Sport Psychology – A Brief History

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

Coleman Griffith

It was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map. His two classic publications in the 1920s are ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in History of Sport Psychology.

I like my history, I always have. 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’. From memory this course didn’t look back at different types of psychology. Instead it just covered general trends from the past. This led me to do my own research into the history of sport psychology as we know it today.

The Pioneers of Sport Psychology

The real origins of sport psychology had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy. In the early days, sport psychology was almost entirely about performance enhancement and building on existing strengths.

The real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago. In 1921 baseballer Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good. Many of the findings proved that his excellent boiled down to mental superiorities more than technical or physical ones. Sport psychology as a field, a specialty was born, when the below article was published.

A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused on how to optimise the performance of American footballer during training.

The Psychology of Coaching

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. For good reason he’s regarded as the father of modern sport psychology. I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’. I stumbled across a copy in an antique store about 20 years ago. This book is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about working one on one with sporting coaches.

There is still a lot of hesitation amongst sporting coaches about working directly with a psychologist. Yet those who ‘give it a crack’ tend to be richly rewarded. If you are a sporting coach a good way to ‘dip your toes in the water’ is by completing our MTQ-C online.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

It should be noted that a close look at the History of Sport Psychology shows very little interest in exercise psychology.

Pioneers of sport psychology were mainly focused on performance. From their point of view, their population of interest was already very physically active. Any ‘advice’ pertaining to physical training should come from experts in fields such as exercise physiology.

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. I will explain by way of some examples.

Exercise psychology is essentially (should be) a branch of health psychology. It’s all about using psychological methods to increase physical activity. The typical client of an exercise psychologist might be a sedentary adult. Someone who has failed to become active after seeing an exercise physiologist.

Sport psychology has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of mental challenge. Our clients are already physical very active, they are anything but sedentary.

The Importance of The Right Labels

For a long time I have argued that the ideal label of the profession is performance psychology. Sport psychology would then become a subdiscipline of performance psychology. This is to recognise the fact that “performance” and “performing” extend well beyond elite sport.

Sport and performance psychology / psychologists are terms getting more use nowadays. But for me, this is just repeating. Sport is a type of performance so the word performance alone should be enough. That’s my opinion – what do you think?

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

More Recent History

From 1970 to the 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’. Boosted by the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia was a good place to study sport psychology 20 years ago.

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 I 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. The decline was about to start.

Did you know that our own Michelle Pain was one of the early pioneers of sport psychology in Australia?

The Decline

In 2020 there is now only one Sport and Exercise Psychology masters program remaining in Australia. So it begs the question what happened? More importantly what can we learn from the decline?

Like I said the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading ourselves too thinly in trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold.

In 2006 Medicare introduced a two-tier system for psychologists. The policy implies that clinical psychologists were better a psychology work. The out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other types of psychologist.

This legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other programs.

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

In recent years sport psychology has started to really embrace the importance of mental health and wellbeing. I am glad about this but we need to be very, very careful.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement origins. These include mental skills training and coaching psychology.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be? What do sport psychologists do? And what are sport psychologists really know for?

Will the answers be …

  • they help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training’ or will it be
  • they 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

Is It Possible For Us To Bounce Back?

Will we learn from our mistakes and bounce back? Can we learn from the History of Sport Psychology to improve the future of the profession? This sport psychologist thinks it’s possible. However, only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sport Psychology – Looking To The Future.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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