The Effect Sports Psychology Has On A

Young Athlete Essay, Research Paper


To fully understand sport psychology, we must ask ourselves two very important

questions, first, what is sport psychology and second, who is it for? Put in the most sim-

ple way, sport psychology can be an example of psychological knowledge, principles, or

methods applied to the world of sport. “Two psychologists, Bunker and Maguire, say

sport psychology is not for psychologists, but is for sport and its participants.” (Murphy &

White, 1978:2) However, it can be argued that sport psychology, can be for psycho-

logy, just as it can be for sports scientists, managers, teachers, administrators, coaches and

last but by no means least, the athletes themselves.

It is sport psychology that has stood apart from the discipline of psychology as a

whole. “Its history is different, its concerns are often different, its centres of learning and

teaching are often different, and its professional training is different.” (Garfield, 1984:34)

Yet despite this, sport psychology remains permanently bonded to psychology through its

common interest in the fundamental principles of psychology, human behavior, and


No one can deny the significant role which sport and recreation plays in every cul-

ture and society across the globe. In the western and eastern worlds alike, sport and lei-

sure continue to support huge industries and take up massive amounts of individual time,

effort, money, energy, and emotion. Within the media, competitive sport has gotten enor-

mous attention and despite this, the public’s appetite for more sport never is stated. “It has

been estimated that around two thirds of all newspaper readers in Great Britain first turn

to the sports pages when they pick up their daily paper.” (Butt, 1987:65) When one con-

siders the number of people who actually engage in sport or even take regular exercise,

then the significance of sport to all our lives cannot be denied.

A common problem with sport psychology research lies in its somewhat myopic or

short-sighted appreciation of present day accumulated psychological knowledge. As we

look into sport psychology, we are confronted by a landscape of knowledge which rises


and falls often suddenly and dramatically. “At certain times, massive peaks of understand-

ing rise up before out eyes yet at other times, huge tracts of psychology remain untouched

to the horizon.” (Garfield, 1984:6)

Around the 1960’s, scientific traditions, institutions, and publications which pros-

per to this day first came into being, and it was this era which truly marked the structural

genesis of modern day sport psychology. However, there are many untouched aspects

of sport psychology today. In order for us to determine whether psychology plays a signi-

ficant role in the mind of a young athlete, we must look at the uses and techniques of sport


Sport psychologists over the years have maintained a keen interest in psychological

profiling and have been naturally drawn to the quantification of personality variables. As

sport itself revolves aroung the measurement and reward of individual differences in per-

formances, it is no surprise that scientists quantify psychological differences rather than

sporting differences. “The research is often looked at in terms of three primary areas, the

search for the winning profile, a comparison between athletes and non-athletes, and differ-

ences in the personalities of athletes either competing in different sports or playing in

different positions.” (Butt, 1987:97)

Any discussion of personality traits in sports could not ignore one particular trait

which has occupied more time than any other, competitive anxiety. Helping athletes deal

with pressure has become the bread and butter of many sport psychologists. “The prob-

lem of anxiety is dealt with with two areas of research: test anxiety and achievement moti-

vation.” (Hackfort & Spielberger, 1989:247) Presently, the test scale which enjoys the

greatest popularity is the second version of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory or

CSAI-2. It is this test that psychologists measure the level of anxiety of an athlete. It

consists of questions in which each have four levels of severity with four being the highest


level. The CSAI-2 has been the basis for many other modern day anxiety questionaires.

“There remain so many fundamental questions which have yet to be resolved that attempts

to quantify concepts such as anxiety, when we are still not sure just what this term actually

means, can seem rather premature at times, but the development of research instruments

has nevertheless proceeded rapidly.” (Wolff, 1993:22)

Achievement motivation, competitiveness, and self-confidence together with

competition anxiety seem to form the cluster of core psychological constructs which

would seem to be most relevent to our understanding of sport performance. With regard

to achievement motivation and competitiveness, recent advances have been predicated

upon the interest originally stimulated by the Atkinson model of achievement motivation.

“Atkinson’s nAch or the need to achieve was taken to be a composite of two independent

factors, the motive to achieve success (M ) and the motive to avoid failure (M ), mediated

by the probability of success (P ) and the incentive value of success (1-P ).” (Hackfort &

Spielberger, 1989:251) This relationship is represented by the following formula.

nAch = (M – M ) x (P x [ 1- P ] )

Without exploring the subtleties of this model in any depth, the single most impor-

tant message to come through is that high achievers will be drawn towards competition

and difficult yet realizable challenges. Low achievers will try to avoid personal challenges

or set unattainable goals where failure is a high probability. “In terms of applied sport psy-

chology, this motivational model can often be very revealing of problems, particularly

those afflicting young athletes.” (Hackfort & Spielberger, 1989:252)

There are some methods of sport psychology that deal with cognitive psychology.

Traditional behavior modification techniques seek to change behavior by amending the en-

vironment in systematic ways. However, there have been claims that it is not the environ-

mental events themselves which are of primary importance in behavior change but the


individual’s perception of those events. “Cognitive coping strategies may be amended by

conventional behaviour modification but involvement of the individual in expressing his or

her own thoughts and feelings has been held to increase the efficacy of treatment.” (Mar-

tens, 1981:57) Meichenbaum’s Stress-Inoculation Training (SIT) is one of a range of

stress management packages advocated as useful to coaches and athletes for reducing

stress and enhancing performance. Other popular programs include Smith’s Cognitive-

Affective Stress Management or SMT and Suinn’s program of Anxiety Management

Training or AMT. “SIT and SMT have been adapted or developed specifically for use in

sport and both outline essentially the same four stage process.” (Smith, 1983:139)

The first stage of the SIT or SMT is the educational phase during which athletes

explore the stress reaction itself, including antecedents of stress, nature of stressors, and

own reactions and consequences of action. The next stage is an introduction to coping

skills for handling stress which include relaxation training and the use of cognitive skills to

prepare for stress. The next phase is the practice phase. “SIT encourages supervised

practice in coping in increasingly stressful situations, e.g., practice, game-like practice, and

games and SMT introduces an induced affect as a major factor: the athlete imagines dis-

tressing situations which generate high levels of emotional arousal and use coping skills.”

(Smith, 1983:141) The final stage is an evaluation component which is included to assess

the effectiveness of the program in meeting individual needs.

Another method of cognitive sport psychology is imagery and visualization. Many

self-help manuals for coaches and athletes currently advocate the use of imagery for a

wide variety of purposes including skill acquisition, skill maintenance, competition prepar-

ation, and arousal control. “Empirical investigations of imagery have tended to focus on

the role of mental practice in skill acquisition, the role of imagery as a pre-competition

cognitive psyching-up strategy and comparisons in the use of imagery by successful and


unsuccessful athletes.” (Murphy & White, 1978:14) A number of these studies also ex-

plore the various variables thought to mediate imagery effects. Studies have shown that

more successful athletes have used imagery than unsuccessful athletes. However, despite

these apparently supportive findings, the recent research has not been without criticism.

In particular much of the work conducted within sport psychology as been accused of be-

ing methodologically flawed and lacking a coherent theoretical framework to explain

imagery effects. Although suggestions for improvement in both these areas have been

made, research efforts ironically have tended to lag behind actual practice of interventions

and practical guidelines for imagery use in sport.

Another popular approach to improving sporting performance which appears to be

above all else psychological is that of the Inner Game. “Inner Game was an expression

coined by Gallwey in the 1970’s, and has been the basis for a considerable number of pop-

ular sport psychology books by Gallwey focusing on games including golf, skiing, and ten-

nis.” (Butt, 1987:78) Gallwey claimed that the most formidable opponent a performer

in sports must face is inside his or her own head. Inner Game is essentially a conflict be-

tween two selves, self 1 and self 2. They are said to have quite different characteristics.

Self 1 is conscious, self-conscious, and linguistic. It is the thinking self which evaluates,

analyzes and criticizes performance and it may be responsible for inappropriate responses

or it may motivate the athlete towards counterproductive actions. Self 2, on the other

hand, is described as unconscious and computer like, and deals most effectively with visual

and spatial information. “The self analysis and self-criticism of an athlete during perfor-

mance is a function of self 1 and is symptomatic of the conflict between the two selves.”

(Butt, 1987:79) Self 1 can express itself linguistically and, therefore, usually gains this

control inappropriately. According to Gallwey, it is not necessary to analyze why doubts

and fears are away from the more relevant visual and spatial elements of the task. The


Inner Game is directed toward allocating the resources of the two selves to the functions

in which each is more competent so that they can operate in harmony and therefore pro-

duce optimal performance.

Some methods of sport psychology deal with clinical psychology. Relaxation tech-

niques are a good example. “Self directed relaxation aims to release tension in each of the

body’s major muscle groups while emphasizing slow, easy breathing, and encouraging vi-

sualization of stress flowing away from the body.” (Murphy & White, 1978:13) While

initially it may take ten minutes to work through instructions, with some practice, greater

and greater relaxation should be achieved in less and less time.

Progressive Relaxation Training (PRT) was originally pioneered by Edmund

Jacobson, an American physician working in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but has been modi-

fied over the years. “PRT is learning to feel tension in the muscles and then learning to let

go of this tension.” (Murphy & White, 1978:14) The PRT procedure involves three steps.

The athlete must be on a mat with subdued lighting. The athlete is then asked to tense the

first 16 muscle groups between 5 and 7 seconds. The tension is then released and the

athlete relaxes for 30 to 45 seconds. The same routine is followed for each muscle set for

15 to 20 minutes, twice daily, gradually learning to combine muscle groups until only four

are used. Eventually the athlete will be able to relax just by recalling the sensa-

tion and experience, even during competition itself.

Another method that is similar to PRT is autogenic training. “While PRT concen-

trates on relaxation alone, autogenic training brings in other sensations associated with the

state of relaxation, and calls for some type of self-hypnosis on the part of the athlete”

(Butt, 1987:189) This type of training was developed in the early 1900’s by the German

psychiatrist, J.H. Schultz. Athletes are tutored in self-relaxation, based on self-

suggestions and imagery. This is designed to create feelings of warmth, heaviness and


control in different body parts and finally reach a state of mental equilibrium.

Imagery relaxation, like imagery itself, works well for some people but is difficult

for others. “Imagery relaxation involves imagining yourself in some environment or place

where you have experienced feelings of relaxation and comfort.” (Hackfort & Spielberger,

1989:146) This could be a place at home or somewhere special that you remember from

holidays or childhood such as a warm beach with a cool sea breeze, a grassy mountainside,

or just wherever you feel good. The better able the individual is to put him/herself in the

place through imagery, the more relaxed she/he is to be. With regular practice in imagi-

ning this place without guidance will allow the athlete to feel relaxed much more quickly.

Other methods of sport psychology deal with motor behavior. Practice is an

essential element in acquiring any motor skill. However, many individuals may not be

aware of the fact that the distribution of practice conditions may have varying effects on

how much is learned or how well a skill is learned. “Distribution of practice refers to the

spacing between different practice sessions.” (Martens, 1981:103) A coach could advise a

young gymnast to spend one hour of a two hour practice session trying to improve a

handspring vault, whereas another coach might favor having gymnasts practice the vault

during three 15-minute blocks combined with other practice activities. Studies showed

that the hour of the practice session was a better method.

Another issue which is of considerable importance to teachers and coaches alike

concerns the best method of practicing the skills being learned. “Should skills be present-

ed and practiced in their entirety (the whole method) or should they be broken down into

smaller component parts ( the part method).” (Butt, 1987:165) The general conclusion

that was reached was that whole methods of training were better and even today most

coaches use whole methods of training.

A common problem facing teachers and coaches of motor skills is how to teach


several essential skills within a given practice session. The teacher is faced with two

choices. She/he can require the learner to spend a specified number of practice trials on

one task, correcting it before the next task (blocked practice). Alternatively, the learner

could be required to rotate around the various tasks, never practicing the same skill on

two consecutive trials (random practice). “This issue of blocked vs random practice has

generated a good deal of research interest since the late 1970’s. ” (Garfield, 1984:199)

Subjects practicing under random conditions tended to perform worse than subjects prac-

ticing under blocked conditions during acquisition trials. However, when all subjects were

given a retention test to evaluate learning 10 days after the experiment, it was the random

practice group that proved itself more effective. These findings suggest that more learning

takes place when random practice is used.

The belief that mental rehearsal will enhance performance has become popular

among most coaches today. However, the effectiveness of mental practice in relation to

motor learning is also given consideration here. “Mental practice refers to a situation in

which the learner thinks about or imagines performing the task rather than physically prac-

ticing it.” (Wolff, 1993:193) After reviewing over 60 studies of mental training, Feltz and

Landers concluded that performance can be improved by mental practice. However, men-

tal practice was better than no practice, but physical practice was found to be better.

“Tasks with a large cognitive component seem to benefit more from mental practice than

tasks requiring large amounts of strength.” (Butt, 1987:191) This would affect gymnas-

tics, ice skating, or any team sport where the performer is attempting to learn a new game

play or strategy. Given these findings, it is unwise to replace physical practice with mental


Other parts of sport psychology deal with social psychology. “It is generally true

that the presence of others leads to enhanced performance on certain tasks, and specifi-


cally tasks which call for well learnt, dominant responses.” (Smith, 1983:4) If you can do

something well, the presence of others will improve performance. On the other hand, if

you are incompetent, learning a skill or attempting something for the first time, then you

may perform worse in company than alone. This deals with social facilitation. We feel we

are being evaluated by spectators and this has led psychologists to believe evaluation

apprehension is the key to social facilitation.

Another factor of social psychology is aggression in sport. “Aggression can be ex-

pressed in socially acceptable or unacceptable ways.” (Murphy & White, 1978:125) Ag-

gression can be instrumental or rule governed or angry/hostile aggression. Rule governed

aggression is socially acceptable in which an athlete is just displaying intensity in a sport.

Angry/hostile aggression is socially unacceptable in which an athlete causes physical harm

to the opposition. Psychologists still have much work to do in reducing an athlete’s ag-

gression. Aggression is something that cannot be fixed overnight. “Whenever there is

sports, there is going to be aggression, but with some positive reinforcement, psycholo-

gists can maintain positive aggression.” (Murphy & White, 1978:126)

Occupational Psychology is a branch of psychology that relates to sport psycho-

logy. One aspect of this is sports coaches. Many applied psychologists have come to

acknowledge that the most effective way to get their message across is not by working

directly with athletes but by working with the coaches. A psychologist can come and go,

but it is the coach that maintains the most contact with an athlete. “If the coach can learn

how to convey messages which have a sound foundation in psychological knowledge, and

thus can act as the agent or mouthpiece for sport psychology, then the messages are likely

to have that much more impact.” (Smith, 1983:166) More and more coaches are begin-

ning to take sport psychology courses and sport psychology guides have become more

available for coaches to buy. This will help athletes tremendously.


Alongside work on coaching, goal setting represents one of two primary areas

where occupational psychologists have made a direct and considerable impact on the

world of sports, in both a theoretical and a practical sense. “While the use of goal setting

within sport is widespread, the adoption of formal goal setting principles has not been

without controversy and it is interesting that a recent review article actually refers to goal

setting not as the blue-eyed boy of sport psychology but as its Jekyll and Hyde.” (Garfield,

1984:63) Within psychology as a whole, the idea of goal setting to guide or direct our

behavior has a well established history. However, the recent use of goal setting as a per-

formance enhancement technique can be traced directly back to Edwin Locke’s goal set-

ting theory. His theory is the notion that behavior is regulated by values and goals, with a

goal defined as a conscious intention or what the person is setting out to accomplish.

“According to Locke, goals affect performance by way of four mechanisms; first, goal

setting focuses attention, second, it mobilizes effort in proportion to the demands of the

tasks, third, it enhances persistence, and finally, they encourage the individual to develop

strategies for achieving their goals.” (Wolff, 1993:146)

Another goal setting procedure is the widespread use of the acronym SCAMP as a

way of teaching athletes simple goal setting procedures. Specify exactly how much you

want to improve and how you can measure it. Set goals that are challenging but have pos-

sibility. Set goals that are attainable. Set multiple goals to increase probability of attain-

ment. Set goals that relate to you, ones that are personal.

Over recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the development of


theories and models dealing with participation motivation in sports. “The work deliberate-

ly focuses on young athletes and highlights the significance of intrinsic motivators in maxi-

mizing an individual’s long term commitment to sport.” (Butt, 1987:215) At the same

time, the dangers associated with either parents or coaches emphasizing extrinsic rewards

are openly acknowledged. In brief, the history of research on work motivation has shown

a gradual shift from traditional content models of work motivation which strived to list or

classify motivators, and towards an appreciation of the complexities of the process of mo-

tivation. “The complexities of the process of motivation are exemplified by the various

expectancy-value models which describe personal and environmental variables play their

part in determining the relationship between effort, performance, rewards, and satisfac-

tion.” (Garfield, 1984:34)

The argument advanced by Porter and Lawler is that motivation is related to per-

formance, to reward and to satisfaction in a definable way. “Three principle components

are taken to determine motivation, namely expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.”

(Butt, 1987:86) Our motivation will depend first, upon our belief that we are capable of

influencing our performance through increasing effort. Second, our knowledge that an

increase in performance will result in more awards. Finally, it will depend on the value

which we place on the reward that we expect to receive. This is represented in the model



One important feature of this model is the emphasis it places on feedback. “Ac-

cordingly in the context of coaching the model has considerable practical utility for identi-

fying and dealing with management problems effectively.” (Butt, 1987: 87) The model

also has great learning value for considering the interaction between a number of cognitive

and environmental factors in determining satisfaction and future effort. However, the

complexity of the model also means that it is difficult to develop a research project which

is able to look at each component systematically or to take into account all other possible

intervening factors, for example, attributional style. “Once more, occupational psychology

may present genuine opportunities for understanding and there is a need to ensure that an

awareness of the many faces of sport, both amateur and professional, voluntary and com-

pulsory, are kept very much to the fore in any further discussion of sport motivation.”

(Garfield, 1984:38)

Using a very basic expectancy-value model to frame discussion, a preliminary

study by Kremer and Robinson (1992) considered the attitudes and motivations of

professional apprentice soccer players that were from Northern Ireland who had travelled

to join English and Scottish teams, often to return to Ireland after being rejected there.

“Contrary to predictions based on intrinsic motivation models, these platers did not return

disenchanted and lost to the game, but almost invariably they slotted comfortably into life

in the Irish League, often older and wiser as to their potential but still continuing to take a

very active part in the game which they continued to enjoy.” (Butt, 1987:88) Clearly the

reward structure which motivated these young professional athletes was very different

from that which is described in relation to participation rates and drop-outs amongst

young, amateur athletes. Once more, occupational psychology may present genuine

opportunities for understanding and there is a need to ensure that a knowledge and aware-

ness of the many faces of sport, both amateur and professional, voluntary and compulsory,


are kept very much to the front in any future discussion of sport motivation.

From this research that has been done over some four years, one can understand

that psychology does play a significant part in sport and in the minds of athletes, especially

at a young age. Sport psychology ranges from judging an athlete’s personality all the way

to his/her coach. We see the many methods and techniques used by psychologists to keep

an athlete in the right frame of mind to participate in sports.

We have seen methods dealing with the cognitive side of sport psychology such as

imagery and visualization to handle stress in sports. We have seen methods of clinical psy-

chology such as relaxation techniques to release pre-game tensions and anxiety. We have

seen methods of social psychology dealing with harmful aggression of athletes. We also

have seen methods of occupational psychology in which the coaches of athletes get in-

volved in psychology and motivation models come into play for coaches to use in order to

motivate their athletes.

We can see that psychologists have not ignored psychology in the world of sport,

something that cannot be ignored with the growing number in athletic participation by

young people. “With each new year comes an increase in new developments dealing with

sport psychology.” (Murphy & White, 1978:9) However, there is still much work to be

done in sport psychology. There are still many unresolved questions and even some new

questions and even some new questions that have arisen over the years dealing with sport

psychology. Take anxiety for instance. Psychologists have found ways to reduce anxiety

but not eliminate it. Maybe there is no way to eliminate it since everyone has it. Another

example is aggression. Wherever there are sports, there is aggression. Psychologists have

stated that sports are a way for people to release their aggression. However, they still have

not been able to fully eliminate the violence in sports. Psychologists are also working on

new methods for motivating athletes because some athletes are harder to motivate that


others. Even though there are these unresolved issues in sport psychology, the future of

psychology in sports, especially youth sports, looks to be on a very progressive track with

many new discoveries.


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