The recognition of sports psychology as a distinct branch of the study of human psychology is a relatively recent development. The modern accepted definition of sports psychcology is the study of the mental and emotional factors that both influence and are themselves influenced by exercise and sports participation. In competitive sports, psychologists work with both coaches and athletes to develop appropriate methods to assist with the motivation and improved performance of the athlete.
The world's first sports psychology laboratory was established in Germany in 1920. In 1925, Coleman Griffith, recognized as the father of this science in the United States, established the first ever sports psychology facility in the nation, the Athletic Research Laboratory. Griffith had commenced his research into various sports science and psychology issues in 1918, and he introduced the first university level courses in sports psychology at the University of Illinois in 1923.
It is a testament to the impact of Griffith's pioneering work that his research focus in 1923 was quite similar to many of the important areas of sports psychology today. Griffith conducted experiments into the relationship between physiology and psychology, exploring relationships such as the tension of muscles during athletic performance and reaction time. Griffith had a particular interest in the relationship between the individual personality of the athlete and performance, as well as the impact of the competitive environment on the mental outlook of the athlete.
As a result of Griffith's work at the University of Illinois, he published two seminal sports psychology books. The first, the Psychology of Coaching, written in 1926, is the first ever sports psychology text. Griffith followed this work with the The Psychology of Athletes in 1928. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, Griffith's psychology laboratory could not be sustained and it was closed in 1932.
In 1938, Griffith was hired by the Chicago Cubs baseball club to provide advise as to the psychological factors at play in the structure and performance of the team. Griffith was the first psychologist ever retained by a professional sports team for this purpose; Griffith worked with the Cubs for three seasons, with few of his recommendations implemented by the team management.
Griffith's work is all the more significant when one considers that there was no major sports psychology research conducted in North America from the time of the closure of the Griffith laboratory until the mid-1960s.