Jocks And Shrinks, The Psychology Of Athletic Performance

In the mid-1960’s, the sport was starting to emerge in our national consciousness. Advertising money alchemized into extravagant television contracts which, along with a gigantic wave of media exposure, turned local sports heroes into wealthy celebrities and role models. With the advent of merchandising, all sorts of sports paraphernalia inevitably turned out to be a cash cow, with logos being stamped on everything from toothpicks to parkas and eventually, to meet the players, five-day Bahamas cruises. The worth and importance, along with every other aspect of sports spiked dramatically. Professional leagues, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the Olympics, in a rather short span of time, had all of a sudden become corporate — big business. Money Changes Everything

The stakes had certainly been raised in a hurry and everybody, from little league players, along with their alter ego fathers, to the best of the best, was looking for an edge. But still, it wasn’t until another decade or so passed, that sports psychology, especially at the elite amateur levels, became widely recognized by coaches, athletes, and front office suits, as a valuable commodity. Word spread and soon psychologists were seated alongside the trainers, physicians, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, lawyers and dentists at team functions and in sports venues.

The high-profile, celebrity status bestowed on sports psychology wasn’t just conferred overnight. In fact, up until the late 1960’s, the specialization pretty much flew under the radar of educators, athletes, and coaches alike. Most academics felt that the topic was frivolous and unworthy of scientific attention. Athletes and coaches viewed it as worthless quackery. But quite fortunate for those interested in the field, a perfect social storm was brewing. Whereas on one the hand, the ideals of the counterculture, which promoted the acceptance of new approaches and solutions to all aspects of life were spreading, while on the other, sports on all levels, even in the midst of all this anti-capitalist, anti-competitive/adversarial fervor, were cashing in.

American football is considered as an extreme contact sportsThe Emergence of Cognitive Behaviorism

Coincidental with the times was the fact that a relatively new orientation, cognitive behaviorism, was gaining acceptance and overtaking the more traditional schools like psychoanalysis throughout the entire field. This was extremely significant because the conceptual framework that sports psychology is built around is fundamentally all based on cognitive behavior principles. Sports psychology should really be considered as a subset of the more generic term, performance psychology… after all, performance is performed only in a more circumscribed setting. At any rate, its mission conforms to the mission statement of psychology in general, which is to scientifically explore human behavior and maybe, with a little luck, hit on something here and there, that improves the quality of peoples’ lives.

The Profession Becomes Organized

In 1985, a band of previously isolated professionals, psychologists and physical educators whose career interests were devoted to this “new” profession met as a group to pool their expertise. What culminated from this meeting was the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology (AAASP) and the creation of a division (47) within the venerable American Psychological Association (APA). Soon these organizations were certifying practitioners, sponsoring of international conferences and publishing of refereed journals. Sports psychology was fully legitimatized and recognized as an independent area of study — worthy of its own home in some of the most prestigious graduate schools throughout the world.

The germ of sports psychology is said to have been planted by a young social scientist named Norman Triplet at the turn of the twentieth century when he casually observed the behavior of cyclists as it changed from when they pedaled alone to when they rode in the presence of others observing them. After sufficient data regarding this phenomenon was collected and analyzed, Triplet was able to surmise what now probably appear obvious; that cyclists put forth greater effort and thus perform at a higher level when others are potentially evaluating them. Research devoted to the effect of the presence of others on motor skills, now called “social facilitation” has taken many sophisticated twists and turns since that “milestone” primitive study was conducted. Nevertheless, the notion that social context and emotions have an impact on performance was introduced forever

Team Dynamics

Sports psychologists address issues involving leadership, group processes, learning, development, stress management, motivation, self-confidence, personality assessment and thought control, as well as traditional clinical and counseling concerns; all with the ultimate goal of enhancing competitive performance. Although athletes are typically thought of as high functioning individuals, able to maintain their poise and remain composed during tight situations, participation in sports, which now includes females as well as every other demographic, has its own set of endemic psychological problems. Eating disorders, substance abuse, excessive anger, poor impulse control, narcissism, entitlement, slumps (self-doubt), career transition difficulties and injury-related depression are prevalent, even at the most elite levels. So much so that many professional teams now employ diagnosticians who specialize in testing for potential psychopathology during pre-draft combines, flagging athletes’ whose careers may be in jeopardy and those who may cause future public relations headaches for the organization or institution.

As is the case with most groups, frequently the constituents of a team are too close to objectively assess its collective impact on the individuals in it. Putting it plainly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this type of scenario, consultants from outside the organization are hired to inspect those factors that could be impinging on team chemistry and disrupting the play. Borrowing from research first conducted by industrial/organizational psychology, conflict is minimized and cohesiveness can be restored by building consensus, opening up communication, providing feedback mechanisms and instilling a sense of pride and commitment.