Sports psychology degree programs and careers

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Introduction to sports psychology

Sports psychology is used to help teams and athletes cope with pressure when it comes to competitions. It can also help everyday people enjoy sports, recover from injuries, and commit to exercise programs. One of the main applications of research in the field is to enhance performance through techniques that take players and athletes to their full potential, to learn to relax, maximize potential, and to visualize success.

Careers in this specialized profession could see you working with professionals and amateurs to grow their confidence and increase their focus. Not only must a certified practitioner have an advanced degree in psychology, but they must additionally possess advanced knowledge of sports and their social and developmental aspects.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes sports psychology as a special expertise (proficiency) within psychology. The skills and knowledge that a student obtains in sports and performance psychology training can help athletes refine and improve their results. Sports psychologists also hold knowledge of the social aspects of sports and the issues that athletes and associations face in competition.

The opportunities in this field are numerous for a student who wishes to pursue a career. From improving the health and well-being of your community to affecting the performance of elite athletes, a role as a sports psychologist is varied and has many possible avenues.

Who would be interested in sports psychology?

The ideal candidate must be keenly interested in sports and the inner workings of the minds and personalities of athletes, teams, and society. Sports psychologists don’t just deal with athletes and teams. They also consult and train with others involved in sports, such as parents and coaches. They can also work in a public service or corporate setting.

A degree in sports psychology and performance can garner employment in a variety of areas. With a lower degree, it’s possible to work as:

  • An athletic or performance coach
  • A teacher
  • A rehabilitation specialist (with additional training)
  • A coordinator for health and wellness programs
  • Support staff for licensed psychologists
  • An administration professional in recreation programs at a municipal level

How sports psychologists help athletes

They offer cognitive and behavioral skills training for performance enhancement, focusing on things like:

  • Goal setting
  • Self-confidence
  • Emotion regulation
  • Imagery and performance training

They offer counseling and clinical services for issues that athletes may face, like:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Overtraining or burnout
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Career transitions

They offer training and consulting in areas such as:

  • Team building
  • Coach training
  • Parental consulting
  • Leadership and talent development

Sports psychologists can work with a range of individuals in sports, from coaches and administrators to elite athletes, to youth teams. They can also aid athletes with disabilities or injuries.

How sports psychology can help in other professions

Sports psychologists are trained not just to help athletes. They can offer mental performance enhancement therapy to anyone in need. They can improve physical and mental performance for many individuals in various situations. This kind of therapy can be beneficial to performers outside of athletics, such as dancers and musicians, or high-risk, high-stress occupations such as military, firefighting, and police.

Sports psychology principles can apply in many different professions, but applications in the military are particularly useful. An individual trained in mental performance enhancement techniques can assist service members and units to perform more effectively.

Members of the armed forces often operate under high stress and extreme physical demands. The potential for boosting service members’ health and mental acuity is a massive asset to national security. Like professional athletes, military personnel are obligated to endure long stretches of intense concentration and are subject to extensive stress and anxiety.

Psychological support for first responders is paramount to enabling workers in these professions 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 or performance psychologist can integrate teamwork and motivation techniques to help a company’s staff perform at higher levels. Whether in sales or development, team building and motivation training can help a company grow and support its employees in the process.

Career options

The field of sports psychology is competitive, and further certification and accreditation will be beneficial to anyone searching for employment in this field. Most employers require a doctoral degree, but many jobs are available to those with a master’s degree in psychology and relevant experience.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows projected growth in the field at 3% from 2019 to 2029, due in part to an increased awareness of the importance of mental health.

The main career opportunity is as a sports psychologist. The average annual salary for this role is $71,645. Within that job, there are several different specializations. They include:

Clinical sports psychologists – working in a private practice, or as part of a healthcare team at a hospital, you’ll counsel 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 – you’ll 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 have specialist knowledge of a sport, you might combine that with the sports psychology techniques you learn to become a sports or athletic coach for an amateur or professional team. The average annual salary for an athletics coach is $44,006.

If you’re wondering what you can do with a master’s degree in sports psychology, there are lots of options. While a doctoral degree is preferred for clinical counseling, those holding a master’s degree in the field have access to several professions. With additional experience, advanced degree holders can be employed as professional coaches, applied sports psychologists, or teachers.

How to obtain a sports psychology degree and license

Several universities in the U.S. offer undergraduate degrees in sports psychology and performance psychology. Many of them also offer master’s degrees. Employment is available with any degree in this field, but clinical positions are only available to those who hold a doctorate.

The most direct way to obtain a certified sports psychology degree is to first complete a 4-year undergraduate program. You’ll usually need to submit your school transcripts showing that you achieved your diploma and a minimum 2.0 grade point average (GPA) to determine if you qualify for a place.

Applicants interested in a master’s degree in sports psychology will typically need to have completed a bachelor’s degree at an accredited institution. Some universities require that your undergraduate degree is in a relevant field, such as psychology or sports science. You’ll need to submit your transcripts, usually showing a minimum 3.0 GPA, 3 letters of recommendation, your resume, and a personal statement.

If you are interested in a doctorate in sports psychology, then you’ll generally need to have completed a graduate degree and achieved a 3.5 GPA. Most Ph.D. programs require you to have completed a thesis, although you might be able to complete a research project in your first year instead.

License requirements include specialized academic coursework in sports psychology and a supervised internship. After checking these boxes, most states require that a portion of your internship hours take place at a certified sports psychology practice. Coursework and competencies in sports theory vary by region, so please ensure that you research your state’s regulations and contact the governing board in the area. An essential resource to check is the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Which courses should I expect to take?

The study of sports psychology covers the study of psychology itself, as well as the sciences of biomechanics, kinesiology, and physiology. Typically, an undergraduate student in sports psychology should prepare to study in 4 main areas:

  • Youth sports
  • Instructional sports psychology/coaching
  • Team dynamics
  • Performance enhancement psychology

Students should prepare to study:

The basics of sport psychology

  • Health and exercise
  • Intervention and performance
  • Mental training

Physical sports science and theory

  • Kinesiology 
  • Biomechanics 
  • Anatomy 
  • Body and fine motor control 

Background, history, and principles

  • The sociology of sports
  • The history and philosophy of sports and physical education
  • Nutrition and health
  • Principles of coaching
  • Prevention and treatment of injuries

Practical skills in sports

  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Motivation

Where can I get a master’s degree in sports psychology?

High-level education in sports psychology is available at schools across the country. As well as considering the program content, you might want to narrow down your search by looking at universities with accreditation. This process is carried out by independent bodies that evaluate the program content, the school’s financial stability, and the student services.

A benefit of attending an accredited school is that it will have to meet quality standards that are peer reviewed. Another benefit is that these institutions are recognized by other universities and prospective employers, which could help you progress in your career.

You can check if your school is certified by an accreditation council by looking for the initials or logo on the website. Typically, schools with sports psychology degrees are certified by regional accreditation bodies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Is it possible to earn this degree online?

It is possible to achieve your entire undergraduate and a substantial portion of a master’s degree online, depending on your chosen school. An online doctorate could be possible from certain institutions. 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.

Cost of the degree

The average tuition for bachelor’s degrees is around $10,560 for in-state students and $27,020 for those coming from out of state. Online degrees might be priced per credit or unit, in which case you could pay around $300 to $700 per unit. Most programs have 40 to 55 units.

The cost for a master’s degree is generally the same whether you choose distance learning or a campus-based course. You’ll pay a different rate if you’re an in-state student from that of one from out of state. Prices per credit range from $400 to $500 for in-state applicants, and $1,000 to $1,200 for out-of-state students.

Ph.D. programs are often charged per semester. You could expect to pay around $4,000 as an in-state student, or $12,000 if you are an out-of-state applicant.

Is financial aid available?

Post-secondary education can be expensive. Apart from savings, students can fund their studies in a variety of ways:

The first step in researching financial aid from the federal government is filling out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) to assess your eligibility for federal aid while you study. 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.

Check with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the financial aid options available to current and honorably discharged service members.

Many schools offer their own financial aid programs. Research your options at each institution.

Look at options for education loans available through financial institutions, or consider if loans from family or friends may be an option.

Many organizations offer gifts for qualified students. Often these are given as a prize for an essay competition or in exchange for volunteer service.

How much does a sports psychologist degree holder make?

As detailed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, the average salary of psychologists was $80,370 annually. Individuals with a master’s degree in psychology have a salary range from $46,000 (entry-level) to $76,000 (executive level).

Is certification necessary?

Many practicing sports psychologists choose to pursue certification to demonstrate to their clients that they uphold professional standards. One option is to become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC). Alternatively, you can become a board-certified sports psychologist through the American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP).

In many states, you’ll need a license in order to practice and use the word psychologist in your title. In this case, you would need to obtain a license from your state’s licensure board. The process could include demonstrating supervised practice hours, proving you have earned a doctorate, and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).

In conclusion

Those pursuing studies in sports and performance psychology can expect an exciting and challenging career. The tenets of sports psychology can also be applied to areas other than sports. Graduates of sports and performance psychology programs can find employment using their skills in care of first responders, military applications, corporate teamwork exercises, and dance or music performance visualization and enhancement.

Students can pursue an undergraduate or a master’s degree in sports psychology at select post-secondary institutions. A doctorate and licensure are required if individuals would like to pursue this career in a clinical setting. If you are a caring individual with a keen enthusiasm for sports and performance, this profession could be for you.

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.

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.