Research in sport psychology began in the late 19th century, furthered by the work of such psychologists as Norman Triplett, who in 1898 found that cyclists who rode with others performed better, thanks to the social and competitive aspects of groups.
The field hobbled along until 1925, when psychologist Coleman Griffith founded the first American sport psychology laboratory at the University of Illinois. A lack of interest and funding shuttered the lab in 1932, though Griffith went on to consult with such professional teams as the Chicago Cubs.
Meanwhile, a trio at Stanford University was conducting its own psychological experiments. Psychology graduate student B.C. Graves, professor Walter Miles, PhD, and college football coach Glenn "Pop" Warner came together in an experiment to find the fastest way to get the offense to move in unison when the center hiked the ball. In typical fashion of this era of psychology, Miles created his own experimental equipment, a durable chronoscope to record football players' reaction times.
The ingenious device tested the individual reaction times of seven linemen simultaneously. When a lineman moved, he triggered the release of a golf ball that fell onto a rotating drum. The drum was covered with paper stretched over a wire mesh, and the ball made a definite impression on the paper that allowed measurement of the lineman's quickness. Coaches agreed that the initial charge of the line was a great advantage for the offense, and they were interested in ways to quicken that movement.
In retrospect, Miles and Graves were in the forefront of a movement that is everywhere in sports today: using psychological insights and experimental techniques to get every possible advantage over opponents. In fact, Miles predicted the importance of the elusive "competitive edge" 80 years ago when he said, "Man has become more interested in analyzing the various performances and in isolating individual differences."
The quest continues as sport psychology has become an important applied field in both amateur and professional ranks. Today, psychologists often focus on the mental aspects of sport because, as baseball great Yogi Berra realized so long ago, "Half of this game is 90 percent mental."
Nick Joyce is a graduate assistant at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. Dr. David Baker is the Margaret Clark Morgan Director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology and professor of psychology at the University of Akron.
For more information on the archives, visit www3.uakron.edu/ahap.
Baugh, F.G., & Benjamin, Jr. L.T., Jr. (2006). Walter Miles, Pop Warner, B.C. Graves, and the psychology of football. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 42, 3-18.
LeUnes, A. (2009). Sport psychology (4th ed.). New York: Francis & Taylor.
Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533.
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter