Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology


In Support Of A Written Curriculum Based On Sport Psychology
For High School Sports Teams

Mitch Lyons
Get Psyched Sports!
Newton, Massachusetts


Community Needs

The Lifelong Skills Studied in Sport Psychology

The Specific Curriculum

Outcomes and Benchmarks




      Amazing as it seems, the one hundred year old science of sport psychology is hardly taught in any systematic way in our public schools. It would be tragically laughable if geography was being taught without maps or chemistry without the Table of Elements. Yet high school sports, the zenith of most people's sports "careers," is taught without regard to the science upon which peak performance in sports is based. That science is sports psychology.

      High school age students who participate on interscholastic sports teams spend two hours a day, six days a week for 10 to 12 weeks practicing sport-specific skills, yet there is no written curriculum for a teaching methodology for this large amount of time.

      It is well known that coaches are hired for their expertise in the sport they coach (among other criteria), but with little or no regard for their knowledge of the science upon which the learning process is most effectively taught.

      It is true that many coaches use at least some of the principles of sports psychology when they coach (because they have taken courses or read about it or instinctively), but the students they coach do not know the skill the coach is employing when he or she teaches. Moreover, the student does not know that they can practice the same skill the coach is using, so they can learn to apply it themselves. With a written curriculum based in science, a school supplies coaches with written goals and benchmarks so that all coaches are working toward the same goal, much the same way any other academic department functions.

      This is an opportunity to teach paths to good mental health. This program is an early (and can be earlier) intervention program.

Community Needs

"In the United States, approximately 7 million children between the ages of 5 through 17 participate in school athletic programs; 22 million more children and adolescents are involved in organized athletic programs; and yet another 14 million are involved in less structured sports (e.g. weekend skiing or kickball). In short, virtually all children have some experience with sports." Lewis, 1998

      Statistically, there is no question that the place to meet the majority of high school children outside the classroom is on a sports team (Approximately 60% participate in Massachusetts). Here, there is an existing infrastructure where children choose to learn. In the structured environment of a sports team, there are vast teaching opportunities beyond the sport itself.

      Much as been made about the state of amateur sport in America and in Massachusetts. The media headlines of fights and brawls between any combination of coaches, parents, officials and children show the very extreme examples of negativity and result-orientation. Beneath the surface, of course, many of the same thoughts that result in news stories are being whispered and felt by many. There is a built-in frustration that comes with competition when winning is the most important goal as someone is always loosing. It is also frustrating individually for parents when they see their children having a bad experience on a sports team or when the parents' and child's goals for sports teams are not about values, but about personal success measured in playing time, starting position, and personal statistics. The community suffers as a whole when school athletics are not considered to be an educational process, but a place to merely compete to win.

      The essence of competition is that there is a contest and that is a fact that will never change. However, if schools used game and practice time to develop life long mental skills as the mission of the team, students could accomplish two goals: (1) develop a way of thinking that has proven itself to be most effective in increasing self-worth, the key to good mental health while (2) improving their own performance levels on the field of competition. High feelings of self-worth, according to the science of psychology, generally accompanies feelings of happiness, satisfaction, confidence, motivation and productivity (among other feelings).

      The challenge to all schools across the nation is to take advantage of the vast amount of time spent in athletics by turning teams into mental training grounds for increasing self-worth in every participant. Studies indicate that certain ways of thinking, over time and with constant practice, make people emotionally stronger and resilient in the face of adversity. When we actually practice and use sport psychology skills, the whole tenor of the season turns to achieving and working hard toward personal excellence. Thinking that way about sports does not come easily. It is a skill. It requires practice.

      With high schools advertising their mission of implementing the mental skills found in the science of sports psychology, lower level teams in both middle school and community athletic leagues will hear the message through word of mouth, siblings, and the media. Community leagues' involvement will grow as the high schools set the standard of what is taught in amateur sport. Parents will be given written material documenting the goals and focus of the sports program. Signs will be posted during contests as to what exactly is being taught to the players. Gradually, perhaps even a generation or two from now, amateur sport will be taught using principles that have scientifically been found to be most effective in not only improving performance, but, more importantly, in building high self-worth in students.

      While people use the "sports as life" metaphor freely, it is unevenly applied or not applied at all (e.g. negative coaching to achieve short-term results). When a coach does talk about the life lessons in sport, he talks about it in an informal way, verbally, and, most times, the "lessons" are secondary to the contest itself. With a curriculum that both students and coaches see, the lessons will not be missed, in fact, they will be practiced.

      While there are many programs now being offered to help set the right tone for youth sports, they rarely acknowledge they are teaching the science of sport psychology. These programs resort to acronyms and students feel they are being taught a theory espoused by a person instead of being taught the principles of a science (albeit inexact) based on thousands of studies of human behavior in sports.

      There is a great community need to change the way we view amateur sport. Professional athletics is an entertainment. Amateur sport is an educational experience for the athlete. Sometimes these concepts are confused. For instance, a major Sports Management masters and doctoral program at a state university, which deals with both professional and college sport management, has no class on the athlete themselves, only on the business of using the athletes' performance for profit. The course, Athlete Development, is about fundraising. Is this what the community desires for its high school and younger students in their sports program?

The Lifelong Skills Studied in Sport Psychology

      There are so many studies that cover so many subject matters in sport psychology that the average coach is overwhelmed by information. Somehow, the concepts need to be simplified so that both students and coaches teach in a way consistent with what has been learned through science. There is a need to put those simple concepts in writing for coaches and students to read and understand, just as they do in every other academic subject matter. In addition, the coaches and players are able to practice the mental exercises on a daily basis. By doing this, sports psychology becomes an applied science and not a theoretical exercise. In putting together the basic skills, it should be as simple as possible so that coaches and students understand what they are practicing. In this case, based upon working with this system as a coach for over 15 years, I have attempted to simplify the skills most often needed on a team as follows:



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      In addition, there should be a list of activities to do every day at practice and at games, or even alone, away from others, that need to be identified. The ones I have come up are the following:


  1. Communicate with others in a respectful, sensitive and positive way to make yourself feel good about yourself. A gift of yourself is a gift to yourself.
  2. Repeat a statement that makes you feel good about yourself over and over again as a mantra when you have negative thoughts about yourself.
  3. Set realistic and challenging goals that are short-term, specific, performance-related and are within your control to create successes.
  4. Think about how hard you are physically working when you are doing so for an instant feeling of success. Practice maximum effort.
  5. Practice focusing for a longer and longer period of time by asking yourself questions about what you should be doing when you are practicing and playing.
  6. Pick apart a task into the smallest details and think about accomplishing each of those details as well as you can instead of the ultimate goal you want to achieve.
  7. Imagine doing certain tasks in detail over and over again in your mind and practice feeling good about your success.


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      From extensive reading of studies of sport psychology, it appears that those with high self-esteem improve their performance, are more resilient, more confident, more productive, are more willing to risk failure, are happier, more motivated, and more satisfied. This simple fact is not disputed. (Sugarman, 1999; Weinberg and Gould 1995; Cox, 1990; Martens, 1987; Bunker and Williams, 1986)

      In addition, "people who feel good about themselves and their identify are less likely to be prejudiced and biased toward others." In this way, building high self-esteem in students assists in the fight to break barriers of differences between our cultures. (Bettman, 1998)

      It seems obvious that coaches should want to help their student/athletes learn how to reach this high feeling of high self-worth. It also seems obvious that the skills listed above are transferable and transcend sports into other areas such as academics, community service and personal excellence.

      For example, the concept of being positive, supportive, and sensitive with others is a self-worth building skill. Helping someone across a street makes people feel good about themselves. Treating a teammate with understanding makes one feel good, not to mention that the teammate benefits from it. This is a simple way to create team harmony as well as building self-worth in each person who acts in this manner. But it is difficult to do, as any team or student will attest to. Being positive with others is a skill that must be practiced. The student is told that practicing this skill is within their control. On the team that practices this, the players and coach are actively and consciously working on being positive with self and others.

      All sports psychology advice found in books shows ways to build self-esteem in order to improve performance. However, it also is the way to good mental health. The benefits are life-long.

      Building self-worth should be a coach's primary job, For example, motivational techniques, for long term mental health, should be driven toward teaching children how to motivate themselves instead of responding to external motivation, some of them quite self-defeating. For instance, Jackie Cooper, the great child actor, was told by his movie director that the child's dog had died in order for him to cry in a movie scene. While getting immediate results for the director, it scarred Cooper for life as he attested to years later. Yelling in a student's face about an error on the playing field may get results in improved play on an immediate basis (or maybe not), but it is definitely acts to lessen, not increase, self-esteem. It is coaching against the tide of scientific knowledge.

The Specific Curriculum

      Once the basics are understood, the curriculum, like any standards-based education, needs to be quite specific so that it acts as a guide for coaches and tells students what they are to learn.

      While there are many coaches and athletic directors who are in favor of this type of change and, in fact welcome it, there are many that do not want to participate. I have met some of them. I have found resistance on four basic fronts: (1) a comfort level has been reached where change is unwelcomed or seen as not needed. The sports psychology curriculum is seen by the coach as something he or she already teaches, even though the children are not specifically practicing the mental skills outlined in sports psychology. No one has disagreed with tenets of sports psychology; (2) the work involved in changing and learning new methods is not viewed as worth the benefit to the student; (3) negativity and cynicism is part of the personality of the coach or department, frequently due to length of service and "seen it all" mentality; (4) lack of knowledge, misinformation or intimidation about the subject matter, is followed by rejection as the easier path to take (I was told by one coach that "self-esteem is b.s." fostered by people who want to applaud children no matter what they do or how they behave); (5) the curriculum is seen as an attack on the coach's past years of experience and, in some cases, taken as a personal insult; (6) over-reliance on personal experience or a "that's not the way I learned" defense, notwithstanding that the manner of coaching and learning when the coach was playing may have helped him or her, but few others.

      The great Frederick Douglass said, "Without struggle, there is no progress." He was talking, of course, about the epic struggle from slavery to freedom for African-Americans. The lesson about change, though applied to a much lesser subject matter, remains the same.

      As of this writing, two Massachusetts high school athletic departments are planning to implement this curriculum. One of them is a small school, with a limited talent pool from which to draw, which leads to many defeats for their teams. The Athletic Director wants a program where they can learn something, where the focus is not about winning.

      Below is an example of one such curriculum for the program described. The format is taken from a high school systems curriculum development office within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is the product of this author and all rights are reserved for its use. I suggest that readers of this detailed program show it to athletic directors, coaches, principals of schools and any other educational administrator to see if there is a desire for it to be applied in your community. Found immediately after the written curriculum are the conclusions of this article.

Outcomes And Benchmarks For Sport Psychology Curriculum On Sports Teams

      The outcomes and benchmarks are not necessarily sequential, but in some cases are in order so that the developing athlete and coach can understand sport psychology, how to apply it and how to practice the skills learned from it.

Student Outcome #1. Student will learn and understand the principles of sports psychology and its terminology, including the value derived from self-worth and how to attain it. Student will:

Coach Outcome #1. Coach will learn and understand the principles of sports psychology and its terminology, including the value derived from self-worth and how to attain it. Coach will:

Student Outcome #2. Student will demonstrate competency and exhibit some of the basic fundamental self-worth building skills such as being positive with others, giving maximum physical effort, goal setting, and focusing. Student will:

Coach Outcome #2. Coach will demonstrate competency in teaching and focusing on some of the basic fundamental self-worth building skills such as being positive with others, giving maximum physical effort, goal setting, and focusing. Coach will:

Student Outcome #3. Student will demonstrate other self-worth building skills such as positive self-talk, task-orientation, and visualization. Student will:

Coach Outcome #3. Coach will demonstrate other self-worth building skills such as positive self-talk, task-orientation, and visualization. Coach will:

Student Outcome #4. Student will apply mental skills in games. Student will:

Coach Outcome #4. Coach will apply mental skills while coaching games. Coach will:

Student Outcome #5. Student will apply mental skills to academics. Student will:

Coach Outcome #5. Coach will emphasize the use of mental skills for academics. Coach will:

Athlete Outcome #6. Student will apply skills for building self-worth outside of school. Student will:

Coach Outcome #6. Coach will set goals for the team to build self-worth outside of school. Coach will:

All rights reserved by Mitchell R. Lyons from the program There is an "I" in "Team", Get Psyched Sports! Specific written permission is required to copy any table or curriculum for use.


      Make no mistake about it, a written curriculum based on the science of sports psychology for high school sports teams is innovative. It has never been done before. Implementation of this program nationally (two generations or more away) will change amateur sports in America in the following ways:

      Effecting this sea change in approach to amateur sport will be a hard journey. The innovator in each community where such change is championed will be regarded as fool, as someone who wishes to take competition out of sport, a "touchy-feely" Pollyanna. The answer to all is that the program is based on over a hundred years of science where the hodgepodge of current coaching is based on intuition. For those who care so much about winning that they fear intellectual growth as a goal, the answer should be that by applying this science, their chances of winning are actually better.

      For those coaches and athletic directors who implement the skills addressed by sports psychology, they will find that they do not actually identify the specific skills they are using as a science to their students (or maybe do not recognize it themselves). In addition, the students themselves are unaware of the exact skills they are to practice. There will be an initial period of adjustment where one learns that every behavior on the playing field, track or court is an opportunity to identify and inform the player the mental skill that needs to be practiced. Gradually, players will identify the skills by themselves. Players do not merely pass badly, they fail to focus on the details of the task. Players who fail to get back on defense by not running as fast as they possible can are players who need to build their self-worth by practicing the skill of giving maximum effort. Players who get angry with themselves are those in need of practicing positive self-talk. When players realize what they are practicing on their sports team, sports will becomes a place to exhibit personal excellence, not comparative excellence. Their goals will be clear and based in science. Winning the contest will always be exciting, but individual progress will be the mark of success.

      Sports truly is a metaphor for life, but only to the extent we make it so. Currently, the metaphor is vague, subject to the personality and knowledge of each coach. By setting down a written curriculum, coaches and players will understand that the skills learned on a sports team will carry through to an adulthood of satisfaction, success and productivity.

The author is founder of Get Psyched Sports! which facilitates the activities workshop, THERE IS AN "I" IN "TEAM", in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since September of 2000. Mr. Lyons is a basketball coach of 15 years, for the past five years at the high school level. A lawyer, Mr. Lyons has given up his 26 year practice of law to advocate for a written curriculum based in sports psychology for sports teams as a means of improving mental health of young people. He is currently seeking funding for this program through the Wellness Program of the non-profit Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (representing 350 high schools in Massachusetts) for whom he is a workshop presenter. As of this writing, the written curriculum at the end of this article will be implemented in two high schools in Massachusetts this Fall, making them the first high schools in the nation to have a sports psychology written curriculum for its sports teams. All comments, criticisms and suggestions as to the curriculum itself or to the funding of this program are welcomed by writing to Athletic Insight or by e-mailing the author directly.


      Bunker, L., and Williams, J. (1986). Cognitive techniques for improving performance and building confidence. In J. M. Williams (Ed.) Applied Sport Psychology, Personal Growth to Peak Performance, Mayfield Publishing Company.

      Cox, R. C. (1990). Sports Psychology, Concepts and Applications (Second Edition), Wm. C. Brown Publishing.

      Hoffmeir-Bettman, Ellen (1998). A Classroom of Difference Training Manual, Anti-Defamation League's World of Difference Institute.

      Lewis, M. (1998). Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

      Martens, R. (1987). Coaches Guide To Sports Psychology, Human Kinetics.

      Sugarman, K. (1999). Winning the Mental Way, Step Up Publishing.

      Weinberg, R. S., and Gould, D. (1995). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Human Kinetics.

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Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology: Line Mental Health Net Award Winner
Copyright 2001 Athletic Insight, Inc.
ISSN 1536-0431