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Coleman Griffith: The Founder of American Sports Psychology

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Psychology plays a significant role in the performance of athletes across all sports. Elite-level sport generates massive revenue, and both teams and individuals do everything legally in their power to gain an edge over their opponents. Employing a sports psychologist is one such popular way to improve an athlete’s performance and push them to the next level.

It is commonplace in major sports for teams to employ a sports psychologist or a group of sports psychologist specialists to work with the players regularly. In the United States, each franchise in the National Football League (NFL), one of the best sports for betting online, and each of the Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), and National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise has a team of doctors and experts whose sole job is to look after the mental well-being of the vast roster of players. Those teams have Coleman Griffith to thank for bringing sports psychology to the forefront of teams’ operations.

Who is Coleman Griffith?

Coleman Griffith is considered the man that created the first-ever sports psychology laboratory in the United States. Griffith attended the University of Illinois, receiving a PhD in psychology in 1920. While studying for his degree, Griffith began informally investigating psychology’s role in basketball and football, using the university’s teams as test subjects. Griffith studied players’ reaction times and eventually convinced the Director of Athletic at the university to open the Atheltic Research Laboratory; he became a director of the newly opened lab in 1925.

Griffith and his team studied players’ learning, personality, and psychomotor skills in addition to how rotation affected equilibrium. Unfortunately for Griffith, a lack of funding resulted in the Atheltic Research Laboratory closing its doors for good in 1932. Five years later, in 1937, Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs of the MLB, offered Griffith a position within the franchise. With a significant budget, a new laboratory, and all the equipment he needed, Griffith continued his studies on the various areas that affect the performance of athletes.

It was not all sunshine and rainbows for Griffith because manager Charlie Grimm publicly stated that he did not believe in psychologists and implored his players to ignore Griffith’s advice. Griffith stuck to his guns and produced several reports containing suggestions that Grimm should make training drills represent actual gameplay; all the best teams in all sports use these methods today. 

Grimm left his post in 1938, and in came Gabby Harnett as manager, a player who has since been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Harnett was equally stubborn as Grimm, and he rubbished Griffith’s reports. One report was damning of Harnett; it described him as “unable to learn.” Unfortunately for Griffith, the 1938 Cubs team won the National League and the World Series without implementing Griffith’s ideas, meaning his days with the team were numbered.

He left the Cubs in 1940 and embarked on a career in education. He became the provost of the University of Illinois but resigned after a conflict with a professor on campus. Griffith continued working in the Department of Education until 1961. He died in 1966.

Notable texts and publications

Griffith has many works published after obtaining his university degree, but a couple stands out from the crowd. The Psychology of Coaching (1926) is one of his main contributions to the sports psychology field. It dictates that a successful coach needs to have the qualities of a physiologist, psychologist, and athlete to get the best out of their players.

Two years later, he published Psychology and Athletics (1928) and made many contributions to The Atheltic Journal. Griffith frequently wrote about the psychological components of athletes’ performances.


Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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