What is Sports Psychology?

What is Sports Psychology?Sports psychology is a relatively new specialization in this field (it became a division of the American Psychological Association in 2003). Yet, despite its comparatively young age, sports psychology is incredibly popular.

Given the immense popularity of athletics around the world, it makes sense that psychologists have chosen to specialize in this field. It is very interesting work, very challenging work, and blends contributions from many other disciplines like sports science. The result is a job that can be highly rewarding while giving you the chance to facilitate improvement in the lives of your clients.

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For athletes, the emphasis on good conditioning and physical prowess is just part of the equation. Along with having kinesthetic intelligence, athletes must also be strong-willed, confident (even in the face of failure), and be team players, among many other things. Sports psychology can assist athletes in developing these traits further.

What is Sport Psychology?

What is Sport Psychology?As noted earlier, sport psychology is an interdisciplinary field of work whose aim is to address the performance of athletes.

For example, a sport psychologist might be employed by a professional soccer team to work with players on using positive self-talk to process emotions after a particularly poor outing.

However, sport psychology is much more than helping athletes improve their on-field performance. Instead, sport psychology is concerned with the well-being of athletes as they pursue glory on the field. For example, a sport psychologist might advocate for additional time off for a player who has had a death in the family and who is struggling to cope with that loss.

There are developmental aspects to sport psychology as well. Sports psychologists might conduct research about the benefits of youth sports participation, both from a physical and a mental standpoint. Likewise, as a sports psychologist, you might explore the inequities that exist between men’s and women’s professional sports and evaluate how those inequities impact the mental health of female athletes.

Of course, a large part of being a sport psychologist is working directly with athletes. This can occur in a variety of ways.

For example, as a sports psychologist with a professional athletics team, you might conduct individual, group, or team sessions that focus on communication, emotional well-being, or dealing with adversity. For athletes that are struggling on an individual level with a social, emotional, or psychological issue, you might offer one-on-one counseling as an intervention for that athlete.

Additional interventions that sports psychologists often use include:

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Solution-focused therapy
  • Mindfulness training
  • Positive self-talk exercises
  • Drug and alcohol interventions
  • Goal setting
  • Focus training

Of course, sports psychologists often work with athletes who have become injured while playing a game. While a medical doctor helps the athlete heal physically, a sports psychologist may work with the athlete on an emotional level and help rebuild confidence and eliminate the fear of being reinjured or not playing up to their potential.

Because this area of psychology involves not just sports science and psychology but various other disciplines, graduates of a sports psychologist program often work in many different areas other than just as a psychologist.

Job Paths for Sports Psychologists

Job Paths for Sports PsychologistsFor most sports psychologists, this job entails working directly with athletes to provide therapy and other services.

However, some sports psychologists work with athletes in a non-clinical role. For example, having a sports psychology degree would no doubt be helpful if you are an athletics coach or trainer. Likewise, having a background in this field could be helpful for managerial roles as well.

For example, if you have an interest in working for a major league baseball team, you might use a background in sports psychology to advance your career in analytics, recruiting, or player development as an executive within the club. While you likely wouldn’t sit down and engage each athlete on the team in solution-focused therapy, your understanding of sports psychology would be valuable for helping evaluate draft picks, trade targets, or even coaching candidates.

It’s also not uncommon for some sports psychologists to go into private practice. In this setting, you might see clients in your office, much like a counseling psychologist would do. You might also serve as a consultant and work with different athletics organizations to provide short-term services to athletes or help guide the development of athletics programs that strive to meet the needs of athletes on and off the field.

Of course, some sports psychologists become educators and train the next generation of sports psychologists. To be a professor of psychology, it’s necessary to have ample real-world experience in your area of expertise, so this job pathway is usually reserved for people that have worked in the field for quite some time.

There is work to be done on the research front as well. Just like with any other specialty in psychology, sport psychologists can spend much of their careers in the field of research.

For example, you might work for a sports agency that represents professional athletes. As part of your job, you might be in charge of researching the psychological effects of injuries on athletes and devising recommendations for the most effective interventions for addressing the emotional toll that a physical injury can have on an athlete.

How to Become a Sports Psychologist

How to Become a Sports PsychologistSports psychologists are required to be licensed, which requires completing a master’s or doctorate degree program in sport psychology, clinical psychology, or counseling.

Because most colleges do not typically offer sport psychology programs at the undergraduate level, students interested in earning a bachelor’s degree may choose a double-major in exercise science and psychology. While a traditional undergraduate program might take four years to complete, a double-major might require an additional semester to complete the required courses.

Either during your undergraduate program or immediately following graduation, participating in a job shadowing or internship opportunity is a great idea. Shadowing a sports psychologist will allow you to see what the job is actually like. It also puts you front and center with a practicing sports psychologist who can offer you tips and advice on entering this field of work.

In graduate school, you will learn more specific skills that will train you to be an effective sport psychologist. For example, you might take courses related to:

  • Clinical practice
  • Leadership
  • Team building
  • Kinesiology
  • Ethics
  • Human development
  • Psychology of coaching

Additionally, you’ll likely take coursework that focuses on the psychology of sports injury. These classes are particularly important for sports psychologists so you have the toolkit necessary to treat the psychological and emotional trauma that occurs when an athlete is injured.

Most master’s degree programs in sports psychology also have an internship requirement. Again, this is to help you get real-world experience and learn from expert sports psychologists. In most cases, these internships last a full academic year. While you might do an internship in the same location for the entire year, it’s not all that uncommon to split your time between two or more internship locations.

Whatever the case, you will be supervised by a practicing sports psychologist in a setting that is approved by the American Psychological Association. During the internship, you must complete all requirements before you can take the licensing examination.

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This brings us to the next part of the educational journey for sports psychologists – licensure.

Since a master’s degree is the most common pathway to working in this field, it’s common for  master’s program students to pursue licensure after they graduate. Licensure is overseen by individual states, and their requirements vary, but typically states require that applicants:

  • Have a satisfactory graduate GPA
  • Have completed internship hours as part of their graduate program
  • Pass a licensure examination
  • Participate in supervised clinical hours

Once licensed, you’ll have to take continuing education courses to maintain your licensure.

This is not the last step you can take in becoming a sports psychologist, though. Some people choose to continue their education and get a doctorate in sports psychology.

To do so requires several more years of schooling (four years for undergraduate studies, two to three years for graduate work, and another four to five years to complete a doctoral program). While a doctorate might not be required for all jobs in this field, there are a healthy number of specializations that do require a terminal degree like a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.

For example, if you want to go into private practice and offer your services as a consultant, it’s prudent to have a doctorate as a means of demonstrating to potential clients that you have the highest possible degree in the field. Doing so gives credence to your level of expertise while also possessing yet another level of training for working with athletes.

In a doctoral program, you’ll take advanced courses in kinesiology, sports psychology, psychology research, and statistics, to name a few. You’ll also be responsible for conducting independent research in the form of a dissertation.

A dissertation is essentially a capstone project on a topic of your choice (though it must be approved by your dissertation committee). You’ll conduct thorough research, develop and test theories, gather and analyze data, and then report on your findings in your dissertation defense. It is the last requirement to fulfill before graduating with your doctorate.

Sports Psychology Certification

american board of sport psychologyWhere licensure is required to practice as a sports psychologist, being certified might not be. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to think about being certified as yet another means of demonstrating your advanced level of knowledge and training.

Board certification from the American Board of Sport Psychology is highly regarded among employers, and as such, some employers require it or recommend it very strongly.

To get this kind of certification, you must successfully complete a rigorous training program. This program includes studies that are akin to those you complete in graduate school. Topics include: 

  • Conceptual, Methodological and Practice Foundations of Integrative Evidence-Based Athlete Assessment and Intervention
  • Mental Training and Intervention
  • Clinical Sport Psychology
  • A practicum experience
  • A final project

Again, while getting a certification like this will take additional time and effort, the payoff is that you will have even more advanced skills that you can use to help athletes achieve optimum performance on the field.

Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that psychologists, which includes sports psychologists, should experience a job growth of 8% during the 2020s. This represents about average growth for all occupations.

While the career outlook might not be as strong as other fields of work, there are still many job openings for sports psychologists in many different areas of work. What holds true for most of these positions is that employers are looking for candidates that have advanced knowledge, skills, and abilities. That being the case, the more you can do to prepare yourself for the world of work, the better.

How Much Do Sports Psychologists Earn?

Sports psychologists who have a doctoral degree in their specialty should see the best income opportunities. Sports psychologists earned an average wage of $82,180 as of May 2020, though the pay range for psychology jobs extends from a low of $46,270 for the lowest ten percent of earners to $137,590 for the highest ten percent of workers.

Several factors can affect your wages as a sport psychologist. This includes your level of work experience, your area of specialty within sports psychology, your employer, and the amount of training and education you have.

For example, a sports psychologist with a doctorate and twenty years of experience will be able to command a much higher salary than a master’s level psychologist with two years of job experience. 

Likewise, a sports psychologist working in a research or academic setting may earn wages typical to those reported by the BLS while sports psychologists working for professional organizations or athletes may earn six-figure salaries.

Sports psychologists are often individuals who have knowledge of a specific sport but not the ability or interest to actually play the sport. Nevertheless, they play a very important role in the sporting industry because it is their dedication and work that helps athletes perform at the top of their emotional and physical capacity.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

January 2022