Sport Psychology page edited and reviewed by Alexandra Williams. Alexandra Williams is a sports writer and professional basketball player who graduated with a degree in psychology with minors in healthcare management and exercise physiology.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sport psychology and exercise psychology involve the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise and other types of physical activity.
Sport Psychology: It's all in the mind.
Primary Goals of Exercise & Sport Psychology
Experts in this field, sport psychologists, are interested in two main objectives. According to the Exercise & Sport Psychology division of the American Psychological Association, the first objective of sports psychology is in helping athletes apply "psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health".
Additionally, a primary goal of the field of Exercise & Sport Psychology is to understand the effects psychological processes have on physical and motor performance. For instance, does low self-confidence influence a child’s ability to learn to swim? This objective is significant in order help athletes achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (APA).
The second objective of sport psychology and exercise psychology seeks to understand the effects of participation in sport and physical activity on psychological development, health, and well-being; for example, does running reduce anxiety and depression? Do young athletes learn to be overly-aggressive or overly-competitive from participation in youth sports?
Applied Sport Psychology
In the highest level of sports, where talent may be more or less evenly matched, what makes athletes transcend the barriers and go over the top? That’s where the mental aspects of the game play its part, and thus sports psychology is born.
Sport psychologists maximize an athlete's performance while increasing psychological processes, by applying the psychological principles of human performance through applied sport psychology. Applied sport psychologists are skilled in a broad range of domains and activities for the purpose of facilitating excellence in all aspects of sport.
One domain includes the development of psychological skills required for excellence in physical activity and sport. For example, increasing positive self-talk can increase one's ability to perform in competitions. Another specific area sport psychologists focus on is in understanding, diagnosis, as well as prevention of the various psychological and cognitive, emotional, as well as behavioral and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent optimum performance (APA). A sport psychologist figures out how anxiety affects a basketball player’s free-throw accuracy and how they can work with the player to prevent this particular anxiety.
Applied sport psychology is important because it can help athletes improve performance, enhance enjoyment, and gain more self-fulfillment in sport through psychological skills training, or PST. PST can increase mental processes such as positive talk, concentration, motivation, commitment, confidence, and resilience. Not only can athletes benefit from these skills in sport, they can further benefit from these skills in all areas of life.
Goals of applied sport psychology include improving overall performance by removing mental impediments through the use of PST techniques such as:
Imagery - formation of guided mental images
Sports psychology has progressed from being relatively obscure to absolutely mainstream, with teams and individual athletes hiring their own psychologists. Applied sports psychology involves expanding theories of sport psychology into the field to help athletes and individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with sporting activities including coaches, athletic trainers, and parents.
Success is not only measured by overall performance, it is also measured by aspects such as enjoyment and optimal involvement in sports and exercise. Applied sports psychology is a branch of psychology dedicated to discovering how the mind influences an athlete's performance, their activity, and the mental component of sports performance in general. Over the better part of two decades, applied sport psychology as a performance-enhancement tool has garnered considerable attention.
Exercise psychology is related to sports psychology and is considered part of an underdiscipline in the field of psychology. Exercise psychology is often used as a means of cognitive enhancement. Exercise has been observed to improve cognitive function and its positive effects on cognitive processes has been widely accepted; however, scientific evidence proving the benefits of exercise as a therapeutic, self-help method is still developing (Otto, Smits. 2011).
Regular physical exercise has been closely linked with a decreased risk of physical concerns and diseases, for example, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes. Not only were physical benefits were reported, but those who regularly engage in aerobic exercise have been found to have better mental health, as well be explored in the next topic (Ashish, Madaan, Petty. 2006).
Psychological Benefits of Exercise
Good physical health and mental health are closely linked. Regular exercise improves symptoms related to dementia, Alzheimer's, or cognitive decline. Furthermore, physical activity through exercise has also been consistently linked with better academic performances in students (Booth, et al. 2013).
Exercise as simple as brisk walking is proven to reduce symptoms of depression as effectively as antidepressants in the short-term, and better than antidepressants in the long-term.
In clinical studies, exercise has proven to be as effective, possibly even more effective, in the short-term than medication in treating mild to moderate depression, and more effective in the long-term. Surprisingly, Duke University study found that exercise is actually more effective than an antidepressant treatment combined with exercise for both the short-term benefits for depression and for recurrence rate.
Brisk walking, biking, and swimming are some exercises that many have adopted into their lifestyle; this has helped individuals to overcome depression, symptoms of bipolar disorder, anxiety, as well as an an aid towards a better night's sleep.
One man who swims daily stated that swimming keeps his mind out of depression, so much so the medication was no longer necessary. said that it is what keeps his mind out of depression, to that point that medication was no longer was necessary. For another, brisk walking daily was part of a combination of lifestyle changes which effectively brought remission in symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Another middle aged man, in addition to time outdoors, plays recreational basketball once a week. This keeps him physically fit and contributes to a positive attitude because basketball is both a physical and a social sport. Social isolation can be a a reoccurring symptom of mental health disorders, for example ADHD. A teenager from Newark, NJ was able to come off stimulant medications for ADHD, which he did not like taking because of the side effects, when he started going to the gym regularly with his father.
Ryan, a public school art teacher in Newark, NJ, had been on medication for ADHD from middle school through high school. Eventually, he was able to stop taking his ADHD medication through a combination of focus on art and playing soccer regularly. The soccer, he states, was effective for his hyperactivity symptoms, the "H" in ADHD, and the art helped him to focus.
The positive, forward looking, "can accomplish anything," attitude that comes with many forms of participation in sports contributes to physical and mental health. Furthermore, it can contribute to better emotional health in terms of self-image and self-esteem. Excessive body weight, for one, can contribute to a poor self-image and slow a person down physically. In fact, it is a very common cause or symptom of depression
Participation in exercise and sports can aid better mental health for anyone experiencing any form of mental health disorder; however, balance is necessary . Some studies indicate that female athletes who strive for perfectionism, may be more susceptible to eating disorders, as one example of an imbalanced approach to sports and exercise (there are other similar examples).
Psychological Benefits of Playing Sports and Team Sports
Eimel, Young, Harvey, Charity, and Payne (2013) outline the benefits of youth involvement with sport for children and teens in a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
Researchers of this study recommend community sport participation as leisure citing positive physical, psychological, and social health outcomes that result. Some of the specific benefits they note include improved self-esteem, social interaction, improved psychosocial health, and fewer depressive symptoms. The benefits highlighted in this study concerning youth can certainly be carried over into the adult sphere as well.
Having presented evidence for that from 30 clinical studies, the researchers note that there is a correlational rather than a causal link between participation in sport and psychosocial health; therefore, the topic warrants further investigation.
Children in Sports
Needless to say, involvement in good nutrition and exercise are beneficial, especially for children with obesity. Recreational sports address this problem of obesity among children. . Participation in recreational sports helps children strike a nice balance. involvement in recreational sports can be the pathway for future involvement in more organized sports, for example, Little League baseball.
Little League Baseball can be a source of personal achievement, growth, and self-esteem for thousands of children. Having that said, it can also be a source of pressure, anxiety, or even depression. An ESPN survey notes that more than 80% of parents surveyed who had children old enough to play organized sports, are concerned about both the "quality" as well as the "behavior" of children and youth sport coaches (2014).
Not only can coaches put pressure on athletes, parents themselves can cause tension and stress in a child by putting unnecessary pressure on children to perform or win. This can ultimately take away the fun in sports. While some young people flourish in a highly competitive setting, some falter. As sports become more competitive, common concerns from parents include:
Concerns from parents include:
Rising costs of participation in youth sports
Too much emphasis on winning over having fun
Risk of injury, including concussions
Despite numerous serious concerns about organized sports, we can conclude that children can benefit from sports psychology as much as adults do.
Extreme sports have evolved from mountain climbing in the 1800s and they continue to gain popularity in today's society. While extreme sports may not be inherently violent, they are inherently adrenaline producing and high risk. Some examples of extreme sports are high-risk parachuting,base jumping (parachuting off of fixed objects), speed racing, bungee jumping, big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, and similar sports.
|Sport psychology and extreme sports: Participation in extreme sports is an addictive, dopamine-releasing, and high-risk adventure. Big wave surfing off the coast of Nazare, Portugal shown here. Big wave surfer and record breaker Andrew Cotton says about his Guiness World Records ride, "There was obviously a bout of nerves." Photo: Pedro Miranda.
In an article entitled, "The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not Loonies", Joachim Vogt Isaksen, HiNT, states that ,"Extreme sport activities represent the most striking example of acts that go against our natural human instincts, [instincts] which are designed to protect us from dangers." (Isaksen, Vogt. 2012).
Even though it seems that those who participate in extreme sports have a death wish or a “screw loose”, some who have studied extreme sports indicate that there may be positive psychological results from participation that carry over into other areas of life. Of course, the danger involved with extreme sports is real; those who die participating in extreme sports certainly don't accrue any benefits, however it is a risk that many are willing to take.
Participation in extreme sports can be, and has proven to be, addictive; this is due to the "adrenaline rush". The natural high of extreme sports is related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released when we are in danger and it is released in massive amounts when someone snorts cocaine. Feelings of optimism and happiness from participation in extreme sports may be linked to the release of this neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine plays a role in the brain's reward and motivational system and it is linked to the feeling of well-being in normal amounts.
Some violent sports, staged or otherwise,such as pro-wrestling, boxing, or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are very exciting to watch and they are categorized under extreme sports. Professional wrestling WWF style, while staged, may be viewed as extreme. WWF wrestling generates a regular audience of millions of males ranging from seven years old to sixteen; however, some females and adults in general also are active enthusiasts.
Psychology of Sociological Issues in Sports
Violence in sports is one issue that fans and athletes grapple with.
Photo: Similar to kick boxing, Thai Boxing.
– Both adult and children athletes can suffer from burnout. Burnout is a result of pushing too hard or not caring for physical and emotional needs while emphasizing high-performance in sport.
2. Violence in Sports
– The Roman gladiators did not have the monopoly on violence in the name of sport. Sports such as boxing, American football, the martial arts, hunting, are described by sociologists as "inherently violent".
3. NFL and American Football On-Field Violence
– High profile news headlines have pointed the finger at the NFL and the health damage done to players through the game. On-field violence in the NFL, from vicious hits as a matter of course, bounties to take a player out, and head injuries from concussions are topics that won’t soon disappear from public view.
4. Concussions and Head Injuries
- Resultant Depression and Suicides: Expanding on the previous two points, concussions are an everyday occurrence in sports. Between 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions are reported annually, which one authoritative source refers to as a "vastly underestimate[d]" estimate of the total number of recreation and sports-related concussions (Daneshvar, Nowinski, McKee. 2011). Players who have experienced a concussion, or several, have suffered long-term effects and damage, for example, depression and suicide.
5. Soccer Hooliganism
– Britain spawned the soccer hooliganism trend but today peripheral violence associated with soccer has spread through Brazil and the rest of South America, Africa, and Europe. Soccer-related violence both in and out of the stadium is serious and sometimes deadly. Soccer fanaticism has even ignited wars; for example, Honduras and Yugoslavia. The civil war that broke Yugoslavia into seven parts was sparked in part by football (soccer) rivalries and fanaticism.
6. Off-field Athlete Violence
– It is possible that off-field domestic violence by players might be a byproduct of aggression on the field. Some studies conclude that watching the sports of boxing and NFL football may result in higher rates of domestic violence against women (Wann, Melnick, Russell, Pease. 2001).
7. NBA Aggression
- The sport is definitely more exciting to watch today than it was 50 years ago. Having that said, the days of non-contact, gentlemanly court play have yielded to a contact, scratching and clawing your way to the hoop spirit where it really is survival of the fittest.
The book The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication
addresses the "waning moral civilization in the NBA” and the various ways aggression is manifested. Aggression can arise through selfish and arrogant acts of violence the aggression that might be thought of as "manly sophistication", or a combination of the two. Either way, aggression in the NBA from players and coaches has transformed the game into a different sport than it was in the NBA’s nascent decades.
8. Suicide in Major League Baseball
- A higher rate of suicide appears to be evident in the MLB compared to the general population. While the American pastime predated the Civil War, it gained impetus during the War and emerged as an American icon in the years to follow. A higher suicide rate among professional baseball players may be attributed to a number of reasons, not the least of which is the high pressure to perform.
9. Steroids and Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs
The win-at-all-costs spirit that permeates much of professional sports has contributed to wave after wave of steroid abuse among players. Blood doping is a similarly related issue that has cast a shadow on the sport of bicycle racing.
10. Perfectionism, Eating Disorders, and Female Athletes
– The personality flaw of perfectionism is thought to be linked to the progression of eating disorders. Female athletes who tend towards perfectionism might be especially susceptible to the development of eating disorders.
Please look for the full AYCNP page in the coming weeks, Issues in Sports
Categorizing Sports Violence
NFL football is recognized by most authorities as a violent sport. Repeated concussions may cause disabling brain damage in players.
Professional American football is generally categorized as a violent sport, along with boxing and pro-hockey. That is, the violence is inherent or deeply ingrained part of the sport rather than incidental. (See: Violence in Sports Abdal-Haqq, Ismat. ERIC Digest 1-89. See: Violence in Sports
Abdal-Haqq, Ismat. ERIC Digest 1-89).
There are sports whose direct purpose is violence, such as boxing, and sports that are inherently violent, such as pro football, by the nature of the sport. Furthermore, there are sports that have acquired violence, such as NHL hockey. Olympic hockey is a much less violent version of the same sport.
Baseball and football have been part of American culture even before the Civil War; in fact, baseball became known as the national pastime during and as a result of the Civil War. This helps give meaning to Willy Mays famous comment, "Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what it is most truly is disguised combat. For all its gentility, it’s almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps."
Conclusion of Sport Psychology
Sport psychology encompasses techniques and skills that are deemed necessary to the whole sports package for children, youth, and adults. Skills such as anger and/or anxiety management, communication, visualization, concentration control, and team building among others are also a part of sport psychology, along with what has already been mentioned.
The growth of sport psychology can also be attributed to the inclusion of sport psychology degrees in major universities as a major part, as well as testimonials from world-class athletes, down to the sports coaches of collegiate and high school. Sport psychology is also effectively used in harmony with substance abuse prevention of athletes.
Applied sport psychology helps athletes overcome mental blocks to performance. Exercise psychology remains a part of Sport Psychology, and provides a valuable link between conceptualizing an exercise plan and implementing one that results in mentally positive outcomes as well as physical benefits.
Sport Psychology References
(the references to follow contain off-site links)
1. Armstrong, C. (2010, Fall). Athletes and Mental Illness - Major League Baseball Steps Up to the Plate. NAMI Advocate.
2. Sharma, A. S., Madaan, V., Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion - Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2): 106. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
3. Booth, J. N., Leary, S. D., Joinson, Ness, A. R., Tomporowski, P. D., Boyle, J. M., Reilly, J. J. (2013, October 10).
Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort.
British Journal of Sports and Medicine
4. Baseball Suicides
. (2010). The Baseball Almanac
. Retrieved from http://www.baseball-almanac.com/legendary/suicides_baseball.shtml
5. Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Retrieved from http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/pdf/1479-5868-10-98.pdf
6. Farrey, T. (2014, October). ESPN Poll: Most Parents Have Concerns About State of Youth Sports. ESPN. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/espnw/w-in-action/article/11675649/parents-concern-grows-kids-participation-sports
7. Has Andrew Cotton surfed the biggest wave of all time? (2014, February 4). Guinness World Records. Retrieved from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2014/2/has-andrew-cotton-surfed-the-biggest-wave-of-all-time-watch-video-54804/
8. Isaksen, H., Vogt, J. (2012, November 5). The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not Loonies. Popular Science.
Retrieved from http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2012/11/05/the-psychology-of-extreme-sports-addicts-not-loonies/
9. Abdal-Haqq, I. (1989). Violence in Sports. ERIC Digest. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9214/sports.htm
10. Nigg, J. (2006). What Causes ADHD: Understanding What Goes Wrong and Why. New York: Guilford Press.
11. Rees, I., & Schnepel, K. (2009). College Football Games And Crime. Journal of Sports Economics, 10
(No. 1), 68-87. Retrieved from http://jse.sagepub.com/content/10/1/68.abstract
12. Schwartz, A. (2007, January 18). Expert Ties Ex-Players Suicide to Brain Damage. New York Times.
13. Stadler, M. (2007). The Psychology of Baseball, Inside the Mental Game of the Major League Player. New York: Gotham.
14. Study: Exercise Has Long-Lasting Effect on Depression. (2000, September 22). Duke Today.
Retrieved from https://today.duke.edu/2000/09/exercise922.html
References for Issues in Sports Section
1. Aldridge, D. (2009, April 23). Rules changes have affected defensive philosophies. NBA.com
. Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/2009/news/features/david_aldridge/04/22/aldridge.defenses/
2. Daneshvar, D., Nowinski, C., McKee, A., & Cantu, R. (2011). The Epidemiology of Sport-Related Concussion. Clinical Sports Medicine, 30
(1), 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2987636/
3. Depression: What is burnout syndrome? (2013, January 17). Informed Health Online
. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072470/
4. Doherty, A. (2001, August). Violence in Sports: A Comparison of Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome to the Sports of America. Honors Theses University Honors Program, Southern Illinois University
. Retrieved from http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=uhp_theses
5. Forsberg, S., Lock J. (2006, December). Perfectionism leading to eating disorders. Minerva Pediatric, 58
6. Grohmann, K. (2014, October 14). Fan violence on the rise in German stadiums: Report. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/14/us-soccer-germany-violence-idUSKCN0I30ZW20141014
7. Nakayama, T. K., Halualani, R. T. (2012). The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication
. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.
8. Wann, D. L., Melnick, M. J., Russell, G. W., Pease, D. G. (2001). Sports Fans- The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators
. New York: Routledge.
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