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In this lesson, you will learn the definition and the history of sports psychology. The lesson will focus on five functions of a sports psychologist, which include assisting players with performance, stress, recovery, consistency in workouts, and enjoyment of the game.

Definition of Sports Psychology

In June of 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals. In a post-game interview with ABC, LA Lakers’ player Ron Artest attributed some of success to his sports psychologist Dr. Nicole Miller. Artest had a history of getting so angry that he had previously gotten into a fight with fans in the arena. The psychologist had helped Artest control his anger and manage stress more effectively.

Former troublemaker basketball star, Ron Artest, benefited from anger management with his sports psychologist.
Ron Artest

Sports psychology attends to the mental health and well-being of athletes, as well as assisting them with reaching their maximum potential in their athletic career. Qualified sports psychologists have a doctorate in psychology, a license to practice psychology, and postdoctoral training on aiding athletes with sports performance and well-being.

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Functions of a Sports Psychologist

Sports psychologists cover many different aspects in treatment of athletes. Let’s look at a fictional sports psychologist Dr. Nelson Banks and professional football player and quarterback Tom Bush.


In order to enhance Bush’s performance on the field, Dr. Banks teaches him how to engage in positive self talk, i.e.

‘I’m an amazing player’ and ‘I’m going to win this game!’ in the locker room before the game. Dr. Banks teaches Bush how to do positive visualization upon waking up the morning of a game. This involves closing his eyes for 10 minutes and actually visualizing making a successful touchdown pass and winning the game.


Dr. Banks teaches Bush how to calm his anxiety and stress before a game with deep breathing exercises and meditation.

He even gives Bush a CD with a guided imagery exercise on it that will take him to his ‘happy place’ (his cabin in the mountains) for 10 minutes to get into a relaxed mindset. These techniques also help Bush cope with the pressures from family, friends, coaches, and the sports organization of which he is a part.

Recouping After Injury

Bush has difficulty adhering to his physical therapy regimen after a sports injury; Dr. Banks is able to help him with motivation and consistency in maintaining these appointments and exercises. Bush is also experiencing pain from his injury, and Dr. Banks is able to teach him mental exercises like meditation that will help relieve some of the pain.

Keeping a Consistent Workout Regimen


Banks is able to help Bush with motivation, consistency, and focus to keep up with his goal of working out 6 days a week to stay in shape for football season.

Enjoying Sports

Dr. Banks doesn’t only work with the players on the football team. He also speaks with the head coach and offensive and defensive coaches about ways to keep practice fun and positive, so that the players continue to enjoy playing and have high self esteem and self worth as a member of the team.Sports psychology seems like a vital component of getting athletes in the right mindset for optimal performance and well-being, and its benefits were first being realized in the early-to-mid 1900s. The history of sports psychology began with experiments and research of athlete’s performance to provide enhanced mental edge to compliment physical ability.

History of Sports Psychology

The history of sports psychology actually dates back to the late 1800s when psychologists conducted research experiments studying athletic performance. In his 1898 research study involving cyclists, Norman Triplett found that cyclists increased their speed when in competition with others, as opposed to cycling alone.The quest to use psychological knowledge to increase athletic performance carried on until the 1920s when psychologist Walter Miles experimented with techniques to improve the reaction time of football offensive lineman after a ball hike.Despite various sports psychologist researchers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Coleman R. Griffith (1893-1966) is commonly recognized as the first sports psychologist.

Coleman Griffith, considered the founder of sports psychology.

Coleman Griffith

Griffith opened an athletic research laboratory at the University of Illinois in 1925. In 1925 he published an article, ‘Psychology and Its Relation to Athletic Competition,’ which is considered one of his most important works/writings. He also published a couple of textbooks, namely Psychology of Coaching and Psychology and Athletes.

Griffith’s progress was stunted when his lab was shut down in 1931 at the beginning of the Great Depression.Philip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, hired Griffith to join the Cubs for spring training in 1937 to experiment with ways to enhance the Cubs’ performance on the baseball field. In July of 1938, Griffith spoke up to Wrigley about his interpretations and recommendations for spring training practices.He suggested that the practices be more of a ‘mock practice;’ that they be more similar to a game with calling balls and strikes instead of just allowing players to hit ball after ball in a disorganized fashion. His rationale for this was that players would get more into a serious mindset during practice which would enhance game performance.

Unfortunately, the managers and coaches did not take Griffith’s recommendations seriously. Manager Charlie Grimm did not see a need for a psychologist as a consultant on a baseball team. Even though Griffith’s recommendations were not taken seriously with the Cubs, he was still given the honor with the title of ‘America’s first sports psychologist’ by University of Massachusetts professors Walter Kroll and Guy Lewis in 1970.Sports psychology has developed into a comprehensive and professional field that assists athletes with mental health, performance, goals, pain reduction, motivation, and enjoyment of the game. There is no question to the importance and significance of psychology in the sports arena.

Lesson Summary

Sports psychology attends to the mental health and well-being of athletes, as well as assisting them with reaching their maximum potential in their athletic career. The five main functions of sports psychology is to assist players with heightened performance, decreasing stress, recouping after an injury, maintaining a constant workout regimen, and assisting coaches with techniques to make sure players continue to enjoy playing sports.

Sports psychology began with research on sports performance with psychologist and researchers Norman Triplett (cyclists are speedier in competition than when they ride solo) and Walter Miles (studied reaction time of football players to increase their reaction time after the ball hike). The person who was considered the first sports psychologist was Coleman Griffith. Today, most professional teams employ sports psychologists to assist players with mental health, performance, and well-being.

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