The Psychology Behind Athletics


The girls Air Academy varsity softball team proudly presents their newly gifted award. Despite the players wearing masks from the COVID 19 regulations, these players must have been ecstatic over their winning victory. Photo was taken last softball season by Frankie Gales.

It’s the last stretch of the game. Your team is down by one, and the clock is rapidly ticking down. The success of the team depends on your final move. Will you lead the team to victory or choke under pressure?  With this being said, the team will either be successful or unfortunately lose the game.

However, how does one simple action or decision affect an athlete’s performance? The answer can be uncovered through psychology. 

It’s no secret that athletics are both physically and psychologically demanding. Although sports require an enormous amount of physical exertion, the psychology behind athletic performance is quite profound. With this being considered, it then poses the question: Why do some athletes fail versus succeed under pressure?

The terminology behind this process is not as complex as some might think. The uncomplicated reasoning behind this can be understood from AP Psychology teacher, Michael Hillstrom.   

“The main factor involved in poor athletic performance is a part of the brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for processing fear. If an athlete is experiencing fear they are more likely to fail,” noted Hillstrom. 

In correspondence to fear, some students also choke under pressure due to their low self-esteem or negative perception of themselves. A constant witness of poor athletic performance is physical education and weights teacher, James Risenhoover. 

Some athletes fail under pressure because some athletes begin to question themselves if they can or can’t achieve whatever it is they are doing. Self-doubt plays a big role and confidence as well when it comes to athletics,” commented Risenhoover. 

Yet, if an athlete calms their nerves and understands the severity of their situation, is it still possible for them to still fail? Unfortunately, the answer is not a definitive yes or no response. Even though an athlete has the potential to fail, failure should not be something to constantly fear, as Risenhoover has discovered. 

“…if you fall down, get back up, brush yourself off and do it again. Do not be scared to go after “IT”,” stated Risenhoover. 

Even though this process might appear effortless from a teacher’s point of view, not all students can cope with the thought of failure. In addition to this, numerous student-athletes also struggle with the concept of undergoing continuous physical pain.

Issac Buttery, an Air Academy cross country and track and field runner, consistently deals with the demands of running competitively. 

“But there is a really substantial psychological side to it as well because about half the days you need to run, you are not going to want to. And the psychological aspect really plays into the physical side because you have to want to push through that pain,” commented Buttery. 

From enduring physical pain to coping with fear, the psychological aspect of athletics is incredibly demanding. Yet, despite a student’s efforts, frustration can still arise. Sophomore Keelin Wittkamp undergoes this frustration throughout multiple sports including cross country and soccer. 

“I take sports very seriously and it is really hard for me mentally to mess up especially considering the number of hours I’ve put into practicing,” noted Wittkamp. 

Even though failure and frustration are not enjoyable aspects of sports, unfortunately almost every student-athlete must endure similar struggles. Having to constantly undergo the physical, as well as psychological, demands of athletics is no easy task.

However, there is no particular method that can help every student become successful in their sport. Sophomore varsity softball player, Alex Gales, has discovered that every individual’s approach is different when it comes to sports, yet her own mind is quite insightful. 

“If I am going through a slump or making mistakes I just have to remind myself that I am capable of doing them right, and just need to calm down and focus on the next play or game. As an athlete, it is important to not dwell on the past, but learn from it, because if not you will not improve as much going forward,” explained Gales. 

As Gales noted, confidence plays a vast role in athletic performance, as well as improvement. With this being said, although there is no perfect formula for combating the psychological part of athletics, athletes can implement some practices into their routine. By incorporating various practices, an athlete might notice an enhancement in their athletic performance, as well as their athletic behavior.

A group of cross country athletes poses for a post-race picture after enduring a rigorous course. (Left to Right) Senior Lillian Lewis, Sophomore Leah Finkle, Sophomore Savannah Braden, and Sophomore Keelin Wittkamp. Photo was taken during the 2019 cross country season by Lori Finkle.