What Is Sports Psychology: History, Benefits, and Career

Sports psychology was relatively unknown until a couple of decades ago. That’s not the case anymore.

Today, professional sports psychologists play a crucial role in setting the right mindset for an athlete.

A psychologist focuses on strengthening the player to overcome obstacles and boosting confidence for optimal performance.

Psychology helps harness the individual’s untapped energy source towards achieving superior results in sports.

Undoubtedly, success or failure in the sports arena often depends on mental factors as much as physical ones.

What is sports psychology?

Sports psychology is the application of psychological principles and skills to influence athletes to improve performance and mental toughness.

In sports psychology, the aim is to substitute negative self-talk with more positive thoughts.

In addition, sports psychology tries to solve issues associated with sports management and the organization of events.

Psychology also plays a very significant role in an athlete’s social and developmental aspects.

In short, sports psychology studies how psychology influences sports, exercise, physical activity, and optimal athletic performance.

Sports psychology helps athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators. It helps resolve issues involving competition levels, setting, ages, professional organization of sports events, and violence in sports.

History of sports psychology 

The world’s first sports psychology laboratory was founded by Carl Diem at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Berlin, Germany, in 1920.

Besides these two, more sports psychology institutes were set up in 1925. One was by Coleman Griffith at the University of Illinois, and the other was by A.Z. Puni at the Institute of Physical Culture in Leningrad.

Over the years, several sports psychology institutions have been set up in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, these institutions in the early years needed more research and knowledge to serve athletes.

Sports and exercise psychology gained recognition when Ferruccio Antonelli established the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) in 1965. By the year 1980, most of the leading universities in the USA and Europe had dedicated departments or courses in sports psychology.

The current state of sports psychology

Sports psychology is a well-established branch of psychology with numerous research projects and recognitions to its credit. It is a very vast and diverse field of psychology.

In the international sports arena, every athlete and team has a sports psychologist on staff.

As mentors and motivators, sports psychologists help athletes achieve their maximum potential in sports performance. Importantly, it’s beneficial for improving mental performance and physical activity in any walk of life.

Areas of psychological intervention for sportspersons

A sports psychologist works with athletes to peak performance by focusing on specific areas and using the technique of mental development. Some of the critical areas of concern are:


Psychologists apply methods that help improve the athlete’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is taught in the athlete’s intense passion, desire, and determination to win the competition. Extrinsic motivation includes the trophy, recognition, fame, and money an athlete can achieve.

Focus and attention

A psychologist helps nurture the ability to concentrate on the sporting event instead of being distracted by other events. For example, cheering, hooting crowds, or distracting tactics of opponents can distract the athlete.


It involves visualizing the actual event and performing the sporting skills and abilities to their maximum capacity.

Enhancement of physiological capacity

Sports psychology techniques help enhance physiological capacities such as strength, speed, flexibility, etc. Through motivational training and goal setting.

Understanding and correcting behavior

It helps identify and correct the behavior of athletes or sportspersons engaged in competitive sports. Coaches can learn about the athlete’s drives, personality, instincts, attitude towards physical activity, and interests.

Psychological preparation of athletes for competitions

Psychological tips and motivations given to players before and after the match can help improve their performance.

Sports psychology also plays a role in the preparation of athletes. Sports psychologists create the ‘will win’ attitude in players.

Controlling the emotions

Emotional balance is a must to achieve success in sports. Psychology can help promote a healthy emotional balance in sportspersons during practice and competition. Psychological counseling helps an individual overcome emotional issues such as disgust, anger, a feeling of ownership, negative self-perceptions, etc.

Chief benefits of psychology for sportspersons

Sportspersons have to be physically and mentally fit to win a competition. Psychology can help you as an athlete in many ways, such as:

  • creates self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses.
  • enables you to get your parents’ or caretakers’ respect and support.
  • improve your relationship with coaches and sports administrators.
  • aids you in choosing the right sports career path and vision for success
  • prepares you to be mentally and emotionally fit for a sporting event.
  • brings concentration and dedication to training and competition.
  • enhances mental toughness.
  • helps you overcome setbacks and initial failures
  • strengthen your motivation and sports drive
  • makes you handle well to stress and pressure
  • enables you to manage the paradox of success and forms sportsmanship.
  • develops self-confidence, self-esteem, and competence in sports.

Become a sports psychologist

Sports psychologists are either clinical psychologists or educational psychologists.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognized sports psychology degree or certification is necessary for becoming a sports psychologist in the United States.

A clinical psychologist must be up-to-date with sports medicine.

A licensed psychologist with a doctorate in sports psychology is an excellent qualification in this field.

The proficiency of clinical sports psychologists also lies in their ability to motivate athletes and help them cope with the intense pressure of competition.

Besides, they help athletes recover from injuries and mental exhaustion.

They help sportspersons learn how to tolerate rigorous exercise programs and enjoy sports.

Psychology careers in sports and games

Two types of sports psychologists are educational sports psychologists and clinical sports psychologists.

The job of a sports psychologist is a very rewarding one. It is also a very lucrative profession for those interested in sports and coaching. Psychologists working with national and international teams or elite sportspeople earn mass reputations and fat salaries.

A psychologist with a certification from the Association for Applied Sports Psychology enjoys wider acceptance for jobs.

The American Psychological Association describes sports psychology as a “hot career.”

The standard psychologist salary of those working in university athletic departments is around $60,000 to $80,000 per year.

The final thought 

Today, sports psychologists are integral to advanced training for sports and games. They help the athletes develop the right mindset and focus on overcoming obstacles to winning a competition.

A psychologist motivates, guides, and builds an “I can, I will” attitude in the athlete.

Sports performance psychology can help athletes balance their emotions and improve their performance. It prepares the athletes mentally to win the competition.

Recommended reading list:

Article source:

  • American Psychological Association. (n.d). Sports psychologists help professional and amateur athletes. Psychology Help Center.
  • Locke E, Latham G. The application of goal setting to sports. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1985; 7:205-222.
  • Weinberg Robert S, Daniel Gould. Goal Setting. Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Myles Schrag. Courier Printing, 2011, 350-351.
  • Vealey RS. P3 thinking. In Vealey, RS. Ed., Coaching for the Inner Edge. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, 2005, 201-224.
  • Voelker, R. (2012). Hot careers: Sports psychology. GradPSYCH Magazine.