News - Legacy of Greenville Alumnus "Father of Sport Psychology" Seen at Pyeongchang Olympics

Legacy of Greenville Alumnus "Father of Sport Psychology" Seen at Pyeongchang Olympics

By Carla Morris

A bobsledder closes her eyes and visualizes the course unfolding before her. A snowboarder talks to himself as he sets up for a run. A figure skater plugs into music that keeps distractions at bay while her competitors perform.

However they get their heads in the game, many of today’s Olympic athletes manage the stress of performance thanks to the pioneering work of Greenville University alumnus Coleman Griffith (Class of 1915), "the father of sport psychology.”

Modern Olympics = Unprecedented Complications

Heightened expectations, social media hype and other distractions complicate performance for elite athletes. Today’s teams often call on sport psychologists during training to help members navigate the challenges of setting goals, managing anxiety, visualizing performance and engaging in productive self-talk.

They understand what Griffith’s work in the mid-1920s began to reveal: battles in the mind impact battles on the athletic field.

Griffith’s distinction as the founder of American sport psychology flows in part from two books he authored early in his career: The Psychology of Coaching (1926) and The Psychology of Athletes (1928).  

“It’s impressive to think that one of our graduates achieved that distinction,” says Greenville University Professor of Psychology Richard Beans, who refers to textbooks that cite Griffith as the father of sport psychology.

Persistent Curiosity About Mind and Body

Coleman Griffith-2In college, Griffith thrived on activity. The 1912-15 issues of The Vista Yearbook show the native Iowan as a member of the baseball and basketball teams and an organizer of gymnastic events. He played tennis, served in student government, sang with a male quartet and presided over the Las Cortes, a literary society.

But of all Griffith’s pursuits, it seems the mind-performance connection in athletic competition captured his imagination the most.

In 1920, he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois, where he later taught psychology and developed tests that measured physical and psychological factors that impact athletic performance.

An article he wrote in 1925—“Psychology and Its Relation to Athletic Competition”—declared the value of scientific psychological research to athletic competition.

He argued passionately for the merits of sport, identifying the playing field as the place where athletes learn “morale, spirit, courage, honor, sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork, and the like.”

Understanding What Makes Us Deliver

Coleman Griffith-1Griffith also understood that sports psychology went beyond enhancing performance to fostering personal growth.

Although he worked with University of Illinois football and professional baseball (for a time, he was employed by the Chicago Cubs) he never saw the sports world widely embrace his ideas. He went on to author psychology textbooks and fill administrative roles in higher education.  

Still, sport psychology today reflects Griffith’s contributions to psychology and sport, and to his advance of research and practice.

Industry professionals have now expanded applications of sport psychology to performance in other areas as well, like business, the arts and medicine—developments that only add to “the father’s” influence and legacy.

Learn More

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Little League Legacy: The Inspiration Behind a Career Coach
Running on Gratitude: Double Thanks for Cross-Country, Grace and Coach P
Long Jump, Long Shot

You may not inspire a new discipline like sports psychology, but you can inspire young athletes to exercise their faith on the field and in the gym. Thank you for helping to fund scholarships. Click here to give.

This story was published on February 21, 2018

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