My boyfriend, an avid golfer, always says that golf is mainly a game of the brain. That is, your mental state has a lot to do with your success on the course.

And, not surprisingly, it’s like that with other sports. Psychology can give players an edge. As Ludy Benjamin and David Baker write in From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America, “Indeed, in so many instances when physical talents seem evenly matched, it is the mental factors that will make the difference in winning or losing.”

That’s where sport psychology — also sometimes referred to as sports psychology — comes in. So how did sport psychology start and evolve?

Early Experiments

In America, sport psychology’s roots date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when several psychologists started conducting sports-related studies.

In 1898, psychologist Norman Triplett (1861-1934) found that cyclists made better time when they were competing against others in races versus when they cycled alone (read more here). Edward W. Scripture (1864-1945), a psychologist at Yale University, studied the reaction time of runners.

In the 1920s psychologist Walter Miles (1885-1978), along with grad student B.C. Graves and college football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, focused their attention on football. They wanted to find out the quickest way for offensive linemen to move in harmony after the center hiked the ball. Miles created his own equipment for the experiment to ascertain the players’ reaction times.

According to Monitor on Psychology,

The ingenious device tested the individual reaction times of seven linemen simultaneously. When a lineman moved, he triggered the release of a golf ball that fell onto a rotating drum. The drum was covered with paper stretched over a wire mesh, and the ball made a definite impression on the paper that allowed measurement of the lineman’s quickness. Coaches agreed that the initial charge of the line was a great advantage for the offense, and they were interested in ways to quicken that movement.

The significance of this experiment extends beyond faster linemen on some football team. According to the article: “In retrospect, Miles and Graves were in the forefront of a movement that is everywhere in sports today: using psychological insights and experimental techniques to get every possible advantage over opponents.”

The Founder of Sport Psychology

“The more mind is made use of in athletic competition, the greater will be the skill of our athletes.”

While the above psychologists dabbled in sports research, Coleman R. Griffith (1893-1966) is credited as the founder of sport psychology. (Here’s a photo of him working.)

He started studying sport psychology as a graduate student in 1918. His research then focused on how vision and attention predicted basketball and football performance (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

A few years later, he was teaching a course specifically on “Psychology and Athletics.” He also was appointed assistant professor at the University of Illinois.

In 1925, he opened the first-ever research lab on athletic performance at the university. There, he conducted lots of research in sport psychology, which featured:

a) the relation between physical exercise and learning, b) the effects of extreme physical exercise on longevity and disease resistance, c) the nature of sleep in athletes, d) methods of teaching psychological skills in football, e) measurement of physical fitness, f) the effects of emotion on learning of habits, g) muscular coordination, h) persistence of errors, i) the effects of fatigue on performance, j) measures of motor aptitude, and k) mental variables associated with excellent athletic performance.

(as cited in Benjamin & Baker, 2004)

Unfortunately, because of the Great Depression and the rumored loss of support from Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke — who didn’t see any improvements from Griffith’s research — the lab would be shut down in 1932.

In 1925, Griffith also published what is considered his most important article, “Psychology and Its Relation to Athletic Competition” (Green, 2003). In it, he talked about why psychology was so valuable for athletic performance. He wrote:

The more mind is made use of in athletic competition, the greater will be the skill of our athletes, the finer will be the contest, the higher will be the ideals of sportsmanship displayed, the longer will our games persist in our national life, and the more truly will they lead to those rich personal and social products which we ought to expect of them.

Because of these facts, the psychologist may hope to break into the realm of athletic competition, just as he has already broken into the realms of industry, commerce, medicine, education, and art.

He also published two textbooks on sports psychology. In 1926, he published Psychology of Coaching and two years later, Psychology and Athletics.

In 1938, Griffith got the opportunity to work in the field as a consultant to the Chicago Cubs. (He’d already worked with college teams.) The owner, Philip K. Wrigley — yes, the gum guy — hired Griffith.

But his work with the Cubs didn’t last long — ending in 1940 — and wasn’t successful either. The Cubs’ manager, Charlie Grimm, viewed Griffith’s involvement as interference and implemented only a few of his suggestions. (Griffith wrote 600 pages about his work with the team in those two years.)

Sport Psychology in Baseball

According to Green (2003), after Griffith, other psychologists followed suit in helping baseball teams. He writes:

Ten years later, in an admittedly somewhat different vein, New York psychologist and hypnotist David F. Tracy would be hired to help the St. Louis Browns (Tracy, 1951). In the 1950s, baseball scout Jim McLaughlin began bringing to player recruitment the kind of “scientific attitude” that Griffith had promoted in the 1930s (Kerrane, 1984, chap. 7). In the 1960s, the Philadelphia Phillies teamed up with some University of Delaware professors to found a “Research Program for Baseball” (Kerrane, 1984, p. 153). In the 1970s, the Kansas City Royals created a science-based “academy” of baseball development. By the 1980s, tests such as the Athletic Motivation Inventory (Tutko, Lyon, & Ogilvie, 1969) were becoming a standard tool of professional baseball scouts and managers. Also in the 1980s, then-Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s manager Tony LaRussa brought the laptop computer and the digital database into the dugout to stay. So, although it seems that Griffith personally “struck out” with the Cubs, one might say that the “batting form” he pioneered was later developed by others, and its descendents today are a standard practice in professional baseball and in other sports.

Sport Psychology Today

Sport psychologists work in a variety of settings. They have their own private practices, offer consulting services, help professional sports teams, conduct research and hold positions at the NCAA, among other roles.

And a lot of this work also is very interesting. Here’s one example: “One sport psychologist taught sharpshooters to be cognizant of their heartbeats (by using a biofeedback device) and to learn to fire the gun between heartbeats, thus giving them a slight advantage in steadiness” (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

According to the APA, here’s what sport psychologists can help athletes with:

Enhance performance. Various mental strategies, such as visualization, self-talk and relaxation techniques, can help athletes overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

Cope with the pressures of competition. Sport psychologists can help athletes at all levels deal with pressure from parents, coaches or even their own expectations.

Recover from injuries. After an injury, athletes may need help tolerating pain, adhering to their physical therapy regimens or adjusting to being sidelined.

Keep up an exercise program. Even those who want to exercise regularly may find themselves unable to fulfill their goal. Sport psychologists can help these individuals increase their motivation and tackle any related concerns.

Enjoy sports. Sports organizations for young people may hire a sport psychologist to educate coaches about how to help kids enjoy sports and how to promote healthy self-esteem in participants.