Many practicing psychologists work with normal, everyday people to deal with normal, everyday problems. Many others work with severely mentally or emotionally disturbed clients in an effort to maximize their quality of life.
But sports psychologists work with athletes to help enhance their on-field performance. While they might use techniques that are similar to those in school psychology, clinical psychology, or other disciplines, the desired final result can be much different.
That is, a sports psychologist’s goal is to help athletes achieve their highest potential on the field of play. So, while you might help an athlete work through a bout of depression or some kind of trauma, your sessions with the athlete won’t necessarily look like a typical clinical counseling session.
Instead, clinical psychologists often work with athletes and coaches to deal with things like pressure to succeed, lack of confidence on the field of play, or dealing with the mental stressors of being injured.
It is a field that combines principles of psychology with a deep understanding of athletics, physiology, kinesiology, and sports medicine, just to name a few.
The work environment is also much different. Where a clinical psychologist might work in a community mental health center, and a school psychologist might work in a K-12 school district, most sports psychologists work in amateur and professional sports settings.
Your sessions might take place in a gymnasium or on a baseball diamond. You might be asked to work with an athlete as they lift weights, eat dinner, or even as they travel on a bus or plane from one game to the next.
It’s an exciting field of work, to be sure. But is it a field ripe with opportunities? Or is the job outlook for the coming years poor?
Supply and Demand
Before you take a look at the projected job outlook for a career, it’s best if you know the factors that can affect the job outlook. Two primary factors that influence the demand for sports psychologists are supply and demand.
The supply of professionals who are in the field is obviously extremely important. With greater supply comes less demand, and the less supply, the greater demand. Of course, there is a point of equilibrium in there somewhere, where supply and demand even out.
So what affects supply and demand? There are many forces at work.
First, the required education level of sports psychologists can impact supply and demand. For example, if organizations require new hires to have a doctorate, the supply will be lower than if they were to require just a master’s degree. If you add in the requirement that new hires also have a certain number of years of experience in the field, the supply becomes even less. As the supply decreases, demand for those highly qualified applicants increases. If you have those credentials and experience, you won’t have trouble finding a sports psychology job.
Secondly, the nature of sports will influence the demand for sports psychologists. For example, major league baseball is a popular sport, and one that is known for being mentally taxing both because of the length of the season (162 games spread out over about six months) and because baseball is an exercise in failure – a hitter is deemed to be enormously successful if he bats .300, which means he’s only putting the ball in play 30 percent of the time!
By contrast, professional bowling isn’t as popular, nor is it considered to be as mentally taxing as baseball. Due to the nature of these differences, it is reasonable to assume that there is a higher demand for sports psychologists in professional baseball than there is in professional bowling.
A third factor that determines the supply and demand of sports psychologists is the performance of athletes on the field. If a team is experiencing a down year, with multiple players underperforming, the demand for a sports psychologist might be increased. Alternatively, if a team is doing very well and overperforming throughout the season, the services of a sports psychologist might not be in high demand.
Of course, sports psychology is a specialized niche with relatively few professionals when compared to fields like clinical psychology or counseling psychology. So, the supply of sports psychologists is thin to begin with.
The Appeal of the Field
Why do so many people want to enter into sports psychology? The answer is because so many people have a passion for athletics and want to be involved somehow even when they are not inherently athletes.
Of course, wanting to live vicariously through athletes isn’t the primary reason why so many people want to enter this field. Instead, aspiring sports psychologists seek out careers in this field because of a passion for sports and a desire to help others.
When it comes to helping others, many psychologists work with clients on extraordinarily difficult issues. And while sports psychologists can provide support for very heavy, emotionally-charged times for athletes, by and large, their job focuses more on teaching athletes how to maximize their potential and use their skills to achieve the goals on the field. While this is still hard work, it certainly involves less heavy psychological issues than a typical clinical psychologist or counseling psychologist might work on with a client.
There’s something exciting about working in athletics as well. Even though you aren’t on the court or the field, knowing that your expertise helps an athlete achieve greatness leads to high job satisfaction. Being part of the team is also very appealing to people that want to become sports psychologists. You won’t be hitting home runs or making dunks, but the people with whom you work will, and it can be thrilling to be part of the larger team of professionals that enables athletes to realize success on the field of play.
Another appealing aspect of sports psychology is the worldwide appeal of sports. Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, or something in between, the populous is hungry for athletic glory. In professional sports, that means that teams are flush with cash. In such competitive environments, teams pull no punches to gain an advantage. In some cases, that means bringing on sports psychologists to work with team members.
The combination of the excitement of working in sports, the big budgets for professional sports teams, and the ability to work with clients to maximize their potential lends great appeal to this field for many people. Of course, this also means that there are many people trained as sports psychologists. This means that competition for jobs can be intense, particularly higher-profile jobs with professional sports teams.
Just be aware that the popularity of this field means that you will likely have to beat out multiple other applicants to land a job. There is nothing wrong with this kind of competition, but it does mean that the employment outlook could be a little dimmer because the number of sports psychologists is larger than the available jobs.
Projected Outlook for Sport Psychology
The government has an entire agency dedicated to assessing outlook, pay, demand, and training needed to get into certain fields. This is called the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Every couple of years, the BLS publishes new data on all manner of jobs.
According to the BLS, the outlook for sports psychologists and other performance-specific psychology professionals isn’t terribly exciting.
As a whole, the field of psychology is only predicted to grow at a three percent rate through the end of the 2020s. This rate is about average for all occupations. The BLS does not provide specific details about the outlook for sports psychology. But we can make inferences based on other data.
For example, as noted above, professional sports are wildly popular, and as long as that continues, sports clubs will want well-trained sports psychologists on staff to work with athletes. This is encouraging for future sports psychologists because it means there should be a strong source of employment for years to come.
And trends in sports favor job growth in this area. College athletes can now earn money from their name, likeness, and images. High school students can sign endorsement deals. Overseas leagues allow minors to play professionally. All of these trends can place enormous pressure on young athletes to succeed, and that pressure can lead to anxiety, stress, and poor performance on the field. Sports psychologists will likely be needed in greater numbers to provide psychological services as a result.
Another factor that will improve your job prospects as a sports psychologist is the level of education you achieve.
For example, in some situations, a master’s degree might be sufficient for starting work in this field. Typically, master’s-level positions might be in lower-level sports, like secondary schools or junior colleges. They might also be assistant positions or junior positions. Nevertheless, jobs like this offer excellent experience and an opportunity to bolster your knowledge and skills with on-the-job practice.
The best jobs and the greatest number of jobs in sports psychology are reserved for people with the highest level of education. A doctorate in this field with post-doctoral work is critical if you want the best shot at the most lucrative sports psychology positions. Working in professional sports, for example, all but requires that you have a doctorate.
Pursuing a specialty can also improve your chances of getting a sports psychology job. For example, if you specialize in clinical sports psychology, you might be more attractive to professional sports teams because of your clinical psychology training. Likewise, if you specialize in organizational sports psychology, you might make yourself more attractive to collegiate or professional teams that are in a transitional period and in need of organizational guidance. Other areas of specialty you might pursue include:
- Youth sports
- Athletic performance
- Educational sports psychology
- Team processes
Going hand in hand with that is the level of experience you have. As a new graduate, the types of sports psychology jobs that are available to you will be much narrower than someone with several years of experience. This is the case with any job, of course.
As you gain experience – perhaps in an assistant sports psychologist role or in a position in a lower level of sports – you will become more and more attractive for more desirable positions in this field.
Another way to gain relevant experience is to participate in additional practicum and internship experiences during your graduate and doctoral studies. Your graduate and doctoral programs will have internship experiences built into the curriculum, but seeking additional opportunities to get real-life training (during the summer between semesters, for example) can be enormously beneficial to you once you graduate and begin applying for jobs. Even volunteering your services to get more experience can make you more attractive later on when you seek paid employment.
For some sports psychology graduates, the pathway to getting more experience is in private practice. Starting your own practice right after graduation has its hurdles, to say the least. You’ll need some measure of business acumen, the capital to start the business, and you’ll need to be licensed to practice and fulfill the requirements of licensure, too. That process can take a couple of years.
However, if you find that job prospects simply aren’t there, starting your own business can be a good way to put your skills to work and get the relevant experience you’ll need to pursue other sports psychology jobs in the future.
But, as noted earlier, this is a very popular field of work, and as such, the competition for jobs can be fierce. This means that you need to maximize your education and get early experience to help stand out from the crowd of other applicants. Likewise, you’ll need to establish a reputation as an effective sports psychologist before applying for high-paying positions with collegiate or professional sports teams.
So, as with any job, you’ll need to spend a few years after graduation “in the trenches” and getting experience. But once you do, more and more job prospects should open, and you should find that getting employment in sports psychology is an easier task.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated August 2021