Sports Psychology Degree Overview

Sports psychology combines the study of athletics and the human mind. Sports psychologists assist athletes with reaching their full potential by helping them overcome mental hindrances. This guide covers important information for prospective sports psychologists, including professional duties, degree options, and licensure requirements.

What is Sports Psychology?

To understand what sports psychology is, it’s helpful to review its history. Near the end of the 19th century, Norman Tripplet published the first sports psychology study, where he observed how the presence of other people affected the performance of cyclists. The field took hold in the 1920s and 1930s, when psychologist Coleman Griffith found that analyzing various psychological factors, such as motor learning, improved athlete performance.

Today, sports psychologists help athletes by assessing psychological factors, including low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Sports psychologists can offer cognitive skills training and counseling services to help athletes overcome these struggles and achieve optimal performance.

How to Become a Sports Psychologist

Sports psychologists typically need a Ph.D. in psychology, supervised work experience, and a license to practice. The following sections outline degree, internship, and licensure requirements for sports psychologists.

  • Degrees

    Sports psychologists need a Ph.D. to practice. Some universities offer joint master’s-Ph.D. programs, where students can earn a master’s and a doctoral degree simultaneously. Professionals with only a bachelor’s or master’s may pursue related jobs, such as recreational therapist or wellness consultant.

  • Internships

    Sports psychology programs often require students to complete an internship. States typically require licensure candidates to complete 1-2 years of supervised work experience, and students can typically use their internships to help meet this requirement.

  • Licensure

    Sport psychologists need a state license to practice. Requirements vary by state, but candidates typically need a doctoral degree from an accredited institution and 1-2 years of supervised work experience. Applicants also need to pass the 225-question Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

  • Certification

    Sports psychologists often don’t need a certificate to practice, but the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers several certification options that can help professionals secure employment and advance their career. ABPP does not offer a specific certification for sports psychology, but sports psychologists can earn certificates in related areas, such as group counseling, rehabilitation, and behavioral and cognitive psychology.

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Sports Psychology vs. General Psychology

Sports psychology and general psychology share several commonalities and differences. The following sections cover the similarities and differences between these two fields.


General psychology and sports psychology programs usually feature similar core curricula. Undergraduate degrees especially include many of the same first- and second-year courses, including introduction to psychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and human development.

General psychology and sports psychology graduate programs both require research components. Master’s students complete a thesis, while doctoral students dedicate several years to a dissertation. Graduate programs in both disciplines also require students to participate in fieldwork. Additionally, general and sports psychologists need to meet the same state licensure requirements to practice,


General psychology majors may take courses in a wider variety of psychology topics than sports psychology majors, including psychopharmacology, adult neuropsychology, and addiction counseling. By contrast, sports psychology majors typically focus their studies on topics that specifically relate to a career as a sports psychologist, such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, and physical education pedagogy.

Due to the broader range of topics that general psychology majors study, graduates pursue more diverse careers than sports psychology majors, who typically pursue careers as sports psychologists.

What Can You Do With a Sports Psychology Degree?

Graduates with a Ph.D. in sports psychology typically become sports psychologists, working with athletes to overcome mental struggles and improve their performance. Graduates may also work as researchers in schools or in the private sector. Graduates with only a sports psychology master’s or bachelor’s degree may pursue related careers, such as recreational therapist, wellness consultant, and athletic trainer.

The following sections outline several prospective careers for each sports psychology degree level.

Sports Psychology Degree Programs

  • Undergraduate Sports Psychology Programs

    Degree Requirements

    Undergraduate sports psychology degrees usually consist of 120 credits, which full-time students can typically complete in four years. However, many factors affect degree completion times. Learners with transfer credit and students in accelerated programs may graduate sooner, while students who enroll part time might need an extra year or two to graduate.

    Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

    • Wellness Consultant: Wellness consultants help clients improve their health. They may work in a gym or health clinic or as a freelance consultant. They meet with clients, assess their health, and offer strategies to overcome challenges. They may also teach clients about how physical exercise promotes mental health.
    • Athletic Trainer: Athletic trainers aid athletes suffering from injuries. They also evaluate injuries and administer first aid. Students hoping to enter this profession may need to take courses in anatomy and physiology. They must also earn athletic training certification.
    • Recreational Therapist: Recreational therapists work with clients suffering from disabilities or illnesses. They focus on improving an individual’s mental or physical health by developing treatment plans aligned with a client’s interests. For instance, they may help somebody struggling with depression by guiding them to dance, sports, or other physical activity in line with their interests.

    Learn More About Sports Psychology Bachelor’s Degrees

  • Sports Psychology Master’s Programs

    Degree Requirements

    Sports psychology master’s programs usually require 32-36 credits of coursework. Full-time students typically complete these credits in 1-2 years. Schools usually require students to engage in a research component and participate in supervised professional experiences to gain hands-on experience in the field.

    Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

    • Professional Team Coach: These professionals coach professional players in any sport, including basketball, baseball, and volleyball. A large part of a coach’s job involves inspiring players and encouraging them to overcome their anxieties for optimal performance.
    • University Team Coach: These professionals coach student athletes at colleges and universities. In addition to performing the duties of a professional team coach, university team coaches may need to support student athletes with struggles in the classroom, which can affect their athletic performance.
    • Sports Psychology Research Assistant: Full research positions usually require a Ph.D.; however, graduates with a master’s degree can find jobs as research assistants in laboratories at colleges, universities, or private research firms.

    Learn More About Sports Psychology Master’s Degrees

  • Sports Psychology Doctorate Programs

    Degree Requirements

    Doctorate in sports psychology programs typically include 60-90 credits. Ph.D. students often graduate in 4-5 years, but several factors affect the degree timeline. For instance, students with transfer credit may graduate faster, while students in a joint master’s-Ph.D. program may take six years to graduate with both degrees.

    Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

    • Sports Psychologist: Sports psychologists provide psychological counseling to athletes, especially after an athlete endures an injury. They counsel injured athletes who experience struggles like a lack of self-worth or depression. Sports psychologists also help physically healthy athletes overcome mental struggles, such as anxiety, that keep them from achieving peak performance.
    • College Professor: Professors teach undergraduate and graduate students. They may also act as advisors to degree candidates. Additionally, professors typically conduct their own research, sharing their findings through academic journals and conferences.
    • Sports Psychology Researcher: Sports psychologists can also find jobs conducting research in the private sector instead of at colleges and universities. For example, a sports company might hire a researcher to examine how certain mental or emotional struggles affect physical performance.

    Learn More About Sports Psychology Doctoral Degrees

Online Sports Psychology Programs

Online sports psychology programs typically allow students to study at their own pace, giving them the flexibility to balance school with work and family obligations. These programs also allow students to study at top psychology programs without relocating.

Sports psychology graduate programs often feature research and fieldwork components that require distance learners to travel to locations like clinics, hospitals, or laboratories. However, many programs allow online students to meet these requirements at approved sites near their home.

When Selecting a Program

  • Reach Out to Current Students Universities often post contact information and short biographies of graduate students online. Prospective students might consider reaching out to current students to gain insight into what a potential program is like.
  • Find Financial Aid Opportunities Prospective sports psychology students should research financial aid options such as loans, work-study programs, and scholarships. Graduate students can also look for research or teaching assistantships, which typically offer a tuition waiver and living stipend.
  • Research Where Recent Graduates Ended Up Students should research job placements of recent graduates at each prospective school. Learners can use this information to determine whether a program prepares students for their intended career path.

Take the Next Step

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