourage the batter, regardless of whether he or she 7 or 27 to stay 100% focused in the moment, one pitch at a time. There are many other examples of these ancient philosophies playing out in today’s sports scene. Krishnamurti’s clever statement that, “Enlightenment is an accident, but some activities make you more accident prone” speaks to the value of the mental preparation that sport psychology is all about.

With these rich traditions as its background you might find it ironic that modern sport psychology began almost by accident. In 1897 Professor Norman Triplett of Indiana University, who was an avid cyclist, noticed that cyclists tended to increase their performance when they were in the presence of other cyclists. He conducted studies that verified his observation and voila – sport psychology was off and running.

I want to mention two components of modern sport psychology research. The first explores how psychological factors like people’s attitudes, beliefs and feelings effect their performance in sports. The second focuses on understanding how participating in sports affects physical and emotional health and well-being. As a result we’ve learned that helping children to master a sport specific skill (like hitting a baseball) can affect their self-esteem, just as we’ve learned that regular aerobic activity can people of all ages manage feelings of depression.

What interests me most about sport psychology is developing pragmatic and user-friendly tools to train adults and kids alike to enhance their athletic performance. I call these methods Mental Fitness Skills and they are sure-fire, practical, down-to-earth techniques that are as useful in the classroom or on a sales call as they are on the playing field.

Share