Sports Psychology History

In  many  ways,  the  history  of  sport  psychology mirrors  the  history  of  other  longstanding  disciplines,  including  psychology,  physical  education, and  other  kinesiology-related  disciplines,  and  has been  influenced  by  larger  sociocultural  trends  for decades,  for  example,  the  growth  of  the  Olympic movement, professionalization of sport, and women’s  liberation.  Progressing  through  a  number  of eras,  sport  psychology  has  grown  into  a  dynamic and continually advancing field. Although there are many  detailed  written  histories  of  sport  psychology,  the  purpose  here  is  to  provide  a  brief  overview. Specifically, this entry begins with a summary of  major  time  periods  and  key  contributors  and concludes with general remarks on sport psychology  and  its  development.  Importantly,  most  historical  accounts  of  the  field  are  described  from  a North American or European white male perspective. However, recent efforts have aimed to recognize and share a more holistic history inclusive of diverse  individuals  all  over  the  world.  Attempts are thus made here to present these global contributions.  Finally,  the  history  of  sport  psychology cannot  truly  be  divorced  from  the  history  of exercise  psychology.  However,  to  highlight  the historical  accounts  that  uniquely  shape  these  disciplines today, the history of exercise psychology is described in a separate entry of this encyclopedia.

Eras in the History of Sport Psychology

The history of sport psychology has often been organized  into  six  key  eras  or  time  periods  that  mark the  field’s  development.  These  eras  serve  as  rough guidelines  for  retrospectively  examining  events that have shaped sport psychology today. The eras include  (1)  the  prehistory  of  the  field  from  antiquity to the early 1900s, (2) the development of sport psychology as a specialty in the 1920s and 1930s of the 20th century, (3) preparation for the discipline between the 1940s and 1960s, (4) the establishment of  the  academic  discipline  in  the  late  1960s  and 1970s, (5) the science and practice of sport psychology between the late 1970s and 1990s, and (6) contemporary sport psychology over the last decade.

Era 1: Pre-History (Antiquity–Early 1900s)

While most accounts of the history of sport psychology start in the late 1800s, interest in the area can be traced back to ancient times. For example, with the start of the Olympic Games around 776 BCE, the ancient Greeks embraced the mind–body connection and discussed both physical and mental preparation of athletes. In fact, the ancient Greeks are  said  to  be  among  the  first  to  systematically explore  athletic  performance  with  much  of  the work paralleling modern-day study in the areas of sports medicine and sport psychology. For instance, comparisons  have  been  made  between  the  Greek tetrad system used to prepare athletes for competition (preparation, concentration, moderation, and relaxation) and the contemporary concept of periodization where training occurs in phases.

sports-psychology-historyFast  forwarding  to  the  Victorian  era  of  the late 1800s in the United States and Great Britain, athletes, educators, journalists, and others demonstrated interest in the many topics studied in sport psychology  today,  such  as  the  psychological  characteristics of high-level athletes as well as cultural issues in the sporting world. By 1894, French physician  Philippe  Tissie  and  American  psychologist Edward  Scripture  had  published  some  of  the  first studies in the field. While Tissie studied psychological changes in endurance cyclists, Scripture examined reaction time in fencers and runners. Notably, Scripture’s  work  reflected  efforts  to  establish  a new  psychology  that  focused  on  data  collection and  experimentation  versus  subjective  opinion  as well as an emphasis on applying scientific findings to  the  real  world  (e.g.,  enhancing  athletic  performance). Although less recognized, Harvard professor G. W. Fitz was also examining reaction time in athletes around the same time. In 1898, American psychologist  Norman  Triplett  conducted  the  first known experiment to blend the principles of sport and  social  psychology.  Examining  the  influence of  others  on  cycling  performance,  Triplett’s  study contributed  to  the  development  of  social  facilitation  theory  often  studied  in  contemporary  sport and  exercise  settings.  Researchers  continued  to explore  these  and  related  topics  throughout  the early 1900s; American psychologists Karl Lashley and John B. Watson conducted a series of studies on skill acquisition in archery.

Perhaps  the  person  who  demonstrated  the most  consistent  interest  in  sport  psychology  during this era was the French founder of the modern Olympic  movement,  Pierre  de  Coubertin.  A  prolific writer, Coubertin wrote numerous articles relevant to topics studied in sport psychology today, such as the reason children participate in athletics, the  importance  of  self-regulation,  and  the  role  of psychological  factors  in  performance  improvement. He was also the catalyst in organizing several  Olympic  Congresses,  two  of  which  focused on  the  psychological  aspects  of  sport.  Interested in  the  blend  between  body,  character,  and  mind, Coubertin’s  efforts  garnered  publicity  around  the critical role of psychology in sporting activity and continued to influence the field’s development well into the 1940s.

The  contributions  of  this  era  involved  several noteworthy  psychologists,  physical  educators, and  physicians  whose  work  demonstrated  interest in what is now referred to as the field of sport psychology.  However,  while  the  work  of  these scholars  dabbled  in  the  world  of  sports,  none  of these  individuals  were  considered  sport  psychology specialists who made consistent contributions. Few concerted efforts were made to systematically study the area until the 1920s.

Era 2: The Development of Sport Psychology as a Specialty (1920s–1930s)

In the 1920s and 30s, professionals continued to show interest in the psychological aspects of sport through  periodic  writing,  research,  and  exploration.  For  example,  baseball  great  Babe  Ruth  was brought to Columbia University in 1921 and psychologically  tested  to  determine  the  reasons  for his  exceptional  hitting  skills.  In  1926,  American psychologist   Walter   Miles,   his   student   B.   C. Graves, and legendary football coach Pop Warner conducted an interesting study on the influence of signal calling on charging times among the offensive line players.

However,  it  is  also  in  this  era  that  individuals  from  around  the  world  began  to  specialize in  the  area  by  developing  more  systematic  lines of  research,  presentations,  and  publications  that marked a more sustained interest in the psychological aspects of sport. In Charlottenburg, Germany, Robert Werner Schulte started one of the first sport psychology  laboratories  in  1920  at  the  Deutsche Hochshule  für  Leibesübungen  where  he  wrote  a book  titled  Body  and  Mind  in  Sport  and  continued his work until his untimely death in 1933. In Russia, notable scholars Piotr Antonovich Roudik and  Avksenty  Cezarevich  Puni  began  work  at the Physical Institutes of Culture in Moscow and Leningrad, respectively. Roudik conducted studies on  perception,  memory,  attention,  and  imagination  while  Puni  examined  psychological  preparation and the effects of competition on athletes.

Around  the  same  time,  Coleman  Griffith  was directing  the  Research  in  Athletics  Laboratory  at the  University  of  Illinois.  Griffith,  who  is  recognized as the father of North American sport psychology,  published  approximately  25  studies  on topics ranging from motor learning to personality and character. He also published two classic books, Psychology of Coaching (1926) and Psychology of Athletics (1928), and outlined the key functions of the sport psychologist. Griffith’s laboratory closed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but in 1938, he was hired by the Chicago Cubs to assist in  improving  the  team’s  athletic  performance. Unfortunately,  Griffith’s  applied  work  is  said  to have been far from successful because of resistance from players and coaches.

The 1920s and 1930s were characterized by not only  scholars  who  dabbled  in  sport  psychology work, but also those across the globe who set up sport psychology laboratories and devoted significant portions of their career to studying the area. Interestingly,  with  the  exception  of  some  Russian scholars   whose   work   continued   through   the 1960s, the research findings of these early pioneers had little direct influence on the scientific advancement of the field. Griffith, for example, was ahead of his time but worked in isolation with few students  to  immediately  build  upon  his  work.  Still, the emergence of sport psychology as a discipline was ready to begin.

Era 3: Preparation for the Discipline (1940s–1960s)

Scholars  who  trained  future  generations  of students  and  professionals  set  the  stage  for  the development  of  sport  psychology  as  an  academic discipline. As previously mentioned, Puni’s work in Russia continued well into the 1960s and 70s and is still recognized today. The same is true in North America  where  Franklin  Henry  of  the  University of California at Berkeley established a psychology of  physical  activity  program  and  trained  physical educators.  Upon  earning  their  graduate  degrees, these students initiated systematic lines of research across  the  country.  While  much  of  Henry’s  work focused on what would now be considered motor learning  and  control,  some  of  his  students  examined  social  psychology  topics  such  as  athlete personality and the arousal–performance relationship.  This  era  of  sport  psychology  research  was also likely influenced by sociocultural events, such as  increasing  emphasis  on  performance  at  the Olympic Games, the Cold War, and the space race, which spurred considerable interest in the development of science in many fields.

On the applied front, the work of David Tracy is noteworthy as he consulted with semipro baseball players as well as the St. Louis Browns’ major league  team.  Tracy  helped  athletes  improve  their performance  by  teaching  relaxation  skills,  using confidence  building  techniques,  autosuggestion, and hypnosis. His work is crucial to this era in that it garnered a great deal of publicity for the practice  of  sport  psychology.  It  was  reported  that  the Browns’  front  office  believed  that  if  other  industries  used  psychologists,  then  it  would  be  logical for  professional  baseball  to  do  so  as  well.  This may have helped initiate a shift in the attitudes of sportspersons and administrators toward the usefulness of sport psychology practitioners.

In  addition  to  Tracy,  the  work  of  female  pioneer Dorothy Hazeltine Yates is also noteworthy. Best  known  for  her  consulting  with  university boxers, Yates emphasized the use of positive affirmations  and  relaxation  to  enhance  performance. She  also  taught  a  psychology  course  for  athletes and  aviators.  Embracing  the  science–practitioner model,  she  went  on  to  conduct  an  assessment  of her interventions with boxers. A reflection of her work reveals that Yates made important contributions in an otherwise male-dominated field.

Era 4: Establishment of Academic Sport Psychology (Late 1960s–1970s)

The  latter  part  of  the  1960s  was  marked  by a  major  occasion.  The  First  World  Congress  of Sport Psychology was held in Rome, Italy, in 1965. While  few  delegates  were  considered  sport  psychologists  given  that  the  field  was  only  emerging as a discipline, this event marked the beginning of worldwide  interest  and  institutionalization  of  the field. It was here that the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was born. With Ferruccio Antonelli  of  Italy  as  its  first  president,  the  inaugural  issue  of  the  International  Journal  of  Sport Psychology  arrived  just  five  years  later  in  1970. Serving as a model, ISSP inspired the development of several other professional organizations of sport psychology  across  the  globe,  including  the  North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical  Activity  in  1966,  the  British  Society  of Sports Psychology in 1967, the French Society of Sport  Psychology  in  1967,  the  Canadian  Society for  Psychomotor  Learning  and  Sport  Psychology in  1969,  and  the  German  Association  of  Sport Psychology  in  1969.  Born  out  of  disagreements within  ISSP,  the  European  Federation  of  Sport Psychology  (FEPSAC)  was  founded  in  1969  with female pioneer Ema Geron of Bulgaria as its first president.  Both  ISSP  and  FEPSAC  remain  prominent influences on the field today.

In the late 1960s and 70s, physical education as an  academic  discipline  was  firmly  taking  hold  in the United States. Professors were asked to begin research programs in all the sport sciences, curriculums were revised to include more academic sport science coursework, and graduate programs were developed. Sport psychology, now considered distinct from motor learning and control, was a part of  this  change.  Increased  activity  on  the  applied side of the field was also occurring during this era, albeit  not  without  controversy.  In  1966,  clinical psychologists Tom Tutko and Bruce Ogilvie wrote a controversial book, Problem Athletes and How to  Handle  Them,  and  developed  the  Athletic Motivation  Inventory,  a  personality  assessment that was said to predict athletic success. The book was controversial because it suggested that athletes were  problematic  and  needed  to  be  controlled, while  some  scholars  felt  that  their  personality test  was  based  on  questionable  science.  Despite the  controversy,  Ogilvie  was  active  in  working with  elite  athletes  and  teams  and  was  seen  as  a role model for many young professionals with an interest in applied work. In fact, he has been called the  father  of  applied  sport  psychology  in  North America.

Era 5: Bridging Science and Practice in Sport Psychology (Late 1970s–1990s)

As the name of the era implies, it was between the  late  1970s  and  1990s  that  sport  psychology came of age as both a science and an area of professional  practice.  This  era  was  characterized by  increasing  interest  in  the  field  with  scientists devoting  their  entire  careers  to  the  field,  and  a growing number of practitioners working directly with  athletes  and  coaches.  For  example,  the  U.S. Olympic Committee developed a sport psychology advisory  board,  hired  its  first  resident  sport  psychologist, and sent its first sport psychologist to the Olympic  Games.  New  academic  journals,  including the Journal of Sport Psychology (1979; known as  the  Journal  of  Sport  &  Exercise  Psychology since  1988),  The  Sport  Psychologist  (1986),  the Journal  of  Applied  Sport  Psychology  (1989),  and the  Korean  Journal  of  Sport  Psychology  (1989), were  published.  The  development  of  organizations to meet the needs of a growing field continued.  For  example,  the  Japanese  Society  of  Sport Psychology was developed in 1973 followed by the Korean Society of Sport Psychology in the 1980s. Following the dissolution of other related organizations, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences  was  developed  in  1984  with  The  Sport and Exercise Scientist becoming its official publication. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (formerly the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology) was established in 1986, established  its  Certified  Consultant  designation  in 1991, and continues to be the largest applied sport psychology  organization  in  the  world.  In  1986, the  American  Psychological  Association  formed a  new  division,  Division  47,  devoted  specifically to  exercise  and  sport  psychology.  Born  out  of the  First  National  Congress  of  Sport  Psychology in  Barcelona,  the  Spanish  Federation  of  Sport Psychology was founded in 1987. Shortly thereafter,  the  Australian  Psychological  Association  was developed  with  sport  and  exercise  psychology  as a specialization in 1988, followed by the creation of  the  Asian  South  Pacific  Association  of  Sport Psychology in 1989.

Finally, women of this era were afforded more opportunities  and  entered  the  field  in  greater numbers thanks to the concerted efforts of several female  pioneers,  including  Ema  Geron,  Dorothy Yates,  Dorothy  Harris,  Jean  Williams,  Carole Oglesby, Tara Scanlan, Maureen Weiss, and Diane Gill,  to  name  just  a  few.  Recently,  determined efforts have been made to write these female pioneers  into  the  history  of  the  field  and  recognize their many contributions.

Era 6: Contemporary Sport and Exercise Psychology (2000–Present)

Contemporary  sport  psychology  is  a  firmly established  discipline.  The  popularity  of  the  field was evidenced by over 700 delegates from 70 countries attending the 2009 World Congress of Sport Psychology  held  in  Morocco.  A  large  number  of universities now offer specializations at the graduate  level  with  hundreds  of  research  studies  being conducted every year. Reflecting a shift in the field’s focus toward the inclusion of both sport and exercise  contexts,  the  International  Journal  of  Sport Psychology changed its name to the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (IJSEP) in  2002.  The  British  Psychological  Society  also developed  a  sport  and  exercise  psychology  division  in  2004.  Greater  attention  is  being  paid  to the practice of sport psychology with the development of an applied journal, The Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, published by the Association for  Applied  Sport  Psychology  in  2010.  As  sport psychology becomes increasingly popular through media outlets and social networking, Olympic and professional athletes continue to work with sport psychology specialists, as do a number of developing and recreational athletes.

With   the   growth   of   both   the   science   and practice  of  sport  psychology,  a  number  of  major changes are occurring in the field today. For example,  fueled  by  rising  obesity  rates  and  a  decrease in  physical  activity  in  many  Western  countries, there  has  been  an  explosion  of  interest  in  health and  exercise-related  research  in  the  last  decade. Exercise  motivation  and  adherence,  the  role  of physical  activity  in  mental  health,  and  the  psychology of athletic injuries have all been topics of considerable  interest  (see  also  the  entry  “History of  Exercise  Psychology”).  Life  skill  development, cultural  issues,  and  diversity  in  the  sport  context have also become popular areas of inquiry. In addition  to  the  topics  studied,  the  methods  employed are  also  expanding.  An  increase  in  qualitative research methods in particular is evidenced by the development of new journals solely devoted to this type of research like Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health.

At  the  same  time  sport  psychology  has  seen tremendous  growth  and  advancement,  several important  challenges  face  the  field.  For  example, although  they  are  more  widely  accepted,  qualitative research methods have been criticized for their subjective nature and have led to some debate over the  best  way  of  gaining  knowledge.  Economic support  for  higher  education  in  many  Western societies  has  declined  and  caused  sport  psychology  laboratories  to  become  more  conscious  of the  need  to  secure  external  funding  (e.g.,  grants, fellowships)  to  support  their  research  efforts. Tension  between  researchers  and  practitioners  of sport psychology continues, which has led various professional organizations to purposefully attempt to bridge the gap. Other concerns include the job outlook for many being trained in the field. While sport  psychology  has  certainly  grown,  academic positions  are  somewhat  limited,  and  few  practitioners will land full-time positions working with athletes  and  teams.  Finally,  perhaps  the  greatest challenge is defining the educational training necessary  to  become  a  practitioner  in  sport  psychology.  Disagreement  over  the  role  of  kinesiology versus counseling-based training has led to heated debates among professionals. Increasing attention paid to certifications, licensures, and ethical standards are intended to safeguard against those who may unethically practice sport psychology without the  appropriate  competencies.  Addressing  these challenges  and  embracing  the  aforementioned successes of the field will fuel the growth of sport psychology in the future.


While sport psychology emerged out of other disciplines, the field certainly has a longer and deeper history  than  has  often  been  described.  Recent efforts have unveiled the contributions of individuals who demonstrated interest in the psychological aspects of sport long before Coleman Griffith and brought to light a history characterized by diverse and  global  influences  not  previously  recognized. Sport psychology is a worldwide phenomenon with strong research and practice components that parallels  the  growth  of  other  established  disciplines, including psychology and physical education.


  1. Green, C. D., & Benjamin, L. T. (2009). Psychology gets in the game: Sport, mind, and behavior, 1880–1960. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  2. Kornspan, A. S. (2012). History of sport and performance psychology. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 3–23). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Krane, V., & Whaley, D. E. (2010). Quiet competence: Writing women into the history of U.S. sport and exercise psychology. The Sport Psychologist, 18, 349–372.
  4. Ryba, T. V., Schinke, R. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (2010). The cultural turn in sport psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  5. Vealey, R. S. (2006). Smocks and jocks outside the box: The paradigmatic evolution of sport and exercise psychology. Quest, 58, 128–159.
  6. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

See also: