Written by Maura Deering
What is Sports Psychology?
Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary practice that explores the link between the 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 range of mental health issues athletes and sports industry professionals often experience.
Sports psychologists may favor one proficiency over another, as the field requires a distinctive combination of training in both medicine and psychology. With their in-depth knowledge of physiology and kinesiology, as well as their psychology training, some sports psychologists may focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of athletes after an injury. Others may focus on mental health issues surrounding coach-player communication conflicts or improving team dynamics.
What Does a Sports Psychologist Do?
Sports psychologists can work in a wide variety of settings. They may practice in hospitals, clinics, gyms, physical rehabilitation centers, or schools. Some may work in private practice or provide contracted consulting services to clients in other settings. Professionals in the consulting arena often work 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, and fitness professionals.
Whatever the nature of their practice, sports psychologists should possess the following skills and competencies:
Skills and 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 sometimes exists as a specialty of either applied or clinical psychology. Applied sports psychologists typically advise teams, coaches, trainers, and managers in methods of stress-management, relaxation, and visualization to optimize game performance. Clinical application of these skills typically involves counseling athletes in personal crisis or addressing performance issues, anxiety, or mental or physical injury rehabilitation.
See below for four specializations within sports psychology careers.
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
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for psychologists, including sports psychologists, to grow 14% between 2018 and 2028, which outpaces the combined average for all occupations. In 2018, psychologists made a median annual salary of $79,010. Leading industries for sports psychologists include high schools and colleges, professional sports teams and organizations, hospitals, physical rehabilitation facilities, and private practices.
States with the most clinical psychologists include California, New York, and Texas. The top-paying states for clinical psychologists include California, Oregon, and New Jersey. All other psychologists, such as applied sports psychologists, find the highest employment levels in California, Florida, and Massachusetts. California tops the list of highest-paying states for all other psychologists, followed by Maryland and Kansas.
How Do I Become a Sports Psychologist?
Sports psychologists need a unique combination of medical and psychological competencies, though individual qualifications and licensure requirements vary by state. Few schools in the U.S. offer undergraduate or graduate programs specifically in sports psychology. 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.
Learners can then obtain a Ph.D. in this specialty. Most employers require at least a master's degree to enter the sports psychology field. Consider gaining professional experience via an internship or postdoctoral fellowship while pursuing your degree.
For an outline of how to become a sports psychologist, read below. You can choose the stage 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.
Licensure for Sports Psychologists
State psychology boards confer licenses for psychologists with licensing requirements varying by state. Typically, licensure candidates need a doctoral degree and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. Candidates must also log 1,500-6,000 clinical hours. You can research licensure requirements with your state board.
The American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP) offers national certification in sport psychology. Prerequisites include a doctorate from a regionally accredited school, a state psychology license, and completion of ABSP's training program.
The Association for Applied Sport Psychology also offers certification. Application requirements include completion of a certification exam, evidence of a master's or doctoral sport psychologist degree, a signed mentor or employer verification form, a signed ethical code statement, a CV, and three references.
Psychology Internship Opportunities
An integral component of sports psychologist education requirements, internships and practicum experiences provide an inside look at what sports psychologists do, along with job training and professional references. Students find internships and practicum opportunities at their schools' career centers, job fairs, and recruiting events, and through alumni networks and employment boards.
Practicums typically involve observation of sports psychologists working with clients, while internships offer hands-on experience counseling clients under direct and indirect supervision. For example, interns may meet with clients independently, but report back to their supervisors about the treatment they recommended and to ask questions. Practicum participants discuss with their supervisors what they observed while sitting in on counseling sessions and, over time, may complete assigned tasks.
Internships often last 6-24 months, while practicum timeframes vary. Students earn credit toward their sports psychology degrees in practicums. Interns still pursuing their degrees also earn academic credit, but postdoctoral interns generally do not. Student interns may also earn pay.
Aspiring sports psychologists can browse internships and practicum opportunities through specific organizations. In addition, the ABSP offers summer internships and fellowships in applied evidence-based sports psychology.
Find a Sports Psychology Degree Program Near Me
When researching how to become a sports psychologist, visit our database of sports psychologist programs. You can filter results by degree level, location, and learning modes, and click directly to schools and programs.