There are currently 54 different divisions of the American Psychological Association. Not all are actual theoretical perspectives posited by psychology—such as behaviorism or social psychology—some are merely fields of interest within which a psychological focus has been found to be academically useful, or clinically rewarding, or medically necessary. Such is the case with sports and exercise psychology (division 47).
For a variety of reasons—the economic impact of the billions of dollars a year professional sports industry, the growth of empirical evidence suggesting exercise is good for us (both physically and psychologically), as well as the influence of sports on childhood development and academic achievement and socialization (as a negative correlation to school violence)—sports and psychology are increasingly mixing.
This paper will take a look at the theoretical and scientific ways psychology is being used to explain and enhance sports performance from the parallel points of view of personality, motivational theory, emotion, and social cognition; all under the watchful eye of Freudian psychoanalysis. There is, of course, a reciprocal relationship between the reasons for, or why we need sports activity, and the motivation towards a qualitatively enhanced sports performance.
The initial impetus for man to engage in sports may have been be to simply play at sports for leisure or diversion, but upon closer examination its clear there’s something more which drives our seeming obsession for sports (and this includes the growing fanaticism of spectating, as well). Freud looked at sports during his time from his by then typical psychoanalytical point of view and found, what else (? ), sex…; or at least what he felt were the attempts by education institutions to curb the urge in children by substituting repetitive play (Holowchak, p. 697).
This repetitive play serves as the foundation for the more formal adult world of competitive sports which then becomes standardized (though at lesser levels of difficulty) for children in a full circle process that, curiously, blurs the line between origins and necessity. Nonetheless, Freud believes this sort of adult play (sport) is at once an attempt to relive the unfettered, carefree days of childhood, while simultaneously using them (games) as a way of releasing pent up tensions and anxieties—both from sexual repression and the conscious seeking out of the pleasure principle.
Play is pleasurable because it essentially mimics sexual movement while substituting for it in a socially acceptable way. Play becomes sport when the obstacles introduced by the participants are re-imposed repeatedly in order to allow for their usurpation in order to increase the psychic energy being built up solely for its ultimate—and very pleasurable—release (Holowchak, p. 698-99).
Regarding the motivational forces that compel us to turn play into competition and equally—and instinctively—strive for greater and greater rewards (measurable goals and feelings related to victory and status), Freud believed in certain “drives” (Holowchak, p. 701) that serve as a spark and a conduit for, ultimately, all human behavior—including the play/sport dialectic. As with all psychoanalytic theory, the basis of drives is compelling (fascinating), but nebulous, to say the least.
Unless, of course, one views those drives through an evolutionary prism. I’ve always had the gut feeling that many of Freud’s ideas piggybacked—to one extent or another—on the backs of Darwinian evolutionary theory and biology. In this case, the drives Freud speaks of are what Darwin would more simply refer to as survival mechanisms. Those mechanisms run the gamut from reproductive instincts to psychic survival processes which, in the latter, take the form of play, games, and ultimately, sport.
I recently watched an episode of a program on Animal Planet detailing the attempts of an animal biologist to get two orphaned lion cubs to hunt by using a rag doll version of a mammal of some kind as substitute prey. He would drag the doll around the yard and the cubs would chase after it and pounce in playful abandon. He then took a piece of meat and dragged it around the yard—when the cubs were good and hungry—in the same fashion in an attempt at operant conditioning that, hopefully, would transfer to the wild (the goal was to eventually release the cubs).
Similarly, human beings play games that serve multiple functions which are equally necessitated by basic needs (in the case of the cubs, hunger and survival). For human beings those needs are as complex as the human mind itself and every bit as deserving of study—even if it is just a game. Martin Luther said, “Feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving…;” and feelings—emotions—are also supremely multifaceted, slippery, transient, and as predictable as they are unpredictable.
Feelings register virtually instantly through our autonomic nervous system which includes virtually every major organ in the body and leads to everything from clenched jaws to hairs standing up on the back of your neck. In any sort of performance—specifically sports—these physiological markers are many times kicked into high gear and being able to control and funnel them into an appropriate response that maximizes that performance takes skill learned through practice.
But not all negative emotions hinder performance, just as not all positive emotions enhance it (Kouli, Bebestos, Kamperis & Papaioannou, p. 108). Similarly, studies have shown that despite repetition of a particular task in a sports setting, being able to demonstrate fluency—even supremacy—of that task in a non-competitive situation (i. e. , practice) is no predictor of the athlete’s triumphalism in a real game situation.
As Philadelphia 76er guard Allen Iverson once said emphatically, sarcastically, and repeatedly (ad nausea), “I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and yet we’re in here talking about practice. Not the game, but practice. Not the actual game that I go out and die for…and play every game like it’s my last, but practice. Practice. We’re talking about practice. Not a game, but practice…. ” When dealing with the emotions evoked by the sometimes high drama of athletic competition, another factor must also be kept in mind: the context of an actual game and its attendant emotions are a two-way street.
Emotions are a factor both before and during a game, and during a game the roller coaster of emotions can mediate and facilitate either failure or success because your emotions are not only having an internal biological effect on you, they are having a reciprocal social effect on your teammates, the other team, and the crowd (which is either magnified or diluted depending on whether you’re playing a home or away game—the infamous “12th man” at Qwest Field in Seattle, WA is a case in point).
The key emotion that comes into play in most studies of athletic competition—be they individual sports like tennis, or a team sport like soccer—is confidence. But even confidence has subjective determinants and modifiers that ultimately show it has only a moderate, though positive, relationship to winning (Kouli, Bebestos, Kamperis & Papaioannou, p. 108). When measured after a game, barometers for confidence are typically higher than when measured before a game.
This brings up the two-way street concept again; it seems as though, when it comes to confidence, success on the pitch influences state of mind much more than that same state of mind acts as a predictor of the aforementioned success (Kouli, Bebestos, Kamperis & Papaioannou, p. 108). Also, as the KBK & P study points out, again, on p. 108, the specific kind of emotions, such as optimal-pleasant, optimal-unpleasant, and dysfunctional-pleasant, actually have a positive correlation on confidence, and only dysfunctional-unpleasant have a negative effect.
Moreover, confidence can lead to cockiness, which can also lead to a state of mind whereby the athlete doesn’t take his or her opponent seriously. This can result in “lack of alertness, focus, and/or carelessness. ” The trick then, is to harness the optimum performance enhancing states of mind (while avoiding physical injury, of course) on your own so as to block out other negative performance modifiers; to get in the zone, so to speak (Harmison, p. 5). The cognitive and behavioral skills needed to accomplish this task can be learned (also according to Harmison).
The type of sport being engaged in also has a mediating impact. Individual sports, like extreme sports, for example, typically appeal to performers that are extroverts who have a high degree of openness to experience (Tok, p. 1106). So here we see that personality plays a key role in both the absorption and application of the specific emotions needed to maintain optimal performance standards. As Harmison points out, p. 8, “…emotion serves two primary functions: mobilizing and organizing energy. ” Again, this is a dual process.
Emotions can help or hinder in the mobilizing/organizing process. Players who already have a leg up on mastering that skill—by virtue of their personalities—will be better able to focus on this learned task; as well, they will be able to better gage and apply the required amount of intensity needed to complete the assignment. Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis is another elite athlete who comes to mind when thinking about this phenomenon. If you’ve ever seen Lewis’s pregame ritual, you know it hasn’t changed in close to 15 years of NFL competition.
He literally works himself, and more importantly—for this ultimate team sport—his teammates into a quasi-religious/spiritual frenzy (indeed, Lewis is an ordained minister) that has made the Ravens pro football’s top defensive team (along with the equally mighty Pittsburgh Steelers) over the past decade—and got them a Lombardi Super Bowl trophy in 2001. The Tok study also verified that when it comes to personality, those who score higher on the neuroticism scale of the Big Five personality traits were less likely to participate in individual extreme sports.
This suggests that people with a greater ability to stay calm, cool, and collected in the eye of the storm are also the people who can summon the needed winning states of mind and keep control over them in order to accomplish their goals. External factors (crowd, noise, internal mind frame, social connections to teammates—if applicable, among others) are all part and parcel of the endeavor of athletic competition. But one key motivating factor for performance hasn’t yet been mentioned.
Simply put, coaching has been found to be a correlational factor in the success and continuation of performers in athletics—especially team sports. And the younger the athlete, the more, it would seem, because of developmental issues as well, a coach would have an impact on his/her players. As David McClelland has pointed out, “The need for achievement is the spark that ignites economic growth, scientific progress, inspirational leadership, and masterpieces in the creative arts (from Weiten, p. 315). ” McClelland could also easily have included elite sports in that pantheon of human creation.
Sports are above all, a metaphor for the human struggle in all of those other areas. And nowhere does that metaphor hit closer to home than in the hierarchical, yet symbiotic relationship between a player and his/her coach. The perceptions an athlete has of the job being done by their coach in creating the optimal practice and game environment is a key—but certainly not the only—component of victory in athletic competition (Ntoumanis, Taylor & Thorgersen-Ntoumani, p. 213). The reason coaches get fired many times has more to do with these perceptions than with actually winning.
The level of talent on the team, and the coach’s perceived ability to harness that talent as well as bring out the latent talent in a team and fuse it into a cohesive unit that functions as one is constantly being evaluated—by peer coaches, management, and, most importantly, the team itself. One component of that constant evaluative process is measurement of players’ “behavioral investment” in the game, practice, and the team. This is the social-cognitive view of motivation used by Ntoumanis, Taylor & Thorgersen-Ntoumani in their study.