Sports Performance Psychology

Sports Performance Psychology         
Prepared by  Prepared by: Christine May, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission)
Reviewed by  Reviewed by network: Australian Sport Information Network (AUSPIN)
Last updated  Last updated: 26 October 2017
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Performance psychology focuses on the psychology of human performance including the study of the psychological skills and knowledge necessary to facilitate peak performance in sport, business, and the performing arts.

Sport psychology can be considered a sub-set of performance psychology and is the study of psychological factors that influence, and are influenced by, participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity, and the application of this knowledge to training and competition settings. Sport psychologists work with athletes, coaches, teams, and sport organisations and work across three broad domains:

  1. Performance Enhancement. An athlete’s mental state can be either an asset or an obstacle to performance success.  Sport psychologists can help even elite athletes to become more “podium prepared” or ready to perform optimally “on the day”; teach skills and strategies to regulate thinking, emotions, and attention; facilitate productive team environments; and foster the development of leadership and communication skills.
  2. Performance Restoration. Sport is a challenging environment that can at times derail even elite athletes.  Here, sport psychologists can influence a quicker and easier return back to baseline and beyond by educating and supporting for efficient recovery from injury, performance slumps, and training stresses; cultivate resilience and productive coping skills; and help athletes to develop better conflict management skills.
  3. Mental Health Promotion and Support. Sport psychologists are also interested in how participation in sport may enhance or detract from personal development and wellbeing.  To that end, sport psychologists balance their focus on performance with an understanding and appreciation of the psychological care and wellbeing of athletes and coaches; promote the value of a healthy life balance; assist through periods of transition; and when mental health issues arise, are prepared to screen, manage, and coordinate appropriate support.

In the high performance training environment performance psychology skills are best delivered in regular and consistent doses through a variety of means.  Some athletes will respond to group education, others to individual consultation, while still others will prefer to learn at their own pace through online, written, or audio learning (and a combination of modalities can also be helpful).  In the area of athlete wellbeing and mental health, having local psychological assistance available increases compliance and minimises training disruptions.

Having coach buy-in and involvement in mental skills training increases the probability that such education will be translated over to, and reinforced within, the training/competition environment.  These factors are critical in increasing the likelihood that the mental skills training is as effective as possible and more importantly changes behaviour in desired ways.  Until the skills are second-nature, it will be necessary to revisit their use periodically to ensure understanding and increase the chances for compliance and eventual automaticity.

Performance psychology skills are not just for athletes anymore.  Coaches can benefit from employing psychological skills toward their own performances, particularly in high stress or big competition environments, which can at times change the behaviour of even seasoned coaching professionals.  Some coaches struggle with how to define personal success when the outcome of a given competition is out of their control and can gain benefit by talking through how to manage this with a sport psychologist.  Finally, many coaches have found it helpful to have a sport psychologist observe athlete behaviours and team interactions and share insights gained to improve understanding and increase coaching effectiveness.

National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) should have ready access to a broad network of sport, performance, and general psychologists (or know where they can access them) for athletes in need of assistance in the event of a crisis, or if the athlete cannot access already established services.  Funding should be set aside to cover costs for these services in the event they cannot be met through the AIS or SIS/SAS networks.

NSOs working with a sport/performance psychologist can expect that the psychologist will conduct regular evaluations to gauge provider effectiveness, retention of learning, and links to performance outcomes.

At the elite level, mental and emotional skill building should be embraced not only by athletes, but by the team as a whole, and coaching staff as well.  Having regular contact with a team sport/performance psychologist increases the chances that this encompassing service is delivered in a cohesive and ongoing way.

NSO planning should therefore include plans for mental skill building; including basic skills (developmental level) and processes in place to determine personalised assessment and service delivery (elite level).

The minimum education level required to enter into a career in sport pyschology is a 4-year degree majoring in psychology from an accredited Australian university, following this degree prospective sport psychologists must either complete further university education or enter into a program of supervised practice. A small number of universities offer specific sport psychology courses:

The APS College of Sport Psychologists have qualifications beyond those required for basic registration. Attaining full membership requires a minimum of six years of university training, plus two years of supervised practical experience in sport psychology.


Brainwaves are an initiative of AIS Performance Psychology. Brainwaves are fact sheets, specially designed for athletes, containing practical information about psychological skills used in sport. Topics include: Goal Setting; Concentration; Motivation; Getting ‘in the zone’; Imagery; Competition RoutinesSelf Talk; Self-confidenceInjury Management and; Recovery.

High Performance Mental Skills training

AIS Performance Psychology has developed High Performance Mental Skills Online (HPMS Online) to enhance the understanding and use of high performance mental skills in training and competition. HPMS Online includes six modules designed for athletes of all levels, from recreational to elite performers. The modules are provided free via the Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission) learning platform. Each course includes information about the mental skill, how it can be used and activities to develop the skill. For more information visit the AIS Performance Psychology webpage

Mental Health in Sport (MHS) Awareness and Action program

MHS is a half-day workshop facilitated by AIS Performance Psychology staff designed to educate and up-skill people who work in high performance sport about mental health. The workshop demonstrates the relevance of mental health to performance in a sporting context, and equips participants with the knowledge and skills to identify and respond to someone with poor mental health.

Participants learn about the 4-R model:

  • How to RECOGNIZE symptoms of poor mental health in others
  • Techniques to REACH OUT and support someone in distress
  • How to REFER to a mental health professional and to recognize when this is necessary
  • Ways to REMAIN SUPPORTIVE over time 

Feedback from workshop participants has indicated that this relatively brief intervention (half day workshop) was effective in improving mental health literacy and increased their confidence/likelihood of helping someone who may be experiencing a mental health problem 

For more information visit the AIS Performance Psychology webpage.

Where possible, direct links to full-text and online resources are provided. However, where links are not available, you may be able to access documents directly by searching our licenced full-text databases (note: user access restrictions apply). Alternatively, you can ask your institutional, university, or local library for assistance—or purchase documents directly from the publisher. You may also find the information you’re seeking by searching Google Scholar.

Academic Research

Electronic journals


Online Learning

  • High Performance Mental Skills Online. AIS Performance Psychology has developed six courses, available to the Australian public, aimed at athletes of all levels from recreational to elite. Courses include: High Performance Mental Skills modules include: High Performance Goal Setting, High Performance Motivation, High Performance Concentration, High Performance Getting in the Zone, High Performance Imagery and High Performance Mental Routines. The courses are free to complete, visit the AIS Learning Portal to get started. 


  • The Conversation. Archive of articles on The Conversation relating to sport psychology, 2012-current. 

Clearinghouse Videos

Please note a number of the resources below (as indicated) are restricted to ‘GOLD' AIS Advantage small AIS Advantage members only.
Please see the Clearinghouse membership categories for further information.

Other Videos

  • Emerging technology assisting athlete performance, NSWIS/YouTube, (14 September 2017). 23 year-old Snowboard Cross athlete Josh Miller has incorporated time spent in the NSWIS “Mind Room” into his preseason training regime, using emerging technology to positively impact his decision-making. 
  • Sport psychology - inside the mind of champion athletes. Martin Hagger at TEDxPerth on YouTube. Martin provides an overview of the kinds of techniques that elite athletes use to prepare psychologically for their sport, give details of the scientific research into these techniques and how they work, and how the techniques might be used by competitive athletes and coaches to maximise performance.

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