Updated: Jan 10
In simple terms, sports psychology tries to understand the influence of psychological factors on sports performance as well as the influence of sports performance on an athlete's psychology. An interdisciplinary science, this field derives inputs from many other fields apart from psychology that are related to sports sciences, physiology and sports performance.
Over the decades, top athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and many others have worked with sports psychologists and mental conditioning coaches to unlock their true sports potential.
14 June 1998, NBA Finals: Michael Jordan’s reaction as the Chicago Bulls win Game 6 (Robert Sullivan/AFP via Getty Images)
Let us take a look at 5 interesting aspects related to sports psychology that many of us might not be aware of.
1. Difference between exercise psychology and sports psychology
An exercise psychologist uses techniques that help with the overall well-being and health of the people he or she works with, irrespective of whether or not they are sportspersons. A sports psychologist will focus on techniques and exercises that will ultimately benefit the sporting performance of an athlete. Be it optimizing the athlete’s peak performance, working to manage stress and anxiety or post-injury rehabilitation, all approaches are ultimately aimed at enabling the athlete to improve his or her game.
2. Sports psychology may be older than you think!
While sports psychology appears to have emerged as a recent trend amongst professional athletes and teams, the first laboratory for sports psychology started in 1920 in Berlin, which measured physical ability and subsequent aptitude in sports. The laboratory started by Dr. Carl Diem had a snowball effect which contributed to the development of sports psychology as an academic discipline.
Mr. Coleman Griffith is considered to be America’s first sports psychologist as he ventured into applying his academic knowledge of psychology into understanding the states of mental awareness and corresponding relationships with muscular tension, relaxation and overall reaction times of soccer as well as basketball players.
3. The Cold War catapulted sports psychology into mainstream sport
With the Cold War extending across various landscapes during the second half of the 20th century, the extreme rivalry between the US and the USSR, including competing for more medals in the Olympics, led to the setting up of various centers where sports psychologists would assess and help athletes.
Image source: madison.com/wsj/sports | US, Swedish and Soviet teams lined up to receive their Olympic gold, bronze and silver medals, in Lake Placid, N.Y., February 24, 1980.
Specific personality attributes were assigned to specific disciplines of athletes e.g. sprinters, long jumpers, etc. And the chosen athletes were put through training programs to help them handle the psychological strain and circumstances prevalent at the time of the competition.
4. E-sports and sports psychology
With the rise of e-sports, sports psychologists are increasingly employed, especially in the US, to help professional e-sports athletes.
Image source: ESL/University of Chichester
A recent study by researchers at the University of Chichester in England found that e-sports players who compete in major tournaments face the same level of stress as pro-athletes. Researchers interviewed seven elite players of Counter-Strike Global Offensive.
The intensity of competition and the mental focus required is similar for players – be it online or on the ground! And this is where sports psychology is believed to give a player an edge – to overcome the burden of periods of intense stress over prolonged durations.
5. Sports psychology and chess
Bill Cole, The Mental Game Coach from California says that the amount of concentration with extended durations of mental strain required in chess makes it imperative to have a strong “mental game” for chess players.
Image: Nihal Sarin, who achieved his Grandmaster title at age 14 | Photo by Amruta Mokal
Especially for younger chess players, very often, it becomes important to find the right way of managing expectations and likely anxiety of parents to make sure their anxiety is not transferred to their child ahead of an important chess game. Dwelling on past mistakes and errors can be another mental burden for players during an ongoing chess game.
While there is a plethora of reading material available online for sports psychology and its benefits, it is always advisable to consult a professional sports psychologist to seek guidance with the right approach.