What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology and athletics
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What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology is the study of how psychological factors influence sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity. Sports psychologists investigate how participating in sports can improve health and well being. They also help athletes utilize psychology to improve their sports performance and mental well-being.

They don't just work with elite and professional athletes, however. They also help regular people learn how to enjoy sports and learn to stick to an exercise program. They utilize exercise and athletics to enhance people’s lives and well-being.

Topics in Sports Psychology

Contemporary sports psychology is a diverse field. There are a number of different topics that are of special interest to sports psychologists. Some professionals focus on a specific area, while others study a wide range of techniques.

Attentional Focus

Attentional focus involves the ability to tune out distractions, such as a crowd of screaming fans, and focus attention on the task at hand. This allows athletes to manage their mental focus even in the face of other things that are vying for attention.

Common strategies that might be used include things like deep breathing to help focus attention, paying attention to bodily signals and sensations, and mindfulness to help stay focused on the present moment.

Visualization and Goal-Setting

This involves visualizing performing a task, such as participating in an athletic event or successfully performing a particular skill. This area of sports psychology is centered on helping athletes mentally prepare for a performance or competition.

Visualization involves creating a mental image of what you "intend" to happen. Athletes can use these skills to envision the outcome they are pursuing. They might visualize themselves winning an event or performing a difficult movement. It can also be useful for helping athletes feel calmer and more focused before an event.

Motivation and Team-Building

Some sports psychologists work with professional athletes and coaches to improve performance and increase motivation. A major subject in sports psychology, the study of motivation looks at both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

Extrinsic motivators are external rewards, such as trophies, money, medals, or social recognition. Intrinsic motivators arise from within, such as a personal desire to win or the sense of pride that comes from performing a skill.

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Team building is also an important topic in this field. Sports psychologists might work with coaches and athletes to help them develop a sense of comradery and assist them in working together efficiently and effectively.


Professional sports psychologists often help athletes cope with the intense pressure that comes from competition. This often involves finding ways to reduce performance anxiety and combat burnout.

It isn't uncommon for athletes to get nervous before a game, performance, or competition. These nerves can have an impact on performance, so learning tactics to help stay calm are important for helping athletes perform their best.

Tactics that might be the focus of this area include things like relaxation techniques, changing negative thoughts, building self-confidence, and findings distractions to reduce the focus on anxiety.

Burnout can also happen to athletes who frequently experience pressure, anxiety, and intense practice schedules. Helping athletes restore their sense of balance, learn to relax, and keep up their motivation can help combat these feelings of burnout.


Another important focus of sports psychology is on helping athletes recover and return to their sport after an injury. A sports injury can lead people to experience emotional reactions in addition to their physical injury, which can include feelings of anger, frustration, hopelessness, and fear.

Sports psychologists work with people to help them mentally cope with the recovery process and restore their confidence once they are ready to return to their sport.

Careers In Sports Psychology

Becoming a sports psychologist could be an exciting career choice for many psychology students, especially those who have a strong interest in sports and physical activity.

The American Psychological Association describes sports psychology as a "hot career," suggesting that those working in university athletic departments earn around $60,000 to $80,000 per year. 

If you are interested in this career, start by learning more about the educational requirements, job duties, salaries, and other considerations about careers in sports psychology.

History of Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is a relatively young discipline in psychology. The first research labs devoted to the topic were opened during the 1920s and 1930s. After the first U.S. lab was closed during the early 1930s, research did not resume until the topic experienced a revival of interest during the 1960s.

The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was established in 1965 and by the 1970s, sports psychology had been introduced to university course offerings throughout North America.

By the 1980s, sports psychology became the subject of a more rigorous scientific focus as researchers began to explore how psychology could be used to improve athletic performance, as well as how exercise could be utilized to improve mental well-being and lower stress levels.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Sports psychologists help professional and amateur athletes. Published 2012.

  2. Voelker R. American Psychological Association. Hot careers: Sport psychology. GradPSYCH Magazine. 2012.

  3. Joyce M. Baker DB. The early days of sport psychology. Monitor on Psychology. 2008;39(7):28.