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Using Psychology of Sport to Perform at the Top of Your Game

Updated on March 4, 2012

Evolution of Sports Psychology


A History of Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is a relatively new phenomenon and until the 1960’s not much attention was placed on understanding the dynamics behind athletes and their sport (Anshel, 2003). In fact, it was not until the 1960’s that this area of psychology was officially recognized as a discipline (Haney, 2000). Although this is the case, our understanding of sports psychology principles dated back to the late 1800’s when Norman Triplett studied the effects that other team mates have on performance (Anshel, 2003). In his study, Triplett focused on cyclists and found that in general they performed better when in the presence of others. He also replicated this finding with children using fishing lines and found the same results.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s sports psychology grew, but not as a discipline. It was during this time that our understanding of coaching was further enhanced and a sports psychology lab was established (Haney, 2000). However, it was not until the late 30’s and into the early 60’s that sports psychology found it’s basis that would eventually lead to the discipline of sports psychology. During these formative years, Franklin Henry devoted his time to understanding the psychological aspects of the sport and motor skills acquisition (Haney, 2000). He later decided to focus his career on training others interested in the study of physical education. It was largely due to Henry’s work that sports psychology would eventually become what we know it as today.

From the late 1960’s to late 70’s the general focus was on a physical education emphasis. The focus at this time was on the development of motor skills and on conditions of practice, feedbackand timing. However, sport psychologists also studied how psychological factors such as personality, self-esteem, and anxiety influence motor skill performance(Haney, 2000). This set the stage for what would become a major growth era for sports psychology, from late 1970’s to 2000 (Haney, 2000). During these years we saw a separation of sports psychology from the field of physical education and more articles and journals published studies on concepts in this area.

Finally, the time period after 2000 proved that great strides were being made in the area of sports psychology. Most recently sports psychologists have been given credit for helping the athletic community understand how coaches can improve performance, as well as understanding how exercisecontributes to the psychological well-being of non-athletes (Haney, 2000).

Previous studies in the area of performance among others (Anshel, 2003) helped to pave the way for future developments in this area. Through Triplett’s work sports psychologists were able to understand how a group affects team performance, as well as individual performance (Anshel, 2003). Triplett’s work in this area was a precursor to later studies on cohesion among teams and through the work of Francis and Young (as cited in Anshel, 2003) we were introduced to the evolutionary process of becoming a team. Francis and Young (as cited in Anshel, 2003) suggested that certain steps facilitate team building, such as forming, storming, and norming. Essentially, this study helped open doors as to how teams evolve as they become more cohesive.

In addition, later studies in cohesion identified different levels of cohesion: social cohesion and task cohesion (as cited in Anshel, 2003). In Carron’s study, it was found that athletes differentiate between task and social cohesion and this differentiation determines one’s acceptance of the failure of a team (as cited in Anshel, 2003)

Current Research Agendas

Current research agendas in the area of understanding team dynamics have been conducted to understand how sports psychologists can be utilized to help athletes overcome many issues that affect performance (Petrie & Diehl, 1995). Results of the study have found that training in the psychological realm is just as important as it is in the athletic realm. Other studies have focused on the mood of the athlete and how this related to cohesion in teams (Terry, et. al., 2000). Terry (2000) found that higher levels of perceived cohesion were present with lower levels of depression, anger, and tension. This study highlighted the fact that athletes who perceived deficits in the areas of playing time, opportunities to play, desire to win, and the team’s style were shown to exhibit higher levels of anxiety and anger (Terry, et. al., 2000).

Research on cohesion was also conducted by (Spink, 1998) to study how cohesion affects an athlete’s desire to return to the sport in subsequent seasons. The researchers in this study found that when an athlete perceived higher levels of cohesion it was more likely to see them return to the same team. This study and others support the notion that team success hinges upon satisfaction with other members of the team and feeling a part of the group (Greenless, et. al., 2007 & Myers, 2004).

Although studies in cohesion in teams have made great strides in our understanding of what makes teams more successful and what improves individual performance, cultural variables and gender issues further complicate our true understanding in this area. Earlier and later studies on team dynamics have failed to properly address issues surrounding the cultural makeup of a team, as well as gender issues. For instance, is there a difference between perceptions of cohesion among males versus females. This question makes one wonder if males need to feel less cohesive than females.

Additionally so, cohesion was addressed among individual versus team sports, but further studies in different sports would prove to be useful in our understanding of how cohesion is perceived in each sport overall. Finally, it is important to understand how team dynamics are at different levels of play (competitive, recreational, youth, high school, collegiate, professional). Research on this would further guide our understanding of cohesion as it relates to cultural, gender, age groups, and the ethnic makeup of a team.

A Summary

In summation, the development of sports psychology has come a long way in such a short time. Studies in motivation, personality, exercise, and team dynamics have given us insight into what makes a good athlete a great one. Without having knowledge in this area some athletes would not be as far as they are today. However, future studies will need to conduct research on how culture influences this and if there are differences perceived between males and females.


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