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date: 19 January 2018

History of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology in Europe

Summary and Keywords

The evolution in sport, exercise, and performance psychology in Europe goes back to the 1800s and spread from the east (Germany and Russia) to the west of the continent (France). Modern European sport psychology theorizing started with Wilhelm Wundt, who studied reaction times and mental processes in 1879, and Philippe Tissié, who wrote about psychological changes during cycling in 1894. However, Pierre de Coubertin was the one to put forward the first definition and promotion of sport psychology as a field of science. From there on, and despite obstacles and delays due to two world wars in Europe, sport psychology accelerated and caught up with North America. Looking back to the history of our disciplines, while sport, exercise, and performance psychology evolved and developed as distinct disciplines in Europe, sport and exercise psychology research appear to be stronger than performance psychology. The research advancements in sport and exercise psychology led to the establishment of the European sport psychology organization (FEPSAC) in the 1960s, as researchers needed an umbrella establishment that would accept the cultural and linguistic borders within the continent. From there on, education programs developed throughout Europe, and a cross-continent program of study with the collaboration of 12 academic institutions and the support of the European Commission was launched in the late 1990s. Applied sport psychology was practiced in the Soviet Union aiming to enhance the performance of their teams in the 1952 Olympics. Unfortunately, in many countries across Europe, research and practice are not comprehensively integrated to enhance sports and sportspersons, and while applied practice has room to grow, it also has challenges to tackle.

Keywords: Europe, history, research development, applied practice, sport psychology education, future challenges

For the longest time, scholars with training in sport psychology primarily studied the North American historical development of sport psychology. It is only in recent years that the history of sport psychology in Europe is being brought to light. This is somewhat surprising, as many regard sport psychology in Europe as having started in the ancient era with the advent of Greek philosophical writings (see for instance Fletcher, 2012; Lavallee et al., 2004, 2012). For this reason, Aristotle (384–322 bce, philosopher) is often quoted in sport psychology papers (e.g., Cogan, Flowers, Haberl, McCann, & Borlabi, 2012; Ettekal, Ferris, Batanova, & Syer, 2016). Also, Epicutus’ (55–135 ce, stoic philosopher) reasoning that “men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them” is also referenced in teaching cognitive restructuring (e.g., Theodorakis, 2007). When different psychological theories have varying hypotheses for how numerous factors affect our behavior (inner and outer forces vs. free will), there may be good reasons for quoting philosophers like Aristotle.

During the first half of the 19th century, the inner life of humans became a popular topic in publications of experimental psychology (Bäumler, 2009). Bäumler underscores that this scientific approach to psychology inherited standards from other research investigations, such as physiology. Accordingly, modern European sport psychology theorizing goes back to the end of the 19th century and to Wilhelm Wundt, the father of experimental psychology, who in 1879 at his Leipzig laboratory (Germany) studied reaction times while observing different mental processes (Hackfort & Kuhn, 2013). Wundt’s work had a direct influence on the development of sport psychology research (Hackfort & Kuhn, 2013), while it also influenced some of his students, who later contributed to sport psychology by conducting research and writing in the area; among them were James Cattell and E. W. Scripture (Benjamin, Durkin, Link, Vestal, & Acord, 1992; Kornspan, 2012). Even though Cattell, Wundt, and Scripture became widely famous in the years to come, it was Tissié who published a paper in 1894 introducing the blend of psychology with physical training (Bäumler, 2009). In 1899 Groller published his twofold text titled “Zur Psychologie des Sportes” (Bäumler, 2009), and Coubertin published his seminal paper “La psychologie du sport” in 1900. Hence, several early attempts were made to study psychology and sport in Europe. Historically, sport psychology has long-documented traces in Europe, taking us back to the first definition and promotion as a field of science by Pierre de Coubertin in “La psychologie du sport.”

While sport, exercise, and performance psychology have gradually evolved and developed (and continue to do so) as distinct disciplines in Europe, they are not treated separately in this chapter, as their definitions and practices are closely related, even overlapping, and numerous European experts in the field do not concentrate on studying or practicing only one of them. While defining the boundaries between sport, exercise, and performance psychology can be seen as a hairsplitting exercise, some formal definitions are presented here, as these appear to be key for the work done and the trends that have evolved in Europe. Though some good examples of clear distinctions exist, these are mainly situated in North America (see, for instance, the definitions provided by AASP and APA Division 47). Considering the focus in Europe, the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC, 1995) defines sport psychology rather broadly (and vaguely, as pointed out by APA Division 47 Practice Committee, n.d.) referring to a discipline that

is concerned with the psychological foundations, processes and consequences of the psychological regulation of sport-related activities of one or several persons acting as the subject(s) of the activity. The focus may be on behavior or on different psychological dimensions of human behavior, i.e. affective, cognitive, motivational or sensori-motor activities. The physical activity can take place in competitive, educational, recreational, preventative and rehabilitation settings and includes health-related exercise. Subjects are all persons involved in the different sport and exercise settings, e.g. athletes, coaches, officials, teachers, physiotherapists, parents, spectators, etc.

(FEPSAC, 1995, p. 1)

FEPSAC’s definition is wide enough to cover exercise psychology and performance psychology, and this is possibly a reason why it has not been updated since 1995. Biddle and Fuchs (2009) more recently provided a simplified description of exercise psychology as “the application of psychology to antecedents and consequences of health-related physical activity” (p. 410). According to Biddle and Fuchs (2009), exercise psychology as a more distinct research subject started to gain momentum at the end of the 1980s. They further argued that the reason for this was the spur of health sciences, which eventually trickled down to the expansion of exercise psychology. To this day, performance psychology has not been “officially” defined in Europe; for the purposes of this chapter, Hays’ (2006) description is presented here of a discipline that aims to help people learn how to perform better and consistently in endeavors where excellence is of importance. Moving past the definitions of the three disciplines, in our everyday work, in what we actually do, the lines between these idiosyncrasies may be very fine for some but distinct for others, mainly depending on the individual’s training and work arena.

The fact that Europe is one continent of 50 countries, where 225 languages or dialects are spoken among its 742,452,000 citizens, and where linguistic, ethnic, and cultural borders still exist even within the newly formed European Union, provides us with a fundamental explanation as to why sport, exercise, and performance psychology history were not put together earlier. Even today, in writing this chapter it ought to be acknowledged that the authors’ linguistic borders limit the information presented here. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Considering also the cultural, political, and geographical borders between east and west Europe, Bäumler pointed out that some Russian articles from the 1920 and 1930s could not be attained. Furthermore, two world wars critically affected most countries in Europe (socially, politically, and financially) and slowed down the evolution of many sciences, among them sport, exercise, and performance psychology.

The “Prehistoric” and Early History Years in Europe

While in his early work Pierre de Coubertin approached sport psychology from a philosophical angle, he rigorously promoted it as a field that needed attention. Upon recognizing that the medical profession had focused enough on the physiology of sport, he realized that the psychology of sport also required attention (Kornspan, 2012). Coubertin (Müller, 2000) wrote multiple essays on sport psychology addressing the motives of children, youth, and adults for participation in sport; the athlete’s state of mind and satisfaction from participation; the athlete’s self-control; the will to push through; and the mental properties for improving athletic performance, among other topics (Kornspan, 2007b; Müller, 2000). He also worked for the presence of sport psychology in the newly organized Olympic Congresses (in the second one in Le Havre, France, in 1897 and the fifth in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1913). The 1913 Lausanne Congress is referenced in the literature as very successful and as having marked the birth of sport psychology (Kornspan, 2007b; Müller, 1997). According to Kornspan, Coubertin in his memoirs actually referred to the 1913 congress as the Sport Psychology Congress.

However, sport psychology in these “prehistoric” years, as characterized by Benjamin and Green (2009), also attracted the attention of some researchers. As mentioned before, the French physician Philippe Tissié (1894a, 1894b) reported on the psychological changes (along with the physiological and biochemical ones) that were produced following the endurance task of cycling for 24 hours in a velodrome. Schulte, a psychologist at the German and Prussian College for Physical Education in Berlin (Bäumler, 1997) and student of Wundt, opened a sports psychology laboratory in Berlin in 1924 (Benjamin & Green, 2009), where he tested the psychological skills and other attributes of athletes (Kornspan, 2012).

According to Silva (2002), in the early Soviet Union sport was important, and Vladimir Lenin, while serving as head of government of the Russian Republic (1917–1918), of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1918–1924), and of the Soviet Union (1922–1924), established physical training as a regular activity in the school system in 1917 and centers for the scientific study of sport in 1919. Within the Soviet realm, P. A. Roudik established the first sport psychology department in Moscow in 1920 (Seiler & Wylleman, 2009), where he studied reaction times of athletes in various sports, such as runners, boxers, and wrestlers (Roudik, 1962). In 1927, Avksentii Puni, while working in Vyatka (USSR) as a sport organizer, conducted his first study investigating the psycho-physiological effects of practice in table tennis (Ryba, Stambulova, & Wrisberg, 2005). Later on, Puni moved to Leningrad and systematically worked on the applications of psychology in sports. After World War II, in 1946, he launched a sport psychology department at the Lesgaft Institute in Leningrad (Ryba et al., 2005). While Roudik and Puni did not work collaboratively, their work has been recognized since the 1950s, and both received recognition for the results of the Soviet teams in the Olympic Games of Helsinki in 1952 (Ryba et al., 2005). It is apparent that sport psychology in Europe as a discipline of study was not the only sector to evolve in those early years. The application of psychological knowledge and principles on occasions such as to enhance the performance of the Soviet teams offers a glimpse of some early practices of applied sport psychology.

Research Advancements and Trends in Europe

The diverse environment of Europe may present barriers with regard to linguistic communication and variety of cultural practice. However, stemming from this diversity advantages evolved, and continue to evolve, as different research areas and topics attract the attention of researchers across the borders of European countries. The work done in Europe furnishes valuable research-based evidence across languages and cultures to our body of knowledge. It is worth noting that in recent years the research conducted in Europe appears to set a high standard of research across the globe. Glyn Roberts, as president of the US-based Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) (2009–2010), in his 2009 presidential address at the annual conference of the association pointed out that in our era sport psychology research is advancing more in Europe than in any other place in the world.

Starting to look at sport, exercise, and performance psychology research from northwestern Europe, in Britain sophisticated research is proposed to have begun during the 1970s and 1980s (Day, 2016; Lavallee, Kremer, Moran, & Williams, 2012). The extensive study of attribution theory paved the path to achievement goal orientation, then to a multidimensional approach to the antecedents of anxiety and confidence, and more recently to more applied sport psychology topics, e.g., self-talk and stressors in sport (Day, 2016); see, among others, the works of Jennifer Cumming, Joan Duda, David Fletcher, Ken Fox, Chris Harwood, Shelton Hanton, Lew and James Hardy, David Lavallee, Stephen Mellalieu, David Tod, and Tim Woodman. In addition, a strong framework and trend for the use of qualitative methodology developed over the years in the United Kingdom, which was highly influential in moving sport psychology research past the post-positivist paradigm and past the rigid frame of studying elite performers in sport as the only acceptable narrative—see, among others, the works of David Carless, Kitrina Douglas, Mark Nesti, Brent Smith, and Andrew Sparkes. These trends developed strong research lines and appear to influence research worldwide. Considering that English is still today “the most widely used language for international academic exchange and communication,” as Biddle (1995, p. xi) pointed out 20 years ago, these works enjoy an immense advantage in comparison to any work done in other languages that do not experience the visibility of Anglophone journals and textbooks. Concerning the UK scholars, it is worth noting their current presence as journal editors for multiple prominent publication outlets, even in ones that are historically US-based journals—for instance, at the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, and APA’s newer journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology. From one point of view, their editorial work reveals the increasing importance (and oftentimes pressure) placed on publishing activity within the United Kingdom and from another point of view their recognition as prominent scholars.

Furthermore, British scholars like Stuart Biddle and Ken Fox, along with their colleagues inside and outside the United Kingdom, made important contributions to the advancement of the exercise psychology discipline and research as they focused heavily on motivation and exercise as well as psychological factors of exercisers. Looking more closely at the psychology of exercise, rather recently Biddle and Fuchs (2009) argued that in order to advance research, it might be fruitful to view exercise psychology within socio-ecological and behavioral epidemiological foundations. Nonetheless, they further pointed out that doing exercise psychology within this larger framework also has some weaknesses, for instance in how physical activity is measured and the absence of theoretical foundations for interventions in the past. Today, the strong connections shared by exercise psychology research and the sector of public health appear to offer a key outlet for further advances at both the theoretical and the practical level.

Moving east in northern Europe, in Scandinavia applied sport psychology has become in vogue, with sport psychologists widely working with major national teams before and during important competitions. In Sweden, sport psychology research appears to have spread widely over numerous topics, focusing originally on psychology as one of many factors that plays a role in an athlete’s winning edge (Johnson, 2006). Furthermore, research studies are focusing on health-oriented issues as well as psycho-social issues. The communication between researchers and practitioners appears to have a central role in Sweden (Johnson & Lindwall, 2000), as the two appear to be connected for the advancement of Swedish athletes (see, for example, the work of Göran Kenttä and Henrik Gustafsson). In Finland, Friedric Blanz, located in Jyväskylä, focused on sport psychology in as early as the 1960s, and according to Reel (2015) his legacy resulted in pronounced research programs as well as in building a strong milieu at the University of Jyväskylä focusing on both sport and exercise psychology. Today, the institution is still instrumental in sport and exercise psychology mainly through the work of Taru Lintunen and her associates. The department at the University in Jyväskylä is responsible for training all physical education teachers in Finland and provides education in sport and exercise psychology, while their research is based on strong international collaborations (e.g., Haapala et al., 2014; Rovio, Arvinen-Barrow, Weigand, Eskola, & Lintunen, 2010). In Finland, research in health sciences and psychology is also conducted at the University of Tampere.

The close borders between European countries seem to offer opportunities for relocations. As such, Natalia Stambulova and Yuri Hanin, both natives of Russia who more than 20 years ago moved to Sweden and Finland, respectively, offered substantial advancements in research that have translated into practical applications. More specifically, Stambulova’s model of athlete career transition (Stambulova, 2009, 2010; Stambulova, Stephan, & Järphag, 2007) and Hanin’s model of Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning on emotions in sport (Hanin, 1997) have been widely referenced and used by researchers and practitioners across the world. Glyn Roberts’ move to Norway was also instrumental for the advancement of research and education on sport psychology. Following his work, the research focus in Norway for the last two decades has especially been on motivation, both in youth and elite sport, as well as on topics covering applied sport at the elite level. A substantial number of researchers in Norway also work at the elite level as consultants (e.g., Frank Abrahamsen, Stiliani Chroni, Rune Giske, Rune Høigaard, Geir Jordet, Pierre-Nicolas Lemyre, Anne Marte Pensgaard, Glyn Roberts, and Marit Sørensen). As a result of the strong liaison between research and practice employed by Norwegian sports, via the work of the Norwegian Olympic Training Center, to advance the sport and the performance of athletes, research in Norway has in recent years made a critical shift to the psychology of coaches—how they cope and affect athletes as well as on the stress and welfare of the coaches themselves (see, e.g., Bentzen, Lemyre, & Kenttä, 2014, 2016a, 2016b; Chroni, Abrahamsen, & Hemmestad, 2016).

Moving to northeast Europe, and specifically to Russia, the early work of Roudik and Puni contributed toward the understanding of sport practices from a psychological perspective and how these practices in turn impact the athletes (Ryba & Stambulova, 2016). While sport psychology work was curtailed during World War II, towards the end of the war the Soviet “willpower for victory” emerged as a key construct and influenced the development of volitional theory by Sechenov (1952). According to Ryba and Stambulova (2016), the development of volitional theory fueled the research and practice of sport psychology in the years to come. During “the golden age of Soviet sport psychology (1970s–1980s)” (Ryba & Stambulova, 2016, p. 9), Puni’s model for the psychological preparation of athletes for competition was developed in collaboration with multiple scholars, such as Kisilev, Hanin, Kazachenko, Mazurov, Nikitina, Redchenko, and others. Interestingly, a connection between science and practice was in place in the Soviet Union, which is apparent in the works of Puni, who differentiated athletes’ psychological preparation (Puni, 1969, 1973a, 1973b) from their volitional preparation (Puni, 1973a). In recent years, subsequent to the increasing movement of people across global borders and the multicultural European environment, Tatiana Ryba’s work on cultural praxis rapidly gained momentum as a model of cultural studies as praxis (see Ryba, 2005; Ryba & Wright, 2005). Her early work on cultural praxis initiated the momentum that continues to this day to (re)conceptualize sport psychology. This momentum is reflected in the position statements developed by the International Society of Sport Psychology on culturally competent research and practice by Ryba, Stambulova, Si, and Schinke (2013), as well as on social missions through sport and exercise psychology by Schinke, Stambulova, Lidor, Papaioannou, and Ryba (2016).

In Belgium, topics in career development and transitions, along with a focus on youth sport and the role of parents, have been extensively investigated by scholars like Bert De Cuyper, Paul De Knop, Yves Vanden Auweele, and Paul Wylleman. For instance, the model of athlete development (Wylleman & Lavallee, 2004) has been recognized and used in the development of national sport models. Today, women in Belgium, like Caroline Jannes, and also in the Netherlands, like Karin de Bruin and Vana Hutter, have a strong presence in applied work, while also contributing to research on eating disorders and the education of young practitioners, respectively (e.g., de Bruin, Bakker, & Oudejans, 2009; Hutter, van der Zande, Rosier, & Wylleman, 2016). In France, Georges Rioux, professor of psychology at the University of Tours, pioneered sports psychology along with Raymond Chappuis, Raymond Thomas, and Michel Bouet, professor of psychology at the University of Rennes II. Presently, there are several strongholds of sport and exercise psychology research from scholars like Jean Bilard, Nadine Debois, Jean Fournier, and Elisabeth Rosnet (e.g., Bilard, 2001; Debois, Ledon, Argiolas, & Rosnet, 2012; Fournier, Demeraux, & Bernier, 2008; Rosnet, 2005). Furthermore, the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education of France (INSEP) delivers coach and athlete programs at training camps. In central Europe, Germany in the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed a significant presence at the forefront of sport psychology research with publications, yet according to Reel (2015), Germans have to a lesser degree utilized sport psychology consultants. Their services, however, are currently picking up through the work of young practitioners (Brueckner, 2016; Brueckner & Dawo, 2013). The work of Dorothy Alfermann at the University of Leipzig on educating young sport psychologists and researching athlete career transition (e.g., Alfermann, 2000, 2005) has made an impact visible in the position of the International Society of Sport Psychology regarding athlete development and transition (Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler, & Côté, 2009).

Moving to south Europe and specifically to Spain, research evolved with a focus on reaction times, perceptual motor learning, and athletes’ personalities (Cruz Feliu & Garcia-Mas, 2016). Subsequently, the focus shifted to an inter-behavioral point of view for all those involved in sport (athletes, coaches, referees, spectators, etc.) and more recently to youth coaches, the psychology of injured athletes, and fair play for young participants (Cruz Feliu & Garcia-Mas, 2016). In Italy, Ferrucio Antonelli organized the first ISSP conference, and is perhaps the person most responsible for the global outbreak of sport psychology (Reel, 2015). According to Reel, sport psychology programs in Italian universities started in 1974, while Antonelli took a lead in the formation of the International Society of Sport Psychology in 1965 and the startup of the International Journal of Sport Psychology (1970). Claudio Robazza, another native of Italy, received in 2015 the Ema Geron Award from the European Federation of Sport Psychology in recognition of his outstanding national contribution to the development of sport and exercise psychology. Robazza’s work includes field-based studies in the physical education, motor learning, and sport performance domains, as his main research interest is in the area of performance-related emotions, performance optimization, and motor learning (e.g., Robazza, Pellizzari, Bertollo, & Hanin, 2008; Robazza, Bortoli, Nocini, Moser, & Arslan, 2000; Robazza, Macaluso, & D’Urso, 1994). Maurizio Bertollo represents the new generation of sport psychologists in Italy. In 2015, he was elected to the Managing Council of the European Federation of Sport Psychology and provides applied services, while his research activity focuses on the processes and mechanisms underlying the development, maintenance and improvement of human motor behavior and performance (e.g., Bertollo et al., 2012).

In southeast Europe and particularly in Slovenia, sport psychology is a relatively young discipline and the researchers have explored performance and career development issues, while a gap exists in the connection of theory and practice of sport psychology in the country (Cecić Erpič, 2013). In Greece, sport psychology research focused mainly on the study of motivation, on psychological techniques such as goal setting and self-talk, and on the development of measurement instruments, while the science and practice connection was never made in the Greek arena of sports (Chroni, Diakaki, & Papaioannou, 2013). The systematic work of Stiliani “Ani” Chroni, Nikos Comoutos (formerly Zourbanos), Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, and Yannis Theodorakis on self-talk provided the theoretical background and long-missing explanations of self-talk as well as the instruments to measure it (e.g., Theodorakis, Hatzigeorgiadis, & Chroni, 2008; Zourbanos, Hatzigeorgiadis, Chroni, & Theodorakis, 2009). Papaioannou’s (1994, 1995) work on motivational climate set the stage for various programs delivered in the Greek schools (e.g., Papaioannou, Theodosiou, Pashali, & Digelidis, 2012) along with Goudas’ work on life skills developed through sports (e.g., Goudas & Giannoudis, 2008). The grandfather of sport psychology in Greece is Yannis Zervas via his early research on exercise psychology (see, e.g., Zervas et al., 1993; Zervas, Danis, & Klissouras, 1991; Zervas, 1990), the students he trained (among the many are Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Vassilios Kakkos, Maria Psychountaki, and Nektarios Stavrou), and the establishment of the Hellenic sport psychology society.

It appears that sport psychology has strong traditions as well as strong research lines and programs, dating back to the early contributions of people like Cattell, Coubertin, Scripture, and Wundt. Notably though, Reel (2015) argued that sport psychology has had a smaller presence in universities than expected, given the legacy of Coubertin. Today, research is conducted all over the European continent as researchers are embracing the development of our field. For this multicultural group of researchers, the European umbrella organization for sport psychology, known as FEPSAC, provides a stable platform for exchange of knowledge and practices through its congresses and publications.

FEPSAC: The European Federation of Sport Psychology

As research in sport and exercise psychology in Europe flourished significantly during the 1960s and 1970s, with great focus on person- and sport-specific psychological skills (Quartiroli & Zizzi, 2011), the need to organize the researchers’ efforts led to the establishment of the European Federation of Sport Psychology—abbreviated as FEPSAC, based on the original French name of the organization (Fédération Européenne de Psychologie des Sports et des Activités Corporelles). FEPSAC as an idea was born in 1968 during the first European Congress of Sport Psychology in Varna (Bulgaria) and was officially founded in 1969 during the second European Congress of Sport Psychology in Vittel (France).

With regard to the origin of FEPSAC, Vanek (1994) and Quartiroli and Zizzi (2011) discuss it as also a product of an ideological schism of the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP), which was formed in Rome in 1965. This schism was partially caused by a perceived North-Americanization of ISSP and the monopoly of the English language during the second ISSP Congress, along with some political and economic implications. As Salmela (1999) described it, for the time being the establishment of FEPSAC revitalized scientific activity in Europe. While FEPSAC started out as a scientific federation and for many years maintained a strong interest in research, in recent years applied activity has also been supported and promoted (Apitzsch & Schilling, 2003; Quartiroli & Zizzi, 2011). Currently, FEPSAC has entered a phase of ongoing discussions concerning the development of an accreditation system for applied practitioners in Europe (EASY network, 2016; FEPSAC, 2015). Alongside FEPSAC, national organizations started developing in European countries in the 1960s (Kornspan, 2012) to support, advance, and promote sport, exercise, and performance psychology within national borders.

FEPSAC in its early years attempted to initiate international research projects. The first one was undertaken on the topic of anxiety in sport and was led by Schilling, situated in Switzerland (Apitzsch & Schilling, 2003). The lack of experience in cross-border collaborations resulted to slow progress; however, a book titled Anxiety in Sport was published in 1983. Since then a number of publications have followed as the joint efforts of FEPSAC researchers. In 1992 discussions were initiated at the FEPSAC Managing Council for a European journal of exercise and sport psychology. These discussions initially met some resistance and negative responses from publishers, but eventually managed some level of success in 1997, when the first volume of the European Yearbook of Sport Psychology was published. Three volumes were published between 1997 and 1999, and in 2000 it was followed by the new official journal of FEPSAC, Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Apitzsch & Schilling, 2003).

The Evolution of SEPP Education in Europe

Specialized education in sport, exercise, and performance psychology is relatively young in Europe if we compare it with the education offered in North America. Today, numerous educational programs exist in the European countries (see Wylleman et al., 2009), and a Pan-European program was initiated by FEPSAC as early as 1996 (Apitzsch & Schilling, 2003; FEPSAC, 2008; Vanden Auweele, 2003). The European Master’s Degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology was developed with funding from the European Community, and in its first year 12 students from six countries attended (Apitzsch & Schilling, 2003). The program was organized by a consortium of 12 European universities and offered advanced knowledge and skills through study programs that were comparable among the participating universities and a mobility period of two weeks when students would meet at one place and attend classes all together during the so-called Intensive Course.

Following the success of this early program, in 2009–2010 the European Masters’ Programme in Sport and Exercise Psychology (EMPSEP) was launched as a consortium of four European universities located in Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Greece. The program had jointly developed study programs among the participating institutions, and the students attended classes at a host university for three semesters, while for one semester (the second) they would all meet and study together in Leipzig (Germany), attending lectures by guest speakers invited from all over the world. When the funding from the EU ended, the program transformed and today exists as a consortium of two universities, the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) and the University of Thessaly (Greece). Students from the two institutions, and from others in Europe, move to a location to attend a one-week intensive course during their second semester of studies. The main aim of all three European programs was and is to educate highly qualified researchers and professionals. As numerous educational programs exist in European countries today, recently Hutter, van der Zande, Rosier, and Wylleman (2016) surveyed 42 applied sport psychology programs across Europe situated in 22 different countries. While the aim, content, and structure varied between these programs, as reported by Hutter et al. (2016), all provide education for the future generation of sport and exercise psychologists.

The Evolution of Applied Practice in Europe

Sport psychology as a field for professionals in Europe has grown from the 1990s onwards, not only in sports but also in other performance settings. Even though some countries used and had sport psychologists accompanying the teams at international competition sites before then, the presence of applied practitioners has increased in the last two decades. Due to the growing number of practitioners, there is also an increased focus on ethics in the field (e.g., Williams & Straub, 2010). This focus also entails a discussion about the background and certification standards, as different countries emphasize different aspects of practitioners’ education. Nonetheless, there appears to be consensus that applied sport psychology practitioners need both a background in kinesiology and psychology. While for many years it was common that applied practitioners worked both in universities and with performers on the side, today the number of full-time applied practitioners has grown. Due to the way the profession of applied sport psychology is practiced, unlike the clinical setting with designated offices and certifications, it imposes extra high standards of integrity and professionalism (e.g., LeUnes, 2008). Taking the lead in this evolvement of professional practice, AASP during its 2016 annual conference decided to change its certification program, which was based on meeting certain standards of course work and supervised work hours, with an examination that needs to be passed over and above completed educational degrees. Analogous discussions are taking place within many European countries as well as in FEPSAC (EASY Network, 2016).

Applied sport psychology practice in Europe is rapidly growing in also providing services to professional sports; for instance, many of the big football clubs have integrated sport psychology within their professional services (Haugen Rønning, 2016). With the development of sport psychology consulting, an international trend is observed in professionalism in applied practice (not just in Europe). Previously, the division between performance psychology and other strands of sport and exercise psychology had predominantly been a US dynamic. Considering the history reviewed here, European applied sport psychology appears to have grasped athlete psychological welfare and athlete performance enhancement as two sides of the same coin. On the applied practice with Olympic level athletes, it is common to see consultants (with a sport background) working on broad performance topics, while consultants (with a clinical background) approach the same case focusing on clinical aspects. Via informal conversations with colleagues from different parts of Europe, it becomes obvious that a similar pattern has emerged in their countries, so that it is unclear if the division between applied sport psychology and performance psychology will gain momentum in Europe in the future. In the study by Haugen Rønning, 2016), several of the highly elite and highly international practitioners (some of them researchers as well) discuss this topic, and the absence of a clear consensus becomes apparent. What these practitioners agree on is that the applied consultancy practices are shifting as working as a sport psychology practitioner is becoming more and more normal.

In conclusion, the development of credible certification(s) that will be accepted across borders will be key to the future of Europe’s applied practice. While sport psychology research is, as we have seen, very strong in Europe, the applied practice still has room to grow and issues to tackle. For example, the growth of self-studied “mental trainers” can do more harm than good. Feasible certification programs may prevent the spur of “snake oil salesmen,” yet it will be interesting to see whether these programs will build more on medical models or sport psychology the way Coubertin proposed a century ago.


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