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Summary Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (Weinberg)

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Chapter 1 - Introduction to sport and exercise psychology


The scientific study of people and their behaviour in the exercise and sports context is called sport and exercise psychology. Psychologists working in that field identify principles that professionals can use to help others benefit from and participate in sport and exercise activities. There are usually two objectives in mind when a person studies sport and exercise psychology: (1) understanding how psychological factors affect an individual’s physical performance and (2) understanding how participating in sports and exercises affects a person’s psychological health, development and well-being. There are different questions psychologists ask during the study. When they study the first objective, they may ask how anxiety affects a player’s accuracy or how a coach’s reinforcement influences the team’s cohesion. When studying the second objective, they may ask if running reduces anxiety and depression and if daily participation in physical education improves self-esteem. Sport psychology has a broad population base. Professionals can use it to help elite athletes achieve ultimate performances, but most sport psychologists are concerned with people who are physically or mentally disabled, seniors and average participants. In the last couples of years more sport psychologists have focused on the psychological factors involved in exercise and health, encouragement to exercise and the assessment of the effectiveness of exercise as a treatment for depression. Because of the broadening of interests, the field is called sport and exercise psychology.


Specializing in sport psychology

Sport psychologists pursue varied careers. There are three primary roles in their activities: conducting research, teaching and consulting. Of course, one of the functions of scientists is to advance the knowledge in the field by conducting research. So, most sport and exercise psychologists in a university conduct research. Nowadays, sport and exercise psychologists are part of multi-disciplinary research teams that study problems. They share their findings with colleagues and participants in the field. This results in sharing, discussion and healthy debates at meetings and in journals. Sport and exercise psychology specialists also teach university courses, like exercise and health psychology and applied sport psychology. They may also teach courses as personality psychology of developmental psychology if they work in a psychology department. The third role of sport and exercise psychologists is consulting with individual athletes or teams. This way, they can develop psychological skills for enhancing training and competitive performance. There are universities and Olympic committees that employ full-time sport psychology consultants. Many teams also use consultants on a part-time basis for psychological skills training. There are also some sport psychologists who work with the military and surgeons to help them perfect their skills. Some also work in the fitness industry.

In sport psychology, a distinction exists between two types of specialities: clinical sport psychology and educational sport psychology. Clinical sport psychologists have much training in psychology and because of this, they can detect and treat people with emotional disorders. These psychologists are licensed by state boards to treat people with emotional disorders and they have received additional training in sport and exercise psychology and sport science. These psychologists are needed, because some athletes develop severe emotional disorders and need special treatment. Substance abuse and eating disorders are areas in which a clinical sport psychologist can help sport and exercise participants.


Educational sport psychology specialists have a lot of training in sport and exercise science, kinesiology and physical education. They understand the psychology of human movement, especially related to sport and exercise context. They have taken advanced graduate training in psychology and counselling. They are not licensed psychologists and they are not trained to treat people with emotional disorders. An educational sport psychology specialist can be seen as a mental coach who educates athletes and exercisers about psychological skills and their development. This is done through group and individual sessions. Some areas are confidence development and anxiety management. When an educational sport psychology consultant comes across athlete with an emotional disorder, he/she refers the athlete to a licensed clinical psychologists or a clinical sport psychologist for treatment. Clinical and educational sport and exercise psychology specialists must have much knowledge of psychology and sport science. In 1991, a certified consultant program was introduced. People can qualify for certification as sport and exercise consultants if they have advanced training in both psychology and the sport sciences.


The history of sport and exercise psychology

Nowadays, sport and exercise psychology is more popular than ever before. However, this does not mean that the field has developed only recently. Modern sport psychology dates back to the 1880s and references to psychology can be traced back to the ancient Olympic Games. The history of sport psychology collides with the history of other fields like psychology, kinesiology and physical education. The field has also been influenced by large sociocultural developments, like the growth of the Olympic movement, women’s liberation efforts and the popularity of professional sport. The history of sport psychology falls into six periods.


Period 1: early years (1893-1920)

In North America, sport psychology began in the 1890s. Norman Triplett was a psychologists and he wondered why cyclists rode faster when they raced in groups than when they rode alone. He first verified that the observation was correct by studying cycling records. Then he conducted experiments. Another pioneer was Scripture. He conducted a number of laboratory studies on reaction and muscle movement times of runners and the transfer of physical training. He also looked at how sport might develop character in participants. Scripture worked together with William Anderson, one of the first physical educators in America. This shows that those in the fields of physical education and psychology worked together to develop sport psychology. Triplett and Scripture were part of the new psychology movement that focused on using experimental laboratory methods and measurement to gain knowledge. Other scientists were interested in the field from a more philosophical perspective. One of them was Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. He wrote extensively on the psychological aspects of sport and organized two Olympic Congresses that focused on psychology. In the early years, physical educators and psychologists were only beginning to explore psychological aspects of sport and motor skill learning. They measured athletes’ reaction times, looked at the role of sport in personality and character development and they studied how people learn sport skills. However, they did little to apply these studies. Nobody specialized in the field.


Period 2: The development of psychological testing and laboratories (1921-1938)

This period has been characterized by the development of sport psychology laboratories in Japan, Germany, Russia and the United States. It has also been characterized by the increase in psychological testing. Coleman Griffith was the first American to devote a big portion of his career to sport psychology and he now is seen as the father of American sport psychology. He developed the first laboratory in sport psychology, he helped initiate one of the first coaching schools in America and wrote two books on the topic. He also developed psychological profiles of famous sport players. During this time, psychologists also began to test athletes (reaction times, aggression and concentration).


Period 3: Future preparation (1939-1965)

Franklin Henry was for a big part responsible for the field’s scientific development. He studied psychological aspects of sport and motor skill acquisition. He trained many physical educators and he initiated systematic research programs. Jonhson and Slatter-Hammel helped lay down the groundwork for future study of sport psychology and they helped create the academic discipline of exercise and sport science. Applied work in sport psychology was limited in this period, but by the end of the period it was beginning to change. One person doing applied work at that time was Yates. She was one of the first women in the US to both practice sport psychology and conduct research. She developed the relaxation-set method during WO II and she tested whether her interventions were effective.


Period 4: Establishing academic sport psychology (1966-1977)

By the mid ‘60s of last century, physical education had become an academic discipline. Now it’s called kinesiology or exercise science. Sport psychology had become a separate component in this discipline, it was distinct from motor learning. Specialists in motor learning focused on how people acquire motor skills and on conditions of feedback, practice and timing. Sport psychologists studied how psychological factors, like anxiety and self-esteem, influence sport and motor skill performance and how participation in sport influenced psychological development. Applied sport psychology consultants began working with athletes and teams. Ogilvie was one of the first to do so and he is often called the father of US applied sport psychology. The first sport psychology societies were established in North America.


Period 5: Multidisciplinary science and practice (1978-2000)

In this period, tremendous growth in sport and exercise psychology took place in the US and internationally. There was more respect and acceptance by the public. There was also more interest in applied issues and sport and exercise psychology separated from the related exercise and sport science specializations of motor learning, control and motor development. More research was conducted. Research in this field became better accepted. Different books and specialty journals were developed. Dorothy Harris advanced the cause of both women and sport psychology by helping establish a graduate program in sport psychology. She was the first American and first female member of the International Society of Sport Psychology.


Period 6: Contemporary sport and exercise psychology (2001-present)

Nowadays, sport and exercise psychology is a field with a bright future. Throughout this summary you will learn more about contemporary sport and exercise psychology in detail.


Science and practice

Sport and exercise psychology is a science. Therefore, we need to understand the scientific method. Science is dynamic and to test certain theories, scientists have evolved some general guidelines for research. For one, there should be a systematic approach to studying a question. It involves standardizing the conditions. Scientific methods involve control of conditions. The method is also empirical, which means it is based on observation. Objective evidence must support beliefs and the evidence must be open to outside observation and evaluation. The scientific method is also critical and this means that it involves rigorous evaluation by scientists.


The ultimate goal of a scientist is a theory. Theories allow a scientist to organize and explain large numbers of facts in a pattern that helps others understand them. Theory turns to practice. The social facilitation theory looks at how audience affects performance. Sometimes people perform better in front of an audience and other times they perform worse. Zajonc saw a pattern in these results and formulated the social facilitation theory. According to him, people who perform simple tasks or jobs they know well perform better with an audience. When people perform unfamiliar or complex tasks, having an audience harms performance. The theory states that an audience creates arousal in the performer, which hurts performance on difficult tasks that have not been learned well and helps performance on well-learned skills.


An important way in which scientists build or refute theory is by conducting studies and experiments. In studies researchers observe factors without changing the environment in any way. An example of this is a written questionnaire. Studies have limited ability to identify what scientists call causal relationships between factors. In experiments, the investigator manipulates the variables and observes them and he/she examines how changes in one variable affect changes in other variables. Participants are divided into two different groups: the experimental group and the control group. The experimental group receives some sort of training and the control group will not receive any training.

Every method has strengths and limitations. The strength of the scientific method is that it is reliable. The methodology is systematic and controlled and the findings are consistent and repeatable. Scientists are also trained to be objective. They want to collect unbiased data. The scientific method has also limitations. One of these is that it’s slow and conservative. It may cost more time than practitioners have. So it’s not always practical. Sometimes scientific knowledge is reductionistic. Because it’s sometimes too complex to study all the variables of a situation simultaneously, a researcher may select isolated variables that are of the most critical interest. But when a problem is reduced to smaller parts, our understanding of the whole picture may be diminished. Science also overemphasizes on internal validity. That means that science favours the extent to which the results of an investigation can be attributed to the treatment used. Too much emphasis on internal validity can cause scientists to overlook external validity. This is the true utility in the real world.


Professional practice knowledge is knowledge gained through experience. It can come from many sources and ways of knowing, like systematic observation, shared public experience, scientific method, single case study, intuition and introspection. Professional practice knowledge is guided trial-and-error learning. It also has its strength and limitations. Practical knowledge is more holistic than scientifically derived knowledge. Professional practice knowledge also tends to absorb novel practices. Also, professionals can use practical theories immediately because they don’t have to wait for the theories to be scientifically verified. However, professional practice can produce fewer and less precise explanations than science can. It is also more affected by bias than is science and it is less objective. It is also less reliable. A practitioner must blend scientific knowledge of sport and exercise psychology with professional practice knowledge.


Different orientations

Sport psychologists differ in how they view successful interventions. They may choose from many orientations to the field. One of those orientations is the psychophysiological orientation. Scientists with this orientation believe that the best way to study behaviour during sport is to examine the physiological processes of the brain and their influences on physical activity. These scientists usually assess heart rates, brain activity and muscle actions. Psychologists with the social-psychological orientation assume that behaviour is determined by a complex interaction between the environment and the personal makeup of the athlete. Psychologists with this approach often examine how a person’s social environment influences his/her and how the behaviour influences the social-psychological environment. Psychologists adopting a cognitive-behavioural orientation believe that thought is central in determining behaviour. These psychologists might develop self-report measures to assess self-confidence, goal orientations and anxiety.


Future trends

There are a couple of current and future trends in sport and exercise psychology:

  • There are more consulting and service opportunities than before and more sport psychologists are helping athletes and coaches achieve their goals.

  • There is more emphasis on counselling and clinical training for sport psychologists. There is a need for more training in counselling and clinical psychology.

  • There is more emphasis for ethics and competence issues.

  • New subspecialties and specializations are developing.

  • There continues to be tension between practitioners of academic and applied sport psychology.

  • Qualitative (non-numeric) research methods are accepted.

  • Applied sport psychologists have more work opportunities than ever before, but they only have limited chances at full-time positions.

  • It has become a recognized sport science and it has received increased attention all over the world.

  • Leaders in the general field of psychology have embraced a positive psychology movement. This means that the emphasis of psychologists should be on the development of positive attributes. Sport and exercise psychologists have been practising positive performance for some time and this has opened up new opportunities.

  • There is an importance of embracing the globalization of sport and exercise psychology.

  • Multidisciplinary work is increasing.

  • Sport psychologists are learning how to use new technologies to facilitate their efforts.

  • There is more emphasis on studying cultural diversity and examining how groups (gender, generation) are similar and unique.


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