A Brief History of Sport Psychology

This history of sport psychology was my contribution to the Sport Psychology Wikipedia entry, and a much abbreviated version appears on Wikipedia. In this history, I tried to focus on the modern applied sport psychology movement and the events that have led to the crossroads the field now stands at.

I was urged to write a portion of the new Wikipedia entry by my Michigan State cohort Sam Forlenza, who is battling the stunning lack of clarity in sport psychology knowledge and information on the web. Sam has also revived the sport psychology movie database, a comprehensive list of movies related to sport psychology.


Early History: Isolated Studies of Motor Behavior and Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity
Look back at the history of sport psychology, and until the mid-1960s, it is hard to find a consistent line of research and applied practice typical of a scientific discipline. From the late 1800s until the middle of the 20th Century, psychologists, physical educators, coaches, and even ornithologists, carried out the “work” of sport psychology.

The lack of a consistent history is explained by Christopher Green and Ludy Benjamin (in Psychology Gets in the Game), who contend that sport psychology was not a research-driven field in its formation, being primarily the domain of physical educators, who were instructors, not researchers. Nonetheless, many instructors sought to explain the various phenomena associated with sport and physical activity. By developing sport psychology laboratories, physical educators could add an air of academic legitimacy to a program that was otherwise seen as not academically rigorous. The militaristic competition of the Cold War era, in an effort to boost the Olympic medal counts, crystallized the formation of many sport science programs.

The early years of sport psychology in Europe were highlighted by the formation of the Deutsch Hochschule für Leibesübungen by Robert Werner Schulte in 1920. The psychology lab measured physical abilities and aptitude in sport, and in 1921, Schulte published Body and Mind in Sport. Schulte later moved his study to aviators and parachutists, before he passed away prematurely at the age of thirty-five in 1933. In Russia, sport psychology experiments began as early as 1925 at institutes of physical culture in Moscow and Leningrad, and formal sport psychology departments were formed around 1930 (Baumler, 2009).

Early years of sport psychology in North America include isolated study of motor behavior, habit formation, and social facilitation. During the 1890s, E. W. Scripture conducted a range of behavioral experiments in his Yale laboratory, including measuring the reaction time of runners, thought time in varying ages of school children, and the accuracy of an orchestra conductor’s baton. Scripture studied with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, Germany, and had a strong belief in the ability of experimental psychology to disprove many of the popular notions of traditional, philosophically driven psychology. Scripture’s strong dislike for “armchair psychologists” was apparent in his book, Thinking, Feeling, Doing. This publication had the effect of angering several established professionals in the field; it also plagiarized Wundt’s Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology. Given this effect, Scripture was released from Yale in 1902 (Goodwin, 2009).

The work of Norman Triplett, who demonstrated that bicyclists were more likely to cycle faster, given a pacemaker or a competitor, has been foundational in the literature of social psychology, and specifically the topic of social facilitation (Davis, Huss, and Becker, 2009). Research by ornithologists Lashley and Watson (1916) on the learning curve for novice archers provided a robust template for future habit formation research, as these researchers argued that humans would have higher levels of motivation to achieve in a task like archery, and hence strive harder to achieve, when compared to being asked to perform a mundane task such as preventing the winking reflex. Lashley and Watson also speculated on the ideal distribution of practice sessions for skill acquisition, although their interpretations were inconclusive (Dewsbury, 2009). Researchers Albert Johanson and Joseph Holmes, working at Columbia University in New York, tested baseball player Babe Ruth in 1921, as reported by sportswriter Hugh S. Fullerton. Ruth’s swing speed, his breathing right before hitting a baseball, his coordination and rapidity of wrist movement, and his reaction time were all measured, with the researchers concluding that Ruth’s talented could be attributed in part to motor skills and reflexes that were well above those of the average person.

Coleman Griffith – “America’s First Sport Psychologist”
The first individual to perform comprehensive research and applied sport psychology work in the United States was a professor of educational psychology at the Univeristy of Illinois named Coleman Roberts Griffith. Griffith began his work studying the psychology of sport after the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, with the financial backing of the university athletic association, funded the Research in Athletics Laboratory in 1925. The laboratory was the brainchild of George Huff, the chairman of the Department of Physical Welfare. Huff felt that the laboratory could study the unique psychological and physiological demands of athletic competition, passing along its findings not only to the profession of coaching, but to advance general knowledge of psychology and physiology (Gould and Pick, 1995).

Griffith outlined the essential functions of the sport psychologist in a 1925 publication entitled, “Psychology and its relation to athletic competition,” published by the American Physical Education Review (which later became Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport). The first function was to teach young and inexperienced coaches the psychological principles used by more experienced and successful coaches. The second function was to adapt knowledge from the field of psychology to sport. The third function was to use the scientific method and experimental laboratory to discover new facts and principles to aid the practitioner in the field. Griffith also published two major works during the operation of the laboratory, including The Psychology of Coaching (1926) and The Psychology of Athletics (1928).

Griffith’s interviews of prominent sporting figures of the era foreshadowed concepts that are currently part of the sport psychology knowledge base. For instance, in a 1925 interview with Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on the pre-game pep-talk, Rockne illustrated his understanding that the pep-talk should not “over-motivate” the players or get them “too keyed up,” which integrates well with the current understanding of the arousal/performance relationship (Gould and Pick, 1995). An interview with football player Red Grange after a game where Grange scored four touchdowns, illustrated an overlap with today’s flow theory, in which people engaged in a peak experience are consumed by the moment and typically have vague memories or distorted perceptions of time. Grange’s failure to recall the memory of scoring those touchdowns, save the minute detail that one of the opposing players had a hole in his sock, seems to be an example of an athlete in flow.

The Research in Athletics Laboratory closed in 1932, due to a lack of funding, and Griffith moved on to further his work in educational psychology, publishing several books along the way: An Introduction to Applied Psychology (1934); Introduction to Educational Psychology (1935); Psychology Applied to Teaching and Learning (1939); and Principles of Systematic Psychology (1943).

In 1938, however, Coleman Griffith returned to the sporting world to serve as a sport psychology consultant for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Hired by Philip Wrigley for $1,500, Griffith examined “player ability, baseball skill learning, personality, leadership, and social psychological factors influencing performance” (Gould and Pick, 1995). Griffith made rigorous analyses of players and made multiple suggestions for improving practice effectiveness (Green, 2009). However, Griffith was quite pointed in his critique of 1938 managers Charlie Grimm and Gabby Hartnett. Grimm, for his part, was dismissive of Griffith, the “headshrinker from Urbana” (Green, 2009). Griffith made several recommendations to Wrigley at the close of the 1938 season, and suggesting a “psychology clinic” for managers, coaches, and senior players to begin the 1939 season. Wrigley extended his offer to Griffith to serve as a full-time sport psychology consultant, but Griffith declined the offer so as not to disrupt his son’s high school education.

Coleman Griffith made numerous contributions to the field of sport psychology, but perhaps most notable was his belief that field studies (such as athlete and coach interviews) could provide a more thorough understanding of how psychological principles play out in competitive situations. Griffith devoted himself to rigorous research, but published for both applied audiences (coaches) and academic audiences, thus noting that the applicability of sport psychology research served a function equally important with the generation of knowledge. Finally, Griffith recognized that sport psychology promoted not only performance enhancement, but personal growth as well.

The opening keynote address at the annual conference for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) is named for Coleman Griffith to honor his legacy. Griffith is often referred to as a “disciple without prophets,” as none of the students that he trained pursued sport psychology, and his works received little attention or interest until the 1960s.

Cold-War Period
The rise of militarism between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War period (1946-1989) is a well-worn narrative for framing the history of science within these nations and their affiliates during this time period. Nonetheless, within the United States, disappointing performances relative to the Soviets in 1956 and 1960 spurred a greater interest and investment in practices that could improve the performance of American athletes. Arguably, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, most notably East Germany, advanced the science of sport psychology in a much more deliberate fashion, by creating institutes of sport in which sport psychologists figured a prominent role. Given the relatively free travel of information amongst European practitioners of sport psychology, as compared to the lack of information exchanged between European and American practitioners, it is perhaps unsurprising that the profession of sport psychology began to flourish first in Europe, where, in 1965, the First World Congress of Sport Psychology met in Rome, Italy. This meeting, attended by some 450 professionals primarily from Europe, Australia, and the Americas, gave rise to the International Society for Sports Psychology (ISSP). At the helm of its formation was Ferruccio Antonelli. The ISSP experienced some setbacks in its formation due to capitalist/socialist tensions that were inflamed by the 1968 invasion of Prague, Czechoslovakia by the USSR, but rebounded to become a prominent sport psychology organization after the Third World Congress of Sport Psychology in 1973. FEPSAC, the European Federation of Sport Psychology was founded in 1968.

In North America, support for sport psychology grew out of physical educator’s interests in sport psychology. NASPSPA (the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity) grew from being an interest group amongst physical educators at AAHPERD (American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance), to a full-fledged organization whose mission includes promoting the research and teaching of motor behavior and the psychology of sport and exercise. NASPSPA has always been conceived as an organization to promote research (NASPSPA Website), but after it’s formation, it served as the professional organization for both research-based and applied sport psychologists. In Canada, SCAPPS (the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology) was founded in 1977 to promote the study and exchange of ideas in the fields of motor behavior and sport psychology (SCAPPS website).

Rise of Applied Sport Psychology movement
In 1979, Rainer Martens at the University of Illinois published an article (“About Smocks and Jocks”) in which he contended that it was difficult to apply “laboratory research” to sporting situations. For instance, how can the pressure of shooting a foul shot in front of 12,000 screaming fans be duplicated in the lab? Martens contended:

“I have grave doubts that isolated psychological studies which manipulate a few variables, attempting to uncover the effects of X on Y, can be cumulative to form a coherent picture of human behavior. I sense that the elegant control achieved in laboratory research is such that all meaning is drained from the experimental situation. The external validity of laboratory studies is at best limited to predicting behavior in other laboratories.” (Martens, 1979, pp. 97)

Martens urged researchers to get out of the laboratory and onto the field, to meet athletes and coaches on their own turf. Martens’ article spurred an increasing interest in qualitative research methods in sport psychology. Seminal articles such as Mental Links to Excellence (Orlick and Partington, 1988) have employed qualitative methods.

AAASP split with NASPSPA
In 1985, applied sport psychology practitioners, headed by Dr. John Silva (then of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), were disillusioned with attempts to get NASPSPA to include an applied division of practice at its conference (Silva, 2010). These practitioners formed the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP). In 2006 (source), AAASP dropped the “Advancement” from the organization name, to become the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), as it is currently known.

Following its stated goal of promoting the science and practice of applied sport psychology, AASP quickly worked to develop uniform standards of practice for applied sport psychology professionals, highlighted by the development of an ethical code for its members in the 1990s (AASP website / ethical code). The development of the AASP Certified Consultant (CC-AASP) program helped bring standardization to the training required to practice applied sport psychology (AASP website / certified consultants).

It is pertinent to mention that the practice of applied sport psychology is not legally restricted to individuals who possess one type of certification or licensure. The subject of “what exactly constitutes applied sport psychology and who can practice it?” has been a contentious question amongst sport psychology professionals, and as of 2011, still lacks formal legal resolution in the United States. For instance, some question the ability of professionals who possess only a sport science or kinesiology training to practice “psychology” with clients, while others counter that clinical and counseling psychologists without training in sport science do not have the professional competency to work with athletes (Silva, 1989). Within AASP, there is typically an even split between the number of members who possess Kinesiology/Sport Science training versus Psychology/Counseling training; a minority of practitioners possess training in both areas. While this debate is a contentious topic, it should not overshadow the reality that many professionals express the desire to work together to promote best practices amongst all practitioners, regardless of training or academic background. To address this concern, many kinesiology-based training programs teach the boundaries of professional competence, as well as the importance of developing a referral network for athletes who present with clinical problems (i.e., depression, trait anxiety, disordered eating) beyond the scope of a kinesiology-trained sport psychology consultant. Practitioners who have attained the AASP Certified Consultant status are competent in the practice of sport psychology, regardless of the type of degree or training they possess (Kinesiology or Counseling/Psychology). However, the AASP Certified Consultant status has not attained the level of legal licensure in the United States.

APA Division 47 formation
Exercise and Sport Psychology is Division 47 of the American Psychological Association (APA), which divides professional practice areas into representative divisions. As compared to the formation of AASP, the formation of APA Division 47 followed a much smoother path. Division 47 evolved over a three-year period from 1983 to 1986, in which governing structures were put in place. Over 500 members and fellows of APA signed the petition to create Division 47, and today, Division 47 has over 1,000 members (APA Division 47 website, History). The annual conference for Division 47 takes place as part of the larger APA annual conference. In 2012, APA Division 47 will inaugurate a new journal, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology (APA Division 47 website, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology).

Professionalization of Sport Psychology
As Martens argued for applied methods in sport psychology research, the increasing emergence of practitioners of sport psychology (including sport psychology consultants who taught sport psychology skills and principles to athletes and coaches, and clinical and counseling psychologists who provided counseling and therapy to athletes) brought into focus two key questions, a debate over which continues to the present day: (1) under what category does the discipline of sport psychology fall, (2) who governs the accepted practices for sport psychology? Is sport psychology a branch of kinesiology or sport and exercise science (like exercise physiology and athletic training)? Is it a branch of psychology or counseling? Or is it an independent discipline? Harrison and Feltz (1979) contended that in order to become a stand-alone discipline (termed “separate professionalization”), the following criteria should be met:
1. An agreed upon, systematic theoretical knowledge base.
2. The promulgation of a professional culture through strong identification with professional associations and journals.
3. A publicly announced code of ethics to which all members of the organization subscribe.
4. A certification or accrediting body which will regulate and standardize the training of sport psychologists and award public symbols for achievement in the field.
5. Lobbying efforts by the professional organization until the standards of training and certification become part of statute law.

The debate over professionalization
Danish and Hale (1981) claimed that a rift had developed between clinical psychologists who were practicing sport psychology. These authors contended that many clinical psychologists were using medical models of psychology to problematize sport problems as signs of mental illness, instead of drawing upon the empirical knowledge base generated by sport psychology researchers, which in many cases indicated that sport problems were not signs of mental illness. Danish and Hale proposed that a human development model be used to structure research and applied practice in sport psychology. Nideffer, Feltz, and Salmela (1982) contended that clinical psychologists did not make up the majority of practitioners of sport psychology. Heyman (1982) urged tolerance for multiple models (educative, motivational, developmental) of research and practice in applied sport psychology, while Dishman (1983) countered that the field of applied sport psychology needed to develop unique sport psychology models, instead of borrowing from educational and clinical psychology models. Dishman (1983) stated that the “upper bound” of sport psychology’s development would be limited by the development of unique and rigorous sport psychology models.

As the practice of sport psychology expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s, some practitioners expressed concern that the field lacked uniformity and needed consistency to become “a good profession” (Silva, 1989). The issues of graduate program accreditation and the uniform training of graduate students in sport psychology were considered by some to be necessary to promote the field of sport psychology, educate the public on what a sport psychologist does, and ensure an open job market for practitioners (Silva, Conroy, and Zizzi, 1999). However, Hale and Danish (1999) argued that accreditation of graduate programs was not necessary and did not guarantee uniformity; accreditation would be necessary when a large enough market for sport psychology services had developed. Instead, these authors proposed a special practicum in applied sport psychology that included greater contact hours with clients and closer supervision (even payment of supervisors).

Present status of sport psychology
It would be misleading to conflate the status of AASP and the status of the profession of sport psychology. However, considering that AASP has the largest membership of any professional organization devoted entirely to sport psychology (AASP website), it is worthwhile to mention the contentious nature of the organization’s future. AASP has employed a strategic planning group to help chart the future of the organization. There appears to be a rift between members of AASP who would like the organization to function as a trade group that promotes the CC-AASP certificate and pushes for job development, and members of AASP who would prefer the organization to remain as a professional society and a forum to exchange research and practice ideas. Many AASP members believe that the organization can meet both needs. These problems were illustrated in AASP founding president John Silva’s address at the 2010 conference in Providence, RI. Silva highlighted five points necessary for AASP (and the greater field of applied sport psychology) to address in the near future:

1. Orderly Development and Advancement of the Practice of Sport Psychology
2. Embrace and Enhance Interdisciplinary Nature of Sport Psychology
3. Advance Development of Graduate Education and Training in Sport Psychology
4. Advance Job Opportunities for Practice in Collegiate, Olympic and Pro Sports
5. AASP must be member driven and service the membership

Silva then suggested that the AASP leadership move away from a volunteer executive board and instead adopt a paid executive board that functioned to advance the legal standing of the term “sport psychology consultant.” Silva also stated that the AASP leadership should adopt one educative model for the collegiate and post-graduate training of sport psychology consultants. While the AASP Certified Consultant certificate (CC-AASP) provides a legitimate pathway to post-graduate training, it does not legally bar an individual without the CC-AASP certificate from practicing sport psychology. Silva contended that many university programs, but notably the United States Olympic Committee, required sport psychology professionals to possess licensure in psychology or counseling, which suggests that professionals trained in sport psychology but lacking licensure may be boxed out of higher levels of the profession, despite practicing quite competently without counseling or psychology licensure. This brings Silva to his contention that AASP and APA work together to create legal protection for the term “sport psychology consultant.” Results of the AASP strategic planning committee report will be published in late 2011 and are sure to generate a lot of buzz.

o Green, C. D., & Benjamin, L. T. (2009). Psychology gets in the game. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Bäumler, G. (2009). The dawn of sport psychology in Europe, 1880-1930: Early pioneers of a new branch of applied science. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 20-77). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
o Goodwin, C. J. (2009). E. W. Scripture: The application of “new psychology” methodology to athletics. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 78-97). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Davis, S. F., Huss, M. T., & Becker, A. H. (2009). Norman Triplett: Recognizing the importance of competition. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 98-115). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Watson, J. B., & Lashley, K. S. (1916). Homing and related activities of birds. Washington, D. C. : Carnegie Institute of Washington. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=25wiAQAAIAAJ
o Dewsbury, D. A. (2009). Karl S. Lashley and John B. Watson: Early research on the acquisition of skill in archery. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 116-143). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Fuchs, A. H. (2009). Psychology and baseball: The testing of Babe Ruth. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 144-167). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Green, C. D. (2009). Coleman Roberts Griffith: “Father” of North American sport psychology. In C. D. Green & L. T. Benjamin (Eds.), Psychology gets in the game (pp. 202-229). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=oG0qMFqHls8C
o Gould, D., & Pick, S. (1995). Sport Psychology : The Griffith Era, 1920-1940. The Sport Psychologist, 9, 391-405. Retrieved June 20, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1996-28933-001.
o Morris, T., Hackfort, D., and Lidor, R. From Pope to Hope: The First Twenty Years of ISSP. Retrived from: http://www.issponline.org/documents/History_of_ISSP.pdf
o Seilera, R., & Wylleman, P. (2009). FEPSAC’s role and position in the past and in the future of sport psychology in Europe. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.02.009
o North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA), Mission Statement: http://www.naspspa.org/mission-statement
o Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (SCAPPS): http://scapps.org/index.php
o Martens, R. (1979). About smocks and jocks. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 94-99. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=IE6IMsD-FhwC
o Orlick, T., & Partington, J. (1988). Mental links to excellence. The Sport Psychologist, 2(2), 105–130. Retrieved June 22, 2011, from http://precisionmi.com/Materials/PeakPerformMat/mentallinkstoexcellence.pdf.
o Silva, J. M. (2010). No one told you when to run: The past and present is not the future of sport psychology. Keynote presentation, Association for Applied Sport Psychology, Providence, RI. Retrieved from: http://www.bgsu.edu/downloads/lib/file96561.pdf
o Association for Applied Sport Psychology, AASP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards. Retrieved from: http://appliedsportpsych.org/About/Ethics
o Association for Applied Sport Psychology, About Certified Consultants. Retrieved from: http://appliedsportpsych.org/Consultants/About-Certified-Consultants
o American Psychological Association Division 47: Exercise and Sport Psychology. Retrieved from: http://www.apa47.org/aboutHistory.php
o American Psychological Association Division 47: Exercise and Sport Psychology. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/spy/index.aspx
o Harrison, R., & Feltz, D. L. (1979). The Professionalization of Sport Psychology: Legal Considerations. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 182-190. Retrieved June 22, 2011, from http://www.getcited.org/pub/103369780
o Danish, S. J., & Hale, B. D. (1981). Toward an understanding of the practice of sport psychology. Journal of Sport Psychology, 3, 90-99. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1981-31072-001.
o Nideffer, R., Feltz, D. L., & Salmela, J. (1982). A rebuttal to Danish and Hale: a committee report. Journal of Sport Psychology, 4, 3-6. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1982-26813-001.
o Heyman, S. R. (1982). A reaction to Danish and Hale: A minority report. Journal of Sport Psychology, 4, 7-9. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1982-26808-001.
o Dishman, R. K. (1983). Identity crisis in North American sport psychology: Academics in professional issues. Journal of Sport Psychology, 5, 123-134. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1984-08136-001.
o Silva, J. M. (1989). Toward the professionalization of sport psychology. The Sport Psychologist, 265-273. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1990-06396-001.
o Silva, J., Conroy, D., & Zizzi, S. (1999). Critical issues confronting the advancement of applied sport psychology. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 11(2), 298-320. doi: 10.1080/10413209908404206.
o Hale, B., & Danish, S. (1999). Putting the Accreditation Cart Before the AAASP Horse: A Reply to Silva, Conroy and Zizzi. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 11(2), 321-328. doi: 10.1080/10413209908404207.

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