Sports psychology as a formalized field of inquiry and research has been around for nearly a century.
Coleman Griffith, considered the father sports psychology, taught at the University of Illinois and in the 1920s published two of the earliest and best-known books in the field, “The Psychology of Coaching” and “The Psychology of Athletics.”
Like other books published in those years and through the 1960s, they were teaching tools, written for and used primarily by coaches and physical education instructors.
The profession grew in stature after World War II and particularly in Europe, and in the 1970s athletes began to make direct use of sports psychologists and works that helped them elevate their performance in unprecedented ways.
In 1972, a former Harvard tennis player and instructor published a book that would change not only how athletes in his sport approached the game, but became a landmark in sports psychology.
Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis” was meant to address the self-doubt, lack of confidence, lapses in concentration and negative emotions of players in an individualized sport who weren’t allowed to have any direct coaching during their matches.
Billie Jean King famously said during her playing days the book was her “tennis bible,” and “The Inner Game of Tennis” remains near the top of sports psychology bestseller lists.
Gallwey’s “inner game” series includes books about golf, work, stress and even music, and he has parlayed his insights as a performance consultant. What set off a trend of self-help books geared to athletes has become a crucial component of contemporary corporate and organizational management. Gallwey’s books have been scarfed up by politicians, entertainers and business executives.
Athletes and coaches in team sports have flocked to Gallwey’s work. Pete Carroll enthusiastically wrote the foreword to the paperback edition of “The Inner Game of Tennis.” As he got settled in as head football coach at Southern Cal, he applied Gallwey’s insights to the job of motivating and gauging the progress of college players.
So what make’s Galley’s writings essential? In a 2013 BuzzFeed article, writer Reeves Wiedeman concluded that there really wasn’t really any particolar thing:
“Gallwey’s book is a rough guide for how a properly functioning mind should operate.”
Athletes and coaches who’ve benefitted from “inner game” concepts say reading Gallwey simplified their thinking, and focused their minds away from what was bothering them. These weren’t simply whipping up positive thoughts, but encouraging specific, forward-thinking actions designed to achieve a certain performance goal or objective.
Wiedeman suspects Gallwey’s work might seem a bit outdated now, with hundreds of sports psychology books influenced by cutting-edge ideas, such as “flow,” that incorporate sports science and other burgeoning fields.
This may seem like there’s a lot more for athletes to think about. But a good bit of the more recent sports psychology literature actually follows Gallwey’s prescription for breaking down mental barriers with the most essential, easy-to-understand concepts.
Even in the gritty, non-sentimental world of English soccer, players are finding that the key to getting through the long grind of a season is to focus on simple goals:
It’s hard to imagine the average Premier League dressing room alive with intellectual chatter about noradrenaline and pre-frontal lobes. But with mental skills, as with physical skills, mastery is as important as knowledge.