Sports and Psychology

This Sport Psychology page was 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 are the scientific studies of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sports, exercise, and other types of physical activity.

Sport psychology: Sport is a combination of physical and mental.
Sport Psychology: It’s all in the mind.
Primary Goals of Exercise & Sport Psychology

Experts in these fields 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 to help athletes apply “psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health.”

Additionally, it strives 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 is significant in order to help athletes achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (APA).

The second objective of sport 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 when participating 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? This is where the mental aspects of the game come into play, and thus sport (or sports) psychology was born.

Sport psychologists maximize an athlete’s performance while improving psychological processes by applying the psychological principles of human performance through applied sports. 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. Applied sport psychologists are skilled in a broad range of areas and activities for the purpose of facilitating excellence in all aspects of sports.

One area includes the development of psychological skills required for excellence in physical activity and sports. For example, increasing positive self-talk can increase one’s ability to perform in competitions. Another specific part that sport psychologists focus on is in the understanding, diagnosis, as well as prevention of various psychological, 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, for instance, 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 sports 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 their respective activity, they can further benefit from these skills in all areas of life.

The 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
Mental exercises
Confidence-building
Positive self-talk
Goal-setting
Arousal regulation
Sport psychology has progressed from being relatively obscure to absolutely mainstream, with teams and individual athletes hiring their own psychologists. Applied sport psychology involves expanding theories into the field to help athletes and individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with the sporting activities, which include coaches, athletic trainers, and parents.

Note, though, that success is not only measured by overall performance, but by aspects such as enjoyment and optimal involvement. Over the better part of two decades, applied sport psychology as a performance-enhancement tool has garnered considerable attention.

Exercise Psychology

Exercise psychology is related to sport psychology, and is considered an under-discipline in the field. 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 have 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 reported, those who regularly engaged in aerobic exercise have been found to have better mental health (Ashish, Madaan, Petty, 2006), which will be further explored in the next header.

Psychological Benefits of Exercise

Good physical 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).