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.

Psychology of Sports Injuries

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is a short article exploring the mental aspects of a very common physical challenge faced by athletes – getting injured

Rugby Union player getting taken from the field on a stretcher.
Sporting injuries are understandably regarded as the exclusive domain of physiotherapists yet there is growing evidence that the challenges are just as psychological in nature.

Introduction

Sports injuries – certainly from a mental point of view – are not exactly the same as the ones that can occur in non-sporting situations. For a start, they are a lot more likely to occur – particularly in high contact sports such as AFL, both rugby codes and American football. Secondly, the impact on goals and dreams of getting hurt – if you are an athlete – is likely to be much greater compared with injuries to non-sporting performers. I am very mindful of the fact that serious injuries can, of course, derail all types of dreams but the fact is that a dentist can still go to work with a torn ACL, a soccer player can’t.

Hence the title of this article is The Psychology of Sports Injuries and not The Psychology of Injuries.

With This In Mind

A large portion of the content we write for the Mental Toughness Digest is aimed at helping you train to your full potential and perform at your best in competition. But what if you’re forced to spend time on the sideline battling with injury and going through rehabilitation to get back onto the field? This can be one of the most mentally challenging experiences athletes and performers face. Having a handful of tools and strategies to help you manage the journey can truly make a significant difference.

I should say that during the process of writing this digest I ruptured my ACL for the second time and am looking at another 9-month rehab stint following surgery, so I know the mental pain and frustration athletes go through. It’s interesting, though, because this frustration and emotion can come from a number of different places.

  • Disappointment and regret that you’re injured
  • Wondering what you could have done differently to prevent it
  • Watching your teammates still competing while you’re in a cast or brace
  • The setbacks or bad news you may receive along the journey
  • The fear that when you’re allowed to play you will find a way to injure yourself again.

With all of these mindsets, plus the many others you may experience, it’s crucial you have space where you can express these emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do because your sport/performance area that really matters to you has just been taken away for a period of time. As well, this emotion can really drive you and if we’re able to channel that into motivation and desire, it can act as a massive push when we’re looking to put the necessary work in during the rehabilitation process.

One of the keys to putting in the work is very strongly linked to a foundational concept of our Metuf model of mental toughness training – controlling the controllables.

All the statements I mentioned earlier exist outside of our bubble of responsibility because they are either influenceable or uninfluenceable.

They revolve around things such as the past, other people and the future. When we’re committing to our rehabilitation process we want to be sure our mind is focused on the controllables by applying the best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. By being injured we are restricted in our movements and achieving results (even the little ones) can take some time. From my experience, as well as listening to those I have worked with, the mental reward and satisfaction from knowing you have applied yourself to a gym or physiotherapy session can be equally or sometimes stronger than that felt when achieving a result. Plus, it’s more consistent, so even when you’re having a difficult day and results are out of reach, nothing can stop your application and effort. Knowing that can be a massive boost in morale, confidence and motivation to keep going.

This development of confidence is also a really key part of someone’s rehabilitation process, both in regards to regaining the confidence of the specific skill set required to compete in your sport/performance area and the confidence in the part of my body that has been injured. We want to be able to trust that once we start competing again, our bodies will hold up and keep us on the field without re-injury.

There are mental strategies we can use that help us develop this confidence and they often revolve around the way we mentally map out the rehabilitation journey. One of the most difficult challenges mentally is the fact that when injured we are comparatively a long way from the technical and physical levels of our optimal selves. If we see the gap between the two as one step it is often too big and unrealistic to expect that we can simply make that change.

A better way of viewing the situation is by seeing it as a process of stepping stones, each one getting us closer to our end goal. Some of these stepping stones are going to be about our physical capabilities (strength, fitness and flexibility) and have nothing to do with the specific skill set required to play our sport. Others are going to be very skill-set related.

The combination of these provides the complete picture of what is required for us to be at full capacity again. Each time we jump from one stone to the next this is another achievement and boost in our confidence that we’re heading in the right direction and further strengthens the trust we have in our body. This way of breaking things down doesn’t mean the journey won’t be challenging but allows it to be much more realistic and achievable. It also allows us to problem solve at a much more manageable level when things aren’t going our way.

Once we have successfully completed this rehabilitation journey and are ready to step back onto the field, we may be faced with new mental challenges. We may ask ourselves “Can I still compete at this level?”, “Am I ready?” or even “Have I done enough to be here?”.

In taking the time to break down the journey into smaller parts and continually keeping the focus on the controllables, it allows us not only to develop the physical readiness to step out onto the field but also the mental readiness. Each stage along the way has allowed us to mentally keep track of the work we are doing and the achievements we have made.

Now this is done and we’re running out into competition again, we want the same solid focus on effort. Keep our expectations of the match focused on the controllables and not expect ourselves to do what we could the last time we were here but rather thinking about what the work we have done off the field has positioned us to do. In other words, applying our best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. Taking care of this ensures we remain in touch with ourselves throughout the match and play to the level we have prepared for.

If you’re reading this and wish to discuss the mental side of your injury rehabilitation further, or wish to ask any questions about some of the mental toughness principles discussed, then please don’t hesitate to get in contact by emailing me directly and confidentially at david@condorperformance.com. I would love to help and be a part of your journey back to full fitness.