Sports Psychology – A Brief History

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the history of sports psychology and points out a few missed opportunities from the 100 year story so far.

I have always been fascinated by history to some degree. This, despite the fact that one of the major aspects of the model we use – Metuf – centres around the importance of focusing as much as possible on the present moment – and therefore less on the past and the future. One of the most interesting modules that I did during my psychology undergraduate degree at The University of Leeds in the late 90s was ‘The History of Psychotherapy’.

My old mate Tom and I would often go for a bacon and avocado baguette after lectures and chat about various ‘psychological methods’ that they used to use in the ‘old days’ – such as frontal lobotomies and electrocuting people!

Yet despite all this, the area that I would eventually end up working in (sport psychology) was not mentioned once during The History of Psychotherapy course – and for good reason.

The Pioneers of Sports Psychology

You see, the real origins of sports psychology as a separate field had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy and was almost entirely about performance enhancement in the early days.

Basically – it was research and coaching but with more emphasis on mental aspects than before. Although even Ancient Greeks were interested in the mind-body connection the real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago.

In 1921 baseball player Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good – and so much better than the rest of the hitters at that time. A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused entirely on how to optimise the performance of American football players and coaches whilst they were training and competing.

Coleman Griffith

But it was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map with two classic publications in the 1920s.

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. Therefore and for good reason, he’s regarded as the father of modern sports psychology (at least as far as North America is concerned). I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’ after stumbling across a copy in an antique store about 10 years ago and it is, in part, one of the reasons why I am so passionate about helping coaches to become better at coaching the mental aspects of their sports.

For sporting coaches reading this looking to take the first (or next) step to become a better mental coach then complete the Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Coaches here.

It should be noted that these early pioneers were not very interested in the psychology of exercise and physical activity. From their point of view, their population of interest were already very active and any ‘advice’ pertaining to their physical training should come from experts in other fields.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

All this changed between 1930 and 1960 when exercise and physical activity were formally added to the definition of sport psychology – hence the more common modern description of ‘sport and exercise psychology’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that this was the first collective error of the profession. Quite simply, a sedentary middle-aged couple who really would benefit from incorporating some walking into their weekly routine and a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game are simply too different to be best assisted by the same type of specialist – in my opinion.

At least here in Australia I can immediately think of at least two professions that might be better off assisting the sedentary middle aged couple – health psychologists and exercise physiologists.

Yet give my colleagues and me at Condor Performance a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game and we are in our element. It was we do, it’s what we’re best at.

The Importance of The Right Labels

If I had a time machine at least one of my trips would be to go back to Rome, (Italy) in 1965 and campaign hard at The First World Congress of Sport Psychology that our profession should be relabelled ‘sport and performance psychology’ and the experts within to be referred to as ‘sport and performance psychologists’ from that point forward.

Given the timing – it would also be tempting to hang around for a year and see if I could catch a few matches at the 1966 Football World Cup too! Oh to be able to have watched live some of the incredible saves made by Gordan Banks!

I understand the arguments from some quarters that sport is a type of performance so semantically the best label for the profession would actually be ‘performance psychology’ of which sport psychology would just be a subcomponent – and golf psychology or tennis psychology (for example) would be further subcomponents and specialisations.

But the very ‘sporty’ origins of sports psychology and the dominance of consulting within sport by modern performance psychologists would have me voting for the “locking in” of the terms ‘sport and performance psychology’ and ‘sport and performance psychologists’.

What do you think is the best label for the profession?

Recent History

Between about 1970 to early 2000s the professional enjoyed increasing recognition and growth across most of the developed world. In Australia this saw an all time high of four Masters program in ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology’ nicely spread across the country by the time Sydney was hosting the Olympic Games in the year 2000.

In fact, such were the impressive per capita options for budding sports psychologists in Australia at that time that it was regarded as one of the best places to covert a standard psychology degree into a vocation. For this very reason, I applied for a place on the Masters of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) at the University of Western Sydney intake of 2004 and was thrilled upon being accepted – despite it meaning I’d need to move halfway across the world.

Little did I know at the time that I would be joining the very last group to ever complete that particular program and the decline was about to start.

The Decline

Today, in 2019 there is only one final Sports Psychology masters program remaining in Australia (at the University of Queensland) and so it begs the question ‘what happened?’ and more importantly ‘what can we learn from the decline’?

As I have already implied the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading our expertise too thinly by trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold. Of course, the very fact that there is thirty to forty times more sedentary folk out there than competitive athletes has resulted in confusion, distraction and a backwards step towards us being regarded as the ultimate ‘go to’ experts in the psychology of sport and performance.

Unique to Australia (I think) but a lesson that anyone interested in the ‘politics of professions’ would benefit from knowing is what happened in 2006. Medicare introduced a two-tier system, which essentially regarded the work of endorsed clinical psychologists as being more valuable to the system than all other psychologists. In other words, the out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other psychologist types – for example, sports psychologists, performance psychologists and organisational psychologists.

With the gap between the cost of living compared and salaries in Australia at an all-time high then, of course, this legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other specialisations.

I often wonder how many clinical psychologists out there are ‘winging it’ and giving Google-based advice to mentally well athletes looking for a mental boost simply because it will cost these athletes less to work with a clinical psychologist (assuming they have a referral from their GP).

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

I for one am glad that in recent years sports psychology has started to really embrace the important of mental health and wellbeing both in terms of athletic performance and general life satisfaction. But I think we need to be very, very careful that it doesn’t become the final nail in the coffin for the profession.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement, mental skills training and coaching traditions if we aren’t careful.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be: ‘what do sports psychologists do?’ and ‘what are sports psychologists better at when compared with others’?

Will the answers be …

  • ‘we mainly help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training when required’ or will it be
  • ‘we mainly help sporting and non-sporting performers to improve in their chosen sport or performance area and introduce mental health interventions for non-critical issues if and when required’

(I say non-critical as I for one believe that if the psychological issues of athletes present as very serious – for example, schizophrenia – then it might be better if they work with psychologists who specialise in those clinical areas).

I’m pretty sure if you were able to ask Coleman Griffith which answer he’d prefer 150 years after his efforts put sport psychology on the map in the 1920s he’d pick the second one in a heartbeat.

Pity I don’t have that time machine!

Can We Bounce Back?

Can we as a professional do what we’re supposed to be able to help athletes and performers with? Can we learn from our mistakes and bounce back?

This sports psychologist thinks it’s possible but only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sports Psychology – Looking To The Future.

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole with The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health

Just after I wrote this article I bumped into the Minister for Health and former Minister for Sports; Greg Hunt – whilst on holiday with my family in Melbourne.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses this and other related questions.

A recent Ted Talk about The Mental Health Challenges faced by Athletes.

As one of my previous articles suggested I consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.

My definition of Mental Health is roughly ‘the condition of the mind’ as related to the individual, the person regardless of what they do (athlete, baker, candlestick maker). Mental Health is about day-to-day functioning so someone who has ‘a condition of the mind’ that prevents them from functioning and being well (aka well-being) could be described as having a mental health issue (concern, problem, disorder) or being mentally ill. The severity of the mental illness is therefore related to how well they function in the society they live with the most extreme cases being confined to prisons and hospitals.

The Positive Psychology movement was born from the fact that many psychologists were frustrated by the fact that the goal of traditional psychotherapy tended (tends) to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and did (does) little to assist them beyond this point.

I have never regarding the word ‘functioning’ as actually meaning ‘just functioning’. If you use the word in the context of a car – for example – it can and does gets uses to describe vehicles that have nothing wrong with them:

How is your old Mercedes going?

It’s functionally really well – runs like a brand new car.

So there are degrees of functioning whereby the highest ones might be thought of as ‘functioning really well’ in everyday situations. For example, someone who is very happy with most of the main areas of their life – sleep, relationships, work, etc. A ‘normal’ level of functioning might be when one or more of these ‘human’ aspects is not quite as it might be. This can include, for example, individuals whose relationships and sleep are great but they are somewhat stressed about their working situation. This stress is not “clinical” in that they still managed to get to work every day but there is no longer a smile when they walk into the office. They function but there are ‘everyday’ areas that could be improved. 

Finally, there are those who have “stopped” functioning altogether. By ‘stopped functioning’ we are really referring to the fact that many of the daily tasks – such as getting out of bed, eating, talking to others – have become too hard.

But what about if these “people” are performers? What if the person who is only functioning normally is a young athlete currently preparing for her first Grand Final? What if the person who has stopped functioning is a politician or sporting coach?

All of these individuals would benefit from improving both their everyday mental health and – due to what they do – their performance mental toughness as well. In the case of the politician or sporting coach (above) I’d suggest they focus solely on their mental health first as their lack of functioning would render all other “psychology work” untimely.

For the young athlete who is functioning OK (as well as those who are functioning well) then working on both their mental health and mental toughness in tandem can be a nice approach. One of the advantages of being an Australian trained sports psychologist is that I can easily assist my sporting and performance clients with both their mental health and mental toughness (often within the same session)!

There are some excellent questions being debated at the moment around all of this. One is ‘surely everyone would want to be mentally tougher not just performers? Not really. First, building genuine mental toughness is very, very hard and although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.

You can learn a lot more about how we balance Mental health and Mental Toughness via our sister program Metuf

You might like to think of it as being similar to physical health (good blood sugar for example) and physical strength (being able to bench press 150 kgs). Everyone could try and work towards being able to lift 150 kgs but how useful is it for most of us? Where is the ‘return on investment’? Maybe using the equivalent training time to practice mindfulness would be more sensible. But if you are a weight lifter, rugby player (both codes), bodyguard, bouncer or defensive tackle (American Football) – for example – developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas.

Developing Mental Toughness works the same. Although everybody would probably be happy to process extraordinarily levels of focus (for example) is it worth investing the time required to get there is you’re never really going to need it?

Some recent publications have asked the question “Are Mental Toughness and Mental Health Contradictory Concepts in Elite Sport?”. In other words, do increasing levels of mental toughness have a negative impact on mental health? My contribution to this discussion would be as followers: No unless the individual is mentally ill and chooses to only improve their mental toughness. This is like the weightlifter ignoring their broken wrist and continuing to benchpress anyway.

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Luckily, work has been done to answer this question. As mentioned in this excellent article by Joshua Sebbens, Peter Hassmén, Dimity Crisp and Kate Wensley “A study of elite athletes in Australia reported almost half were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, and the proportion meeting caseness cutoffs for mental illness were deemed comparable to community data (Gulliver et al., 2015). More broadly, Rice et al. (2016) conducted a systematic narrative review and also suggested the prevalence of mental illness in elite athletes was comparable to the general population”.

I believe this confirms the position that our sport and performance psychologists have at the moment which in summary is:

  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same nor is one a “part” of the other.
  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not opposites whereby when one improves the other goes down and vice versa.
  • Keeping an eye on mental health needs to be part of all sporting programs – not only due to the fact that athletes and coaches are people first – but improved mental health has a direct benefit to performance.