10 Careers in Sports Psychology

Careers in Sports PsychologyWhile you might think that sports psychologists are limited to working with professional athletes, this field is much broader than that.

In fact, there are many different ways that you can apply a sports psychology education in many different environments.

Of course, regardless of who you work for or where you’re employed, you’ll use similar sports psychology methods and principles to help people work through mental and emotional obstacles that are preventing them from reaching their peak athletic performance.

Whether you’re working with a professional baseball player or a kid in Little League, you’ll find that there are common hurdles that athletes must overcome, such as fear of failure, fear of injury, conflicts with a teammate or coach, or even issues regarding a lack of self-confidence.

And for players who are in the process of recovering from a sports injury, you can help them regain their confidence and mental fortitude for rejoining their teammates on the field of play.

These are, of course, just a few examples of what you might do as a sports psychologist. Let’s explore in detail a few careers you might pursue with a degree in this field.

Applied Sports Psychologist

As an applied sports psychologist, you would show players how to compete more effectively by using mental training techniques. Typically, the training that would be applied would involve improving confidence and focus while minimizing negative self-talk and performance anxiety. 

Another application of applied sports psychology is to assess and evaluate an athlete’s abilities. For example, star athletes are known to possess certain cognitive abilities that help them be the high-level athletes they are. An applied sports psychologist might assess a player’s level of development in each cognitive skill. Then, they might plan methods to target weak areas, such as techniques in visualization, concentration, and relaxation. Finally, they would monitor the player’s progress and adjust their interventions accordingly.

Among careers in sports psychology, this profession is notable for being flexible regarding avenues of practice. Some clinicians work as consultants, traveling with professional athletes and teams. Other applied sports psychologists train clients in their private offices or at sports clinics. Another option is responding to a coach’s invitation to visit the athlete or team in a particular city and work with players onsite.

Clinical Sports Psychologist

A clinical sports psychologist works at the intersection of clinical psychology and sports psychology. On the one hand, they have the tools to be a practicing clinical psychologist. On the other hand, they have a fundamental understanding of athletics performance and related psychological issues.

For example, let’s say that you work as a clinical sports psychologist in private practice. Your clientele would mostly be athletes, though working with other types of clients is likely (e.g., members of the military that need to operate at a high athletic level). In this capacity, you would use various therapies to break emotional barriers to competing well. 

To do so, you might use cognitive restructuring, which is a cognitive-behavioral technique. With this technique, you would help an athlete identify their stress trigger, understand why it arises, and consider it manageable. Then, you would explore with your client productive ways to respond. Science Daily describes a study in which cognitive restructuring helped female hockey players transcend the pressures of league games.

Clinical sports psychologists work at private clinics, hospital departments, counseling centers, and sports medicine clinics. Or, they may travel with athletes. For the best results with clients, they may involve parents or coaches in treatment plans, building strong support systems for players.

High School Sports Advisor

High School Sports AdvisorWhile many of the jobs listed here require a master’s degree, working as a high school sports advisor usually only requires a bachelor’s degree. This makes it an ideal entry-level position if you would like to get some job experience before continuing your education.

This job usually entails advising high school athletes about their college plans. Think of it as a career that blends sports psychology with guidance counseling.

So, as an example, you might advise a high school senior that plays football about the college admissions requirements for the schools he hopes to play for. Additionally, you might also help the student build his high school academic schedule to ensure that he meets the academic criteria for admission. This would go along with helping arrange meetings with college coaches to showcase the student’s on-field abilities.

Personal Trainer

Personal TrainerSome people who graduate with a degree in sports psychology go on to become personal trainers.

While it might seem at first that getting a degree in sports psychology has nothing to do with being a personal trainer, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, you might not provide clinical psychology services, but having a deep understanding of human behavior and human performance is certainly valuable if you work as a personal trainer.

For example, if one of your clients has hit a wall and lost all motivation to continue pursuing their goals, you can rely on your training in sports psychology to help them reignite their desire to improve themselves. You might do this by teaching your client about the value of positive self-talk, engaging them in exercises that sharpen their focus, and working with them to set achievable goals that make a return to progress more likely.

Additionally, you might find that if you own your own personal training business, having the ability to offer sports psychology services makes your business more likely to succeed.

Team Dynamics Counselor

One of the most critical aspects of success for sports teams is having a team that has good rapport. A team dynamics counselor specializes in helping bring that about.

As a team dynamics counselor, your goal is team cohesion. This term refers to unified players supporting each other wholeheartedly in reaching group goals. Toward this end, you would work with athletes in six key areas:

  • Promoting mutual respect
  • Motivation
  • Communication
  • Task focus
  • Team culture
  • Leadership

So, for example, you might be asked to work with a team of high school hockey players that are having a lot of interpersonal conflicts on and off the ice. To help rectify this situation, you might work with the team on building more appropriate means of communication – being clear, direct, expressing one’s feelings, and so forth. Additionally, you might work with the team on building active listening skills, so each team member understands how to hear what others are saying, how to respect what others feel, and how to effectively communicate their own feelings as well.

When players invest themselves in incentives like this, their commitment to themselves and to each other can fuel the power to succeed on the field of play.

Academic Sports Psychologist

Colleges and universities often hire sports psychologists to help athletes manage the pressures inherent with being a college athlete.

Since there are significant demands for athletes’ time (e.g., practicing, traveling for games), they can easily feel overwhelmed because of the demands of completing their studies, not seeing their loved ones as much as they like, and even experiencing conflict with teammates..

Furthermore, collegiate players may grapple with grief, depression, trauma, anxiety, and have difficulties transitioning from high school to college. Such challenges can lead to even more severe issues like overeating, anorexia, bulimia, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

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As an academic sports psychologist, it would be your job to evaluate athletes, offer support via therapy, treatment, or case management, and to communicate to coaches and other stakeholders any concerns you have regarding an athlete’s psychological well-being.

Sports Psychology Researcher

Sports Psychology ResearcherThere are ample opportunities to use your training as a sports psychologist to advance the body of research in this field.

Some sports psychology researchers work in the academic field, working with student-athletes to develop a better understanding of things like physical development, mental stressors, and team dynamics in college athletes.

Another application of research might involve working for private businesses or industries. For example, a company that specializes in designing athletic equipment for athletes might ask you to conduct research into the relationship between physical injury and psychological distress. Then, based on your findings, the company might develop a new training program that utilizes their equipment and a psychological training component to help athletes prepare physically and mentally for sports performance.

Sports psychology research might also be done to devise new interventions and treatments for athletes that are struggling with psychological issues. The techniques you develop could then be used by other sports psychologists in the field to assist their clients in achieving peak performance. 

Military Performance Psychologist

A military performance coach ensures that servicemembers are mentally ready for the rigors of service.

During training, using simulation technology, a military performance psychologist tries to  duplicate high-stress combat situations to help troops develop the needed coping skills to minimize trauma.

Additionally, military performance psychologists utilize memory drills to enhance recall and problem-solving abilities when service members are under pressure. For example, you might work with a group of new marines to help them remember the protocol for treating an injured colleague or what to do if they become separated from their unit.

Military performance psychologists also use visualization exercises to build mental stamina. Additionally, psychologists in this field are compassionate listeners, giving emotional support to military personnel and their families.

College Professor

College ProfessorSince college professors usually have a lot of field experience under their belts, this isn’t a career that you can jump right into after you graduate. After all, having the requisite academic knowledge of sports psychology along with practical experience having used sports psychology techniques in the real world will only make you that much more competent as an instructor.

So, once you have gained a few years of experience working as a sports psychologist, you might find that teaching at a college or university can be a fulfilling career.

Usually, college professors start by teaching at community colleges or small universities. Then, as they gain more experience as a teacher, they can move into more prominent roles. For example, you might start your teaching career as an adjunct professor at a community college and teach only part-time. Then, after a few years, you might be brought on as a full-time assistant professor.

After a few more years, you might parlay that experience into an assistant professorship at a larger school, building from there to an associate professor position and eventually a full professor position. 

It is a long road to becoming a university professor, but one that can be incredibly rewarding. You will likely find that the opportunity to pass your expertise on to the next generation, along with the opportunities for scholarship and research, makes this a highly satisfying career.

Sports Psychology Consultant

As a sports psychology consultant, there would be a wide range of career opportunities open to you.

Usually, consultants are self-employed and are contracted by businesses and organizations to provide their services. So, rather than being employed by a single athletic team, you might contract your services to a variety of sports teams to deliver sports psychology services.

But, some sports psychology consultants work for large sports firms who hire out their consultants to other organizations. As an example, you might work for a professional sports agency but consult with a number of their different athletes on matters related to psychological health and sports performance.

In some cases, sports psychology consultants have the opportunity to travel, work with a variety of amateur and professional organizations, and work with a wide range of athletes, too. Because of this, sports psychology consultancy is perhaps one of the most exciting jobs in this field.

Sports Psychology is a Rewarding Career

Sometimes in psychology, it can take weeks, months, or years before you begin to see progress with a client. And that’s okay! Sometimes making positive changes takes a long time.

But in sports psychology, you can often see the results of your hard work with your clients much more immediately. By using interventions like centering, visualization, positive self-talk, cognitive restructuring, and mindfulness, you might even see a positive change in the way an athlete thinks, feels, and performs after just a couple of sessions of working with them.

As a result, sports psychology can be incredibly exciting, fulfilling, and rewarding. This is true no matter what direction you go with your sports psychology career.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

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