Integrating sports psychology into the PE curriculum can increase motivation and improve performance, with benefits for students and the wider community. Lisa Symonds discusses and outlines ready-to-use motivation exercises

‘Not using sports psychology as a tool is like teaching geography without maps’
Mitch Lyons, basketball coach and founder of Get Psyched, a non-profit organization working to promote better mental health in student athletes.

Sports psychology was once the preserve of professional athletes, but in recent years the number
of PE teachers and coaches employing sports psychology tools has risen dramatically, particularly in the United States. Their goal is not simply to improve performance but to produce confident, ambitious students with positive mental attitudes which boost their performance throughout the curriculum and can even benefit their families and communities.

What is sports psychology?

Sport psychology is the study of how people behave while undertaking sporting activity; professionally or otherwise. It seeks to understand how psychological factors affect an individual or team’s performance and to evolve skills-based strategies for improvement; whether it be overcoming injury or improving confidence in competition.

Research into school sport psychology is a fast-growing area and it is widely accepted that incorporating sports psychology skills and tools into the PE curriculum can help the physical, mental and emotional development of students.

The skills that professional sports psychologists teach athletes to help them reach peak performance include:

  • goal-setting
  • visualization
  • rituals
  • ‘loving your sport’
  • self-talk.

Adopting sports psychology skills to motivate students

Students motivated by sports psychology methods are not only healthier and happier, but their new-found passion for PE can also have an impact on several key areas of their lives. Areas where the benefits might be felt include:

  • Parents/guardians – a student with a fresh energy for a new sport or motivation to eat more healthily is likely to encourage their family to follow suit.
  • Schoolwork – success and confidence in sport is known to impact positively on performance in other areas of the curriculum and on attendance and behavior.
  • Community – success in school sport may encourage a student to join a local club or team and volunteer to coach younger pupils.

Motivation exercises

SMART goal-setting

Sticking to an exercise regime or a commitment to a team or club can be difficult for students, especially those who easily become distracted. The SMART approach to goal-setting uses a simple but highly effective formula which is popular with athletes and coaches when setting both short-term and long-term goals.

Use the formula to set an individual student or team a goal that adheres to the following SMART principles:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-limited.

Visualization or imagery

The visualization of a former or dream victory is proven to increase motivation and confidence levels in athletes. In this mental rehearsal, which doubles as a visualization technique, all the senses are used in order to heighten reality and intensity.

Take time out with students in a quiet room or hall to ‘visualize’. Ask students to lie on their backs, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, and then talk them through the ‘victory’ step by step, asking them to hear the crowd cheering, smell the fresh grass, see themselves being awarded the regional trophy, and so on.


Premiership footballers touch the top of the tunnel for good luck before running on to the pitch; rituals have always been an important part of sport. For many athletes, they can mean the difference between defeat or victory; their superstition leads them to believe without the ritual they will fail, so in completing the ritual, they feel empowered and prepared to win. Create a ritual for your team – this could be anything from a pre-match chant to a simple hand signal. Not only will it improve a sense of camaraderie, psychologically and unconsciously, it will empower performance.

Loving your sport

The concept that success is a by-product of loving what we do is a major theme in human psychology. However, when the equation is reversed – to produce the notion that success equates to happiness – humans begin to struggle. Application of this principle to sport gets good results: if somebody enjoys the activity they’re taking part in, they will embrace every part of it, from training to competing, and this pleasure will increase the chances of success.

Many unmotivated students, or those disenfranchised from sporting activity, feel they cannot and will not compete in traditional sports. The inclusion of non-traditional activities suggested by the students themselves – for example, dance or martial arts – will prove more attractive to the previously excluded student and their enjoyment is likely to be reflected in their performance.


Psychologists have established that every individual carries on an ongoing dialogue  with themselves (self-talk) of between 150 and 300 words a minute. This equates to around 51,000 thoughts a day. Whilst most self-talk is innocuous, sentiment can turn negative in athletes and mantras such as ‘I’ll never be as good a runner as him/her’ can become self-fulfilling.

To use self-talk to positive effect, ask students to sit upright in a comfortable chair. Ask them to close their eyes and take a few minutes to unwind, then to think of a positive mantra based on their current goals, for example, ‘I can score goals for the netball team’, and repeat it aloud five to 20 times.

This exercise will only take a short time. Suggest that students repeat the ritual whenever they can: at home, on the bus, or walking down the street.

Motivation at the movies

‘In the psychology of sport, motivation is everything’
Martin Perry – sports psychologist to Premiership clubs

Premiership managers and coaches frequently ask Martin Perry to suggest new ways they can motivate their teams, and they have even been known to ask him to suggest film clips to inspire players in a fresh, fun way before an important game. Try his recommendations, or look for appropriate scenes in other films that will be familiar to your students.

The Shawshank Redemption

Scene: While tarring the prison factory roof, inmate Andy Dufresene risks his life to show scary prison officer Hadleigh a way to save tax on his inheritance.

Sports psychology message: Inspiring a player to build confidence, overcome doubts and fears when preparing to face an intimidating or more experienced opponent.

Dead Poets Society

Scene: Mr Keating (Robin Williams) invites students to rip out the pompous introduction
in their textbook, Understanding Poetry.

Sports psychology message: Encourage a talented player to dare to be different and express themselves more.

Find out more

School Sport Psychology: Perspectives, Programs and Procedures edited by Charles A Maher (Haworth Press, 2005)

Get Psyched: The site of the US non-profit organization advocating  the use of sport psychology in schools.

Mind Tools
Excellent resources for sport psychology-based exercises and tasks

Association for Applied Sports Psychology

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