Intellectual integrity that may get lost in the scrum

November 29, 2002

Sport psychology has been around for a long time, but its status is still in question, says Adrian Mourby.

The first Institute for the Study of Sport and Physical Culture was established in St Petersburg in 1919. Soon after, a similar institute was set up in Moscow. The idea caught on. By 1920 the world's first sport psychology laboratory, founded by Carl Diem, was operating in the Deutsche Sporthochschule, Berlin, and, five years later, in 1925, the US followed suit when Cloman Griffith opened a sport psychology laboratory at the University of Illinois.

According to John M. Silva II, professor of sport psychology at the University of North Carolina, Griffith's main research interest lay in a strict determination of how far psychological factors affected performance. "He published two books, The Psychology of Coaching (1926) - the first book on sport psychology - and The Psychology of Athletes (1928), but because of the financial constraints imposed through the great depression, the laboratory closed in 1932, and in North America, little or no research in sport psychology took place between the closing of Griffith's laboratory and the 1960s."

The re-emergence of sport psychology in the 1960s and 1970s, stimulated in part by the success of Russian athletes at the Olympics, gave rise to rapid expansion. In 1970 the first scholarly journal, The International Journal of Sport Psychology , was established, followed by the birth of many professional associations on both sides of the Atlantic. But, as founding president of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Silva has found that enthusiasm for the subject in the US has resulted in insufficient control being exercised over who can claim to be a practitioner.

"As the visibility of sport psychology has increased, more individuals trained in psychology - not necessarily sport psychology - have developed an interest in the field," he says, adding that some "believe because they are trained in psychology and have a licence they can call themselves 'sport psychologists'". The area is not regulated so they have free rein. One result is the rise in the number of websites charging for advice from people calling themselves sport psychologists.

A similar problem exists in Britain, where psychology is the third most popular academic subject. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of people accepted to read psychology has increased from 8,293 in 1996 to 10,655 in 2001. This compares with 7,161 reading medicine and dentistry in 2001.

Faced with such expansion, the British Psychological Society is taking steps to "protect" the term psychologist. According to Ian Cockerill, chair of the BPS's sport and exercise psychology section, this means anyone who practises as a psychologist will be bound by the rules of the Royal Charter and the society's code of conduct.

He says: "A fundamental concern of psychology today is that because science is highly popular, there are likely to be those who refer to themselves as psychologists who are not qualified to do so."

Cockerill is particularly keen to establish sport psychology as a separate division within the BPS and to clarify who is eligible to be called a sport psychologist.

The legitimisation of sport psychology has been helped by the fact that the subject is now being taught at university level, although there are concerns about its legitimacy as a distinct academic subject.

Michel Treisman, emeritus reader in experimental psychology at Oxford University, echoes the views of many psychologists when he says that there are question marks as to whether sport psychology warrants separate academic status from psychology. He says the problems it deals with, such as motivation and coping with physical and mental stress, seem to fall more within the area of clinical psychology.

Significantly, much of the research into sport psychology in the UK comes not from sport psychology courses but from sport science departments and schools. This picture is common across Europe. According to Jaume Cruz of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, the first empirical studies in the subject in Spain, Italy and France were carried out in sport medicine research centres such as the Blume Residence of Barcelona, founded in 1962 for the training of sportsmen and women. Blume investigated sports abilities and skills through "pencil and paper tests as well as a series of reaction time, perception, concentration and vigilance tests", following, says Cruz, the psychotechnics tradition of applying psychological principles to the changing or control of sport behaviour.

The fact that the four UK institutions offering sport psychology in 2003 - Buckingham, Canterbury Christ Church, University College, Lancaster and Glamorgan - are not exactly academic big-hitters does not help the subject's case. Indeed, Canterbury's decision to offer such bizarre joint honours as sport psychology and Canadian studies, sport psychology and applied criminology and sport psychology, film, radio and television does little for the academic profile of a subject begun with such vigour - and rigour - in Lenin's new Russia.

So how far off is the day when sport psychology gets the ultimate accolade of its own chair at Oxford? Brian Parkinson, a lecturer in Oxford's department of experimental psychology, is cautious about how far he will be drawn on the issue. "There are perfectly legitimate scientific questions to raise about psychological influences on competitive performance, and I believe that much of the research conducted under the banner of sports psychology is sound," he says. "Obviously, however, this does not mean that all the work is of equal value."

And another unspoken question hanging over the subject is the perception that it is mainly about motivating people to win.

Cockerill says this is mistaken. "Success in sport depends on technical skill, fitness in its various forms, tactical awareness and a capacity to 'read' the game and an opponent. Given that each of these areas is developed to a high level, performance can still vary from day to day and such variability may often be attributed to mental or psychological factors."

He adds: "Sport psychology is as much concerned with understanding one's attitude to competition and how winning and losing are dealt with as it is with solving an athlete's 'problem'. Hence it is not just about motivation, but also about obtaining a clear understanding of one's own behaviour and that of others in a variety of situations."

Treisman thinks the present problems over the subject's status will eventually be decided when "a sufficient number of practitioners come together and insist that they are and wish to be known as 'sports psychologists'".

Silva says the subject is merely going through a difficult adolescence as it changes from a primarily research-based to a more science-practice orientation. "Although the present may appear very turbulent to many fellow sport psychology professionals, it is actually the time when the role of sport psychology as a discipline and as a practice is being forged. What will its status be in 2020? The possibility for advancement and continued development is extremely high as scholars, educators and practitioners discuss and debate many fundamental issues."

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