Developmental Questions

Which comes first—sport or performance psychology?

Posted Sep 25, 2012

Where do I come from?

No, it’s not that old joke about the little boy and his dad—the one with the punch line where the boy says, “Oh! I just wanted to know if I came from New York or Chicago.”

For me, the question is more related to a painting—a marvelous, mysterious, enormous painting by French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. Off in a corner of the painting, the title is written out (in French, but translated here):

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

As we grow and change, these are questions we can all ask ourselves, whether in our individual lives or in our professional lives. Paraphrased, the questions might be:

What are our roots?

Who are we now?

In what direction are we headed?

Is this a linear, chronological process? Not really. Each question, instead, can inform the other. A brilliant American psychologist and theorist, George Kelly, suggested many years ago that who we are is as much determined by who we aspire to be as by our past.

Now all of this is pretty heady, esoteric stuff. You can stop here—of course—or go on. Un-spoiler alert: I’m not going to talk about people today but about professions and the ways that they evolve.

I’ve been thinking about sport psychology and performance psychology—and some chicken and egg questions not dissimilar to Gauguin’s:

Who was here first?

Is one the subset of the other?

And of course: What do we want the field(s) to become?

From a distance, just about any profession appears fairly solid and set. Get closer—whether it’s science, business, or the arts—and the unknowns, uncertainties, and fissures are more obvious. (The same is true in families and with individuals as well!)

The academic discipline of sport psychology typically has been housed within university programs in sport sciences, kinesiology, or physical education. Until recently, few graduate programs in psychology were involved in training sport psychologists.

So here’s the dilemma: an interdisciplinary field becomes an either-or. I’m exaggerating a bit, to make a point, I realize, but it’s basically true. Sport psychology practitioners may not have taken to heart the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Psychologists may not know the research and practice developed by their motor skills-trained colleagues. Sport scientists may not have engaged in the rigorous, supervised applied client interaction of their psychologist colleagues.

And this dichotomy has created problems everywhere: For graduate students, faculty, practitioners—and the public, whether amateur or professional, developmental or elite, seeking services. (If you’re a potential student or learner in this field and want some thoughts about how to manage this challenge, I’ve got some suggestions @

What’s a practitioner to do? What’s a potential client to do?

At an organizational level, the Division of Exercise & Sport Psychology of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology have been grappling with these questions and issues for years.

Complicated enough?

Now add to the mix some newer elements: deeper understanding, broader perspectives, creative interests, market demands…and something labeled Performance Psychology emerges. As I noted in my very first blog, there’s tremendous overlap in content, focus, issues, and intervention methods between sport psychology and performance psychology. Athletes, performing artists, business executives, and the military all face similar challenges for optimal performance. Many of the ways of managing these challenges are comparable across performance domains.

From that perspective, perhaps sport psychology and working with athletes is just a subset of the larger field of performance psychology. Some of our best minds are moving in that direction.

At the same time, it turns out that others were here first: Industrial/organizational and consulting psychologists have been working with organizations, work groups, and business executives for years. Psychotherapists were using mental skills techniques long before sport—or performance—psychology came along. The field of coaching—life as well as other—has been asking similar questions and offering different perspectives.

And so it goes. Caveat emptor!

Again: from a distance, it may seem like the fields of sport psychology and performance psychology are carved in stone—or at least appear to have the same broad brushstrokes. Up close, things are much more detailed and nuanced. Fittingly, a song has been created using Gauguin’s phrases in the form of a “round.” Like Row Row Row Your Boat, different voices come in at different points, singing the same melody—and starting again when they get to the end:

Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going?

Life is a riddle and a mystery.


If you would like to weigh in on this topic—as a performer, a practitioner, a student, or an interested bystander, I would welcome your thoughts. You can comment here or contact me @