Sports psychology degree programs and careers
What is sports psychology?
Compared to other disciplines, psychology is still a relatively young field. One of its more recent offshoots is sports psychology, which focuses on getting the body and mind to work together. In the words of peak performance coach, DC Gonzalez: “Whatever is going on inside your head has everything to do with how well you end up performing.”
The emphasis is often on optimizing mental skills to improve the chances of success.
A sports psychologist aims to get the best performance out of athletes, by focusing on well-being, development, and performance. The emphasis is often on optimizing mental skills to improve the chances of success. If you love sports, this is an extremely exciting area to work in. You can become an integral part of a team, and contribute to its success by motivating athletes to perform at their peak.
Can a sports psychologist work outside of sport?
Jobs in the field are not only limited to sport. This kind of therapy can also be beneficial to other performers, such as dancers and musicians, or high-risk, high-stress occupations. Examples of professions where sports psychology skills can be used include:
Working with armed forces
An individual trained in mental performance enhancement techniques can assist service members and units to perform more effectively. Like professional athletes, military personnel are obligated to endure long stretches of intense concentration and are subject to extensive stress and anxiety. The potential for boosting service members’ health and mental acuity is a massive asset to national security.
Working with first responders, firefighters, and police
Psychological support for first responders is paramount to enabling them to remain mentally healthy and engaged while facing challenging situations. A sports psychologist can implement exercises to increase emotional resilience, teach calming meditation techniques, and help first responders combat anxiety and burnout.
A sports psychologist can integrate teamwork and motivation techniques to help a company’s staff perform at higher levels. Team building and motivation training can help a company grow, while supporting its employees in the process.
How do sports psychologists work?
There tends to be some confusion over what sports psychologists actually do. Much of their work involves providing cognitive and behavioral skills training. This often includes things like:
- goal setting
- increasing self-confidence
- teaching clients to regulate emotions
Sports psychologists offer counseling and clinical services for issues such as:
- lack of motivation
- overtraining or burnout
- substance abuse
- career transitions
They might offer training and consulting in areas such as:
- team building
- coach training
- parental consulting
- leadership and talent development
In 1898, Norman Triplett conducted one of the earliest psychological studies in sport. He discovered that cyclists perform better with others to compete against, proving competition maximizes sporting potential.
The attributes of a successful sports psychologist
Empathy is very important. Sports psychologists need the ability to step into the shoes of clients to identify and understand mental blocks. The challenge is then to figure out the best way to remove these issues. The solution usually depends on the personality of the client.
Becoming a sports psychologist takes more than just an interest in football or hockey. It involves years of hard work and study. Like most psychology roles, advanced academic credentials are required. For example, if you want to become a licensed sports psychologist you need a doctoral degree.
How to become a sports psychologist
Get a bachelor’s degree
The first step on the road to a career in sports psychology is to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree. To apply, candidates usually need to submit their school transcripts as proof of their diploma, and demonstrate a reasonable grade point average (GPA).
Bachelor’s degree programs in sports psychology are relatively unusual as this is mainly a postgraduate specialization. Therefore, most candidates choose psychology at bachelor’s level, because this provides a basic understanding of psychological principles and a firm foundation for later specialization.
These are somewhat interchangeable, but in general a B.S. tends to focus more heavily on the major, whereas with a B.A. there is more opportunity to choose elective liberal arts courses.
Psychology majors can either choose a bachelor of arts in psychology (B.A.), or bachelor of science in psychology (B.S.). These are somewhat interchangeable, but in general a B.S. tends to focus more heavily on the major, whereas with a B.A. there is more opportunity to choose elective liberal arts courses.
Some undergraduate psychology programs may offer a concentration in sports and performance psychology, but this rare. When researching potential programs be sure to look out for electives (or even core courses) that specifically relate to the field of sports psychology, such as:
Introduction to sport and exercise psychology
This course introduces the main theories and research behind sports psychology. It covers the skills and techniques necessary to perform assessments, aid development, and enhance performance.
Psychology of coaching
This class focuses on the relationship between an athlete or team and the coach. Students examine interpersonal skills and explore motivation, decision making, leadership and developing talent.
This course examines the different body systems and how they function.
This module explores how the presence of others affects a person’s attitude and behavior. It also looks at group mentality and interactions.
This course focuses on biomechanics. Students learn how the human body moves, including a range of physiological functions that involve the muscles and brain activity in exercise and rehabilitation.
It is by no means obligatory to major in psychology at undergraduate level. You might choose another related subject such as kinesiology or sports science. Many successful sports psychologists majored in another bachelor’s field entirely, such as business. If you take this route you may need to take additional psychology courses to apply for graduate programs though.
Get a master’s degree
Most jobs in the sports psychology field require at least a master’s degree. Typically this qualification takes 2 years to complete. If you decide to pursue a doctorate in the field early, then it may be possible to complete the doctoral degree and master’s at the same time. This can lead to less years of study, but it is also a large commitment to cover all the coursework requirements in the reduced time frame.
To enter into a master’s degree program in sports psychology requires a bachelor’s degree with at least 120 credits or the equivalent. Most schools want a minimum GPA of 3.0 to enter their master’s program. Some schools may also require you to take the GRE.
Things can become quite confusing when choosing which master’s program to take. The options available come in numerous forms, such as:
- M.A./M.S. in sport exercise psychology
- M.A./M.S. in sport performance
- M.A./M.S. in sport performance psychology
- M.A./M.S in applied sport psychology
- M.S. in kinesiology with a concentration in sport and exercise psychology
- M.Ed. in sport and exercise psychology
The above list is by no means exhaustive, yet does indicate the variation in courses available. This can cause anxiety in students because they worry they are making the wrong choice. While this understandable, the name of the degree may not be the most important thing. A lot of these degrees offer similar coursework and the same output. When researching potential courses, consider the area of sports psychology you would most like to work in, and how different programs deal with that topic.
It is also important to check that schools and programs are accredited. Most accredited colleges want to advertise their qualifications and usually display these proudly on their website. The most well-known accreditation boards are the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and the APA Commission on Accreditation.
A typical master’s degree in sports psychology might contain classes such as:
- advanced exercise physiology,
- motor learning and control
- the psychology of athletic injuries
- the role of sports in American culture
- sports ethics
- team dynamics
- counseling skills
- developmental psychology
- theoretical aspects of sport and performance psychology
- coaching, mentoring and motivational processes
- performance enhancement psychology
Some colleges may provide ways to acquire practical experiences. Examples of these include internships and community service. Even if this is not a requirement, it may be beneficial to seek out a summer internship anyway. This can give you a better idea of what it means to be a sports psychologist and allow you to make contacts in the field.
Whether you have to complete a thesis depends on your choice of school and program. It may be a requirement if your course is more research focused, so be sure to check this when considering potential programs.
Get a doctorate degree
This is the highest academic qualification in the field. Most doctoral applicants have a master’s in sports psychology or closely related subjects. As well as the requisite grades from your previous education, you may also be asked to provide academic references.
There are various programs available, but the most common options at this level are:
- Ph.D. in psychology with a concentration in sports psychology (or similar)
- Psy.D. in psychology with a concentration in sports psychology (or similar)
A Ph.D. stands for doctor of philosophy, whilst a Psy.D. means doctor of psychology. The main difference between courses in these fields is that Ph.D. courses are more research focused, whilst a Psy.D. is usually aimed at individuals who want to work with patients in a clinical environment.
The contents of the doctoral program tend to be highly individualized, with the student agreeing on study topics with their supervisor. The dissertation is an important component. Again, the topic covered can be decided on with the assistance of your supervisor.
Some doctoral programs require an internship and others don’t. This usually depends on the focus of the program and the specific career the course is aimed at.
A doctoral program typically takes 4-6 years to complete.
Sports psychologists like to implement SMART goal setting. These goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Why not set some SMART goals for your career right now?
In many states, a license is required to practice and use the word psychologist in your title. In this case, you need to obtain a license from your state’s licensure board. The process can include demonstrating supervised practice hours, proving you have earned a doctorate, and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
Other certifications of interest may include becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC). Or you can become a board-certified sports psychologist through the American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP).
Is it possible to earn these sports psychology degrees online?
It is possible to achieve your entire undergraduate and a substantial portion of a master’s degree online, depending on your chosen school. Because this profession has a physical sports component, hybrid learning will likely be preferable at higher levels. In-person learning is sometimes preferable in performance coaching, but with the advent of additional options for online medical treatment and therapy, the profession may yet transition to a more virtual focus.
Is financial aid available?
Post-secondary education can be expensive. Apart from savings, students can fund their studies in a variety of ways:
Federal student aid programs
The first step in researching financial aid from the federal government is filling out the Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) website to assess your eligibility for federal assistance. This website covers all types of aid options for students including:
- The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program
- The Perkins Loan Program
- The Federal Work-Study Program
Be sure to check to see if state-specific additional loans are available in your state.
Post-9/11 GI Bill®
Check with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the financial aid options available to current and honorably discharged service members.
School-based aid programs
Many schools offer their own financial aid programs. Research your options at each institution.
Look at options available through financial institutions or loans from family or friends.
Scholarships and bursaries
Many organizations offer gifts for qualified students. Often these are given as a prize for an essay competition.
How much money does a sports psychologist degree holder make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary of a qualified psychologist is $82,180. The average salary for those with a master’s degree in psychology to be $64,000.
The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook shows projected growth in the psychology field at 8% from 2020 to 2030, due in part to an increased awareness of the importance of mental health.
Sports psychologistMedian salary: 74K US$
The main career opportunity is as a sports psychologist, which as discussed, typically requires a doctoral degree.
Within that job, there are several different specializations. These include:
- Clinical sports psychologists – work in a private practice, or as part of a healthcare team at a hospital, counseling individuals who are facing crises. Some of the most common issues tackled are anxiety regarding performance, adverse cognitive responses to physical injuries, and ongoing behavior modification.
- Applied sports psychologists – work closely with coaches to support athletes or sports teams, either on a full-time or consulting basis. This role encourages and directs mental conditioning, communication, career transitions, and can teach valuable relaxation and concentration techniques.
If you’re wondering what you can do with a master’s degree in sports psychology, know that there are many options. While a doctoral degree is preferred for clinical counseling, those holding a master’s degree have access to several professions.
Athletic trainerMedian salary: 44K US$
You can become an athletic trainer, specializing in sports medicine. Among other things, athletic trainers treat minor sports injuries and advise on fitness routines.
Alternatively, you could become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMP). The responsibilities of a CMP are like those of a sports psychologist. You don’t need a doctorate to become a CMP. A master’s degree and certification from the Association for Applied Sports Psychology is enough. To get a certification from the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, you need to go through their certification program and pass the certification exam. As a certified CMP, you’d be obligated to adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct.
With additional experience, master’s degree holders can also be employed as professional coaches, or teachers.
Those with a bachelor’s degree can still put their knowledge of performance, fitness and motivation to use. These include becoming a personal trainer, the military, or working as a sports coach.
Sports psychologists are sometimes required to address over-confidence. Athletes that are too confident tend to overcommit, make questionable decisions, and are unable to recognize areas where they need to improve.
If you want to enter the field in sports and performance psychology, expect many years of hard studies. The reward that follows is often an exciting and challenging career. Sports psychology graduates can also use their skills in the care of first responders, military applications, corporate teamwork exercises, and assisting performers in the arts. If you are a caring individual with a keen enthusiasm for sports and performance, this profession could be for you.
What is sports psychology?
Sports psychology uses psychology to maximize athletic performance. Methods can vary, from traditional counseling techniques to visualization and goal setting.
Does sports psychology work?
Sports psychology can be extremely useful if an individual is willing to do the work. This is evidenced by the fact that more and more professional sports teams are employing the services of sports psychologists to give them a competitive edge.
What do sports psychologists do?
A sports psychologist improves the performance of athletes by tapping into the inner workings of their mind. They are trained in various therapeutic techniques which help the body and mind to work in synergy.
Can I do a bachelor’s in sports psychology?
Bachelor’s programs in sports psychology do exist, but they are rare because this tends to be a postgraduate specialization. Therefore, aspiring sports psychologists tend to take undergraduate degrees in psychology or a related field.
Where is the best place to study sports psychology?
The best place to study sports psychology depends on your interests and career goals. Different programs vary in the specific coursework they offer. Be sure to make sure the program you choose is accredited.
Is sports psychology a good career?
Yes, particularly if you love sport and the inner-workings of the mind. Competition for the higher-level jobs can be fierce though, even for those with a doctoral degree.
How does sports psychology help athletes?
Sports psychology can help athletes in a number of ways. These include increasing motivation and self-confidence, recovering psychologically from injury, and helping them to transition career.
Can you major in sports psychology?
Degree programs with a sports psychology major tend to be quite rare. More typical are psychology degrees with an emphasis on sports psychology, or elective courses that give candidates a foundation in the field.
American Psychological Association (APA)
An essential resource for information regarding the psychological profession in general and the practice of sports psychology
Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP)
The AASP was founded in 1985. As a leading organization in the field, it offers resources and certification to sports psychology professionals.
The American Psychological Association Society for Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology Division
A division of the APA that focuses on sports psychology and details fellowships, news, and accreditation resources
American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP)
A professional organization that offers certification for sports psychologists.