Popular Areas of Research for Sports Psychology Graduate Students

by Laura Morrison, July 2014

Sports psychology graduate students are involved in a diverse range of research topics, from the importance of personality factors in athletic performance to the benefits of exercise for non-athletes. Within each of these topic areas, researchers are generally concerned with how to improve performance (both at an individual and team level), improve health, or manage the impact of athletics on other areas of life. The Association of Applied Sports Psychology hosts an annual conference at which researchers share current findings in the field[i].

Youth Sports

Sports psychologists are interested in determining the benefits and drawbacks of youth involvement in sports, and ask questions such as, “Do youth who participate in sports show improved emotional and social skills in other areas of their lives?” Other topics include the impact of parental involvement, problems with burnout and over-training, and perfectionism. For example, researchers have sought to determine the effect of parental pressure on young athletes[ii]. Finally, some researchers are interested to examine whether it is advantageous for student athletes to progress directly to professional sports or attend college first.

Personality and Motivation

Sports psychology researchers seek to identify the ideal conditions for optimal performance by examining topics such as mental toughness, confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and perfectionism. For example, do athletes who are motivated by a desire to improve (intrinsic motivation) perform better than those who are motivated by a desire to win (extrinsic motivation)[iii]? Other research has focused on the use of visualization strategies to improve skills and reduce performance anxiety. Finally, the ability to block out distractions during competitions has been studied – such as how to maintain attention on a golf swing when a crowd is watching.

Team Dynamics and Coaching

Sports psychology researchers examine not only individual factors in athletic performance, but also what makes a team successful. At a team level, researchers are interested to examine cohesion in both a social and task-oriented sense, and the impact of those factors on performance. For example, does a team that meshes well socially perform better in competition? Research has also focused on identifying team-building strategies that lead to success[iv].

Elite Performance

Sports psychologists seek to understand what sets elite athletes apart, as well as how they cope with the pressure and stress of a competitive lifestyle. Specifically, researchers have studied how elite athletes manage transitions (such as during the Olympics), how they maintain balance between life and athletics, and what they do to prepare for competitions[v]. Additional topics include the importance of mental toughness and the right motivational climate for teams[vi].


At the other end of the spectrum, sports psychology researchers study exercise and health topics in relation to non-athletes. For example, topics include the impact of exercise on mental health, how to improve compliance to an exercise program, and the use of music for motivation during exercise. Researchers have also investigated the impact of specific exercise programs on health and the management of specific conditions such as fibromyalgia.

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Sources: [i] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/ | [ii] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130212/ | [iii] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130187/ | [iv] www.appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130361/ | [v] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130035/ | [vi] www.appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130198/ | [vii] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130296/ | [viii] appliedsportpsych.org/annual-conference/abstracts/20130140/