Sports Psychology: From training your body to your emotions

Have you ever thought about how your favorite athletes are able to do what they do? They do it by using sports psychology. In this article, we will discover what sports psychology is, where it comes from, who uses it, how it works, and some tips to use for yourself when you work out!

Sports Psychology
Sports Psychology

What is sports psychology?

Sports psychology is the use of knowledge and skills to help heighten and improve the performance of athletes, the different aspects of sports participation, and the structural issues that are associated with sports settings. It will typically use some of the mainstream therapies and apply them to help the athlete with whatever underlying issues are occurring.

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Sports psychology uses the study of the psychological factors that affect performance and how participation in sports and exercise affect the psychological and physical factors. There are two types of sports psychology: the mental skills training and the psychological therapy.

Overall, sports psychology involves working with coaches, athletes, and parents concerning aspects of injuries, rehabilitation, communication, team building, and career transitions.

What disciplines does sports psychology come from?

Sports psychology comes from several different scientific fields: biomechanics (the study of structure/function of living organisms), physiology (the study of living mechanisms, their parts and how they work), kinesiology (the study of human and non-human movement), and psychology (the study of behavior and the mind).

The history of sports psychology

Sports psychology began within the world of physical educators. The goal was to explain the various phenomena and events associated with physical activity. In the United States during the 1890’s, a man named E.W. Scripture conducted a variety of behavioral experiments about the reaction time of a runner, the thought time in school children, and the accuracy of an orchestra conductor’s baton. A study was carried out in 1898 by Norman Triplett, who showed that bicyclists were more likely to cycle and pedal faster with a pacemaker than without one. A study was done on Babe Ruth not long thereafter, in 1921, measuring his breathing before hitting the baseball, his coordination, and his reaction times. Coleman Griffith is considered to be the Father of Sports Psychology in the United States due to his pioneering achievements in the area.

In the early 1920’s, the world’s first sports psychology laboratory was developed in Berlin by Dr. Carl Diem. In Europe, the birth of sports psychology began mainly in Germany. Afterword, in the late 1920’s, Russia began to explore sports psychology. However, the Cold War between the United States and Russia (1946-1989) is really what gave sports psychology a boost. Due to the military competitiveness between the two nations and the desire to increase the number of Olympic medals received, numerous sport science programs were founded.

Sports Psychology
Sports Psychology

Sports Psychology: What is a sports psychologist?

A sports psychologist can be found in many places including hospitals, gyms, rehabilitation centers, private practices, or universities. Some common fields for a sports psychologist to work with our youth sports, instructional sports psychology/coaching, and performance enhancement psychology.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes that sports psychology is something earned after a doctoral degree in one of the primary areas of psychology and have licensure as a psychologist. The proficiency of being a sports psychologist should not be confused with those who have earned a doctoral degree but are not licensed, psychologists.

Who uses sports psychology?

Many athletes seek assistance from a sports psychologist when they have an issue. For example, they could develop anxiety and choke at the key moment during a game, have temper problems, or issues communicating with teammates.

American Football

  • Russell Wilson, a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, has been using sports psychology since 2012 as a form of mental conditioning. Wilson also used sports psychology in 2015 when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. His sports psychologist, Trevor Moawad, helped Wilson overcome his issues with, rather than reliving what Wilson did wrong, showing him a collection of all the heroic victories going all the way back to Wilson’s high school days.
  • Tom Brady started using sports psychology, for mental coaching reasons, when he was in college. Now, Alex Guerrero controls Brady’s diet and helps him through the most difficult mentally-trying times.


  • Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and the coach for the Lakers, Phil Jackson, all worked with George Mumford, a mindfulness meditation coach, who helps these athletes keep their heads in the game and keep their self-esteem up.
  • Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns use one of the NBA’s top mental skills coaches, Graham Betchart, to help them work on their mental health. Betchart believes that it’s all about mindset.


  • Aaron Judge, a player for the Yankees, reads books by sports psychologists and says, “The mental game is what separates the good players from the great players.”


  • Richard Coop, a renowned sports psychologist, worked for years with Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, and Ben Crenshaw. Coop tries to get athletes to block out any mental interferences that can happen while playing.


  • Some of the US Olympic Gymnastics team members, like Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez, use Robert Andrews as their sports psychologist to help them stay mentally sharp and in-the-game.

How does sports psychology work?

There are several strategies and procedures that are used by sports psychologists to address the problems faced by athletes and sports participants. Some of the main areas addressed include:

  • Goal setting
    • Your final goal is to go to the Winter Olympics in four years. However, you don’t practice snowboarding. Rather than look at it as such a far away, unattainable goal, a sports psychologist would help you “chuck” your goals. For example, rather than having you visualize snowboarding down Mt. Everest, go down the bunny hill at the local park tomorrow. Then move to a bigger mountain. Then a bigger mountain. Baby steps. A sports psychologist would also help you step out of your comfort zone to achieve your goals.
  • Concentration and attention control strategies
    • Some athletes have immense issues concentrating when they play, due to the pressure of the game or the noise from the crowd. A sports psychologist would work with the athlete by training them to think in the “here and now,”
  • Self-confidence/self-esteem development
    • Athletes can struggle with self-confidence and doubt about their abilities. A sports psychologist would work with the athlete to continually make positive self-statements. Rather than thinking that your teammate has better hand-eye coordination than you, you think “I’m doing the best that I can, and that’s incredible.”
  • Understanding failure
    • A sports psychologist tries to help athletes understand that there is a process to each sport and that the earlier that process is understood, the better. Once the process is right, then the result can be worried about. Once the athletes improve their process, a sports psychologist helps the athletes get better and reach higher levels of competitiveness by putting more importance on the result than before. The idea is that the emphasis on the process will help cushion the bow of a big loss. If the athlete knows they did their best, they are more accepting of the end result. If an athlete doesn’t take the loss well, the effects can be traumatic.
  • Overtraining, burnout, and athletic motivation
    • Feeling overworked can really be hard on an athlete’s body. That’s why a sports psychologist would use body scanning, focusing on the training form to help alleviate some of the negative effects of constant physical tension. For example, thinking, “is this a good pace? How relaxed do I feel?” A sports psychologist would also help you use the pain as feedback. If it’s good pain when you wake up in the morning and stretch your shoulders, or bad pain when you reach too high for something in the cabinet and strain your back. Let the discomfort fade into the background.
  • Athletic injury and rehabilitation, emotional management
    • When an athlete is injured, they go through cognitive appraisal, meaning that they evaluate the injury very emotionally. If the athlete has to be pulled out of the sport for a time period, whether the reason is that they are coming out of retirement (Michael Phelps), bouncing back from an unplanned pregnancy (Jessica Ennis-Hill), or have been injured, the athlete’s cognitive appraisal will determine whether or not the athlete will be able to come back to the sport. A sports psychologist will make sure that the athlete feels able to come back (if they are healthy enough) to the sport mentally prepared and ready.
  • Identity crisis
    • If a basketball player retires, they may ask, “Who am I if I’m not a professional basketball player?” A sports psychologist would help the athlete find another profession that suits the player while also making sure the player’s mental health remains steady.
  • Educating the coaches
    • A sports psychologist might lecture the coaches on how to deal with leadership skills and the prevention of psychological difficulties or working with the coaches to stay on the same page about each player’s situation mentally and physically.
Sports Psychology
Sports Psychology

Sports Psychology: Necessary Specialized Knowledge 

Some aspects necessary to know and have experience with in order to understand and cooperate within the realm of sports psychology is:

  • The knowledge of the behavioral and biological interactions of sports and exercise
    • Motor learning, sports medicine, exercise physiology
  • Knowledge of the social, historical, cultural, and developmental foundations of sports psychology
  • Experience with counseling athletes
  • Knowledge of the developmental and social issues related to participation in sports
  • Knowledge of the organizational aspects of sports consulting
  • Knowledge of the training science and technical requirements of competitions
    • IOC, NCAA rules, etc.
  • Knowledge of the mental training skills for performance enhancement

Sports psychology isn’t just for professional athletes, either!

Here are some sports psychology mental training tips you can try to use:

  • Celebrate! Enjoy the fitness and strength you possess. Simply exercise to your capabilities.
  • Advantage. Use everything to your advantage. Use the person running ahead of you to motivate you to go that last mile.
  • Body Scan. Always do a body scan during and after working out to ensure you’re not overdoing it and then your muscles are relaxed.  

Have you ever tried sports psychology? Do you have any tips for athletes? Let us know in the comments below!

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