12 Sport Psychology

Andrea Lamont-Mills

Introduction

Sport and exercise psychology is the scientific study and application of human behaviour in the sport and exercise contexts (Gill et al., 2017). Sport and exercise psychology is often studied with one of two objectives in mind: 1) to understand the psychological impact on human performance, and 2) to understand how sport and exercise participation impacts an individual’s psychological development and health (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Exploring psychology from this framework has allowed for many significant discoveries, including the development of theories and models which aim to account for the effects of variables such as stress and exercise on outcomes like health and performance.

There are many careers related to sport and exercise psychology. Perhaps the most common career identified by students is ‘sport psychologist’. In Australia, psychologists who have the appropriate postgraduate qualifications and who have completed a Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA) registrar program in sport and exercise psychology are called ‘sport and exercise psychologists’. Some may spend most of their time providing direct services to athletes and teams, however many won’t. These sport and exercise psychologists will work with a wide range of clients depending on their training and competency. Although overlapping in some regards, sport and exercise psychologists and clinical psychologists have different scopes of professional practice. That said, there’s an emerging specialisation in sport psychology called clinical sport psychology, where emphasis is on the mental health and wellbeing of athletes and coaches rather than on enhancing performance. From this perspective, psychological distress is considered for how it may manifest differently in sport contexts with clinical interventions being applied in ways that are specific to athletes and coaches (Marks et al., 2021).

This chapter will provide a brief overview of common methods and significant findings in foundational aspects of sport and exercise psychology. It will also explore more recent developments within the field, as well as career paths, scopes of practice, and educational training paths for psychologists working in this field.

Introduction to Sport and Exercise Psychology

Sport and exercise psychology is a relatively young scholarly discipline in comparison to other areas of study in psychology. It has its beginnings in the latter part of the nineteenth century when American psychologist Norman Triplett wanted to understand why athletes sometimes performed better in groups than alone. Since that time, the field has grown tremendously. In this chapter, we’ll focus primarily on the ‘sport’ aspect of psychology, while acknowledging that the ‘exercise’ aspect is highly related but is often considered to be a separate field of study. Even so, we’ll use ‘sport and exercise psychologist’ throughout the chapter as in Australia this is the endorsed area of practice term that the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (Ahpra) registers.

With respect to training to be a sport and exercise psychologist, you need to undertake an evidence-based postgraduate training program, typically in the country that you want to practice in. There are multiple national and international societies and organisations supporting the research and/or practice of sport and exercise psychology such as the Australian Psychological Society (APS) College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists, the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP), and the Asian-South Pacific Association of Sport Psychology (ASPASP). Such growth in research and practice demonstrates that there’s demand for knowledge and service in these areas of expertise.

Particularly in the context of sport performance, increased media attention along with the recognition and acceptance of sport psychology as a performance-enhancing tool has led to increased numbers of athletes, coaches, and sport organisations seeking out sport and exercise psychologists for their expertise and services. For example, sport and exercise psychologists are now commonly found practicing in sports such as golf, rugby union, netball, soccer, and hockey. Sport psychology has become integrated into many Australian sports, including cricket. For example, Dr Michael Lloyd has been working as the Lead Psychologist for Cricket Australia for 15 years and was a part of their team staff during the 2019 Ashes series. The Australian Olympic team has had sport psychologists working with Olympic athletes for over 30 years, and in 2021 Georgia Ridler was the Lead Psychologist for the Australian Olympic Team.

Demand for the integration of sport psychology into the sport environment is evident as professional development opportunities are now often included in both coach and support staff training. For example, Sport Australia’s Intermediate Coaching General Principles course includes a module on sport psychology, with more general aspects of sport psychology such as goal setting being incorporated into the Community Coaching General Principles course. Sport professionals including exercise physiologists, sport medicine physicians, nutritionists, physiotherapists, and strength and conditioning coaches often take sport psychology courses as requirements or electives during their university training.

Both sport and exercise psychologists and related sports professionals serve an integral part of integrated support teams (ISTs) in the Australian sport system. Integrated support teams include coaches, sport and exercise psychologists, strength and conditioning specialists, nutritionists, and medical staff, among other experts whose purpose is to help support and provide resources for athletes and coaches. A sport and exercise psychologist also has a unique role that is different to other members of the IST. Like the other professionals, they support athletes and coaches through education and skills development (mental skills in this case). However, as their training is firmly as psychologists, this also enables them to assist and provide expertise in enhancing the mental wellbeing of athletes, coaches, and their support networks (e.g., partners, parents, children). In addition to this, sport and exercise psychologists have skills and expertise that can assist in the functioning of the IST itself, helping bring professionals from differing disciplines together by enhancing communication and team dynamics. Additionally, they can support other professionals in their work by providing guidance on topics such as the psychology of injury rehabilitation, and coach-athlete management.

The ability of sport and exercise psychologists to work across both performance enhancement and mental health areas is a unique aspect of the Australian training system. Unlike the Canadian and American systems – where most psychology training takes place at the postgraduate level – in Australia, this training starts at the undergraduate level. This means sport and exercise psychologists have the same base level skills and knowledge of psychological disorders and interventions as clinical, educational and developmental, or counselling psychologists. Thus, sport and exercise psychologists can work with mental health as well as performance presentations. Increased conversations and visibility surrounding mental health issues in sport has raised awareness of athlete and coach mental health and wellbeing.

Research has examined the link between sport and exercise participation and their relationship to mental health, as well as the impact of physical activity on the prevention and treatment of mental health challenges and conditions (see Schinke et al., 2017). In addition to research, well-recognised and successful athletes such as Darius Boyd (rugby league), Ian Thorpe (swimming), and Lauren Jackson (basketball) have openly discussed their challenges with mental health issues. This has created an opportunity for other athletes to express and discuss more openly their own mental health experiences. Although more complex clinical mental health issues may be beyond the scope of practice of some sport and exercise psychologists, the mental health of athletes, coaches and umpires remains an important topic of research, discussion, and practice for those interested in the field of sport and exercise psychology. Demonstrating the importance of sport and mental health, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has recently established a national network of 30 Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement managers across a range of sports as well as an AIS Athlete and Wellbeing and Advisory Engagement Committee.

Significant Research Findings

Although there is a myth that sport psychology is only applicable to elite sport performers, research and applications from this field have far-reaching impact. For example, there’s a significant body of research exploring the psychological impact of early specialisation in youth sport. Research demonstrates that young children will not benefit from early sport specialisation in the majority of sports, and they may have a greater risk of overuse injury and burnout from concentrated participation (e.g., LaPrade, et al., 2016). Research in sport and exercise psychology has also demonstrated positive benefits of sport and physical activity participation in adults. For example, Defence veterans with a disability have a greater sense of independence and choice when engaging in quality physical activity experiences (Shirazipour et al., 2017). Perhaps gaining more mainstream attention, research has demonstrated that sport-related concussions may be associated with increased risk of mood disturbances and depression (Covassin et al., 2017). Consequently, it’s important to recognise that the study of sport psychology is relevant to many contexts and settings beyond the competitive field of play.

Further demonstrating the widespread applicability of sport psychology, there’s a substantial body of evidence to support the notion that physical activity – including sport participation – can both help prevent and treat some forms of mental health challenges and illness. For example, a systematic review conducted by Mammen and Faulkner (2013) found a significant, inverse relationship between physical activity at baseline and depression at follow-up in 25 of 30 longitudinal studies. Furthermore, their results suggested that any level of physical activity might help prevent depression. Moreover, an earlier and well-cited longitudinal study by Camacho et al. (1991) found a relationship between inactivity and the incidence of depression over the course of almost 20 years of research.

Recently, more attention has been focused on the impact of physical activity – including sport participation – on the treatment of mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. Hu and colleagues (2020) conducted a systematic review of meta-analyses examining the effect of exercise as an intervention and prevention for depression in non-clinical populations. They identified eight meta-analysis studies, and found that across six of these, exercise significantly reduced depressive symptoms in adults, the elderly, children, and adolescents. Using a clinical population, Rosenbaum et al. (2014) conducted a systematic review of studies using physical activity interventions. They found that physical activity reduced symptoms of depression in people with mental illness, and discovered a reduction of symptoms associated with schizophrenia and improvements in other physical health markers in people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

More recently, White and colleagues (2017) examined the impact of domain-specific physical activity on mental health. That is, ‘Does the context in which one performs a physical activity (e.g., leisure versus work-related physical activity) have an impact on one’s mental health?’ Using a meta-analytic approach, they found that leisure-time physical activity and transport physical activity both had a positive relationship with mental health. They also found that leisure-time physical activity and participation in school sport had an inverse relationship with mental ill-health (the greater the participation, the lower levels of ill health). However, work-related physical activity had a positive relationship with mental ill health – if an individual’s main sources of physical activity were performed at the workplace, it may have a negative impact on one’s mental health.

Common Frameworks for Research in Sport Psychology

Weinberg and Gould (2019) state that the ultimate goal of psychological skills training is self-regulation. They define self-regulation as the ability to work toward your goals by monitoring and managing your thoughts, feeling, and behaviours. They also describe psychological skills training as the systematic and consistent practice of mental skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, and increasing pleasure and satisfaction in sport participation – thus leading to greater abilities in self-regulation. The field of sport psychology has examined and shown support for a number of basic psychological skills found to enhance performance and overall satisfaction. The following section briefly describes these skills, and some significant findings that support the implementation of these skills.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is one of the most used performance enhancement strategies (Forsblom et al., 2019). Goal setting is commonly used to improve motivation and focus, and thus, performance. Generally, goal setting in sport involves helping athletes to identify and set defined goals (i.e., outcome, performance, and process goals), and to identify and set goals for varying contexts (i.e., practice and competition goals) appropriate to the athlete’s performance expectations. Effective goal setting involves setting both long-term (e.g., this year) and short-term (e.g., today or this week) goals, and includes goal setting evaluation (e.g., ‘Did I achieve my goals?’).

Overall, goal setting has shown to be an effective technique for increasing the likelihood of achieving one’s goal (Kyllo & Landers, 1995). Research examining the relationship between various types of goals and performance across a variety of contexts generally indicates that goals associated with moderate to high levels of difficulty are linked to better performances (see Weinberg, 2000; Weinberg, 2004 for reviews). Goal setting also seems to be most effective on simple tasks rather than those that are very complex (Burton, 1989).

Stress/Arousal Management

A significant amount of research in sport psychology has theorised about and examined the impact of arousal on sport performance. Arousal is the combination of physiological and psychological activation that ranges from deep sleep to intense excitement (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). A variety of theories and models attempt to account for the impact of specific physiological and cognitive states/traits on performance. Such states and traits include stress, anxiety, and excitement. For the purpose and scope of this chapter, one’s level of arousal or activation will be the preferred term.

Many theories and models have been developed to explain the relationship between arousal and performance, and to discuss them all in sufficient detail for accuracy would be beyond the scope of this chapter. Instead, to provide a broad conceptual overview, only those theories and models that have received significant attention in the field will be overviewed, and the focus will be on the broad concept of arousal/activation rather than the specific state(s) or trait(s).

One of the first theories proposed to account for the relationship between arousal and performance was drive theory (Spence & Spence, 1966). This theory describes the relationship between arousal and performance in a positive linear fashion where a greater level of arousal leads to a greater level of performance. Although drive theory may be suitable for some tasks (e.g., powerlifting), most sport psychology researchers were dissatisfied with its ability to predict performances across a variety of tasks. The field thus turned to the inverted-U hypothesis (Figure 12.1), which posits that as arousal increases, so too does performance. However, once arousal reaches a certain limit, performance is expected to decrease. Both very high and very low levels of arousal elicit poor performances, whereas moderate levels of arousal result in optimal performance levels (Landers & Arent, 2010).

Diagram of the the inverted-U hypothesis
Figure 12.1: The Inverted-U Hypothesis

Although a more inclusive model, the inverted-U hypothesis lacks the ability to account for individual differences, and differences across sport or tasks. That is, moderate levels of arousal may be optimal for hockey, but perhaps not for archery or sprinting. This challenge of accounting for individual and situational variations lead to Hanin’s (2007) model of individualised zones of optimal functioning (IZOF). Simply stated, this model posits that each individual has their own zone of optimal functioning where anxiety levels can vary from one individual to another. Outside of this zone, athletes perform poorly. Hanin’s IZOF model was unique in that an athlete’s ‘zone’ didn’t have to be at a moderate level of arousal for optimal performance to occur. For example, Athlete 1’s optimal zone could be at a high level of arousal, whereas Athlete 2’s would be a low-moderate level of arousal. Hanin also suggested that the optimal arousal level was not simply a point on a scale, but more of a zone or bandwidth. This model has been supported in the research with regards to its relationship with performance. However, it is criticised for having a lack of theoretical support (Gould & Tuffey, 1996).

Through understanding how arousal impacts athletic performance, sport and exercise psychologists can educate and support athletes in managing arousal and stress levels so that the athletes can achieve optimal performance in a variety of circumstances. To achieve this, sport and exercise psychologists first help the athlete to become aware of their levels of arousal and activation during training and performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Sport and exercise psychologists have several techniques to assist with arousal management. These techniques are often categorised into either physiological arousal or anxiety reduction techniques, and cognitive arousal or anxiety reduction techniques. Physiological techniques for arousal and stress management include, but are not limited to, breath control, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback. Cognitive techniques for arousal and stress management include, but are not limited to, relaxation response and desensitisation (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).

There can be some overlap in the techniques whereby engaging in physiological techniques may also impact one’s level of cognitive arousal. For example, when an individual engages in a breathing exercise aimed at managing physiological arousal, it can also have a positive impact on their cognitive arousal. Research conclusively supports that arousal and stress management can result in better performance. Rumbold et al. (2012) conducted a review of 64 intervention studies where the goal was to reduce stress and increase performance. They found that 81 per cent of the studies showed improvement in stress management, and 77 per cent of the studies found improvements in performance. It also seemed that multimodal approaches (using more than just one strategy) were more effective than single modalities.

Imagery

Many sport and exercise psychologists have reported that imagery – also referred to as visualisation – is a tool athletes often use both in competition and in practice. As a spectator, you may have observed athletes engaged in imagery, or you, yourself, may use imagery as a tool for enhancing performance (or use daydreaming as a distraction!). The premise of imagery is the creation of an image in our minds – either by recalling actual events, or by constructing our own images of events we hope for, or want to avoid, happening. The term imagery is often preferred to visualisation as it’s not restricted to simply one sense, as the term visualisation suggests. In addition to vision, imagery can include one’s auditory sense (the sounds of the crowd), one’s sense of smell (the smell of chlorine at the swimming pool), one’s sense of touch (the feel of the ball in your hands), one’s kinaesthetic sense (the feeling of your limbs while executing a dive from the platform), and even one’s sense of taste (the salty taste of sweat while running long distances). Imagery is also a tool that can be used to rehearse performances mentally, whether the goal is learning a new routine (learning a new gymnastics floor routine) or helping to manage emotions in a high-pressure situation (imaging a large crowd at a grand final match).

Research examining the effectiveness of imagery can be complex, particularly because it’s not possible to actually see what the athlete is imaging. However, some case studies have shown that the use of imagery enhances performance and other psychological variables such as confidence and the ability to cope with anxiety (Evans et al., 2004; Post et al., 2012).

Confidence

Research has indicated that confidence is the most consistent factor for differentiating between the most and least successful athletes (Jones & Hardy, 1990). In sport psychology, self-confidence is defined as the belief that you can successfully perform a behaviour (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Vealey and Chase (2008) further describe sport self-confidence as a social cognitive construct. They differentiate between state self-confidence (e.g., how confident you feel today, before a particular competition) and trait self-confidence (e.g., how you generally feel in the day-to-day), and suggest that sport self-confidence can be viewed more as a trait than a state, depending on the context. Closely related to sport confidence as defined by Vealey and Chase is the concept of self-efficacy. Bandura (1997) defines self-efficacy as the perception of an individual’s ability to successfully perform a task. Thus, one could consider self-efficacy to be situation specific self-confidence. For the purpose and scope of this chapter, these constructs will be combined when discussing relevant research.

Confidence has been shown to impact other sport-related psychological factors. For example, confidence can impact how an athlete interprets their level of anxiety. Specifically, when an athlete is high in confidence, they’re more likely to interpret anxiety as facilitative, as compared to when an athlete is low in confidence (Jones & Swain, 1995). Confidence has also been shown to influence perceptions of effort: athletes high in confidence, when compared to athletes low in confidence, tend to perceive that they expend less effort on a particular task (Hutchinson et al., 2008). Most importantly, confidence has also been shown to influence performance: athletes higher in confidence tend to perform better than those lower in confidence (Feltz, 1984; Moritz et al., 2000). Because confidence can be considered as more of a psychological trait or a modifiable state depending on the context (as opposed to a skill), sport and exercise psychologists will often use tools such as goal setting and imagery in training over time to enhance self-confidence, and thus impact performance.

Focus

The ability to focus – or to ignore distractions and pay attention to relevant cues at the correct time – is one of the most important skills an athlete can possess. Perhaps even as a student, you’ve had difficulty focusing on the task at hand while being distracted by your electronic devices, the environment around you, or even your own thoughts. In sport psychology, we use the terms focus, concentration, attention, and managing distractions interchangeably as they all refer to the same skill of being able to direct our attention to the appropriate cue at the appropriate time.

Individuals may often report that they have trouble paying attention or concentrating. However, the reality is that we’re always paying attention to something. If we find ourselves distracted or having difficulty focusing, it usually means we’re not focusing on the appropriate cues. Nideffer (1976) and colleagues (Nideffer & Segal, 2001) described attentional focus along two dimensions: width (i.e., broad or narrow) and direction (i.e., external or internal) (Figure 12.2). A broad attentional focus would be beneficial when an athlete must be aware of and react to many changing cues in their environment. A narrow attentional focus would be helpful when an athlete must only focus on one or two cues, such as a target or finish line. An external focus of attention refers to attention focused on an external cue such as an object in the environment. Lastly, an internal focus of attention refers to attention focused inwardly such as one’s own thoughts and feelings.

The four types of attentional focus with relevant examples
Figure 12.2: Four Types of Attentional Focus With Relevant Examples

To assess an individual’s attentional style (i.e., a person’s typical attentional disposition), Nideffer (1976) developed the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS). Some research has supported the idea that focused attention is most beneficial when it’s directed externally as compared to internally. Indeed, Wulf’s (2013) review found that an external focus of attention was more beneficial across a number of tasks including speed, endurance, and accuracy types of tasks than an internal focus of attention. Ways to train and improve concentration skills include using simulations, predetermined cues, establishing good habits, routines, and competition plans, and overlearning skills (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).

Team Dynamics

A significant number of sports aren’t played alone – athletes often compete as a member of a team. Even in individual sports such as athletics, athletes may compete as an individual but are members of a larger team all competing for points, in addition to individual medals. The study of groups, or teams, has been a popular area of research in sport psychology, just as it has been in related fields such as organisational psychology and social psychology. These disciplines share many theories and models in their study of group performance.

There are a variety of approaches to group dynamic research in sport, but areas that have received significant attention, both in research and practice, are cohesion and collective efficacy. Cohesion in sport has been defined as a dynamic process in which a team has a tendency to stick together and stay united in pursuit of its goal and/or for the satisfaction of its members (Eys et al., 2020). Widmeyer et al. (1985) developed the Group Environment Questionnaire (GEQ) to measure cohesion in sport, and in doing so, conceptualised group cohesion into two major categories: group integration (i.e., perception of the group as a unit), and individual attraction to the group (i.e., a member’s personal attraction to the group or team). Further, each of these categories can then be divided into either task or social aspects leading to a four-factor model of group cohesion. A meta-analytic review including 46 studies examining the relationship between group cohesion and performance in sport found a moderate to large effect size such that increased group cohesion is associated with increased performance outcomes (Carron et al., 2002).

Collective efficacy is a ‘group’s shared belief in its conjoint capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment’ (Bandura, 1997, p.477). Essentially, collective efficacy reflects a team’s level of confidence. Research has demonstrated that collective efficacy has a positive impact on team performance and that prior team performance can also have an impact on collective efficacy (Feltz & Lirgg, 1998; Myers, Feltz, et al., 2004; Myers, Payment, et al., 2004).

Contemporary Methods and Developments

Mindfulness

Have you ever noticed yourself getting distracted during a task and then felt feelings of upset like anger, guilt, or frustration because you got distracted? This type of experience is a common one. While thoughts and events can distract a person from their point of focus (studying, communicating, performing a known skill), the evaluations or judgements that follow the distraction can become even more distracting. Researchers have theorised that these evaluations and judgements can lead to lowered performance in sport because of a focus on task-irrelevant thoughts (Gardner & Moore, 2004; Kaufman et al., 2009). They highlight the importance of bringing the focus of attention back to what is most important here and now: your task.

The practice of mindfulness can help in moments of distraction, improving performance in daily tasks and athletic pursuits alike. Some may think of being mindful as simply having a calm demeanour in stressful situations, but it’s much more than this. Being mindful involves being present with one’s circumstances intentionally and without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Despite the simplicity of the mindfulness concept, its practice can be challenging. For those who do learn to be more mindful, the rewards can be numerous, including the potential to improve sleep and focus (MacDonald et al., 2018), reduce stress (Lundqvist et al., 2018; Vidic et al., 2018), and improve performance (Zhang et al., 2016).

Originally popularised in North America by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and Zen Buddhist, mindfulness is defined as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). This definition is based on Kabat-Zinn’s personal study of Buddhism but maintains that mindfulness-based interventions need not promote or necessitate the practice of Buddhism, although some may find this helpful (Kabat-Zinn, 2017). Early research on the benefits of mindfulness began mostly outside of sport, looking at the use of a mindfulness practice alongside traditional medical treatments (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). An approach to facilitate mindfulness, known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), was developed with a primary goal to help relieve the suffering and stress of patients not fully responding to traditional medical treatment. A goal of MBSR was to create a model for other hospitals to implement with patients. The reach of MBSR has now gone beyond hospitals, and variations of MBSR have been incorporated into the areas of education, business, the military, and sport (Kabat-Zinn, 2017). MBSR is an eight-week intervention that attempts to cultivate a greater ability to notice a patient’s inner and outer world (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Santorelli, 1999). Sport-focused approaches to mindfulness have largely been adapted from this model.

Mindfulness as an approach to improving sport performance is a relatively recent development in the field of sport psychology compared to more traditional psychological skills interventions. While Kabat-Zinn and colleagues described the first known use of mindfulness with athletes in 1985, the 1990s showed little uptake in the use of mindfulness in sport. Beyond the early 2000s, however, research and use of mindfulness-based interventions in sport have grown substantially. Evidence now exists that supports a moderate improvement in sport performance for those athletes employing mindfulness techniques, and this is especially true in sport tasks based on precision such as shooting (Bühlmayer et al., 2017).

Mindfulness to enhance performance and wellbeing has been taught to athletes through two main interventions: Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment therapy (MAC) (Gardner & Moore, 2012) and Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) (Kaufman et al., 2009). Currently more robust evidence exists for the ability of MAC to improve performance, with research on MSPE being in its infancy.

Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment Therapy (MAC)

The MAC intervention was developed by Gardner and Moore (2004) and is influenced by Kabat-Zinn’s (1994) definition of mindfulness, combined with acceptance and commitment therapy approaches used in counselling psychology (Hayes et al., 1999). In MAC, mindful awareness is accompanied with acceptance of the current experience as it is, and commitment to value- or goal-driven behaviour (versus emotion-driven behaviour). The commitment component of the MAC approach requires a prior knowledge and understanding of the athlete’s values and goals, and of the behaviours that help their performance. Thus, self-awareness and knowledge of their sport is required to make full use of this approach in performance improvement.

In their rationale for the use of mindfulness to improve sport performance, Gardner and Moore (2004) acknowledged that although improvement can be detected in use of a mental skill (e.g., imagery, positive self-talk), most mental skills used in interventions with athletes show inconsistent results regarding performance improvement. They argued that this might be because of inaccurate assumptions regarding what leads to excellent performance. Traditional mental skills training focuses on control of internal states by managing thoughts, images, and emotions (Gardner & Moore, 2004; Moore, 2009). Moore (2009) argues that these control-based techniques are built on the assumption that there is an ‘ideal state’ that leads to excellent performance, and that an athlete must experience that ideal state in order to perform their best. Anecdotally, many athletes know this to be incorrect, at least some of the time, as many athletes can think of a time that they performed well while experiencing a host of negative emotions and sensations. Gardner and Moore (2012) argue that a mindful approach to sport performance is effective for maintaining or improving performance by increasing the proportion of thoughts or present-moment observations that are applicable to the task at hand.

There are seven modules in the MAC intervention that are completed in order, and a coach or leader must ensure athlete comprehension of each module before continuing (Gardner & Moore, 2007). Because of this focus on mastery of content, the length of the MAC intervention can vary, but it will last at least seven weeks.

Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE)

In contrast to MAC, the MSPE approach focuses less on values and value-driven behaviour, and more on the progressive practice of non-reactive attentional control (Kaufman et al., 2018). MSPE uses the terms concentration, letting go, relaxation, harmony, and rhythm, and forming key associations (finding personal cues that bring you back into the moment) to describe the focus of the approach. The progression of practice begins with quiet settings and watching the breath or scanning the body. Over the course of the intervention, athletes are encouraged to practice these skills at home and log their experiences for later discussion. An acronym used to integrate mindfulness into life outside of sport and the training sessions is STOP: stop, take a few breaths, observe, and proceed (Kaufman et al., 2018).

Mindfulness in sport takes a different approach to performance improvement when compared to traditional mental skills training. It can be used in conjunction with traditional mental skills as described earlier in this chapter. There is evidence of improvement in athlete performance, mental health, and wellbeing through the application of positive self-talk, imagery, goal setting, relaxation, or activation. As with any mental, physical, or social skill, proper and consistent practice is key to improvement and ease of use.

Neurofeedback and Biofeedback Training for Optimising Sport Performance

Psychophysiology is defined as ‘the scientific study of the interrelationships of physiological and cognitive processes’ (Schwartz & Olson, 2003, p. 5) and two types of psychophysiological interventions commonly utilised in sport are neurofeedback training (NFT) and biofeedback training (BFT). The training process involves the measurement of physiological or neurological activity that is then fed back to the athlete in real time in the form of audio or visual cues that enable the athlete to develop greater self-awareness and ability to voluntarily regulate physiological and neurological processes (Blumenstein & Hung, 2016; Schwartz & Andrasik, 2017).

Biofeedback Training

Biofeedback training equipment measures and feeds back physiological information associated with the stress response (e.g., heart rate, respiration rate and depth, heart rate variability, peripheral body temperature, and electrodermal activity) and has been identified as ‘one of the most powerful techniques for facilitating learning of arousal-regulation’ (Bar-Eli et al., 2002, p. 568). Fundamentally, when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body responds physiologically by increasing respiration rate, heart rate, electrodermal activity, and muscle tension, and by decreasing peripheral body temperature, in order to prepare the body to ‘fight or flee’ the stressful situation (e.g., Filaire et al., 2009). During BFT athletes observe their physiological data on a computer screen and train the ability to actively alter the various responses. For example, if under stress an athlete tenses their muscles, they would be encouraged to observe the tension level and attempt to lower it.

Neurofeedback Training

Neurofeedback training – also known as electroencephalography (EEG) biofeedback – involves the measurement of cortical activity (Schwartz & Andrasik, 2017). During NFT, electrodes are placed at specific locations on the surface of the scalp to measure minute electrical signals, which appear in five major frequencies: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma (Cacioppo et al., 2016). (For a comprehensive review of the relationship between cortical frequency and sport, see Cheron et al., 2016.) During NFT, relevant components of the athlete’s EEG are extracted and fed back in the form of audio and/or visual cues that indicate when they have met the predetermined threshold (Vernon, 2005). This feedback loop (generally considered operant conditioning) allows athletes to see their brainwaves visually, and based on reward contingent feedback, gives them the ability to progressively alter their brainwaves (Hammond, 2011; Schwartz & Andrasik, 2017). For example, sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) – a specific frequency within the low beta range that’s correlated with an alert but calm mental state (Thompson & Thompson, 2015) – has been shown to enhance golf putting performance in golfers (Cheng et al., 2015).

In summary, BFT/NFT helps athletes learn how to effectively self-regulate physiological arousal and focus in the competitive environment. Both have been shown to reduce anxiety (Gevirtz, 2007), improve attention (Gruzelier et al., 2006), develop self-efficacy (Davis & Sime, 2005), and ultimately enhance performance (e.g., Blumenstein & Hung, 2016; Mirifar et al., 2017; Morgan & Mora, 2017; Xiang et al., 2018).

Applications of Sport and Exercise Psychology

Sport psychology is still a relatively new and rapidly expanding field compared to other areas of psychological practice and research such as clinical, health, forensic, and counselling psychology. As a result of how psychologist registration is legislated in Australia, the graduate training pathways and career options that are available to those wanting to work in sport psychology are somewhat limited. There are basically two career streams within the discipline of sport psychology: research and professional practice. Although each is associated with somewhat different training paths, there’s considerable crossover between research and professional practice, as both undeniably inform one another. This section of the chapter will address both research and professional practice streams and highlight career and graduate training opportunities available in Australia.

The Profession of Sport and Exercise Psychology in Australia

To provide some context, it’s valuable to first situate the profession of sport and exercise psychology in Australia. The change to using sport AND exercise in this section is deliberate because in Australia the field is called sport and exercise psychology, which means researchers and psychologists need to demonstrate knowledge and competency of both sport and exercise contexts. From a professional practice standpoint, the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists seeks to ensure that the highest possible standards of professional sport and exercise psychology practice and research are developed and upheld (Australian Psychological Society, 2021b). The College advises on the education and training requirements needed to provide high quality sport and exercise psychology services in Australia and is responsible for developing and setting standards for both practice and supervision.

To become a full member of the College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists, you need to have undertaken at least six years of university training in psychology. That includes an undergraduate degree in psychology and then a postgraduate degree in sport and exercise psychology. In the postgraduate degree, you’ll learn about the psychological factors that underpin sport and exercise performance, sports medicine and science, how to engage in culturally appropriate assessment of psychological aspects of sport and exercise performance using appropriate methodologies, and how to design and implement culturally appropriate sport and exercise psychological interventions (Australian Psychology Accreditation Council, 2019b). As with other areas of psychology, after graduating from the postgraduate degree, you’ll need to undertake a further two years of practice or hands-on experience in sport and exercise psychology settings before you’re eligible for full College membership (Australian Psychological Society 2021a). The College also offers student affiliate membership and provides professional development opportunities for all its members. All in all, the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists is an important member group for those interested in pursuing a career and completing requisite training in the field of sport and exercise psychology in Australia.

In terms of being endorsed to practice as a sport and exercise psychologist, you first need to be registered as a generalist psychologist. In Australia, it’s Ahpra – or more specifically the Psychology Board of Australia or PsyBA – who oversees registration for psychologists. The Psychology Board of Australia looks after the registration of all Australia-based psychologists, including both generalists and those with endorsed areas of practice such as sport and exercise psychology. What this means is that to call yourself a sport and exercise psychologist you need to apply to the PsyBA for what’s called an area of practice endorsement (Psychology Board Australia, 2020b). To be endorsed you must undertake six years of university training – the same as what’s required for full membership of the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists, except that after the sixth year, you then have to engage in a PsyBA approved registrar program. This means after graduating from a postgraduate program in sport and exercise psychology, you need to undertake a minimum of 3,000 hours of Board approved supervised practice, engage in 80 hours of supervision with a Board-approved supervisor, and undertake 80 hours of active professional development (Psychology Board Australia, 2020).

To gain a sport and exercise psychology area of practice endorsement you will have gained and demonstrated competency in eight areas (Psychology Board of Australia, 2020a).

Once endorsed, you’ll need to engage in continuing professional development in the above eight areas so you remain up-todate, and therefore competent to practice as a sport and exercise psychologist.

Sport and Exercise Psychology Careers and Training Pathways in Australia

Unlike Canada and the United States, the training of all psychologists in Australia – including sport psychologists – is governed by a central body called the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC). The Australian Psychology Accreditation Council is an independent entity that has been tasked by the Federal Government with setting the educational and training standards that are required to become a psychologist. It accredits both undergraduate and postgraduate psychology degrees as having met APAC’s standards, which are developed in consultation with PsyBA, the APS and its various colleges such as the College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists and other key stakeholders (Australian Psychology Accreditation Council, 2019a).

Career Pathways

Careers in sport psychology typically involve two streams: research and/or professional practice as a sport and exercise psychologist. While many professionals train and work exclusively in one stream, some pursue both. For instance, Professor Peter Terry from the University of Southern Queensland has been actively engaged in this dual role for over 35 years. Professor Terry has been a sport psychologist at nine Olympic Games, attended over 100 international events supporting athletes, teams, and coaches, and has authored over 260 publications. This reinforces the research-practice orientation that has long underpinned the field of sport and exercise psychology in Australia (Morris, 2007).

Research-Focused Careers

In terms of research-focused careers, the most prominent option for those who’ve completed a doctoral degree in sport psychology is an academic position in a university (e.g., lecturer) in Australia or abroad. A typical academic position in most universities, regardless of where they’re located, involves teaching (e.g., lecturing, supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students), research (e.g., securing grants, preparing peer-reviewed publications), and service (e.g., serving on committees, performing administrative tasks) (Kenny & Fluck, 2019). Generally, the work expectation of an academic in most Australian universities is that 40 per cent of their time/effort will be spent on teaching, 40 per cent will be spent on conducting their own research, and 20 per cent will be dedicated to service activities (Miller, 2019).

There are limited sport psychology specific research-oriented careers outside of academia in Australia. However internationally such positions can be found within the sport domain to conduct research and program evaluations for organisations such as the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) and the British Olympic Committee (BOA). Outside of sport, research positions have been offered within government departments (e.g., Department of Health) and healthcare organisations (e.g., Cancer Council Australia) to investigate, for example, the influence of parents on children’s activity levels, and the relationship between diet and physical activity in secondary students.

Careers in Professional Practice

There are three types of careers related to professional practice in sport and exercise psychology that depend on practitioners’ education and training. The first is a practitioner who hasn’t undergone university postgraduate sport and exercise psychology training, but who works with athletes and coaches on mental health issues. They would have some knowledge and competency in the sport context, and would either have generalist registration as a psychologist or an area of practice endorsement such as a clinical psychologist. The second is as a sport and exercise psychologist where the practitioner works only in the sport context. They may work on mental health and wellbeing issues, but much of their work would be on enhancing performance. Such full-time positions are limited in Australia and are usually associated with Institutes of Sport (e.g., the AIS). The third is where the sport and exercise psychologist works in both sport and non-sport contexts with athletes and non-athletes. The presenting issues would be a mixture of mental health, wellbeing and performance enhancement, but are more likely to be mental health and wellbeing focused. It’s important to note that in Australia, the only person who can call themselves a ‘sport and exercise psychologist’ is someone who Aphra has endorsed as being able to practice in the area of sport and exercise psychology, as explained in the previous chapter section. All the above three types of practitioners must be registered with Aphra, and must hold at minimum generalist registration. Specific course work/professional development and supervised practice or peer supervision in sport and exercise is a requirement no matter the educational background of the professional in order to ensure they’re practicing within their areas of training and competency.

The full-time sport and exercise psychologist role is what most students have in mind when working towards professional practice in the field of sport psychology. The goals of a sport and exercise psychologist are to teach, guide, and support individuals in their practice and development of psychosocial skills for optimal performance, day-to-day living, and wellbeing. Effective sport and exercise psychologists work in an interdisciplinary fashion and can provide services to a range of performers in diverse contexts in order to address specific sport/performance issues, as well as more general psychological mental health and wellbeing affecting daily functioning in life. This is possible because in Australia, regardless of their specialisation, all psychologists are trained to be generalist psychologists first and specialists second. This means all registered psychologists have base level knowledge and skills in psychological mental health and wellbeing.

Those pursuing careers as registered psychologists (general or in a particular area of endorsement) may choose to apply their work in the context of sport, and complete additional training in sport sciences to fully understand and navigate the competitive sport environment. While these practitioners may consult on sport performance concerns, they may focus more on the diagnosis and treatment of clinical symptoms and mental disorders such as addictions, eating disorders, and depression. Registered psychologists must always work within the limits of their competency, and it’s not unusual for a sport and exercise psychologist to work in unison with a clinical psychologist to determine athletes and coaches’ needs and to develop mental health care plans while respecting their performance goals and sport culture. Working collaboratively with other mental health practitioners, as well as other sport science professionals will arguably lead to better experiences and outcomes.

A career as a sport and exercise psychologist is dynamic and multifaceted. Given the developing nature of the field of sport psychology, many professionals take on a mixture of full- and part-time contracts with sport organisations, teams, and individual clients, as well as multi-roles that combine administrative duties with mental health and wellbeing consulting. Practitioners endeavouring to develop and sustain a private practice can benefit from additional know-how in business management, finance, and marketing. Unfortunately, because these topics are absent from APACs Accreditation Standards for Psychology Programs, they’re not considered to be requisite core knowledge and competencies, and are therefore not covered in most postgraduate training programs (Australian Psychology Accreditation Council, 2019b).

Practitioners also work in various related, but non-sport-specific fields to provide performance consulting in domains such as healthcare, education, and the workplace. Some adopt multiple roles by combining academic and leadership/management positions with their own sport psychology practice. For example, some people have concurrently worked as a sport and exercise psychologist, adjunct lecturer, and sport centre director.

Other career options for those who’ve studied sport psychology include sport-related roles such as Athlete Career and Education Advisors or Athlete Engagement and Wellbeing Advisors with representative bodies like the AFL Players Association or sport institutes like the West Australian Institute of Sport. Moreover, training in this field is highly relevant for intervention, consultation, and program development in professions pertaining to health, education, and high-risk occupations (e.g., military personnel, firefighters, the police, paramedics). Examples of such careers include: (a) counselling within Australian university student services centres to support students’ academic success, (b) providing mental health promotion services to enhance the morale, welfare, and operational readiness of military personnel, and (c) providing resilience training in hospitals to help children and families cope with cancer.

Educational Paths and Training

Although research and professional practice career paths in sport psychology intersect, the training requirements to successfully pursue these careers tend to be more distinctly delineated. One study showed that graduate students in this area often feel they can’t gain the ‘best of both worlds’ by completing a single educational program, and thus make an explicit choice between pursuing an academic research position and professional practice (Fitzpatrick et al., 2016). As such, those who want to combine both aspects in their work may need to seek additional training opportunities outside of their program requirements.

Training for Research

Research careers related to sport psychology – whether in post-secondary institutions or outside of academia (e.g., in the public sector) – typically require graduate research training acquired in a doctoral (i.e., PhD) degree. Faculty academic members at Australian universities normally hold a doctoral degree in their field of study, however given the competitive nature of the field, it’s not uncommon to pursue postdoctoral training (e.g., a postdoctoral fellowship) to obtain an academic position. Those who conduct research outside of higher education (e.g., in industry or the public sector) often acquire the research competencies necessary for their roles by completing a master’s degree, although a doctoral degree is often required for more senior research positions (e.g., Research Fellow).

Australia has a history of vibrant scholarship in sport psychology, however changes over the past last 10–15 years with the introduction of psychology Medicare items has seen the reduction of high-quality graduate programs in the field. Therefore, the opportunities for students who want to acquire research training in sport psychology has become limited. The University of Queensland is the only remaining public university to offer a postgraduate psychologist training program in which one can specialise in sport psychology. This program is housed within both the Psychology and Human Movement Schools and offers students the possibility to study psychological aspects of sport with academic staff who conduct research in sport psychology. A postgraduate degree in psychology (e.g., organisational, clinical, health) with a research focus on sport is another pathway to an academic or research career in the field, however, coursework and training in sport psychology is limited to postgraduate sport and exercise psychology postgraduate programs.

While the discipline may be contracting, research training opportunities for students in Australia aren’t necessarily limited. Students can specialise in sport psychology research at any Australian university provided there are supervisors who have research expertise in sport psychology to supervise them. The University of Southern Queensland, the University of Queensland, and the University of Adelaide have staff in Psychology or Human Movement Schools with expertise to supervise PhD students.

Given the diversification of the field of sport psychology and its interdisciplinary nature, research within doctoral programs may focus on a variety of topics, depending on the interests of thesis supervisors. Examples include psychological skills training, life skills development, concussion management, injury rehabilitation, mental health and wellbeing, motivation and emotion, leadership and group dynamics, physical activity promotion, and suicidality. These topics can be researched within different contexts in (e.g., youth, elite, disability sport) and outside of sport (e.g., business, performing arts, the military, medicine).

In Australia, students who pursue thesis-based research degrees such as a PhD won’t be exposed to coursework related to sport psychology. The only doctoral level coursework-thesis based graduate program is the Doctor of Psychology (Sport & Exercise, Clinical) degree from the Institute for Social Neuroscience Psychology in Melbourne, Victoria. Thesis-based programs involve completing a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation where students conduct research in order to make new contributions to the sport psychology literature. Master’s degrees generally require two years of full-time study, while doctoral degrees typically span three years or more. However, students are encouraged to consult the specific requirements of the programs they’re interested in and should take note of any additional research training that may be required to achieve their career goals.

Training for Professional Practice

As noted previously, graduate programs preparing students for professional practice are as limited as they are in other countries such as Canada. That said, besides the previously mentioned doctoral program, two Australian programs are geared toward applied careers in the field and provide students with the opportunity to combine research training with applied consulting work and supervision. These are the Master of Psychology (Sport & Exercise) from the Institute for Social Neuroscience Psychology, and the Master of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) from the University of Queensland. Students in both programs are required to complete coursework and a research thesis.

What’s unique about the Australian training pathway is that it doesn’t matter what type of master’s degree a student studies – half of the courses that students study focus on generic clinical knowledge and half of the placement hours are completed in clinical contexts that focus on ensuring students develop generic psychological skills. This leaves the other half of the courses and placement hours devoted to specialist study. The Institute of Social Neuroscience Psychology offers a unique Doctor of Psychology (Sport & Exercise, Clinical) which produces graduates who not only complete a thesis – and thus are engaged in research – but on graduation are eligible for the PsyBA registrar program in both sport and exercise psychology and clinical psychology areas of endorsement. Students wanting to pursue a career as a sport and exercise psychologist need to  examine the professional membership requirements of the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists and PsyBA requirements for areas of practice endorsement to help guide their training decisions, as programs and training requirements can and do change.

The general criteria for generalist registration in Australia from June 2022 will be six years of psychology training that includes master’s level postgraduate training. While formal opportunities to study sport psychology are limited, some academic staff conduct research in the field of sport psychology in Schools that offer clinical psychology training in Australia (e.g., University of Adelaide, University of Southern Queensland). Thus, while these programs don’t offer specialised postgraduate training in sport psychology, students could potentially pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology while conducting research on topics in sport psychology (e.g., motivation, coping, suicidality, and sport participation) or engage in a sport-focused placement as part of their supervised practice hours.

Conclusion

In summary, there are several careers and training paths available to anyone wanting to specialise and work in the field of sport psychology in Australia. Both research and professional practice are meaningful endeavours to pursue, and a combination of these two options is often an ideal choice for those seeking to play multiple roles. Australia is home to two sport psychology graduate programs directed by world-leading scholars and practitioners. Students may be successful in accessing one of these educational programs that meets their personal needs and interests. They equally have the option to complete additional training to meet the requirements of research and/or professional practice organisations that will open doors for future employment.

This chapter has been adapted by Andrea Lamont-Mills, School of Psychology and Counselling, University of Southern Queensland. It has been adapted from Dithurbide, L., DesClouds, P., McNeill, K., Durand-Bush, N., DeRoo, C., & Christie, S. (2019). Sport psychology. In M. E. Norris (Ed.), The Canadian Handbook for Careers in Psychological Science. Kingston, ON: eCampus Ontario. Licensed under CC BY NC 4.0. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/sport-psychology/

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Please reference this chapter as:

Lamont-Mills, A. (2022). Sport psychology. In T. Machin, T. Machin, C. Jeffries & N. Hoare (Eds.), The Australian handbook for careers in psychological science. University of Southern Queensland. https://usq.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/sport-psychology/

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