Sports and Psychology

16th October 2023

This Sport Psychology page was edited and reviewed by Alexandra Williams. Alexandra Williams is a sports writer and professional basketball player who graduated with a degree in psychology, with minors in healthcare management and exercise physiology.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sport psychology and exercise psychology are the scientific studies of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sports, exercise, and other types of physical activity.

Sport Psychology: It's all in the mind.

Primary Goals of Exercise & Sport Psychology

Experts in these fields are interested in two main objectives. According to the Exercise & Sport Psychology division of the American Psychological Association, the first objective of sports psychology is to help athletes apply "psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health."

Additionally, it strives to understand the effects psychological processes have on physical and motor performance. For instance, does low self-confidence influence a child’s ability to learn to swim? This is significant in order to help athletes achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (APA).

The second objective of sport and exercise psychology seeks to understand the effects of participation in sport and physical activity on psychological development, health, and well-being; for example, does running reduce anxiety and depression? Do young athletes learn to be overly aggressive or overly competitive when participating in youth sports?

Applied Sport Psychology

In the highest level of sports, where talent may be more or less evenly matched, what makes athletes transcend the barriers and go over the top? This is where the mental aspects of the game come into play, and thus sport (or sports) psychology was born.

Sport psychologists maximize an athlete's performance while improving psychological processes by applying the psychological principles of human performance through applied sports. Applied sports psychology is a branch of psychology dedicated to discovering how the mind influences an athlete's performance, their activity, and the mental component of sports performance in general. Applied sport psychologists are skilled in a broad range of areas and activities for the purpose of facilitating excellence in all aspects of sports.

One area includes the development of psychological skills required for excellence in physical activity and sports. For example, increasing positive self-talk can increase one's ability to perform in competitions. Another specific part that sport psychologists focus on is in the understanding, diagnosis, as well as prevention of various psychological, cognitive, emotional, as well as behavioral and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent optimum performance (APA). A sport psychologist figures out how anxiety affects a basketball player’s free-throw accuracy, for instance, and how they can work with the player to prevent this particular anxiety.

Applied sport psychology is important because it can help athletes improve performance, enhance enjoyment, and gain more self-fulfillment in sports through psychological skills training or PST. PST can increase mental processes such as positive talk, concentration, motivation, commitment, confidence, and resilience. Not only can athletes benefit from these skills in their respective activity, they can further benefit from these skills in all areas of life.

The goals of applied sport psychology include improving overall performance by removing mental impediments through the use of PST techniques, such as:

  • Imagery - formation of guided mental images
  • Mental exercises
  • Confidence-building
  • Positive self-talk
  • Goal-setting
  • Arousal regulation
  • Sport psychology has progressed from being relatively obscure to absolutely mainstream, with teams and individual athletes hiring their own psychologists. Applied sport psychology involves expanding theories into the field to help athletes and individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with the sporting activities, which include coaches, athletic trainers, and parents.

    Note, though, that success is not only measured by overall performance, but by aspects such as enjoyment and optimal involvement. Over the better part of two decades, applied sport psychology as a performance-enhancement tool has garnered considerable attention.

    Exercise Psychology

    Exercise psychology is related to sport psychology, and is considered an under-discipline in the field. Exercise psychology is often used as a means of cognitive enhancement. Exercise has been observed to improve cognitive function, and its positive effects on cognitive processes have been widely accepted. However, scientific evidence proving the benefits of exercise as a therapeutic, self-help method is still developing (Otto, Smits, 2011).

    Regular physical exercise has been closely linked with a decreased risk of physical concerns and diseases (for example, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes). Not only were physical benefits reported, those who regularly engaged in aerobic exercise have been found to have better mental health (Ashish, Madaan, Petty, 2006), which will be further explored in the next header.

    Psychological Benefits of Exercise

    Good physical and mental health are closely linked. Regular exercise improves symptoms related to dementia, Alzheimer's, or cognitive decline. Furthermore, physical activity through exercise has also been consistently linked with better academic performances in students (Booth, et al. 2013).

    Exercise as simple as brisk walking is proven to reduce symptoms of depression as effectively as antidepressants in the short-term, and better than antidepressants in the long-term.

    In clinical studies, exercise has proven to be as effective — possibly even more effective — in the short-term than medication in treating mild to moderate depression, and more effective in the long-term. Surprisingly, a Duke University study found that exercise is actually more effective than antidepressant treatment for depression combined with exercise for both the short-term benefits and for recurrence rate.

    Brisk walking, biking, and swimming are some exercises that many have adopted into their lifestyles. These types of exercises have helped individuals overcome depression, symptoms of bipolar disorder, anxiety, as well as helped towards a better night's sleep.

    One man who swims daily stated that swimming has kept his mind out of depression, so much so that medication was no longer necessary (Samuels, J. 2009). For another, brisk walking daily was part of a combination of lifestyle changes that effectively brought remission with bipolar-disorder symptoms.

    Another middle-aged man, in addition to time outdoors, plays recreational basketball once a week. This has kept him physically fit and contributed to a positive attitude, the latter because basketball is both a physical and a social sport. Social isolation can be a reoccurring symptom of mental health disorders like ADHD. A teenager from Newark, NJ, was able to come off stimulant medications for ADHD (which he did not like taking in the first place because of the side effects) when he started going to the gym regularly with his father.

    Ryan, a public school art teacher in Newark, NJ, had been on medication for ADHD from middle school through high school. Eventually, he was able to stop taking his ADHD medication through a combination of focus on art and playing soccer regularly. The soccer, he stated, was effective for his hyperactivity symptoms (the "H" in ADHD), and the art helped him to focus.

    The positive, forward-looking, and "can accomplish anything" attitude that comes with many forms of participation in sports contributes to physical and mental health. Furthermore, it can contribute to better emotional health in terms of self-image and self-esteem. Excessive body weight, for one, can both contribute to a poor self-image and slow a person down physically. In fact, it is a very common cause or symptom of depression.

    Participation in exercise and sports can foster better mental health for anyone experiencing any form of mental health disorder. However, balance is necessary. Some studies indicate that female athletes who strive for perfection, may be more susceptible to eating disorders, which is one example of an imbalanced approach to sports and exercise (there are other similar examples).

    Psychological Benefits of Playing Sports and Team Sports

    Eimel, Young, Harvey, Charity, and Payne (2013) outline the benefits of involvement with sports for children and teens in a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

    Researchers of this study recommend community sport participation as leisure, citing positive physical, psychological, and social health outcomes as results. Some of the specific benefits they note include improved self-esteem, social interaction, psychosocial health, and fewer depressive symptoms. The benefits highlighted in this study concerning youth can certainly be carried over into the adult sphere as well.

    Having presented evidence for these benefits from 30 clinical studies, the researchers conclude that there is a correlational rather than a causal link between participation in sports and psychosocial health. This topic warrants further investigation, but presents interesting findings.

    Children in Sports

    Needless to say, involvement in good nutrition and exercise is beneficial, especially for children with obesity. Recreational sports address this problem of obesity among children. Participation in such helps children strike a nice balance; involvement can be the pathway for future participation in more organized sports (for example, Little League baseball).

    Though Little League Baseball can be a source of personal achievement, growth, and self-esteem for thousands of children, it can also be a source of pressure, anxiety, or even depression. An ESPN survey notes that more than 80% of parents surveyed who had children old enough to play organized sports are concerned about both the "quality" as well as the "behavior" of children and youth sport coaches (2014).

    Not only can coaches put pressure on athletes, parents themselves can cause tension and stress in a child by putting unnecessary pressure on children to perform or win. This can ultimately take away the fun in sports. While some young people flourish in a highly competitive setting, some falter. As sports become more competitive, common concerns from parents include:

  • Time commitments
  • Rising costs of participation in youth sports
  • Too much emphasis on winning over having fun
  • Risk of injury, including concussions
  • Despite numerous serious concerns about organized sports, we can still conclude that children benefit from sport psychology as much as adults do.

    Extreme Sports

    Extreme sports have evolved from mountain climbing in the 1800s to base-jumping today and extreme sports continue to gain popularity in today's society. While extreme sports may not be inherently violent, they are adrenaline-inducing and high-risk. Some examples of extreme sports are high-risk parachuting, base-jumping (parachuting off of fixed objects), speed racing, bungee-jumping, big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, and similar sports.

    Sport psychology and extreme sports: participation in extreme sports is an addictive, dopamine-releasing, and high-risk adventure. Big wave surfing off the coast of Nazare, Portugal shown here.

    Big wave surfer and record-breaker Andrew Cotton says about his Guinness World Records ride, "There was obviously a bout of nerves." Photo: Pedro Miranda.

    In an article entitled, "The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not Loonies," Joachim Vogt Isaksen, HiNT, states, "Extreme sport activities represent the most striking example of acts that go against our natural human instincts, [instincts] which are designed to protect us from dangers." (Isaksen, Vogt, 2012).

    Even though it seems that those who participate in extreme sports have a death wish or a “screw loose,” some who have studied this type of phenomenon indicate that there may be positive psychological results from participation that carry over into other areas of life. Of course, the danger involved with extreme sports is real; those who die participating in extreme sports certainly don't accrue any benefits. However, it is a risk that many are willing to take.

    Participation in extreme sports can be, and has proven to be, addictive. This is due to the "adrenaline rush" that one can after accomplishing a certain feat. The natural high of extreme sports is related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released when we are in danger, and is released in massive amounts when someone snorts cocaine. Feelings of optimism and happiness from participation in extreme sports may be linked to the release of this neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine plays a role in the brain's reward and motivational system, and it is linked to the feeling of well-being in normal amounts.

    Some violent sports (staged or otherwise) such as pro-wrestling, boxing, or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are very exciting to watch and are categorized under extreme sports. Professional wrestling WWF-style, while staged, may be viewed as extreme. WWF wrestling has a regular audience of millions of males ranging from seven years old to sixteen, though, some females and adults in genera are also active enthusiasts.

    Psychology of Sociological Issues in Sports

    Violence in sports is one issue that fans and athletes grapple with.
    Photo: Similar to kick boxing, Thai Boxing.

    1. Burnout – Both adult and children athletes can suffer from burnout. Burnout is the result of pushing too hard, or not caring for physical and emotional needs while emphasizing high-performance in sport.

    2. Violence in Sports – The Roman gladiators did not have the monopoly on violence in the name of sport. Sociologists describe sports such as boxing, American football, the martial arts, and hunting as "inherently violent."

    3. NFL and American Football On-Field Violence – High-profile news headlines have pointed fingers at the NFL and the health damage done to players through the game. On-field violence in the NFL, from vicious hits as a matter of course, bounties to take a player out, and head injuries from concussions are topics that won’t soon disappear from public view.

    4. Concussions and Head Injuries - Resultant Depression and Suicides: expanding on the previous two points, concussions are an everyday occurrence in sports. Between 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions are reported annually, which one authoritative source refers to as a "vastly underestimate[d]" estimate of the total number of recreation and sports-related concussions (Daneshvar, Nowinski, McKee, 2011). Some players who have experienced a concussion have suffered long-term effects and damage (for example, depression and suicide).

    5. Soccer Hooliganism – Britain spawned the soccer-hooliganism trend, but today, peripheral violence associated with soccer has spread through Brazil and the rest of South America, Africa, and Europe. Soccer-related violence both in and out of the stadium is serious and sometimes deadly. Soccer fanaticism has even ignited wars (the one between Honduras and Yugoslavia, for instance). The civil war that broke Yugoslavia into seven parts was sparked in part by football (soccer) rivalries and fanaticism.

    6. Off-field Athlete Violence – It is possible that off-field domestic violence by players might be a byproduct of aggression on the field. Some studies conclude that watching boxing and NFL football may result in higher rates of domestic violence against women (Wann, Melnick, Russell, Pease, 2001).

    7. NBA Aggression - The sport is definitely more exciting to watch today than it was 50 years ago. Having said that, the days of non-contact, gentlemanly court-play have yielded to a contact, “scratching and clawing your way to the hoop” spirit where it really is survival of the fittest.

    The book, The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication, addresses the "waning moral civilization in the NBA,” and the various ways aggression is manifested. Aggression can arise through selfish and arrogant acts of violence that might be thought of as "manly sophistication" or a combination of the two characteristics. Either way, aggression in the NBA from players and coaches has transformed the game into a different sport than it was in the NBA’s nascent decades.

    8. Suicide in Major League Baseball - While the American pastime predated the Civil War, it gained impetus during this time and emerged as an American icon in the years to follow. Sadly, through the years, a higher rate of suicide appears to be evident in the MLB compared to the general population. This sad statistic among professional baseball players may be attributed to a number of reasons, not the least of which is the high pressure to perform.

    9. Steroids and Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs The win-at-all-costs spirit that permeates much of professional sports has contributed to wave after wave of steroid abuse among players. Blood doping is a similarly related issue that has cast a shadow on the sport of bicycle racing.

    10. Perfectionism, Eating Disorders, and Female Athletes – The personality flaw of perfectionism is thought to be linked to the progression of eating disorders. Female athletes who tend towards perfectionism might be especially susceptible to the development of eating disorders.

    Please look for the full AYCNP page in the coming weeks, Issues in Sports.

    Categorizing Sports Violence

    Most authorities recognize NFL football as a violent sport. Repeated concussions may cause disabling brain damage in players.

    Professional American football is generally categorized as a violent sport, along with boxing and pro hockey. That is, the violence is an inherent or deeply ingrained part of the sport rather than incidental (See: Violence in Sports Abdal-Haqq, Ismat. ERIC Digest 1-89. See: Violence in Sports Abdal-Haqq, Ismat. ERIC Digest 1-89).

    There are sports whose direct purpose is violence (such as boxing), and sports that are inherently violent (such as pro football) by the nature of the sport. Furthermore, there are sports that have acquired violence (like NHL hockey). Interestingly, Olympic hockey happens to be a much less violent version of the same sport.

    Baseball has been a prominent part of American culture even before the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, the pitch was predominantly underhand; through the Civil War, the more aggressive overhand pitch became more common, and finally standard. Though not violent by nature, professional baseball (and all professional sports) have evolved into extremely competitive pastimes, spurred on by increasingly higher stakes purses. Willy Mays’s famous comment about baseball still holds true: "Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what it is most truly is disguised combat. For all its gentility, it’s almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps."

    Conclusion of Sport Psychology

    Sport psychology encompasses techniques and skills that are deemed necessary to the whole sports. Targeted for children, youth, and adults, skills such as anger and/or anxiety management, communication, visualization, concentration control, and team-building, among others, are learned in sport psychology, along with what has already been mentioned.

    The growth of sport psychology can be attributed to the inclusion of sport psychology degrees in major universities, as well as testimonials from world-class athletes and even collegiate and high school sports coaches. Sport psychology is also effectively used in harmony with substance abuse prevention in athletes.

    Applied sport psychology helps athletes overcome mental blocks to performance. Exercise psychology, on the other hand, remains a part of sport psychology, and provides a valuable link between conceptualizing an exercise plan, and implementing one that results in mentally positive outcomes as well as physical benefits.

    Sport Psychology References (the references to follow contain off-site links)

    1. Armstrong, C. (2010, Fall). Athletes and Mental Illness - Major League Baseball Steps Up to the Plate. NAMI Advocate.

    2. Sharma, A. S., Madaan, V., Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion - Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2): 106. Retrieved from

    3. Booth, J. N., Leary, S. D., Joinson, Ness, A. R., Tomporowski, P. D., Boyle, J. M., Reilly, J. J. (2013, October 10). Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. British Journal of Sports and Medicine.

    4. Baseball Suicides. (2010). The Baseball Almanac. Retrieved from

    5. Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Retrieved from

    6. Farrey, T. (2014, October). ESPN Poll: Most Parents Have Concerns About State of Youth Sports. ESPN. Retrieved from

    7. Has Andrew Cotton surfed the biggest wave of all time? (2014, February 4). Guinness World Records. Retrieved from

    8. Isaksen, H., Vogt, J. (2012, November 5). The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not Loonies. Popular Science. Retrieved from

    9. Abdal-Haqq, I. (1989). Violence in SportsERIC Digest. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from

    10. Nigg, J. (2006). What Causes ADHD: Understanding What Goes Wrong and Why. New York: Guilford Press.

    11. Rees, I., & Schnepel, K. (2009). College Football Games And Crime. Journal of Sports Economics, 10(No. 1), 68-87. Retrieved from

    12. Schwartz, A. (2007, January 18). Expert Ties Ex-Players Suicide to Brain Damage. New York Times.

    13. Stadler, M. (2007). The Psychology of Baseball, Inside the Mental Game of the Major League Player. New York: Gotham.

    14. Study: Exercise Has Long-Lasting Effect on Depression. (2000, September 22). Duke Today. Retrieved from

    References for ‘Issues in Sports’ Section

    1. Aldridge, D. (2009, April 23). Rules changes have affected defensive philosophies. Retrieved from

    2. Daneshvar, D., Nowinski, C., McKee, A., & Cantu, R. (2011). The Epidemiology of Sport-Related Concussion. Clinical Sports Medicine, 30(1), 1-17. Retrieved from

    3. Depression: What is burnout syndrome? (2013, January 17). Informed Health Online. Retrieved from

    4. Doherty, A. (2001, August). Violence in Sports: A Comparison of Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome to the Sports of America. Honors Theses University Honors Program, Southern Illinois University. Retrieved from;=uhp_theses

    5. Forsberg, S., Lock J. (2006, December). Perfectionism leading to eating disorders. Minerva Pediatric, 58(6): 525-36.

    6. Grohmann, K. (2014, October 14). Fan violence on the rise in German stadiums: Report. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from

    7. Nakayama, T. K., Halualani, R. T. (2012). The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

    8. Wann, D. L., Melnick, M. J., Russell, G. W., Pease, D. G. (2001). Sports Fans- The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. New York: Routledge.