The Science and Professional Practice of Sport and Exercise Psychology

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how to start exercise psychology coaching practiceNot a week seems to go by that a news story does not appear saying that the latest scientific study indicates that eating certain foods causes cancer, that a new weight-loss method is effective, that former professional football players have suffered permanent brain injury from repeated hits during their careers, that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, or that parent and coach pressure leads to unhealthy stress and burnout in young athletes. However, while some of the results reported in these stories stand the test of time, others are contradicted just a year or two later. This occurs because the limits in the design of the original scientific study were not understood or the results were disseminated before they could be replicated. Sound scientific methods and understanding of science are necessary to accurately interpret the strengths and limitations of new research.

Science can also be used to counter coaching or physical training myths that we adhere to simply because we have always done things a certain way or to correct erroneous information. For example, many parents tell their children they should not swim right after eating, but research has proven that waiting is not necessary. Similarly, it is often assumed that the five best players will make the best basketball team, but as you will learn in the Sports Psychology Coaching Certification Course on group and team dynamics and cohesion, this is not the case. It is important that we make decisions based on good science and not just hearsay or tradition.

Whether scientific results stand the test of time or not or help debunk long-standing myths, one thing is clear. Today, because of the volume of scientific research being conducted, research results affect our lives more than ever before, and therefore we need to better understand it, both its strengths and limitations. As a sport and exercise science professional, you will need to understand the scientific foundation of your field so that you can better help the athletes, exercisers, and patients you serve. Others of you might want to become a sport and exercise psychology scientist yourself and experience the joy of discovering new knowledge and moving the field forward. Whether you want to conduct research or pursue a professional career in sport and exercise psychology or another sport- or health-related field, you will need to understand sport and exercise psychology both as a science and as a profession.

Connecting Science and Practice in Exercise Psychology Coaching

Reading a sport and exercise psychology textbook and working professionally with exercisers and athletes are very different activities. To understand the relationship between the two you must be able to integrate scientifically derived textbook knowledge with practical professional experience. In fact, the American Psychological Association stresses the importance of evidence-based practice (where practitioners integrate the best available research with their own expertise when working in applied settings) for all aspects of psychology, including sport and exercise psychology. We will help you develop the skills to do this so you can better use sport and exercise psychology knowledge in the field.

Scientifically Derived Knowledge

Sport and exercise psychology is above all a science. Hence, it is important that you understand how scientifically derived knowledge comes about and how it works; that is, you need to understand the scientific method. Science is dynamic—something that scientists do. Science is not simply an accumulation of facts discovered through detailed observations, but rather is a process, or method, of learning about the world through the systematic, controlled, empirical, and critical filtering of knowledge acquired through experience. When we apply science to psychology, the goals are to describe, explain, predict, and allow control of behavior.

Let’s take an example. Dr. Jennifer Jones, a sport psychology researcher, wants to study how movement education affects children’s self-esteem. Dr. Jones first defines self- esteem and movement education and determines what age groups and particular children she wants to study. She then explains why she expects movement education and self-esteem to be related (e.g., the children would get recognition and praise for learning new skills). Dr. Jones’ research is really about prediction and control: She wants to show that using movement education in similar conditions will consistently affect children’s self-esteem in the same way.

To test such things, researchers have developed general guidelines for scientific research:

  • The scientific method dictates a systematic approach to studying a question. It involves standardizing the conditions; for example, one might assess the children’s self-esteem under identical conditions with a carefully designed measure.
  • The scientific method involves control of conditions. Key variables, or elements in the research (e.g., movement education or changes in self-esteem), are the focus of study, and other variables are controlled (e.g., the same person doing the teaching) so they do not influence the primary relationship.
  • The scientific method is empirical, which means it is based on observation. Objective evidence must support beliefs, and this evidence must be open to outside evaluation and observation.
  • The scientific method is critical, meaning that it involves rigorous evaluation by the researcher and other scientists. Critical analysis of ideas and work helps ensure that conclusions are reliable.


A scientist’s goal is a theory, or a set of interrelated facts that present a systematic view of some phenomenon in order to describe, explain, and predict its future occurrences. Theory allows scientists to organize and explain large numbers of facts in a pattern that helps others understand them. Consistent with the notion of evidenced-based practice, theory and the scientifically validated principles should also be used to guide practice.

One example is the social facilitation theory. After Norman Triplett’s first reel-winding experiment with children, psychologists studied how the presence of an audience affects performance, but their results were inconsistent. Sometimes people performed better in front of an audience and other times they performed worse. Zajonc saw a pattern in the seemingly random results and formulated a theory. He noticed that when people performed simple tasks or jobs they knew well, having an audience influenced their performance positively. However, when people performed unfamiliar or complex tasks, having an audience harmed performance. In his social facilitation theory, Zajonc contended that an audience creates arousal in the performer, which hurts performance on difficult tasks that have not been learned (or learned well) and helps performance on well-learned tasks.

Zajonc’s theory increased our understanding of how audiences influence performance at many levels (e.g., students, professionals) and in many situations (e.g., sport, exercise). He consolidated many seemingly random instances into a theory basic enough for performers, coaches, and teachers to remember and to apply in a variety of circumstances. As the saying goes, nothing is more practical than a good theory! Of course, not all theories are equally useful. Some are in the early stages of development and others have already passed the test of time. Some theories have a limited scope and others have a broad range of application. Some involve few variables and others involve a complex matrix of variables and behaviors.

Studies Versus Experiments

An important way in which scientists build, support, or refute theory is by conducting studies and experiments. In a study, an investigator observes or assesses factors without changing the environment in any way. For example, a study comparing the effectiveness of goal setting, imagery, and self-talk in improving athletic performance might use a written questionnaire given to a sample of high school cross country runners just before a race. The researchers could compare techniques used by the 20 fastest runners with those used by the 20 slowest runners. The researchers would not change or manipulate any factors, but rather would simply observe whether faster runners reported using mental skills (e.g., imagery). The researchers would not know whether the goal setting, imagery, and self- talk caused some runners to go faster or whether running faster stirred the runners to set more goals. Studies have limited ability to identify what scientists call causal (cause and effect) relationships between factors.

An experiment differs from a study in that the investigator manipulates the variables along with observing them and then examines how changes in one variable affect changes in others. Runners might be divided into two equal groups. One, called the experimental group, would receive training in how to set goals and use imagery and positive self-talk. The other, called the control group, would not receive psychological skills training. Then, if the experimental group outperformed the control group (with other factors that might affect the relationship being controlled), the reason, or cause, for this would be known. A causal relationship would have been demonstrated.

Any method of obtaining knowledge has strengths and limitations. The scientific method is no different in this regard. The major strength of scientifically derived knowledge is that it is reliable; that is, the methodology is systematic and controlled and scientific findings are consistent or repeatable. Also, the scientists are trained to be as objective as possible. One of their goals is to collect unbiased data —data or facts that speak for themselves and are not influenced by the scientist’s personal feelings.

On the negative side, the scientific method is slow and conservative because reliability must be judged by others. It also takes time to be systematic and controlled—more time than most practitioners have. A breakthrough in science usually comes after years of research. For this reason, it’s not always practical to insist that science guide all elements of practice.

Sometimes scientific knowledge is reductionistic. That is, because it is too complex to study all the variables of a situation simultaneously, the researcher may select isolated variables that are of the most critical interest. When a problem is reduced to smaller, manageable parts, however, our understanding of the whole picture may be compromised or diminished.

Another limitation of science is its overemphasis on internal validity. That is, science favors the extent to which the results of an investigation can be attributed to the treatment used. A study is usually judged by how well the scientists conform to the rules of scientific methodology and how systematic and controlled they were in conducting the study. Too much emphasis on internal validity can cause scientists to overlook external validity, or whether the issue has true significance or utility in the real world. If a theory has no external validity, its internal validity doesn’t count for much. Finally, scientific knowledge tends to be conservative.

Professional Practice Knowledge

Professional practice knowledge refers to knowledge gained through experience. Perhaps, for example, you spend a lot of time helping exercisers, athletes, and physical education students enhance their performance and well-being, and in the process, you pick up a good deal of practical understanding or information. Professional practice knowledge comes from many sources and ways of knowing, including these:

✔  Scientific method

✔  Systematic observation

✔  Single case study

✔  Shared public experience

✔  Introspection (examining your thoughts or feelings)

✔  Intuition (immediate understanding of knowledge in the absence of a conscious, rational process)

Although exercise leaders, coaches, and certified athletic trainers ordinarily do not use the scientific method, they do use theoretically derived sport and exercise principles to guide their practice. For example, volleyball coach Theresa Hebert works with the high school team. She develops her coaching skills in a variety of ways. Before the season begins, she reflects (uses introspection) on how she wants to coach this year. During team tryouts she uses systematic observation of the new players as they serve, hit, and scrimmage.

Last season, she remembers, the team captain—a star setter— struggled, so Coach Hebert wants to learn as much about her as possible to help her more this year. To do this, the coach talks with other players, teachers, and the setter’s parents. In essence, the coach conducts a case study. When she and her assistant coaches compare notes on their scouting of the next opponent, shared public experience occurs. Coach Hebert often uses intuition also – for example, she decides to start Sarah over Rhonda today, the two players having similar ability, because it feels right to her. Of course, these methods are not equally reliable; however, in combination they lead to effective coaching. Like her players, Coach Hebert sometimes makes mistakes. But these errors or miscalculations also become sources of information. Professional practice knowledge is guided trial-and-error learning. Whether you become a physical therapist, coach, teacher, exercise leader, or certified athletic trainer, you will use your knowledge to develop strategies and then evaluate their effectiveness. With experience, an exercise and sport science professional become more proficient and more knowledgeable in practical ways.

Professional practice knowledge has major strengths and limitations. This practical knowledge is usually more holistic than scientifically derived knowledge, reflecting the complex interplay of many factors—psychological, physical, technical, strategic, and social. And unlike science, professional practice knowledge tends to absorb novel or innovative practices. Coaches, teachers, exercise leaders, and trainers enjoy using new techniques. Another plus is that professionals can use practical theories immediately because they do not have to wait for the theories to be scientifically verified. On the downside, professional practice can produce fewer and less precise explanations than science can. Professional practice is more affected by bias than is science and thus is less objective. Practical knowledge tends to be less reliable and definitive than scientifically based knowledge. Often a teacher knows a method works but does not know why. This can be a problem if the teacher wants to use the method in a new situation or revise it to help a particular student.

Integration of Scientific and Professional Practice Knowledge in Sports Psychology Coaching

The gap you may sense between reading a textbook and pursuing professional activities is part of a larger division between scientific and professional practice knowledge. Yet bridging this gap is paramount because the combination of the two kinds of knowledge is what makes for effective applied practice.

There are several causes for this gap. Until recently, few opportunities existed to transfer results of research to professionals working in the field: physical educators, coaches, exercise leaders, athletes, exercisers, and trainers. Second, some sport and exercise psychologists were overly optimistic about using research to revolutionize the practice of teaching sport and physical activity skills. Although basic laboratory research was conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, little connection was then made to actual field situations (external validity).

Scientists have discussed this issue and have identified models to help them better think about how their research can make a bigger difference. For example, the RE-AIM model that outlines five factors that interact to affect knowledge transfer:

  • Reach—who the program affects, the degree to which the program affects the target audience
  • Efficacy—positive and negative outcomes of the program
  • Adoption—who uses the completed program
  • Implementation—assessment of whether the program is delivered as specified
  • Maintenance—sustaining the program over time

phases of a sports psychology programIt is suggested that researchers measure the effects of their studies relative to these five factors. Bridging the research-to-practice gap is not the sole responsibility of researchers. Practitioners must make an active effort to integrate their worlds. Taking an Active Approach to sport and exercise psychology to effectively use sport and exercise psychology in the field requires actively developing knowledge. The practitioner must blend the scientific knowledge of sport and exercise psychology with professional practice knowledge. Reading a book such as this, taking a course in sport and exercise psychology, or working (as a teacher, coach, or exercise leader) is simply not enough. You must actively integrate scientific knowledge with your professional experiences and temper these with your own insights and intuition.

To take an active approach means applying the scientific principles identified in subsequent chapters of this book to your practice environments. Relate these principles to your own experiences as an athlete, exerciser, and biomechanics student. In essence, use the gym, the pool, or the athletic field as a mini-experimental situation in which you test your sport and exercise psychology thoughts and understanding of principles. Evaluate how effective these ideas are and in what situations they seem to work the best. Modify and update them when needed by keeping current on the latest scientific findings in sport and exercise psychology.

In using this active approach, however, you must have realistic expectations of the research findings in sport and exercise psychology. Most research findings are judged to be significant based on probability. Hence, these findings won’t hold true 100% of the time. They should work or accurately explain behavior most of the time. When they do not seem to predict behavior adequately, analyze the situation to identify possible explanations for why the principle does or does not work and, if the findings are theoretically based, consider the key components of the theory behind the original predictions. See whether you need to consider overriding personal or situational factors at work in your practice environment.

This topic is continued in an upcoming blog post.  If you are interested in the topic of Sports Psychology Coaching, learn about our professional certification course and career system.

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