Applied Psychology

Why Study Sports Psychology?

Sep 04, 2023 | By Jenna Van Schoor

Sports is one of the most popular and lucrative industries in the world. No matter where you go, athletes play or engage in specific sports and have dedicated fan bases. Sportspeople have become brands, with marketing teams behind them driving sponsorship deals and selling merchandise. 

From amateur to professional level, sports appeal to people in many ways. Perhaps it’s the drive towards peak physical performance or challenging ideas about what is possible. It could also be the inspirational stories of athletes rising from adversity and achieving their dreams despite multiple setbacks. 

Regardless of the many reasons people watch and play sports, the scale of their popularity means that we need skilled practitioners to investigate and understand what makes sports teams work to help teams and individuals to perform optimally. 

In this post, we’ll briefly discuss what sports psychology involves, its principal areas of focus, and why you should learn more about it.

What is sports psychology?

Sports psychology is a specialised field that focuses on understanding how to optimise athletes’ mental and physical performance. Although not currently registered under the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), mental health practitioners can expand their practice to include sports psychology as a niche focus.

To give an overview, sports psychologists work to achieve a specific goal with teams and individuals. These goals include team organisation and functioning, winning tournaments, increasing physical capabilities and building teams and programmes.

Sports psychology in the media

You only need to scroll through your Netflix feed to see how complex sports are from a psychological perspective and how committed sportspeople need to be to achieve their dreams. By watching sports documentaries, you can better understand how psychology is critical in individual and team performance.

To get more of a real-world insight into how sportspeople operate and teams function, you can watch some of the most popular series available at the moment, including the following:

Break Point

Tennis players dedicate their lives to being able to perform at a professional level. Often, they only have one chance to make their mark. The physical pressure and toll it takes on players can either make or break their careers. 

Break Point follows some of the world’s top tennis players at the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments, including all four major Grand Slams tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open) and the ATP and WTA tours.

Full Swing

Golf is one of the most popular sports in the world, and Full Swing follows some of the world’s top golfers as they compete against each other on the PGA Tour.

With other leagues offering players lucrative opportunities, the level of competition in this industry is fierce, which means players need to be at the top of their game and do their best to keep winning. 

Tour de France Unchained

Tour de France Unchained shares stories from people and teams that compete in the gruelling Tour de France competition. As it is such a competitive and physically demanding endeavour, this series examines how cyclists in this race push the boundaries of human physical limitation.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Technology has also influenced the evolution of sports, which is evident in the popularity of racing. Formula 1 racing, in particular, requires exceptional skill and focus, and in Formula 1: Drive to Survive, you’ll learn more about the famous racers’ lives on and off the track.

The Last Dance

The Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season was legendary, and in The Last Dance, you get to enjoy never before seen footage of the team dynamics behind the scenes of the NBA. You’ll also get an insight into how players like Michael Jordan developed on and off the court. 

From just the short list above, it’s clear that there’s plenty of media to engage with to learn more about the psychology behind professional sports and the sporting industry. But what do sports psychologists actually do?

What does a career in sports psychology involve?

What sports psychologists do can look different depending on the level of competition and the sport.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) the principal areas of sports psychology include:

  • Cognitive and behavioural skills training for performance enhancement
  • Counselling and clinical interventions
  • Consultation and training

We’ll provide more insight into each of these categories below.

Cognitive and behavioural skills training for performance enhancement

Understanding the rules and being physically capable on the sports field is essential. Achieving in sports requires cognitive and behavioural skills, including goal setting, imagery and performance planning, and implementing attention and control strategies. Knowing how to achieve focus and flow is also important.

Building confidence is a key focus, which involves mastering emotional regulation skills to help cope with the ups and downs of winning and losing and perhaps not achieving the desired outcome of a race or competition. 

Counselling and clinical interventions

Athletes require the same counselling and psychological support as anyone else, especially while under pressure to perform or achieve specific goals. 

Motivation, maintaining optimal health and dealing with burnout and injuries are some topics that sports psychologists engage with. Professionals in this field also deal with complex issues such as personal and sexual identity, violence, aggression and career transitions.

Consultation and training

On a micro level, sports psychologists deal with athletes and their day-to-day psychological skills development for better performance. However, on a macro level, they must also facilitate the environment where sports games occur, from school sports to the professional arena.

On an organisational level, sports psychologists focus on team building, consulting with sports organisations, and working with parents and teachers with youth sports development. Other sports professionals, such as coaches, also need professional training and guidance in certain areas. 

These areas include motivation, interpersonal and leadership skills and developing talent. Coaches must also learn how to recognise any psychological difficulties in their teams and address them appropriately. 

Sport is a common tool for youth development in underprivileged areas and can play an important role in building social skills. Therefore, having a solid understanding of psychological interventions and how to work with people is vital to implementing effective programmes from the ground up to build not only physical skills but life skills too.

Why should you study sports psychology?

If you’re interested in sports, studying sports psychology can give you profound insight into what makes people tick, how to work as a team, provide new and exciting challenges for skills development, and push the boundaries of what it’s possible to achieve when we focus on improving performance. 

Sports can play a prominent role in community building and developing self-esteem. The social importance of sports is especially relevant when working in previously disadvantaged communities, which is very applicable in South Africa. 

From an organisational standpoint, we need psychological insight to organise teams effectively and ensure that sports programmes consider psychological wellbeing, as in all other areas of society.

If you’re a mental health practitioner, you might be more interested in some areas than others. However, from the variety of focus areas discussed in this post, it’s clear that the scope is diverse. Therefore, the psychological interventions and skills required in this field could appeal to those looking to expand their skill set in a dynamic environment.

Study sports psychology at SACAP Global

SACAP Global offers several courses in communication, management and leadership, as well as a new short online course in Sports Psychology.

This 50+ hour course will help you learn more about psychological theory and how cognitive processes relate to sports performance. Get in touch if you would like to find out more!

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