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Exercise & Sports Psychology. Dave Herlihy & Joe Mills. Exercise and Sports Psychology. The relationship between mind & body has been known for centuries. Ancient Greeks believed exercise was an important component of both physical and mental health.

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Exercise & Sports Psychology

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Exercise sports psychology l.jpg

Exercise & Sports Psychology

Dave Herlihy


Joe Mills

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Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • The relationship between mind & body has been known for centuries.

    • Ancient Greeks believed exercise was an important component of both physical and mental health.

    • In the sixteenth century, Mendez wrote the book entitled “Book of Bodily Exercise”, which discussed the effects of exercise on the mind.

    • Psychologist & Philosopher James said, “Everyone knows the effect of physical exercise on the mood: how much more cheerful and courageous one feels when the body has been toned up, than when it is run down… Those feelings are sometimes of worry, breathlessness, anxiety, tension; sometimes of peace and repose. It is certain that physical exercise will tend to train the body toward the latter feelings. The latter feelings are certainly an essential ingredient in all perfect human character.”

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Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • Exercise and sports psychology is concerned with the psychology of human movement as it is reflected in our behavior, thoughts and feelings of the individuals engaging in that movement.

    • Many of the theories and methodologies that are used in exercise and sports psychology come from it’s parent discipline psychology

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Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • Exercise and sports psychology has two primary research objectives:

    • Determination of the psychological antecedents of participation in sports and physical activity

      • Personality factors that might lead someone to participate in sports or physical activity.

      • Examine effects of pre-competition anxiety or confidence on performance.

    • Determine what the psychological consequences of participating in sports or physical activity.

      • How exercise might influence anxiety, depression or well being.

      • How sports performance might influence feelings of self-confidence or self-efficacy.

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The Framework of Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • Exercise and sports psychology is composed of four distinct yet related areas.

    • Exercise Psychology

    • Health Psychology

    • Rehabilitation Psychology

    • Sport Psychology

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Exercise Psychology

  • Effects of aerobic exercise on emotional responses

  • Impact of biological and psychological factors in determining adherence to exercise

Health Psychology


  • Influence of imagery and self-talk on recovery from an injury

  • Examination of role that psychological factors play in coping with an injury

  • Examination of personality factors related to compliance in weight loss programs

  • Effects of various behavior modification programs on the Type A behavior pattern


  • Attentional factors related to performance

  • Personality characteristics that lead to success in athletics

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Analysis in Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • There are several analytical methods that can be used to examine psychological phenomena as it relates to exercise and sports

    • The popular method used has been constructionism, which has roots in the tradition of cognitive psychology

      • This perspective gives a great deal of weight to the individual’s subjective experience

      • Self-report is predominant analytical strategy used

        • This involves using standardized questionnaires or psychological inventories

          • Speilberger’s State-Trait Anxiety Inventory

          • Profile of Moods (POMS)

          • Beck Depression Inventory in the exercise domain

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Analysis in Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • Observational approaches have been used

    • Requires extensive training fro the observers so that all observers are recording behaviors in the same fashion

  • Psycho-physiologic approach consist of examining phenomenon from both psychological and physiological perspective

    • Insight into psychological phenomena can be gained by examining physiologic events

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The Science of Exercise and Sports Psychology

  • Popular issues studied by exercise and sports psychologists

    • Personality

    • Motivation

    • Arousal Performance

    • Attention

    • Exercise and Mental Health

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  • Personality has been the most popular area of research in exercise and sports psychology

    • Many believe that personality plays an important role in both performance, exercise and health behaviors

    • Personality research underlies much of what exercise and sports psychologists study

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  • Hollander proposed that personality is multilayered

    • The innermost layers are relatively stable and the outer layers are more readily changeable based on the individuals interactions with his/her surroundings

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  • The center is referred to as the psychological core

    • It is the most stable and least changeable aspect of personality

    • Develops early in life from interaction with environment (parents, objects)

    • It is our Self-Concept

      • Perceptions of the outside world

      • Perception of Self

      • Basic attitudes, values, interests and motives

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  • Typical Responses are behaviors that are consistent with our core and usually remain consistent over time

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  • Role-Related Behavior acts as a buffer zone between our core and the social environment

    • It is the most changeable aspect of personality because it is based on the situation or surroundings one might be in.

    • These behaviors still remain consistent with the psychological core and typical responses

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  • The fact that personality is stable over time and is still able to be changed or modified has important implications in the examination of sports performance and exercise and health behavior

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Approaches to Studying Personality

  • There are two main approaches to studying Personality

    • Dispositional

    • Social Learning

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Dispositional Approach

  • Dispositional approaches include biologic theories and trait theories

    • Trait theories have been a popular approach to studying personality

      • Traits are relatively enduring, highly consistent internal attributes that an individual possesses (i.e. moody, anxious, touchy, restless, optimistic, active, sociable, outgoing, lively, carefree, calm and even tempered)

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Dispositional Approach

  • Cattell proposed that personality consisted of 16 factors

    • He developed the popular 16 Personality Factor (16PF) Questionnaire to measure them.

    • This was a widely used approach to study personality until the 70’s

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Superordinate Dimensions

  • The favored approach developed by Eysenck that examined the relationships among traits

    • Eysenck believed personality could be captured most effectively with only three dimensions.

      • Extroversion – Introversion (outgoing, sociable vs. shy, inhibited)

      • Neuroticism – Stability (anxious, excitable vs. even tempered, easygoing)

      • Psychoticism – Superego (egocentric, impulsive vs. cooperative, caring)

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Superordinate Dimensions

  • Each dimension is proposed to have biologic basis, highlighting the notion that personality is not some ephemeral construction but is intimately linked with biologic processes

  • Cattell’s 16 factors boil down to the three superordinate dimensions

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Personality and Sports

  • Does personality influence participation in sports or does participation influence personality?

    • According to Eysenck’s model and research extroverts seek out sensory stimulation and are better able to tolerate pain, therefore they are more likely to take up and be successful in sports than introverts.

    • There is no evidence supporting the theory that participation in sports causes one to develop into an extrovert.

      • The majority of the evidence suggests that extroverts tend to gravitate toward sports.

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Personality and Sports

  • Participation in sports does have some effect on personality

    • Studies have shown there are long term benefits to participating in structured sports programs

      • Less deviant behavior such as: Anxiety and neuroticism

      • It is possible for personality to change over a period of time as a result of regular physical activty

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  • Motivation itself is made up of three components. First, motivation is involved in the choices we make to participate in some activities and/or avoid participation in others. Second, motivation refers to how much an individual invests in an activity. Two different people may choose to invest widely differing amounts of time in an exercise program. Third, motivation is persistence, which is what keeps an individual engaged in a behavior, often in the face of obstacles or setbacks.

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Approaches to Studying Motivation

  • The McClelland – Atkinson model was one of the earliest and most influential model of motivation that explained the need for achievement using personality and situational factors

    • Numerous social – psychological theories of motivation have grown out of the McClellan - Atkinson model

    • These models have adopted a cognitive approach to achievement

      • The drive for achievement are caused by cognitive mechanisms.

        • Self – Confidence is the perception an individual has of his/hers own ability

          • It is situational specific

          • Considered the most important cognitive factor in sports

      • There are two prominent social psychological theories on motivation

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Social Cognitive Theory (SCT)

  • SCT is based on the notion of self-efficacy, which is proposed to be the cognitive mechanism mediating motivation and behavior

    • SCT is not concerned with the skills that individuals actually possess but instead center on one’s own judgment of what they can do with those skills

    • Self-Efficacy – Is the conviction or belief an individual has that he/she can carry out a course of action to achieve a particular outcome

      • Self-efficacy is important in determining choice of activities and whether or not one sticks with it.

      • Self-efficacy is derived from four factors.

      • Self-efficacy has been shown to be predictive of both the adoption and maintenance of moderate and vigorous activity in a variety of the populations.

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Social Cognitive Theory

  • Past Performance (Mastery Accomplishments)

    • It is the most dependable and influential factor in determining self-efficacy

    • The information is derived from previous experiences in similar situations

      • Past success = increased self-efficacy

      • Past failures = decreased self efficacy

  • Vicarious Experiences

    • Information obtained by observing others engaging in similar tasks.

      • Information obtained this was is more potent as the similarity between the model and the individual increases

  • Social Persuasion

    • Societal pressure placed on individuals

      • Even though this has a weak effect of self-efficacy it is stilled used by most major sport goods manufacturers in their advertising

  • Physiologic Arousal

    • The appraisal by the individual of their own physiologic state

      • One person my interpret butterflies in their stomach as a negative and yet someone else may perceive it as a positive

    • Physiologic states are not limited to autonomic arousal, fatigue and pain during tasks also influence self efficacy.

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Social Cognitive Theory

  • Self-efficacy determines the behavior in terms of choice, effort, persistence, thoughts and emotional reactions

    • The effect is not one way, behaviors, thoughts and feelings have a reciprocal influence on self-efficacy, which in turn, has an influence back on the sources of efficacy information.

    • This makes this model Dynamic, it constantly changes as new information is available

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Social Cognitive Theory (SCT)

  • Behavior:

  • Choice

  • Effort

  • Persistence

Past Performance

Vicarious Experiences

Self – Efficacy


The conviction or belief an individual has that he/she can carry out a course of action to achieve a particular outcome

Social Persuasion



Physiological Arousal

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Attribution Theory

  • This theory developed by Weiner attempts to explain how a person interprets achievement outcomes and how that interpretation influences future behavior

    • The premise of this theory is that after engaging in a behavior that leads to some outcome the person begins to search to explain why the outcome happened as it did

      • These reasons for the outcome are referred to as causal attributions

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Attribution Theory

  • The attribution model focuses on identifying common properties or dimensions underlying the attributions

    • Three Causal Dimension were identified:

      • Locus Causality – refers to whether the cause or attribution is perceived to reside within (internal) or without (external) of the individual

      • Stability – refers to the variability of the attribution over time, whether it is temporary (unstable) or permanent (stable)

      • Controllability – refers to whether the attribution is under the individual’s control or controlled by someone else.

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Attribution Theory

  • These dimensions influence future behavior through mediation of emotional reactions and expectations.

    • They feel good when the outcome was successful and feel bad if it was a failure

    • The individual then engages in a causal search to determine the reason(s) that the outcome occurred as it did.

      • For example, immediately after missing a game winning field goal the individual feels angry or embarrassed. Upon reflection it becomes apparent that the weather conditions ad the distance of the kick made the task difficult. The person then realizes the missed kick was the result of external causes, unstable and was generally uncontrollable. After this causal search the individual feel indifferent emotional response or sense of eagerness to try again.

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Attribution Theory

  • The attribution model is the self-serving bias.

    • Winners tend to make attributions of success to ability or effort, whereas losers tend to identify situational causes as the reason why they failed.

    • This Bias is governed by the need to preserve self-esteem.

      • success is credited to internal attributes to enhance self-esteem

      • Failure is credited to external attributes to protect one’s self-esteem.

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Arousal and Performance

  • Arousal – is responsible for energizing an individual for action

    • Arousal is thought as varying along a continuum for deep sleep to extreme excitement or agitation.

      • Arousal involves perceptions by the individual

        • A particular situation can be perceived as a challenge (an opportunity to grow) or a threat (potential for harm or loss). In either case a stressor is perceived by the individual.

        • Stressors are not always negative can be positive

          • Positive stressors cause an individual to get “pumped-up” for the task

          • Negative stressors are viewed a threats and are referred to as anxiety

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Models of Arousal and Performance

  • Two major models have been proposed to explain the effects of arousal on performance

    • Drive Theory

    • Inverted U Hypothesis

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Drive Theory

  • Drive Theory predicts that performance increases in a linear fashion as arousal increases

    • It predicts performance is a function of interaction between habit and drive.

      • Habit refers to the dominance of the most well learned response, whether or not it is the correct response

        • As arousal increases, the likelihood of the subject eliciting the dominant response (habit) is increased.

          • When the task requires a new unlearned skill it is likely the dominant response will be incorrect. As the skill is practiced, the dominant response becomes the correct response; thus increased arousal actually facilitates performance

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Drive Theory







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Inverted U Hypothesis

  • The Inverted U Hypothesis takes to the decrease in performance under high arousal.

    • As arousal increases from low to moderate levels, performance increases

    • As arousal continues to increase past this moderate (optimal) level, performance begins to decline.

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Inverted-U Hypothesis









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Inverted U Hypothesis

  • There are two factors that determine optimal arousal.

    • Task Characteristics

      • A simple task requiring few decisions will be less affected by higher levels of arousal than a complex task requiring many decisions.

      • Likewise, fine motor task requiring accuracy or precision (golf, archery) would require less arousal for optimal performance then a gross-motor task requiring speed, strength or endurance (weightlifting, sprinting)

    • Individual Differences

      • The more experience the individual the higher level of arousal they can tolerate

      • Personality factors effect optimal arousal (extroversion – introversion, neuroticism, trait anxiety). The person who is more highly aroused in normal situations have a low tolerance for arousal

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Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

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Measurement of Attention

Attention is an instrumental part of successful performance, but is not easily studied because there is no uniform method for studying it.

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The Effect of Arousal on Attention

Arousal typically has its greatest effects on attention through its effect on the breadth of attention.

As arousal increases, what happens to the breadth of an individual’s attentional field? Does it seem to NARROW or widen?

The attentional field narrows

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The Effect of Arousal on Attention

Positive effect- when arousal increases from low to moderate levels the attention field in narrowed, which usually enhances performance, because the narrowing of attention eliminates unnecessary or irrelevant stimuli from the attentional field.

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The Effect of Arousal on Attention

Negative effect-as arousal continues to increase, attention is narrowed even further, potentially allowing the athlete to miss important, relevant environmental and situational cues.

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The Effect of Arousal on Attention

  • Numerous factors can impede on or aid attention.

    • Internal factors

      • Personality

      • Emotional state

    • External factors

      • Task demands

      • Crowd noise

      • weather

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Measures of Attention




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Behavioral Measures of Attention

One of the most profound ways used for behavioral measures of attention is a paradigm referred to as a dual-task paradigm.

As the names implies, two tasks compete for the subject’s attention.

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Behavioral Measures of Attention

The rationale for the dual-task paradigm is that, if the primary task requires a sizeable amount of the total attentional capacity, only a minimal amount can be allocated to a secondary task.

So if attention is maintained on the primary task, there should be a performance decrement on the secondary task.

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Behavioral Measures of Attention

Although the dual-task technique has been used in sports, and can reveal a good deal about an athlete’s information processing, it does little to tell about attention processes in real sports situations.

It is also questionable whether there is actually a limit to attentional capacity, the assumption of which underlies the dual-task technique.

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Self-Report Measures of Attention

Another way to think about attention draws from an individual difference approach, or attention style.

The major assessment strategy in this context is self-report, usually via questionnaire.

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Self-report Measures of Attention

  • The most prevalent scale used in sports is Nideffer’s TAIS.

  • The TAIS was developed out of conceptual framing of attention as two-dimensional:

    • Width dimension (broad vs. narrow)

    • Direction dimension (internal vs. external)

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Self-Report Measures of Attention

  • Even though these dimensions seem to make sense and have been generally excepted; the TAIS has been roundly criticized for many reasons:

    • Not being a good predictor of sports performance.

    • Not being able to asses both dimensions of attention (measures width, but not direction of attention).

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Self-Report Measures of Attention

  • Besides these short comings, the TAIS and other self-report measures suffer from other limitations:

    • Whether athletes can actually access the cognitive operations that occur during attentionally demanding activites and then put those into words.

    • Athletes will not complete the questionnaires when it is most important.

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Psychophysiologic Measures of Attention

  • The idea of this measurement of attention can be determined based on physiological responses of the body immediately before performance.

  • The two most common classes of measurement are:

    • Cardiac responses

    • Electrocortical (brain) responses

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Cardiac Responses

As attention is directed toward the environment, heart rate slows down in an attempt to capture relevant cues from the situation.

When that attention is directed internally, heart rate speeds up in an effort to reject these situational cues.

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Electrocortical Responses

The left hemisphere has traditionally been thought of as the site of logical, analytical, sequential thought processing, where as the right hemisphere has been thought of as the site of creative, free-flowing, parallel thought processing.

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Electrocortical Responses

The activities in these hemispheres are measured by an EEG.

What does EEG stand for?

EEG stands for electroencephalogram, which is a recording, from the scalp, of electrical potentials occurring in the brain.

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Electrocortical Responses

These EEG’s have shown that highly skilled athletes have the ability to reduce the mental activity in the left hemisphere, which in turn, makes the right hemisphere more dominant. By doing so, these athletes reduce distracting thoughts that could negatively affect performance.

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Exercise and Mental Health

Regular exercise (chronic exercise) has been shown to reduce levels of anxiety and depression.

These effects hold true for individuals suffering from mild to moderate levels of anxiety and depression and for those who have normal levels of anxiety and depression.

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Exercise and Mental Health

Both aerobic and anaerobic forms of exercise reduce depression.

Which of these forms of exercise also works to alleviate anxiety?

Aerobic exercise

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The Dose-Response

This entails examining how varying doses of exercise, in terms of intensity, duration, and frequency, affect psychological status.

5 to 20 minutes at 60% of max HR or VO2max

The more an individual exercises (chronic exercise), the less anxiety and depression that individual is likely to experience.

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Psychological Well-Being

Exercise is effective in enhancing and improving positive psychological states.

One of the most consistently reported effects from exercise of even mild intensities has been an increase in feelings of energy.

Thayer 10 minute walk example

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Psychological Well-Being

  • What aspects of an individual enhanced by exercise?

    • Energy

    • Vigor

    • Self-confidence

    • Self-esteem

    • Cognitive function

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