Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Athletic Insight –
From an International Sport Psychology Perspective

Dieter Hackfort President ISSP 2005-2009

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       In 2009 the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) staged the 12th World Congress of Sport Psychology in Morocco and it was the first one in Africa since the Society was founded in 1965. Now all the continents as they are represented in the five circles of the IOC logo have hosted this event and this may provide proof that Sport Psychology today is affirmed through a global community. International colleagues from all over the globe contribute on the one hand through their research to the advancement of athletic insights and on the other hand by their service to the enhancement of performance and well-being for athletes, coaches and further groups of people involved in sports and exercise. Essential processes as they have been discussed in the Congress and as they are highlighted in the various contributions to this special edition will be briefly outlined in the following by a systematic approach in sport psychology from an action- theory perspective.

Framework for a Comprehensive Perspective

       Since scientific psychology was established by Wundt at the end of the 19th century in Leipzig (Germany) two alternative perspectives could be observed which enjoyed alternate emphasis in the scientific community. From the empirical/experimental point of view measurable factors have been defined to be the core subject of psychology. A prominent representative of this paradigm is the stimulus and reaction concept. From a phenomenological point of view processes which built the link between stimulus and reaction, especially cognitive and affective processes, have been considered to be the specific subject of psychology. As it is not the purpose here to recapitulate the history and various understandings of psychology but to highlight that there have been opposite approaches the message is, that an integrative perspective is needed to overcome one-sided conceptualizations and to replace dissociative underpinnings by a comprehensive framework . Such a framework is elaborated since three decades by a group of German sport psychologists who promote an action theory based perspective (Hackfort, 2006; Hackfort, Munzert & Seiler, 2000; Nitsch, 1975; Nitsch & Hackfort, 1984).

       It is fundamental for this perspective to emphasize (1) the functional interrelation of mental processes, e.g., cognitive and affective processes, (2) a dialectic relation of external and internal factors, the objective and subjective world, and (3) the construction of the action situation by a person-environment-task constellation.

Affective and Cognitive Processes

       To some extent it is a definitional issue to differentiate cognitive and affective processes (or emotion and cognition or feeling and thinking; see Lazarus, 1984; Zajonc, 1980) properly, but already Piaget (1954) explained that cognitive and affective processes represent two sides of one coin, that is, these two fundamental processes cannot be regarded independently. Maybe it is a meaningful conclusion to highlight that both, cognitive and affective processes, are representing complex sub-systems which are interrelated in manifold ways. Especially for applied purposes it seems to be useful to consider that basic cognitive processes (e.g., visual, acoustic, haptic, and olfactory perceptions) already initiate affective processes and the present mood state influences, e.g. perceptions. Affective process initiate and influence further cognitive processes, e.g. memory. Human behavior including intentional organized behavior (actions) is always governed by both, affective and cognitive processes. Not only sport psychologists but also coaches have to understand and refer to both processes and to consider the complex interplay between these processes. In the endeavor to strive for excellence, to enhance performance, and to improve well-being usually the analyses are targeting problems or insufficiencies and not well-functioning processes, strength, and positive aspects. Maybe it is assumed that these aspects are detected and well known by the athlete him- or herself. A more logical or rational assumption is just the other way around: Mal-functioning processes and failure become aware immediately and catch the focus of our concentration whereas well-functioning processes are not especially noticed. As a consequence it is needed to not only uncover the reasons for failure but also the reasons for success, to indicate what is running well, and to emphasize strength and positive aspects. At the end the positive aspects are essential for self-confidence and the basis for success.

Objective and Subjective Factors

       Factors like temperature, humidity, noise, distance, time etc. are regarded as “objective” and determining agents for our behavior. However, all of us are aware that, e.g., the same temperature is perceived differently by different people and also differently by the same person at different occasions and it is the individual perception which is decisive how we are influenced by such factors in organizing our actions. To cut the long story and sum up the insight on objective and subjective factors it is fact that both influence the organization of our actions.

       From a methodological point of view “objectivity” means and refers to an inter-individual constructed trans-individual reality, whereas “subjectivity” refers to the individual experience. The action-theory approach in sport psychology emphasizes that it is essential to consider objective factors, that is the external world, and subjective factors, that is the internal world, the individual construction about the world, especially the subjective concept about the environment, the task at hand, and the acting person him-/herself (self-concept). Objective factors on the one hand side are reflected in the subjective perception and individual re-construction of the objective factors, on the other hand this individual re-construction is the basis for the manipulation of the external world by the acting person and thus influencing/modifying the objective world.

       As a consequence it is recommended for sport psychology consultants and, e.g., coaches in the endeavor to optimize behavior, performance and/or well-being of the athletes to analyze the action situation not only with regard to the external world, objective factors but especially with regard to the subjective definition of the situation by the acting person (Hackfort, 2001). His or her perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are decisive for an appropriate understanding of the way they organize and control their actions. Interventional strategies should be built up on the bases of these subjective concepts of the client and these concepts are a most effective starting point for the modification of actions. Efficient instructions and feedback by sport psychology consultants, coaches, and teachers have to meet the needs of the athlete or student and they have to match his understanding. Thus, instructions and feedback should be given (predominantly) when the athlete is asking for it and they should address (also) issues or aspects for which he or she (and not only the coach) feels the necessity to learn about.

The Action Situation

       The relation between a person and the environment is constitutive for human life. To organize and manage this relation to optimize it with regard to the individual needs and to bring it in a better fit is characteristic for human beings and the general purpose of actions. As soon as the person detects that it is necessary to do something to keep a fit or to improve the person-environment fit he or she is confronted with a task. The task is the link between the person and the environment which builds the action situation. Actions are organized to cope with the task at hand and to actively create the best possible person-environment relation/fit guided by intention(s).

       Based on this understanding the general objectives in sports and exercise to maximize performance and well-being only can be achieved by an approach to optimize the person-environment- task fit. This has to be done by an analysis of the action situation (Hackfort, 1986; Hackfort, 2006) considering not only the objective circumstances but also the subjective perception and concepts (see above), that is the individual definition of the situation. The selection and application of interventional methods should be based on diagnostic methods and these methods should include measures to analyze the action situation including personal factors, environmental factors, and factors of the task at hand. The definition of his or her definition of the situation is the significant point of monitoring athlete’s actions. From an action-theory perspective the athlete is a partner in the expert discussion with the coach or the sport psychology consultant. Both experts think about the actions, refer to their concepts and should share their understanding to ensure a fruitful development and improvement process. For appropriate sport psychology consultancy, coaching, and teaching this is an essential athletic insight.


       Hackfort, D. (2001). Experiences with the application of action-theory-based approach in working with elite athletes. In G. Tenenbaum (Ed.), The practice of sport psychology (pp. 89-99). Morgantown, WV: FIT.

       Hackfort, D. (2006). A conceptual framework and fundamental issues for investigating the development of peak performance in sports. In D. Hackfort & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Essential processes for attaining peak performance (pp. 10-25). Aachen: Meyer & Meyer.

       Hackfort, D., Munzert, J., & Seiler, R. (2000). (Eds.). Handeln im Sport als handlungs- Psychologisches Modell (Acting in sports as an action-psychology model). Heidelberg: Asanger

       Lazarus, R. S. (1984). On the primacy of cognition. American Psychologist, 39, 124-129.

       Nitsch, J. R. (1975). Sportliches Handeln als Handlungsmodell (Sports-related action as an action model). Sportwissenschaft, 5, 39-55.

       Nitsch, J. R., & Hackfort, D. (1984). Basisregulation interpersonalen Handelns im Sport (Tuning of interpersonal acting in sports). In E. Hahn, & H. Rieder (Eds.), Sensumotorisches Lernen und Sportspielforschung (Sensori-motor learning and research in sports games (pp. 148-166). Cologne: bps.

       Piaget, J. (1954). Les relations entre l’affectivité et l’intelligence dans le development mental de l’enfant (The relationships between emotionality and intelligence in the mental development of the child). Paris: Centre de documentation universitaire.

       Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking. Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35, 151-175.

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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dieter Hackfort, Greifenberger Str. 8a, D-82279 Eching a.A., Germany. Email:

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