Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary practice that explores the link between psychological and physical factors affecting performance in competitive sports and athletic activity. This specialty incorporates the science of physiology, kinesiology and biomechanics to assist sports psychologists in treating a wide range of mental health issues commonly experienced by athletes and sports industry professionals in a clinical setting.
Professionals in this field may favor one proficiency over another, as this field does require a distinctive combination of training in both medicine and psychology. With their in-depth knowledge of physiology and kinesiology, in addition to their psychology training, some sports psychologists may focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of athletes after an injury, while others may focus on mental health issues surrounding coach-player communication conflicts or improving team dynamics.
Careers in sports psychology cover a range of areas. Sports psychologists may practice in a hospital, clinic, gym, physical rehabilitation center, high school or university. Some may work in private practice or provide contracted consulting services to clients in other settings. Professionals in this area are often employed as part of a team of specialists, assembled from a variety of disciplines to maximize health and wellness among athletes, coaches, teams, parents of athletes, fitness professionals and more. Whatever the nature of their practice, sports psychologists should possess the following skills and competencies:
Skills & Competencies
- Objectivity and Sound Judgement
- Critical Thinking
- Interpersonal Skills and Confidentiality
- Thorough Knowledge of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine
- Understanding of Common Sports-Related Injuries and Treatments
- Understanding of Application of Stress Management and Mental Conditioning Techniques
- Data Analysis
- Research and Assessment
Depending on practical application of skills and various licensing organizations, sports psychology may be considered a specialty under either applied or clinical psychology. Applied sports psychologists typically advise teams, coaches, trainers and managers in methods of stress-management, relaxation and visualization designed to optimize performance in the game. Clinical application of these skills tends to involve counseling athletes in personal crisis; addressing performance issues, anxiety or mental or physical injury rehabilitation; and more.
We’ve outlined four specializations within sports psychology careers to illustrate common responsibilities in the field.
Areas of Expertise in the Sports Psychology Field
Youth sports psychologists specialize in counseling young athletes and their families, helping to build confidence and develop teamwork skills, as well as maximize the positive character-building effects of youth sports activities.
- Bullying or peer pressure
- Participation anxiety
- Positive reinforcement
- Balance between sports and other activities
Professionals in this area may also counsel other facilitators of youth sports, including coaches and parents, to help build a positive support system around child players and teams. Sports psychologists may use psychometric testing to assess issues, as well as psychotherapeutic anxiety-reduction and stress-management techniques to treat young clients.
Common Job Titles
- Youth Sports Psychologist
- Youth Sports Counselor
- Youth Sports Science and Psychology Specialist
Instructional Sports Psychology/Coaching
Sports psychology focused on instructional training is commonly geared toward coaches and trainers, but it is also useful for athletes, parents, corporate managers and team leaders. Instructional sports psychology is designed to offer guidance and teach strategies to help increase motivation, boost morale and build mental stamina.
- Fear of failure or fear of success at work or in sports
- Low team or office morale
- Game or business strategies failing to reach maximum potential
These professionals typically work with each individual or group to determine how to improve strategies and build a positive game plan that will meet the needs of all patients involved. In addition to utilizing techniques to build team morale and motivation, methods of treating anxiety and other personal mental health issues are taken into consideration by psychologists in this field.
Common Job Titles
- Instructional Sports Psychologist
- Sports Psychology Coaching
- Sports Psychology Training
Sports psychologists in this specialty are focused on the collective psychological needs of a team or group, as opposed to one individual athlete. These professionals are well-versed in the proven success of positive team dynamics and how learning to work together can improve overall performance in the game and in life.
- Lack of unity or sense of alienation among teammates
- Attention-seeking behavior and dissention among individuals on a team or in a group
- Lack of structure or disorganization of team goals on the field
Specialists in this area commonly work alongside other professionals who make up the team support system, such as coaches, trainers, physical therapists and game strategists. In a corporate setting, sports psychologists may be called upon by HR managers or department heads to develop team-building strategies for colleagues of a particular business or organization.
Common Job Titles
- Sports Psychology Trainer
- Team Dynamics Counselor
- Team Dynamics Psychology Specialist
Performance Enhancement Psychology
In both individual athletes and group therapy applications, performance enhancement strategy is one of the primary concerns addressed by sports psychologists during treatment. Qualified sports psychologists may provide counseling services to athletes, coaches, trainers and parents, offering methods of optimizing mental response to team sports and athletic activity.
- Anxiety and energy management
- Communication problems
- Visualization and concentration techniques
Professionals with additional expertise in this area may work closely with athletic trainers, physical therapists and other psychology specialists to provide holistic mental health and wellness treatment for the patient.
Common Job Titles
- Sports Psychologist
- Performance Enhancement Psychology Specialist
- Performance Enhancement Counselor
Sports Psychology by the Numbers
Sports psychologists in the U.S. comprise a niche within a broad category that also includes social and forensic psychologists, among other less populated specialties. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sports psychologists are expected to grow in number by 11% nationwide from 2012 to 2022. This category of psychologists can expect to see approximately 1,400 new jobs by 2022, according to BLS projections.
Annual Mean Wage of Sports Psychologists By State, May 2014
|State||Employment||Employment per Thousand Jobs||Location Quotient||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Source: Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, July 2015
A unique combination of medical and psychological competencies is needed to become a qualified sports psychologist in the United States, though individual qualifications and licensure requirements vary from state to state. Few schools in the U.S. offer undergraduate or graduate programs specifically in sports psychology, though students looking to major in this field may double-major in psychology and exercise science or pursue a degree in clinical psychology with a sports psychology concentration.
Students can then obtain a PhD in this specialty. Most employers require at least a master’s degree to enter the field of sports psychology. Gaining professional experience via an internship or postdoctoral fellowship is suggested while pursuing your degree.
We’ve outlined the path toward entering sports psychologist careers. Choose the stage from those listed below that best applies to you:
Declare as a psychology major.
Common coursework in sports psychology includes:
- Developmental Psychology
- Functional Anatomy
- Performance Psychology
- Evaluation and Feedback
- Movement Analysis
- Diet and Nutrition
- Coping with Injury
- Exercise Psychology
Consider a specialty
- Deciding on sports psychology as a specialty is a good start; within this field, you should consider more specifically where your interest lies. For example, you may want to focus on counseling coaches versus child athletes.
- Consult with professors working in sports psychology at your school for their insight into the profession. This may help you to start considering a thesis, which looks impressive on grad school applications.
Take the GRE
- Know what the minimum scores are for admittance into schools offering sports psychology master's programs.
- Take multiple practice tests.
- Pay for a GRE training course if you're not satisfied with your scores.
- Leave enough time to take the test again when you schedule your test date, just in case you want to make a second attempt.
Get Reference Letters
- Stay friendly with your sports psychology professors and other professionals you meet in the field; try to set yourself apart in these circles. Your sports psychology instructors will be important contacts, and their references can greatly affect admission come application time.
- Approach professors even if you've been out of school or out of touch for awhile. These contacts may ask to chat about your interests and objectives in sports psychology before helping out with a reference letter.
Choose a Graduate School
- Search the top graduate sports psychology programs in the nation with our convenient database. A good school in this field will offer an in-depth sports psychology or exercise science program, as well as a robust alumni network.
Come Up with a Thesis
- Your early career will take shape here. If you have an idea of where the practice of sports psychology may take you, research this specialty. If not, consider focusing your skills in either counseling, training, consulting or motivational strategy development, among other options.
- Consult professors in sports psychology to help you glean a hypothesis from your initial idea.
Find an Internship
- Find an internship specific to sports psychology before you graduate, so that you are working while still enrolled in school. Internships in this specialty may be available at clinics, athletic facilities or for private practitioners, among other options.
Network with Professors and Professionals in the Field
- This is of utmost importance. Networking with sports psychology professionals in your area is at the core of the job search process.
- The career center services staff at your school can help you practice interview skills relevant to sports psychology.
Refine Your Resume and Keep It Current
- Maintain a current sports psychology resume, with correlating experience and internships listed.
- Ask a few people you trust to review your resume and make suggestions.
- Your resume should be constantly updated and active, as well as customized to show related qualifications needed to practice sports psychology in particular positions.
Start Sending Out Job Applications
- Don't linger at the start of this process, as it may take longer than you anticipate to find employment. A methodical approach that includes reaching out to sports psychology employers in your area should lead to positive results.
- Write customized cover letters according to the individual sports psychology clinic, school or employer to which you are applying.
- Research potential employers on LinkedIn; using this or other methods of setting yourself apart may help you land your dream job in the field.
Prepare for Interviews
- Practice answering sports psychology questions in a mock interview with friends.
- Make sure you can explain what the sports psychology company you're interviewing with does, as well as what their goals are as an institution.
- What you wear and how you conduct yourself should be tailored to each particular employer. Bring copies of your resume and cover letter with you.
You're now a Sports Psychologist
- Congratulations! Adhering to the steps above should help you land your first sports psychology job with the employer of your choice.
- Always look to the future of building your career. Be aware of new opportunities to advance your career based on innovations and developments in sports psychology.
Our database of top sports psychology programs in the U.S. was created to help those looking to enter the field with a top-notch education. Set the customizable filters to find the right sports psychology degree program for you.
Kara Zakrzewski, BSc.
I started my own Mental Toughness Coaching company even before I went back to school to earn my Master’s degree in sport psychology.
To give an inside perspective of sports psychology, we sat down with sports psychologist Dr. Kara Zakrzewski to get her view on the ins-and-outs of the field.
Skip to Question
- What's your educational background/How did you get interested in that subject?
I have a BSc. in Human Kinetics and a Master’s of Arts in Human Kinetics concentrated in Sport Psychology, which I completed over 10 years after earning my BSc. In those 10 years, I competed for Canada on the World Beach Volleyball Tour. Having been a lifelong competitive athlete, I discovered first-hand the need to train the mind alongside the body. My national team coach once said to me “Kara, you make the hard stuff look easy and the easy stuff look hard,” and it was true. The easier it was, the more time I had to think about it.
- How/why did you choose that school/program?
I chose the University of Ottawa in Canada for my Master’s in Sport Psychology for 2 main reasons. One of the most experienced, forerunners of Sport Psychology, Dr. Terry Orlick, is a professor at U of O. I had a conversation with him prior to applying, and he offered to be my thesis advisor, so at that point the program at University of Ottawa became the only choice for me.
And, I had done my undergraduate studies at University of Ottawa and I loved it!
- Who do you think makes the best sports psychology candidates? Do you recommend doing anything in undergrad/grad school to better set yourself up for success?
I might be biased, but I do believe that the best sport psychology candidates are those who have partaken in an elite sport or performance domain (like competitive dance or professional music). I am a firm believer in the sport psychology consultant using their as-lived, phenomenological experience from their own sporting experience to really relate to and provide hands-on tools to the athlete. Kind of like a ‘been-there-done-that’ phenomenon: the consultant has already been there themselves, so they have a better understanding of what tool will make the difference with the athlete/high performer. This is not to say that you have to have been an elite athlete/performer to be an expert sport psychologist, I just happen to think those that have competed in an elite sport or its equivalent have a leg up.
- What's your area of specialty within sports psychology?
An obvious area is volleyball and beach volleyball athletes, given that those were my sports. I’m also an expert at working with youth up-and-coming athletes, starting as young as nine years of age. I really enjoy working with athletes on the origin of their fear and providing tools for them to breakthrough whatever it is that’s preventing them from getting to the next level in their sport.
- Where do you currently work? How did you find that position?
I started my own Mental Toughness Coaching company even before I went back to school to earn my Master’s degree in sport psychology. So I created my own position. I work in my home office and am currently training associates to also work for Mental Toughness Inc. from their own home offices. All coaching sessions are done over skype or the phone.
- Were there any unexpected hurdles in getting where you are today?
The biggest hurdles were those I faced as an athlete, and everyone has helped me to be a better sport psychology consultant! The main hurdles were learning how to start and run my own business and attract clients; I went to the experts and hired business coaches to teach me how to do this.
- What does your typical day involve?
Each day is a bit different than the next, but each involves coaching calls with clients, developing new curriculum, writing blogs, reaching out to new potential athlete clients. So it’s a combination of development and coaching.
- What's your favorite part of the job?
Seeing my athletes succeed where before they were stopped!
- What do you think makes a great sports psychologist?
Passion, making it about the athlete and not about you, and clear communication. You have to be willing to say what the athlete doesn’t want to hear and to go in deep with what’s stopping them. They might, and probably will resist, so you have to really present the coaching in a way that’s not confronting, but rather in which they can really see the opportunity that’s available in taking the coaching.
- Is there anything you don't like about your work?
The financial side and business planning aspects of having my own business.
- What's the most interesting or challenging case/experience you've come across?
Every client is interesting and challenging as each one presents unique versions of performance blockages. One of the best things about this profession is that it changes daily - the tools might stay the same, but the athletes are all different so how and when you present the tools is constantly evolving.
- Are you involved with any professional organizations? If so, why?
I am involved with Landmark Worldwide because their training and development programs have really allowed me to get out of my own way so that my coaching can be all about the athletes (vs. my own ego getting in the way of their advancement).
- What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in this field right now? Who is doing the most interesting research?
I love that Sport Psychology has gone mainstream, and that there are awesome books like The Talent Code that are available to everyone. The most exciting thing for me is that sport psychology is moving from being so theoretical and hard for athletes to apply to taking on a much more applied perspective, so that it’s actually usable in reality.
- What's the best "must-read/watch" book, video, or publication for this field?
The best two books in my opinion are Inner Tennis by W. Timothy Gallway and The Pursuit of Excellence by Dr. Terry Orlick.
- Any other advice for those looking to go into the field?
Practice, practice, practice. Get in with different consultants and see what they’re doing. Work with younger athletes on their mental game using your own experiences to start developing your models. Volunteer to be the mental coach of a youth team based on your credentials as an athlete. And keep reading and applying what you read to your own competitive experience. Keep being an athlete and test your skills on yourself first.
- What are the biggest considerations someone should think about before pursuing your field?
It is a very independent, entrepreneurial field. So if you’re looking for the steady job with the steady paycheck, this is not it. On the other hand, if you are willing to develop yourself as an entrepreneur, it is a very lucrative field AND you get to make a big difference.
- Do you have a funny/light-hearted psych-related story?
I’m just going to pass on a sport psych joke that my own sport psychologist said to me when I was a pro athlete: ‘Stop should-ing on yourself!” If you find that funny, you’re in the right field!
Selected individually by our editorial staff, the following represent the leading organizations, journals and conferences in the field of sports psychology today. To suggest an addition to our collection, please email us at email@example.com.
- American Academy of Clinical Health Psychology
- American Board of Clinical Health Psychology
- American Psychological Association Division 47
- APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists
- Association for Applied Sports Psychology
- Council of Specialties in Professional Psychology
- NASPSPA - North American Society for Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity
- National Register of Health Service Psychologists
- American Board of Sport Psychology
- Association for Applied Sports Psychology
- Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology
- Canadian Sport Psychology Association
- German Association of Sport Psychology
- International Society for Mental Training and Excellence
- International Society of Sport Psychology
- North American Society for Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity
- AASP Regional Conference & 25th annual Midwest Sport & Exercise Psychology Symposium
- Association for Applied Sport Psychology: Regional Conference
- Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference
- International Congress on Sport and Exercise Psychology
- NASPSPA - North American Society for Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity