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History of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology in North America

Summary and Keywords

The history of sport, exercise, and performance psychology in North America dates back to the late 1800s. However, these professionals typically conducted research in the area of motor learning and development, with little connection to other efforts and researchers. They struggled to forge an identity with the parent disciplines of psychology and physical education. By the 1930s, sport psychology was beginning to take shape in the form of topics that would become the foundation of the field. Professionals were also starting to provide services to athletes, such as Coleman Griffith with the Chicago Cubs in 1938. The field came into its own during the 1950s and 1960s as established research labs and educational opportunities became available to students who would go on to develop further opportunities during the 1970s and 1980s. The scholarly journals were launched, professional organizations were set up, and graduate programs were created. Exercise psychology became a subdivision of the field during the 1970s fitness craze, and performance psychology developed into a specialty in the 1980s. This rich history provides a framework for the current makeup of the field and direction for the future.

Keywords: history, sport psychology, exercise psychology, performance psychology, Coleman Griffith, Bruce Ogilive


History can serve as a looking glass into the past of people, cultures, organizations, and branches of knowledge for the purposes of understanding how the present is structured. This history is particularly important when documenting new and emerging disciplines because it serves as a connection to current research, practices, and education (Fagan & VandenBos, 1993). The value of exploring the history of a discipline of study includes recording trends, analyzing mistakes, charting the evolution of scientific epistemologies, following lines of reasoning and assumptions in the creation of theories, tracking the development of applied practices, serving as a basis of validity for applied practitioners dealing with a skeptical public, and providing predictions for the future.

The history of sport, exercise, and performance psychology is not as detailed as many of the other specialties within the general field of psychology (Benjamin & Baker, 2004), or other approaches in the sport sciences, physical education, kinesiology, and leisure fields (LeUnes & Nation, 1989). The roots of the field date back to ancient Olympic times, and early attempts to apply psychology to sport, exercise, and performance settings can be traced back to articles and books written in the mid- to late 19th century (Cratty, 1989). However, the formal discipline, defined as sustained lines of research by individuals who collaborated through professional organizations and scholarly journals, and the development of academic programs with discipline-specific curriculums, has really only grown within the last half century. This article focuses on the key individuals, landmark publications, development of professional journals, and advancement of specialized organizations in North American sport, exercise and performance psychology.

An accounting of the history of sport, exercise and performance psychology can be difficult because numerous complex factors contribute to the makeup of the field. Although the histories of these three areas are similar and intertwined, there are slight developmental differences in the practice and research of the sport psychology (Gould & Voelker, 2014), exercise psychology (Gill & Reifsteck, 2014), and the relatively new area of performance psychology (Hays, 2012). Sport psychology centers on the psychological dynamics associated with participation in competitive situations (LeUnes & Nation, 1989) and has the longest history. Exercise psychology focuses on the study of psychological and behavioral ingredients (i.e., quality of life, moods, stress, motivation, etc.) affiliated with physical activity and exercise (Willis & Campbell, 1992), and became prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Performance psychology deals with the psychological and mental components in any type of performance setting (Hays, 2012), which started more recently as sport psychologists looked to expand into areas outside of sport settings. To look at the three areas through the same historical lens would be disingenuous to the people who were instrumental to the development of the specialty areas.

There is also the typical challenge that comes with a historical examination of a profession, of being influenced by the context of the general history in which the event took place. For example, in the 1960s, when sport psychology experienced its greatest growth spurt, North American history was being heavily shaped by the Cold War and its rivalry with the Soviet Union. During this time, the progression of sport psychology, especially in the United States, was spurred on by the superior approach and development taken by Russian sport psychologists and culminated in the success of Soviet athletes at the 1976 Olympic Games (Stambulova, Wrisberg, & Ryba, 2006). Chronicling any specialty area should be held up to the prevailing issues of the time in which they take place (Fagan & VandenBos, 1993).

Sport, exercise, and performance psychology also has a history of professionals who have worked in educational settings preparing graduate students to enter the field; research settings developing many of the discipline-specific theories and models; or applied settings providing services to a wide variety of individuals (Benjamin & Green, 2009). Some historical figures have played all three roles during their professional careers, whereas others have focused exclusively on one of the responsibilities. Development of fields of knowledge requires education, service, and research, and recording the history of all three can provide a broader picture of the area of focus.

Part of the historical picture is also the wide range of topics in research and education. For example, early research in the field focused on general personality and its relationship to athletic performance (Fisher, 1984; Silva, 1984). However, little of that early line of inquiry is present in modern-day sport psychology research (Feltz & Kontos, 2002). Additionally, there is a variety of settings in which applied sport, exercise, and performance psychologists can practice, including working with individuals, groups, coaches, and parents from youth through elite or Olympic levels (Murphy, 1995). There is a danger in ignoring the history of each topic or level of service because it will fail to provide a complete history of the field.

Finally, documenting the history of sport, exercise, and performance psychology can be problematic because of the multidisciplinary nature of the field, with two dominant parent disciplines: sport science/kinesiology and psychology (Benjamin & Green, 2009; Feltz & Kontos, 2002). The field has a long history of struggling to define itself, which continues into modern times. Browne and Mahoney (1984) described it as “raised and nurtured in infancy by the single parent called Sport Sciences, with a modicum of child support from the (largely unrecognized) parent called Psychology, this exciting toddler named Sport Psychology” (p. 606). LeUnes and Nation (1989) said the field should be “viewed as a multifaceted, hydra-headed monster” (p. 11). Hays (1995) eloquently asserts that “from its beginnings the field of sport psychology has been a woven cloth, the ‘warp’ of physical education and the ‘woof’ of psychology” (p. 33). This history of debate between the different larger disciplines continues into the early 21st century and is recognized by professionals outside the field (Morse, 2009).

This article presents a history of the field absent of any bias toward either of the two main disciplines. Although the author’s training is primarily in psychology, there is a great deal of appreciation for the contributions made by sport and exercise scientists. This historical account differs from previous approaches, which have utilized a chronological methodology to document the field. Instead, it focuses on the key individuals, including their educational, research, and practice accomplishments, landmark publications, including the advancement of scholarly journals, and the establishment of professional organizations. This first section looks at professionals who did not necessarily organize the field but influenced those who would come later.

Influential Individuals and Their Work: The Classics

The earliest contributors to the field were made by individuals with an interest in athletics but little coordinated efforts to collaborate. Several of these influential people had to fight to justify their work at universities because they were coming from the new sciences of psychology or physical education (Benjamin & Green, 2009). In psychology, it was a time when the field was shifting from a philosophical approach to one that concentrated on laboratory research. Their research, and in some cases practice, existed in a vacuum, yet their labors helped build the foundation for the growth of psychology and physical education, which eventually gave birth to sport, exercise, and performance psychology.

Edward Wheeler Scripture was one of these original pioneers who sought to differentiate between an experimental methodology and a philosophy-driven style (Scripture, 1897). Scripture, who along with G. Stanley Hall and others were the founding members of the American Psychological Association (Boring, 1965), conducted primitive research on the reaction time of fencers, runners, and boxers (Scripture, 1895b). Scripture received his PhD from the University of Leipzig studying under William Wundt, and he did a postdoctoral fellowship at Clark University (Goodwin, 2009; Kornspan, 2007). He went on to become a teacher and head of the psychology laboratory at Yale University until 1903, when his abrasive personality and insistence on a research approach to the field of psychology eventually cost him his job (Goodwin, 2009).

Not only did Scripture try to draw a distinction between research laboratory knowledge and the more philosophical perspective, but he also was motivated to demonstrate that the things he researched had applications to the real world (Goodwin, 2009). Schools of psychology at the end of the 19th century were struggling to form an identity, so the research that was conducted needed to demonstrate a value to the greater society. This may be one reason why he studied the sport and exercise domain. Much of this research during his time at Yale was documented in a journal he developed called Studies from the Yale Psychological Laboratory.

Scripture’s research involved building a creative apparatus to measure reaction time as it related to different types of athletes (i.e., long-distance runners vs. sprinters), and sport decision making between levels of expertise (i.e., expert fencers vs. control members of his research team) (Scripture, 1894, 1895a, 1895b,). He concluded that the value of these studies was to provide evidence of the “psychological elements involved in games, sports, gymnastics and all sorts of athletic work” (Scripture, 1894, p. 123). He also did one study that involved a reaction timer connected to an orchestra baton to measure the extent to which the conductor could accurately stay with a beat (Scripture, 1895b). This could have been one of the first studies conducted in performance psychology.

Scripture’s other place in history, given the multidimensional nature of the field, was his connection to students in physical education (Kornspan, 2007). William G. Anderson, one of the founders of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and Walter Wells Davis, who eventually worked at Iowa College, both conducted research at the Yale Laboratory under Scripture’s mentorship (Wiggins, 1984). Yale hosted the 1894 meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Physical Education, and there was evidence of a partnership, in the way of presentations provided by both psychologists and physical educators, between the American Psychological Association and the Association for the Advancement of Physical Education (Kornspan, 2007). This early collaboration between sport sciences and psychology could serve as a model for present-day tensions that still exist between the parent disciplines.

Around the same time that Scripture was doing his research, George Wells Fitz also was conducting studies on reaction time. Fitz was the head of the Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Physical Training from 1891 to 1899 at Harvard, which is considered to be one of the first sport science laboratories in North America (Wiggins, 1984). He did reaction time studies with the aid of an apparatus he created, and he published this work in Psychological Review. His goal was to “measure some of the elements making up the differences which exist between individuals in their power to do certain things requiring quickness and accuracy, as for instance, tennis playing and fencing, the essential requirements being the perception and quick interpretation of external conditions, followed instantly by an appropriate motor response” (Fitz, 1895, p. 40).

Fitz was also instrumental in developing and teaching in one of the first undergraduate degree programs in exercise physiology, where he espoused the physical and psychological benefits of exercise (Park, 1992). The program had between 14 and 27 students and notable faculty members during its years of existence. The curriculum included a psychology class taught by William James, considered by some to be the father of American Psychology. The program and laboratory were shut down after 10 years because funding dried up and philosophic differences developed between Fitz and the Harvard administration (Park, 1992).

Norman Triplett is typically credited with conducting the first research study in sport psychology, even though Scripture and Fitz both predated this in publishing their research in sport (Benjamin & Green, 2009). The study, his master’s thesis, was a combination of observations from racing results from the Racing Board of the League of American Wheelman, and controlled laboratory experiments, where he investigated if people exhibited greater effort when in the presence of others (Triplett, 1898). He concluded: “From the above facts regarding the laboratory races we infer that the bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available” (Triplett, 1898, p. 533). Recently, some have questioned the validity of this study because, based on the limited numbers presented; there may not have been statistical significance (Stroebe, 2012). Although he was interested in athletics, even serving as the head track coach in 1909, during his career as the head of the Department of Child Studies at Kansas State Normal School (a teaching college), this study was his only foray into sport-related research (Davis, Huss, & Becker, 1995, 2009). It could have been that the demands of being in charge of a department, including trying to secure funding for the program, prevented him from doing other research (Davis et al., 2009).

Isolated examples of people doing research that would be considered sport, exercise, and performance psychology continued throughout the first three decades of the 1900s, with some similarity in topics. For example, Patrick (1903) did an examination of football from the perspective of the spectator. Similarly, Howard (1912) wrote about social dynamics related to the athletic spectator. Both of these articles took more of a philosophical than an experimental approach. Shepherd Ivory Franz and Hamilton (1905) and Vaux (1926) both spoke to the psychological benefits of exercise and how physical activity could combat depression. The impact of exercise on mood would become the cornerstone of exercise psychology some 60 to 80 years later. Burtt and Nichols (1924) at Ohio State and Ruble (1928) at Indiana did studies comparing the intelligence levels of athletes to nonathletes, foreshadowing the personality research that would dominate the 1960s and 1970s.

Several studies were performed examining reaction time, motor learning, and the effects of practice on physical skills. Cummins (1914) of the University of Washington investigated the relationship between attention, practice, and the ability to perform basketball skills. With a very limited sample size, he found that practice improved concentration and increased motor control. Lashley (1915), as reported by Dewsbury (2009), with the aid and mentorship of John Watson, found that distributed practice was more effective than mass practice with archery skills. In 1921, psychologists from the Columbia University psychology laboratory tested the reaction time, attention span, learning skills, and coordination of legendary baseball player Babe Ruth (Fuchs, 1998). Ruth was brought to the lab at night after a game by Hugh Fullerton, who was a baseball writer, and tested by psychologists Albert Johanson and Joseph Holmes (Fuchs, 1998, 2009). Fullerton wrote that Ruth was superior because of the way in which he processed information, but Fuchs (1998) believes that had the results of the tests been reported in a psychology journal, the professionals probably would not have come to the same conclusions.

The convergence of three individuals at Stanford University between 1927 and 1931 led to a series of published studies on the reaction time of football players (Baugh & Benjamin, 2006). Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, who is in the college football Hall of Fame, was the football coach at Stanford University during this time. Walter Miles was a psychologist who spent his early career at Stanford, before moving on to Yale. Bernice C. (B.C.) Graves, who was an exceptional athlete and college coach for multiple sports, was a graduate student in the psychology master’s program. Miles chaired Graves’s master’s thesis, which focused on the reaction time for different signal calls for football linemen (Baugh & Benjamin, 2009). Advancements were being made to the game of football in how linemen were signaled to start their movement. Until that time, linemen jumped at the sight of the ball being snapped; however, this action slowed down their blocking because they would have to turn their head to see the ball (Baugh & Benjamin, 2009). Teams were now starting to snap the ball on a signal shouted by the quarterback. Measurement of this reaction to this auditory signal was the focus of the research. Miles created an apparatus to measure group reaction time, thus being able to study a set of linemen all at once (Baugh & Benjamin, 2006); this work was documented in three published articles (Miles, 1928, 1931; Miles & Graves, 1931).

No historical figure, because of his role as educator, researcher, and practitioner, has been referenced more than Coleman Roberts Griffith. Kroll and Lewis (1970) labeled Griffith the “father of sport psychology” in their article, “America’s First Sport Psychologist.” Although Griffith’s body of work in sport settings is significantly greater than that of any person covered to this point, we need to be cautious in crediting him with the “official” birth of the field. As Green (2006) points out, no direct line from Griffith’s work has ever been established to the current makeup of the discipline. It was only after the field took off that historians started looking to the past, making Griffith (and all the others covered to this point) simply individuals resembling a modern version of the field rather than serving as its founder (Sarup, 1978). Although there is not a line that continues after his work, Griffith seems to be the first to become aware of previous research conducted in athletic settings (Griffith, 1930). Griffith (1925) also wrote about attempting to define the field:

Until psychologists, athletic directors, and coaches can come to an understanding of the general extent of the field, a paper such as is being read to you today must be written much as a map is drawn. Boundaries are to be laid out, parts of the country labeled, and the main features of the map described in a proper way. For this reason, we shall tell first of the reason why the words “psychology and athletics” go together at all and then we shall go on to lay out the general plan of this new field of inquiry and give illustrations of the problems that belong to it.

(p. 193)

Griffith conducted a handful of studies at the University of Illinois between 1918 and 1920 that caught the eye of both athletic director George Huff and football coach Robert Zuppke (Kroll & Lewis, 1970). Griffith’s research looked at the reaction time of football players and was able to classify the better players based on lower (thus quicker) reaction times (Green, 2006). He also began to include some of the information gained in these research studies in his introduction to psychology class. Griffith began offering a special section of introductory psychology to athletes and eventually developed a new course called Psychology of Athletics (Gould & Pick, 1995).

On September 15, 1925, under the urging and financial backing from Huff, the board of trustees at Illinois approved the Athletic Research Laboratory and made Coleman Griffith the director. The lab was housed in the athletic department and contained the apparatus to measure reaction time, steadiness, and motor learning and control (Gould & Pick, 1995). Green (2006, 2009) reports that several types of research projects were identified to be conducted in the laboratory, including topics on psychomotor skills, learning, and personality (Kroll & Lewis, 1970). Besides carefully controlled experiments within the lab, Griffith also interviewed athletes and coaches, such as Harold “Red” Grange and Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, to gain insight into the players’ and coaches’ mental activities during competition (Gould & Pick, 1995). Part of his research became the basis for the two books he published on the subject: Psychology of Coaching (1926) and Psychology and Athletics (1928). The research lab was closed down in 1932 partially because of the declining financial support from the university and partially because Coach Zuppke may have lost confidence in the possibility that psychological research could make his teams more successful (Green, 2009). This may explain why a partially written third book on the psychology of football, coauthored by Robert Zuppke, went unpublished (Green, 2009).

In 1937, Philip Wrigley contacted Griffith to work with the Chicago Cubs (Green, 2003). Wrigley was a successful businessman with his gum company but ran the Cubs primarily to make money and failed to invest in talented players or a strong farm program. He hired Griffith as an inexpensive way to transform the Cubs into a successful team. Griffith brought in many of the apparatuses he had utilized in the Illinois research lab, including a slow-motion camera (Green, 2003). Gould and Pick (1995) state that part of the work with the Cubs went well; one of the Cubs’ pitchers, having benefited in his work with Griffith, in gratitude bought him a set of golf clubs after the season. Between 1938 and 1940, Griffith tested, analyzed, and wrote detailed reports about the work he did with the Cubs; however, the manager of the team did not believe in psychology and went out of his way to undermine the project (Green, 2003). Griffith’s failures in this consulting experience seemed to be a combination of lack of support from the coaches, management’s lack of serious interest in his conclusions, and the politics of trying to work within a professional sports environment (Green, 2003). Griffith’s work with Cubs ended in 1940 because of his decision to take an academic administration position at Illinois.

Influential Individuals and Their Work: The Contemporaries

Research on sport, exercise, and performance psychology blossomed after the 1960s and involved a much greater connection between first, second, and third generations of members in the field from academic programs that started in the 1940s and 1950s. There has also been a larger diversity of experiences in the post-Griffith era, with individuals being more clearly defined as practitioners, educators, or researchers. Also, the conflict between psychology and physical education-trained professionals has become more pronounced, with both sport science and psychology trained professionals struggling to define the field. This section relies more on other authors’ interpretations of who might be considered influential (i.e., Krane & Whaley, 2010; Simons & Andersen, 1995; Straub & Hinman, 1992).

A number of research labs and educational programs were established that became the foundation for the generation of professionals who shaped the field. Charles Harold McCloy not only made direct contributions to the discipline and had a great impact on the general field of physical education, but also studied topics that influenced future research. He was a professor of physical education at the University of Iowa from 1930 to 1959, where in his research labs he and his students tested character, personality issues, and reaction time related to physical activity. These results appeared in some of the first issues of the Research Quarterly, the premier periodical in physical education (i.e., McCloy, 1930). He corresponded with Walter Miles about the device built to test the reaction time of multiple participants (Baugh & Benjamin, 2009) and wrote a literature review on sport medicine that included a section on sport psychology (McCloy, 1958). Because of his contributions, a memorial lecture was named after him through the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). A number of prominent sport psychology professionals have delivered the lecture, including Diane Gill, Maureen Weiss, Brenda Bredemeier, T. Gilmour Reeve, Daniel Landers, and William Morgan.

Another pioneer, John Lawther, was hired in 1936 as a professor of physical education and head men’s basketball coach at Pennsylvania State University (Kornspan, 2015). He coached for only 13 seasons, but his teaching career at Penn State spanned three decades. His research focused on athletes’ reaction time, psychological skills necessary for athletic success, and the psychology of coaching. He wrote two books, The Psychology of Coaching (1951) and Sport Psychology (1972; Lawther, 1951, 1972). He retired from Penn State in 1965 but continued to teach sport psychology at other universities, which eventually created sport psychology programs and hired second and third generations of influential professionals: Indiana University (John Raglin), Springfield College (Judy Van Raalte, Britton Brewer, Burt Giges, and Al Petitpas), and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (Daniel Gould, before moving to Michigan State University, and Diane Gill) (Kornspan, 2015).

In 1947, Alfred W. Hubbard started his doctoral degree at the University of Illinois and because an assistant in the Physical Fitness Research Laboratory (Kornspan, 2013). He finished his degree in 1950 and was kept on as a professor in the physical education program. At the time, the University of Illinois offered a sport psychology course, which was used in a proposal by Hubbard to open a sport psychology laboratory. The proposal was approved in the fall of 1951 by then provost Coleman Griffith (Kornspan, 2013). Although the connection is not entirely clear, this might suggest that Coleman Griffith did have alink to modern developments in the field. Hubbard oversaw several student research projects that focused on perception, motivation, and mental training in sports.

Franklin Henry started off in electronics, radio, and medical equipment (Park, Brooks, & Scott, 1994). He eventually started taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley, and discovered psychology. He finished his doctoral degree in psychology in 1938 but was not allowed to teach in the psychology department because of a rule prohibiting the hiring of graduates until they had more experience in the field. In 1939, because of his research and physiological psychology background, he was hired as a professor in the physical education department. Henry taught a course called Psychological Basis of Physical Activity and conducted research in the motor learning and sport psychology lab at UC Berkeley (Wiggins, 1984).

Henry, Hubbard, and Lawther, along with others, such as Warren Johnson at the University of Maryland, Arthur Slater-Hammell at Indiana University, and Bryant Cratty at UCLA, started offering courses in sport and exercise psychology that would influence a new generation of professionals. For example, Lawther’s student Robert Singer would go on to develop the sport psychology program at the University of Florida. Singer would write sport psychology books (i.e., Singer, 1972, 1975), consult with athletes, and serve as president of sport psychology organizations, including the International Society of Sport Psychology (Straub & Hinman, 1992). He, in turn, would oversee the education of Jean Williams, who would become one of the influential women in the field, gaining major awards, assuming positions of leadership within organizations, and serving on the editorial boards of sport psychology journals (Krane & Whaley, 2010).

Robert Scannell, who was a student of Lawther, and Karl Stoedefalke, who was a student of Hubbard, were important figures in the development of sport psychology at Penn State University. Scannell hired Dorothy V. Harris in 1969 to create the first North American graduate program in sport psychology. Stoedefalke became an administrator at Penn State, where as chair of the curriculum committee, he approved the sport psychology courses that Harris would produce. Harris completed her doctoral degree from the University of Iowa and went on to have a distinguished career in sport psychology. She wrote one of the first applied books (Harris & Harris, 1984) and textbooks (Harris, 1973) in sport psychology. She organized the Research Conference on Women in Sport in 1972, the same year that Title IX was passed (Gill, 1995). Several of Harris’s students would make contributions to the field; Deborah Feltz, for example, would become the chairperson of the sport psychology program at Michigan State University.

Franklin Henry produced numerous students who would shape the field in North America. In 1954, Henry’s student Max Howell created the first graduate degree in physical education in Canada at the University of British Columbia. Howell would go on to develop the first doctoral program in physical education in Canada at the University of Alberta in 1961 (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016). In creating the program at Alberta, Howell hired Robert Morford, who also did his work with Henry at Berkeley, to develop some of the first sport psychology classes offered in Canada (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016). In 1968, Richard Alderman, another Henry student, and Robert Wilberg were hired to develop a graduate program in sport psychology at Alberta. This program would produce some of the most influential sport psychologists in Canada, notably, Len Wankel, Terry Orlick, John Salmela, Peter Klavora, Craig Hall, and Cal Botterill (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016).

Another Franklin Henry student who went to Canada was Albert Carron, who first went to the University of Saskatchewan and then in 1974 to the University of Western Ontario. Albert Carron would collaborate with Neil Widmeyer and Lawrence Brawley from the University of Waterloo to study group dynamics in sports starting in the 1980s and spanning another two decades (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016). Henry also mentored students who made contributions in the United States, including Richard Schmidt at the University of Southern California, George Stelmach at the University of Wisconsin, and Dean Ryan at the University of California at Davis (Wiggins, 1984).

The sport psychology lab that Hubbard developed at the University of Illinois influenced several next-generation professionals. For example, Rainer Martens came to Illinois to study sport psychology but found that the sport psychology educational program was no longer in existence (Vealey, 2006). He decided to stay at Illinois to complete his degree and met with fellow students Daniel Landers and Glyn Roberts. The three of them conducted research in sport psychology and helped develop one of the top graduate programs in the United States at Illinois. Daniel Landers eventually established a program at Arizona State University and became a world-renowned exercise psychology researcher. Rainer Martens and Glyn Roberts stayed at Illinois, but Martens eventually went on to establish Human Kinetics Publishers, now one of the top publishers of sport science literature. This publishing company started one of the first journals in applied issues in the field in 1987 called The Sport Psychologist. Glyn Roberts would oversee the educational program of Joan Duda, who would hold key positions in the professional organizations and serve on editorial boards of sport psychology periodicals (Krane & Whaley, 2010).

Rainer Martens was another influential figure in the field. For example, he served as mentor for Tara Kost Scanlan, who eventually worked as a professor of sport psychology at UCLA and served as president of two major sport psychology organizations (Straub & Hinman, 1992). Dan Gould came to the University of Illinois after hearing Rainer Martens deliver a talk on sport psychology in 1971 and studied under Martens. Gould would ultimately land at Michigan State University and has had a distinguished career in sport psychology as an educator, consultant, and researcher. He supervised a number of students who would impact the field (e.g., Maureen Weiss, Thelma Horn, Robert Eklund). Martens also directed the education of Diane Gill, who ended up at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and holds fellow status in all the major sport psychology organizations (Krane & Whaley, 2010).

There are many contemporary examples of individuals working with athletes, exercise participants, and performers after the 1930s. For example, Alan Kornspan and Mary MacCracken have documented the applied work of Dorothy Hazeltine Yates and David F. Tracy (Kornspan, 2009; Kornspan & MacCracken, 2001, 2003). Yates was a psychology professor at San Jose State College from 1922 until 1947. During this time, she taught a course called Psychology of Adjustment, which was only offered to aviation students and athletes, and concentrated on skills that would improve performance (Kornspan & MacCracken, 2001). Furthermore, she was approached by the boxing coach to work with his athletes on skills such as affirmations and relaxation. David Tracy worked as a team psychologist for the St. Louis Browns professional baseball team in the first part of 1950; however, Kornspan (2009) reports that no records exist that Tracy was ever trained as a psychologist. Tracy utilized hypnosis and relaxation in his work, and all accounts show that he had a positive effect on the players. He garnished a large amount of publicity and boasted about the effectiveness of his techniques, which may have led to his dismissal before the end of the season (Kornspan, 2009; Kornspan & MacCracken, 2003). This might be cited as an early example of the ethical issues of misrepresentation of credentials, confidentiality of clients, and false promises of effectiveness.

Probably the most famous applied professional is Bruce C. Ogilvie. In 1953, he completed his doctoral degree from the University of London, where he was a student of Hans Eysenck (Straub & Hinman, 1992). He almost certainly had an influence on Eysenck because years after Eysenck left the University of London, he published an article on “Sport and Personality” (Eysenck, Nias, & Cox, 1982). Ogilvie’s more than 40-year career in the field earned him the title of the “father of applied sport psychology” in North America. He, along with fellow San Jose State University professor Tom Tutko, published one of the first, and possibly more controversial, books in applied sport psychology, Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them (Ogilvie & Tutko, 1966). The controversy originated from their use of the Athletic Motivation Inventory (AMI), a personality survey, as the primary basis for their book. Rainer Martens publicly criticized the inventory for its lack of validity and reliability; in reply, h Ogilvie and Tutko sued Martens for $6 million for deformation, which Martens eventually won in court (Landers, 1995).

Bruce Ogilvie paved the way for countless practitioners who followed him by struggling to gain acceptance from athletes and coaches. He even dressed as a female volleyball player to gain access to the Olympic team he worked with in 1984 (Ogilvie, 1989). Ogilvie was deeply interested in furthering the education of sport psychology students and young career members of the field. Accordingly, in 1993, he hosted a think tank at his home in Los Gatos, California, where he convened important members of the field such as Robert Nideffer, Betty Wenz, Chris Carr, Shane Murphy, and Sean McCann.

One of Ogilvie’s colleagues, Robert Nideffer, founded a consulting company called Enhanced Performance Systems. Nideffer was a key sport psychologist in the advancement of sport psychology with United States’ Olympic athletes and during the 1990’s consulted with other international Olympic training centers (Straub & Hinman, 1992). His historical works include The Inner Athlete (1976) and The Ethics and Practice of Applied Sport Psychology (1981). Nideffer and Betty Wenz were the two service providers to all the U.S. Olympic athletes at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games (Suinn, 1985). Wenz, who like Nideffer and Ogilvie, was centered in California, began providing sport psychology services in 1976 (Simons & Andersen, 1995). She was instrumental in bringing sport psychology to synchronized swimming and track and field, and just like Nideffer and Ogilvie, was an advocate for ethical and practice issues in the field (Granito, 2002).

In the 1970s and 1980s, multiple professionals started consulting practices with athletes and exercise participants (Simons & Andersen, 1995). These individuals came from both psychology and sport sciences. The psychology professionals were Gloria Balague, Burt Giges, Jack Lesyk, Jim Loehr, Shane Murphy, Ron Smith, Kate Hays, Steve Danish, Al Petitipas, Charlie Maher; and the sport science professionals were Dan Gould, Ken Ravizza, Bob Rotella, Robert Weinberg, John Silva, and Penny McCullagh. John Silva, Ron Smith, and Robert Weinberg became the first, second, and third presidents of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. Academic programs at this point still were not specialized in sport psychology, so students had to pick either psychology or sport science programs, or choose to get a degree in both areas. Brenda Bredemeier and Carole Oglesby, for example, obtained degrees in both psychology and sport science.

The 1970s and 1980s also saw a tremendous interest in the area of fitness and exercise, including running. Interest in running was fueled by the popularity of Olympic runners Jim Ryun, who was the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile; Frank Shorter, who was the 1972 gold medalist in the marathon; Bill Rodgers, who held the American record in the marathon; and Steve Prefontaine, who competed in the 1972 Olympics before tragically dying in 1975. The field of sport psychology was starting to specialize in different areas during this time period, including exercise (adherence, addiction, effects on mood and anxiety, and quality-of-life issues; Buckworth & Dishman, 2002). William Morgan, from the University of Wisconsin, has often been described as the father of exercise psychology (Gill & Reifsteck, 2014). His studies in the 1970s and 1980s set a standard that influenced others interested in exercise psychology, such as Rod Dishman, Bonnie Berger, Michael Sachs, Dan Landers, and Dan Kirschenbaum.

The most recent segment of the field that has flourished is performance psychology. The application of sport psychology to settings where performance enhancement can be beneficial, such as business, performing artists, and police, has grown since the early 1990s. In 1992, a short-lived periodical called Contemporary Thought on Performance Enhancement published several articles related to musicians, airline pilots, and surgeons (Hanson, Newburg, & Newman, 1992). Terry Orlick from the University of Ottawa started the Journal of Excellence, which has published various performance psychology articles (Orlick, 1998). One of the first books on a specific type of performance was Psychology of Dance, written by Taylor & Taylor (1995). In 2002, Dan Gould edited a special issue in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, with articles focusing on business, actors, performing artists, and police. Kate Hays has been active in the development of performance psychology, organizing a section within the sport psychology division of the American Psychological Association and publishing two books on the subject (Hays, 2009; Hays & Brown, 2004).

Sport, exercise, and performance psychology has continued to grow in popularity and acceptance during the early 21st century with the development of graduate programs specifically in the discipline. The 10th edition of the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology listed over 100 programs in schools of psychology, kinesiology, and education (Sachs, Burke, & Schweighardt, 2011). The recognition of sport, exercise, and performance psychology by coaches, athletes, parents, and administrators has also provided practitioners the opportunities to create specialized practices or centers to meet demand: Chris Carr at St. Vincent Sport Performance in Indianapolis, Indiana; Jack Lesyk at the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology in Beachwood, Ohio; and Trent Petrie at the Center for Sport Psychology through the University of North Texas are examples of the modern practices in the field.

Professional Organizations

The development of a discipline is also dependent on the creation of associations and organizations to allow collaboration between members and help develop policies and structure to the field. The first organizing in North America took place in 1965 in Dallas in conjunction with the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (AAHPER), known today as the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). The group was made up of physical educators from the United States and Canada and was brought together by Warren Johnson (Wiggins, 1984). It was decided that a group of representatives would attend the first International Congress of Sport Psychology in Rome, Italy. Conversations took place during this conference by the American and Canadian delegations and continued the next year (1966) at the AAHPER conference in Chicago. At the 1966 AAHPER meeting, a steering committee was made up of Canadians (Richard Alderman from the University of Alberta and Donald Bailey from the University of Saskatchewan) and Americans (Roscoe Brown from New York University, Bryant Cratty from the University of California at Los Angeles, Warren Johnson from the University of Maryland, Gerald Kenyon from the University of Wisconsin, Jack Leighton from Eastern Washington State College, Arthur Slater-Hammel from Indiana University, and Leon Smith from the University of Iowa; Wiggins, 1984).

Later that year, Warren Johnson and Arthur Slater-Hammel, on behalf of this steering committee, agreed to host the 2nd International Congress of Sport Psychology in Washington, DC, in 1968, but not before the formation of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA). NASPSPA’s first slate of officers included Arthur Slater-Hammel, serving as president; Bryant Cratty and Warren Johnson, as vice president for national and international affairs, respectively; Roscoe Brown, as secretary-treasurer; and Gerald Kenyon, as publication director. NASPSPA consisted of three subgroups: motor development, motor learning and control, and sport and exercise psychology.

NASPSPA held its first conference in Las Vegas in 1967 in conjunction with AAHPER. The conferences continued to be held with AAHPER until the 1972 Houston conference, when a group consisting of Rainer Martens of the University of Illinois, Richard Schmidt of the University of Michigan, and Leon Smith of the University of Iowa pushed to start holding the conferences separate from other groups (Wiggins, 1984). The 1973 conference was the first independent conference hosted by Rainer Martens and the University of Illinois at Allerton Park, Illinois. The following year (1974), Dorothy Harris was elected the first female president of the organization. Since that time, NASPSPA has shared conferences with the International Congress of Physical Education in Quebec in 1979, the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology in Ontario in 1996, and the American College of Sports Medicine in Denver in 1997 and 2006 (NASPSPA, 2016). NASPSPA sponsors the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, which originally started in 1979 as the Journal of Sport Psychology and was not affiliated with any professional organization. The word “exercise” was added in 1988.

Cratty (1989) reports that NASPSPA was originally intended to include professionals from both Canada and the United States, but at the 1968 International Congress of Sport Psychology in Washington, DC, conversations started about creating a Canadian Society. In 1969, Bob Wilberg from the University of Alberta founded the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (SCAPPS, the French acronym). They first met in Edmonton and were considered part of the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation until 1977, when, in Banff, Alberta, they became an independent society. Just like NASPSPA, SCAPPS has held conferences in conjunction with other groups, including the World Sport Psychology Congress in Ottawa in 1981 (Halliwell, 1989).

NASPSPA and SCAPPS were the main source of collaboration for professionals in the field through the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, primarily through presentations at the yearly conferences. However, by 1982, more professionals were interested in applied aspects of the field, which led to discussions around three separate projects. First, from 1982 through 1985, several members of NASPSPA pushed the organizations to take on issues related to the practice of sport psychology, which resulted in a membership vote in 1984 to add to the mission of the group (Silva & Stevens, 2002). NASPSPA voted not to alter the direction of the organization, which led to John Silva holding an organizational meeting at the 1985 NASPSPA conference in Gulfpark, Mississippi, and a separate three and a half day meeting in Nags Head, North Carolina, in the fall of 1985. These meetings culminated in the creation of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP), with John Silva becoming the first president (Silva, 1989). AAASP held its first conference in October 1986 at Jekyll Island, Georgia, with 214 members in attendance (Silva, 1987).

AAASP, which started with 143 charter members, had an immediate impact on the field by tackling issues of certification, educational issues related to applied sport psychology, and publication of professional journals in the field, and documenting procedures for members to obtain fellow status (AAASP, 1987). However, the early years were dominated by conflicts and controversies stemming from the tensions between sport science-trained and psychology professionals, and between research-oriented specialists and practitioners (Williams, 2001a, 2001b). AAASP started publishing the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology in 1989. AAASP initially had subdivisions of health psychology, social psychology, and performance enhancement/intervention, which eventually were reorganized into committees that reflected the roles of the organization (Vealey, 2000). AAASP became the first organization in the United States to create and pass a certification process, although a great deal of discussion went into the official title of the professional (AAASP, 1989, 1990). Ultimately, the title Certified Consultant, Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AAASP), was chosen to avoid any legal conflict with psychology licensing boards, and the first members were certified in 1992. In 2002, the certification process was extended to professionals with master’s degrees and complete additional supervised hours, thus opening up further applied opportunities (Sachs, Burke, & Schweighardt, 2011). The organization changed its name in 2006, dropping the word “Advancement” to simplify the name to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). The group continues to be the leader in applied issues and has researched the possibility of accrediting graduate programs, delineating appropriate supervision for interns, and moving from criteria-based certification to an exam-based process.

The second major (and paralleling with AAASP) development in 1982 was the formation of an Exercise and Sport Psychology Interest Group through the American Psychological Association (APA). This group, composed of about 25 members, was created at the 90th APA convention in Washington, DC (Swoap, 1999). Sport and exercise presentations at the APA had actually started in 1974, when people like William Morgan, Rainer Martens, and Richard Suinn presented talks on different subjects. However, most of these presentations took place within the general psychology, consulting psychology, and health psychology divisions (Swoap, 1999). As curiosity started to grow, more members became involved with the interest group, prompting the creation of a steering committee, made up of William Morgan, David Brown, Steven Heyman, Rod Dishman, Deborah Feltz, Eugene Levitt, Dan Kirschenbaum, and Richard Suinn, to examine the possibility of becoming a division (Swoap, 1999). At this point in time in the history of APA, there was a moratorium on the creation of new divisions, stemming from the fear of overspecializations in psychology (Murphy, 2016). This steering committee developed a proposal for a new division, including drawing up bylaws, developing a purpose, creating the name, and securing the 500 member signatures required for a new division (Morgan, 1997).

On August 24, 1986, the APA’s council voted unanimously to approved item 25—the creation of Division 47 Exercise and Sport Psychology. The term “exercise” was not only included in the title but came first in the division name, a change that undoubtedly was influenced by people like William Morgan, Daniel Landers, and Rod Dishman, some of the first exercise psychology researchers in the field. The first slate of officers included William Morgan as the interim president and then elected as the first president of the division, Daniel Landers as president-elect; Steven Heyman as secretary-treasurer, and Rod Dishman and Deborah Feltz as the members-at-large (Morgan, 1997; Swoap, 1999). The first full year (1987) had 437 members as part of the division.

Over the years, Division 47 has experienced numerous reorganizations and projects that reflect the changes to both the field and the APA’s political structure. During Robert Singer’s presidency (1996–1997), four committees—education, science, practice, and public interest—were established to mirror the organizational makeup of APA. However, in 2016, this committee structure was collapsed into one cornerstone committee that addresses issues of education, practice, research, and interaction with the public (APA, Division 47, 1996; Kontos, 2016). Two brochures were developed: Graduate Training & Career Possibilities in Exercise & Sport Psychology authored by Judy Van Raalte and Jean Williams in 1994, which was sponsored by Division 47, AAASP, and NASPSPA; and How Can a Psychologist Become a Sport Psychologist? created by the division’s education committee in 1996 (Education Committee, 1996). There was also a special issue of The APA Monitor in 1996 entitled “The Role of Psychology in Sport & Exercise,” which focused on the field and included the contributions of various division officers (APA, 1996). The division started the journal, Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, in 2011.

One of the biggest, and probably most significant, projects was the recognition of sport psychology as a proficiency through APA. First proposed by Kate Hays when she was president-elect in 2000 (Hays, 2000), the proficiency was approved in 2003 and renewed for approval in 2011 (Clay, 2012). The proficiency helps define the field and documents the knowledge and skill needed for both the psychology arena and the general public. In 2017 , the division will start work on a Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology Professional Practice Guideline to go along with the proficiency, with a goal of 2018 for completion (Kontos, 2016). The division changed its name in 2016 to the Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology to match the changes made to most of the other divisions in APA.

The final significant organizational development, in 1982, took place through the United State Olympic Committee (USOC), when in August a three-day meeting took place to delineate the scope of the field and define sport psychology services related to the mission of the USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee, 1983). This meeting was called because of the development of the Elite Athlete Project, which identified qualified professionals in medicine and psychology who could provide services to the athletes preparing for the 1984 Olympic Games (Nideffer, 1987; Suinn, 1985; U.S. Olympic Committee, 1983). This project identified the following professionals: Jerry May, Daniel Landers, John Anderson, Andrew Jacobs, Herbert Fensterheim, Rainer Martens, Betty Wenz, Robert Nideffer, Richard Suinn, Bruce Ogilvie, and Michael Mahoney. These individuals worked in the sports of volleyball, synchronized swimming, track and field, skiing, fencing, archery, boxing, and weightlifting (Suinn, 1985).

The August 1982 meeting, which consisted of co-chairs Denis Waitley and Jerry May, USOC administrator Kenneth Clarke, physician Russell Copelan, and sport psychologists Dorothy Harris, Daniel Landers, Rainer Martens, William Morgan, Robert Nideffer, Bruce Oglivie, Richard Suinn, and Betty Wenz, saw the formation of the guidelines needed to perform sport psychology services with the national governing bodies of the sports involved with the Olympics (U.S. Olympic Committee, 1983). This group defined the background and credentials necessary to fit into one of the three types of sport psychologists: (1) clinical sport psychologists who could work with athletes suffering from any severe emotional problems, (2) educational sport psychologists who could provide performance enhancement training and mental skills development, and (3) research sport psychologists who conducted research into the psychology of sport performance (U.S. Olympic Committee, 1983). The report caused a ripple effect on practice issues that were debated in the field for the better part of the next two decades and that still have impact today (Heyman, 1984). This group also recommended the hiring of a full-time sport psychologist for the Olympic training center, which led to the hiring of Shane Murphy in January 1987 (Vealey, 1987).

The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) started a sport and exercise section in 1980, but it never fully developed and so it disbanded in 1991. It was reintroduced as an interest group in 2005 and became an official section in 2006. The Sport and Exercise Section installed programming at the annual CPA convention and under the influence of a strong student presence started publishing an official Section newsletter called Perseverance, with its inaugural issue in May 2016 (CPA, Sport and Exercise Psychology Section, 2016). Also in 2006, Natalie Durand-Bush and Penny Werthner from the University of Ottawa developed the Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016). This organization has both mental performance consultant and registered psychologist memberships that are reviewed by a committee based on education and supervised internships and that are kept on a consultant list on the group’s website ( This registry list replaces two previous attempts in Canada to document qualified professionals—the Canadian Registry for Sport Behavioral Professionals created by Murray Smith from the University of Alberta in 1987 and the Canadian Mental Training Registry developed by Terry Orlick in 1994 (Durand-Bush & McNeill, 2016).


The history of sport, exercise, and performance psychology has been one of a long, rich blend of individuals trying to understand the behaviors and thought process of sport participants, coaches, and spectators. By understanding the psychology of these individuals, we can have a better path to making physical activity and athletics a more enjoyable experience. This history has been full of a diversity of backgrounds from the professionals who have contributed and should provide some context for the present and into the future.


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