What is sports psychology?

Quick Answer
Involvement in sports as a participant or spectator serves similar psychological functions for individuals: Both help people create and maintain a positive self-concept, allow them to feel a sense of membership in social groups, and provide pleasant stimulation.
Expert Answers
enotes eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sports psychology, also called sport psychology, is the study of the relationship between psychological or mental factors and sports participation and appreciation. Practitioners study both the ways in which athletes’ psychology affects their sports performance and the ways in which fans’ identification with a team affects their well-being. For athletes, sports psychology involves the understanding of skills such as relaxation, visualization, concentration, and goal setting. Sports psychology assumes that people’s motivational level is a critical determinant of their involvement in sports, either as participants or spectators. Involvement in sports by both participants and spectators is a result of similar motivational factors: the desire to maintain a positive self-concept, the need to affiliate with or belong to meaningful social groups, and the need for positive levels of stress.

Positive Self-Concept

As illustrated by the work of social psychologists such as Henri Tajfel, John Turner, and Jennifer Crocker, who have tested aspects of social identity theory, humans have a tendency to maintain a positive view of themselves. Therefore, evaluations that people make of the groups to which they belong have consequences for their social identity. For many people, the goal of feeling positive about themselves can be accomplished, at least in part, through involvement with athletics—either actively as participants or passively as spectators.

For the athlete, self-esteem begins to play an important motivational role in early childhood. Children tend to choose activities in which they are successful, allowing them to feel proud of their accomplishments. Those children who find success in athletic games begin to prefer them to other recreational or intellectual activities. In short, those with the most skill (presumably a genetic predisposition) tend to show the most enthusiasm for sports participation. Success and its subsequent self-esteem benefits fuel their desire to continue or increase their participation in athletics.

When studying the motivation of children, it is important to distinguish between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. When an individual is intrinsically motivated to complete a task, that person is moved by internal factors such as feelings of competence or an interest in the task itself. Persons who are extrinsically motivated are driven by external rewards, such as money, trophies, or praise from coaches and parents. Ideally, children should become involved in sports for intrinsic reasons, and most do become involved as a result of such motives. When intrinsically motivated children are given external rewards for their performance, however, the result can be a reduced overall motivation to participate in sports; that is, they tend to become less interested. The findings on the intrinsic-extrinsic motivational dichotomy have been used to help people who are trying to establish youth sports leagues. In the early stages of a league, intrinsic motives should be emphasized. Increases in extrinsic motivation via rewards and trophies will probably result in a reduction of intrinsic motivation and decrease of interest in the activity. In fact, simply having children come to expect their parents’ praise can reduce intrinsic motivation. Unexpected praise and rewards are less likely to reduce intrinsic motivation. In general, it is probably best to take a hands-off approach to children’s athletic games.

Coaches often try to increase the motivation of athletes as a means of increasing their performance; however, increasing the player’s motivation is only one method of enhancing performance. Another popular technique, referred to as using mental imagery (what many call visualization), involves having the athlete mentally rehearse game situations. Before shooting a free throw, a basketball player might form a mental image of lining up his or her body correctly with the basket, bending at the knees when ready to release the ball, and following through with the fingertips and wrist after release. For example, L. Verdelle Clark had varsity and junior varsity high school basketball players practice their free-throw shooting through both mental imagery and physical practice. The results indicated that mental practice was almost as effective as physical practice.


The desire to maintain positive levels of self-esteem continues to be a primary motivational force for both adolescent and adult athletes. Participation in athletics allows them the opportunity to feel good about themselves by helping fulfill their need for achievement and status. Successful athletic performance provides them with a feeling of accomplishment and mastery.

Self-esteem also serves as a motivational force for sports spectators. Although spectators do not personally accomplish performance goals, they can experience feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment along with their team’s members. Sports fans report elation following their team’s victory and sorrow after their team’s defeat, with levels of intensity similar to those of the players. The success of a fan’s favorite team produces feelings of pride and increased self-esteem in the fan. Thus, spectators can improve their self-concept without any special athletic skills.

Nyla Branscombe and Daniel Wann performed a series of studies showing that spectators may experience increases in self-esteem even if their favorite team is not of championship caliber, as team identification provides a buffer from the feelings of isolation and alienation inimical to a society that values mobility. In general, fans of the local team, regardless of the success of that team, tend to have higher self-esteem, experience fewer negative emotions, and report greater life satisfaction than do persons who are not fans of the team. Such high self-esteem seems to be caused by the social support gained through interactions with other fans.

The desire to affiliate with and belong to certain groups also motivates sports participants. As adolescents begin to detach themselves from their families, social groups involving their peers become increasingly important, and a primary source of peer-group membership is belonging to a sports teams. Membership on such teams permits adolescents to be accepted by their peers, extends their social network, gives them a sense of belonging, and helps establish their social identity. Adults also may satisfy their need for affiliation and belonging by playing in recreational sports leagues.

Positive stress

Another factor shown to motivate both athletes and spectators is a desire for positive levels of stress. Unlike the negative stress that often accompanies academic or work endeavors, positive stress, called eustress, is reflective of people’s desire to find stimulation in life. For both participants and spectators, an athletic event involving their chosen team can be very stimulating. Hearts begin to race, people may feel nervous, and in general, the event can be quite arousing—much like a roller-coaster ride. This stimulation is actively sought by many people, and involvement in sports is an easy way to obtain it.


The motivational forces described earlier help to explain a wide variety of the behaviors exhibited by athletic participants and spectators. For example, the importance of maintaining a positive self-concept has been used to explain players’ and fans’ self-serving attribution s—the explanations that people give when explaining why certain events occur. Attributions can be either external (the “A” grade attributable to luck or easy questions) or internal (the “A” on a test attributable to intelligence or intensive studying). Because of the desire for a positive self-concept, people tend to use external attributions to explain their failures (thereby protecting their self-concept) while forming internal attributions concerning their successes (thereby enhancing their self-concept). This self-serving attributional bias can be found in many areas, including athletics. Research has demonstrated that when a participant or a spectator’s team has failed a competition, people tend to form external attributions as a means of explaining the defeat. For example, when asked to explain why they lost, athletes often blame the officials, bad luck, or the opponents’ dirty play. They do not perceive the failure to be internal (attributable to a lack of skill or ability on their part); hence, their self-concept is protected. Conversely, when victorious, athletes tend to assign internal causes for their success. That is, when the contest was won, they state that it was attributable to their skill rather than to luck.

This pattern of self-serving attributions is also found among sports spectators. When their favorite team is successful, sports fans tend to give internal attributions similar to those of the players. When their team loses, spectators choose external attributions to explain the defeat. This bias, used most frequently by highly allegiant or identified fans, is driven by a desire to maintain the belief that the groups with which they are associated are good. Spectators can increase their self-esteem through a related process, called “basking in reflected glory” by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues. Cialdini found that spectators enhance their self-esteem by increasing their association with successful teams and protect their self-esteem by decreasing their association with failing teams. In one study, students at a large university were telephoned and asked to describe the most recent game of the university’s football team. When the team had won, people tended to give statements such as “We won” or “We were victorious.” When the team had lost, however, the typical reply was “They lost” or “They were defeated.” In a second study, the day after their college team played, more students wore clothing that identified their university affiliation following a victory compared with after a defeat. The most allegiant fans, however, tended to continue showing support for their team even when it lost over long periods of time.

Motivation Research

The topic of motivation is one of the major areas of emphasis within the discipline of sports psychology, and it has attracted considerable research and theoretical attention. Since the 1990s, sports psychologists have been increasingly researching sports participation and spectatorship. Increased interest in the factors underlying the motivation of sports participants and spectators has been driven by the fact that sports are among the most popular leisure-time activities. Satisfaction with leisure-time activities greatly influences other areas of an individual’s life, such as school or work.

Understanding the motivations of sport spectators and participants is important for several reasons. First, most individuals begin their involvement with sports at a young age, usually by early adolescence. Because of the impact of peer relations on the psychological development of youth, insight into these relationships is important, and some comprehension can be gained by studying athletic team formation and cohesion. Second, because self-esteem plays such a critical role in determining whether individuals will become involved in sports, the positive emotional impact of athletics may be used for therapeutic purposes. Third, professional sports is a very big business with many millions of dollars at stake. If an individual’s performance could be increased by increasing motivation, the result could be quite profitable for team owners and the professional involved.

Development of the Field

Sports psychology is a relatively young specialty area within psychology. Pioneers, such as Coleman R. Griffith of the University of Illinois’s Athletic Research Laboratory, expressed interest in sports psychology in the early twentieth century. Griffith published Psychology of Coaching (1926) and Psychology of Athletics (1928). The field, however, did not develop at that time. In fact, most of the national and international professional organizations designed to examine issues in sports psychology were founded no earlier than the 1970s, and it was not until 1986 that the American Psychological Association (APA) recognized sports psychology as a separate academic division. Organizations promoting professionalism include the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity and the International Society of Sport Psychology.

Sports psychologists can receive certification from the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology or by completing continuing education courses offered by the American Board of Sport Psychology. Individual sports psychologists train athletes differently and use various treatment methods. Some analyze how social environments influence the behavior of athletes, while others focus on cognitive aspects, such as how mental processes shape athletic behavior. Others focus on psychophysiology, which correlates how brain chemistry affects behavior. The concept of motor development interests many sports psychologists. In addition to traditional forms of counseling, sports psychologists use biofeedback, hypnosis, and neurofeedback. Certified sports psychologists can register with the United States Olympic Committee and National Collegiate Athletic Association to assist elite and student athletes in fine-tuning their performances and developing coping and psychological skills to deal with demanding, high-profile lives.

Specialities and Applications

As psychologists develop specialties within the field to explore both familiar and emerging concerns, sports psychology research has expanded. Research topics include self-determination theory, emotional intelligence, and mood states, especially how anxiety and catastrophe theory can affect athletes. Technological developments offer sports psychologists new tools such as real-time online surveying and the ability to study athletic performance via virtual reality. The Internet provides sports psychology resources for experts, athletes, and related personnel worldwide to network and share insights to advance research on universal issues.

Some sports psychologists focus on individual athletes, while others study the dynamics of teams and how members communicate to achieve effective cohesiveness. Investigators collect data concerning athletes’ perceptions of sports psychology and subsequent acceptance of or resistance to such efforts to improve their performances.

Sports psychologists and physicians study athletes’ psychological responses to injuries and illnesses, particularly those medical conditions that halt high-profile athletic careers. They also examine psychological factors involved in rehabilitation and how athletes endure pain, deal with their temporary inability to compete, and commit to physical therapy. Health professionals are also interested in learning more about athletes who engage in substance abuse, have eating disorders, or develop mental illnesses.

Many therapists address aging-related concerns, especially as professional athletes attempt to lengthen their careers and amateur athletes seek recreational exercise during retirement. Some researchers evaluate how athletes’ age, gender, and ethnicity affect development of the psychological skills that aid athletic performances. They also study how grief and terrorism affect athletes and how exercise is psychologically beneficial to casual exercisers.

Some sports psychologists apply techniques used for athletes to situations outside sports. As consultants to corporations, sports psychologists can improve employees’ performance by teaching them cognitive restructuring and visualization methods to cope with stressful situations such as presentations. Private patients benefit from learning to focus on process instead of outcome and to relax with breathing methods to achieve better job performances both on and off athletic fields.


Gallucci, Nicholas T. Sport Psychology: Performance Enhancement, Performance Inhibition, Individuals, and Teams. New York: Psychology, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 July 2014.

Jarvis, Matt. Sport Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Lane, Andrew M., ed. Mood and Human Performance: Conceptual, Measurement, and Applied Issues. New York: Nova, 2007. Print.

Mohiyeddini, Changiz. Contemporary Topics and Trends in the Psychology of Sports. Hauppauge: Nova Science, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 July 2014.

Moran, Aidan P. Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Papaioannou, Athanasios G., and Dieter Hackfort. Routledge Companion to Sport and Exercise Psychology: Global Perspectives and Fundamental Concepts. Hoboken: Taylor, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 July 2014.

Schinke, Robert J. Innovative Writings in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Hauppauge: Nova Science, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 July 2014.

Silva, John M., and Diane E. Stevens, eds. Psychological Foundations of Sport. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn, 2002. Print

Singer, Robert N., Heather A. Hausenblas, and Christopher M. Janelle, eds. Handbook of Sport Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 2001. Print.

Taylor, Jim, and Gregory S. Wilson, eds. Applying Sport Psychology: Four Perspectives. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2005. Print.

Van Raalte, Judy L., and Britton W. Brewer, eds. Exploring Sport and Exercise Psychology. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: APA, 2014. Print.

Wann, Daniel L. Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Weinberg, Robert S., and Daniel Gould. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. \\4th ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2007. Print.

Williams, Jean M., ed. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. \\5th ed. Boston: McGraw, 2006. Print.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question