Sports Psychologist

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There are numerous career opportunities for a Sports Psychologist and many lead fascinating, multi-faceted professions.

John F. Murray , Ph.D, is a clinical and sports psychologist (described by The Washington Post as the “Freud of Football”) that works with a variety of clients, including professional athletes, teams, coaches, performance artists and business leaders, as well as individuals, families and couples.

Dr. Murray did an interview with former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski about sports psychology. “Sports psychology is the new frontier,” said Romanowski. “It’s what sets athletes, teams apart. It’s the difference between good and great. If you want to be great, you better be focusing on the mental part of it and the imagery part of it…” Romanowski described how using imagery (visualizing himself making interceptions, fumbles, sacks…over and over again in his head before the game) was what “fuelled his success” on the field.

Sports Psychologist Career At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: Ph.D. (but there are jobs related to sports psychology with less education).
  • Certification/Licensure Requirements: Licensure is required for sports psychologists providing clinical, counselling and other direct psychological services; licensure tends not to be required for academic research positions, although this depends on jurisdiction and employer.
  • Specializations: Various, from visualization techniques and performance enhancement to sport and performance-specific psychological diagnoses.
  • Median Annual Salaries: $68,640 *
  • Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020 **
“Romanowski described how using imagery (visualizing himself making interceptions, fumbles, sacks…over and over again in his head before the game) was what ‘fuelled his success’ on the field.”

Enhancing athlete performance is just one aspect of sport psychology. In fact sports psychologists do not necessarily work with professional teams and players, and their field extends beyond sports to many different forms of exercise/physical activity. “Sport psychologists are interested in two main areas,” states the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 47: Exercise & Sport Psychology. “[The first is] helping athletes use psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (performance enhancement) and [the second is] understanding how participation in sport, exercise and physical activity affects an individual’s psychological development, health and well-being throughout the lifespan.”

Job Description

“Sports psychologists have three primary roles: practice, research, and teaching,” state Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan (in Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, 4th edition, 2013). However, as the field of sports psychology continues to blossom and become incorporated into both the worlds of professional and amateur athletics, sports psychologists may find themselves performing numerous career tasks. These may include:

  • As a professor, teaching and supervising students in various departments (i.e. psychology, sports science and physical education departments), while conducting research.
  • Sports psychologists can also conduct research for agencies/organizations not affiliated with universities.
  • Consult and practice for a department, company, individual athlete, team, etc.—from a college/university athletic department or a ballet company to a professional basketball team, a pro golfer or a youth amateur sports league.
  • Help athletes, performers and teams enhance their performance and deal with the pressures of their profession, by teaching relaxation, imagery, positive self-talk and other techniques, providing counseling, life skills planning, rehabilitation programs and more.
  • Those psychologists who focus on physical activity, exercise and fitness (sometimes known as exercise psychologists) may collaborate with general practitioners, and health and community organizations to help individuals and groups incorporate exercise and physical activity into their lifestyle.
  • Develop, evaluate or initiate physical activity/exercise programs in a variety of settings, including prisons, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other institutions.
  • Provide consulting or counseling services to coaches, trainers, team managers, referees and other sports administrators/leaders.
  • Assess athletic/exercise performance and/or psychological state.
  • Act as a keynote speaker for sports conferences, athletic leagues, sports governing bodies, companies, clinics, schools, etc.
  • Lead workshops for trainers, coaches, individuals and groups.
  • Write articles, scientific reports, books, etc.
  • Sports psychologists may work out of an office, as part of a sports-health clinic, for a consulting firm, his/her own private practice, for a sports counseling centre, for a specific team/player/performer/performance company, for a sports governing body/organization, rehabilitation centers, exercise facilities and more. Sports psychologists may be required to be out on the road or travel to various settings, such as sports venues, exercise facilities—even the locker room. Sports psychologists may also perform these roles via telecommuting.

“As the field of sports psychology continues to blossom and become incorporated into both the worlds of professional and amateur athletics, sports psychologists may find themselves performing numerous career tasks.”

Looking For More Inspiration?

Interview with Sport Performance Consultant, Elliott Waksman, MA, CC-AASP

Mr. Waksman is a Sport Performance Consultant In Portland, Oregon. He Works With Both Individuals And Teams To Help Them Master The “Mental Game Of Sport.”

Specializations & Concentrations

While some sports psychologists are generalists, others develop and then apply certain specialties within their field through practice, teaching, research, consulting, etc. Examples of specializations include:

  • Sports/physical activity connection to health/wellness.
  • Enhancing athletic performance
  • Life transitions (i.e. retirement)
  • Relationship issues related to the life of a professional athlete/performer
  • Sport-specific psychological concerns and assessments
  • Team building and cohesion
  • Coaching/leadership
  • Imagery
  • Athletes with acute or permanent injuries and rehabilitation/adaptations
  • Mental preparation for performance
  • Substance abuse
  • Confidence/self-esteem
  • Bereavement/grief
  • Suicide in the professional athletic/performance world
  • Burnout
  • Anger/stress management
  • Dealing with fame
  • A specific sport or physical activity
  • A specific age group (i.e. exercise programs for seniors or motivating youth to participate)
  • Effective training programs
  • How performance is affected by environmental factors (i.e. home versus away games)
  • Motivators to train and perform effectively
  • Arousal and anxiety (getting psyched before a sporting event/performance and calming down afterwards)
  • And More!

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The Educational Journey

“Sport psychology is a multidisciplinary field spanning psychology, sport science and medicine,” states APA Division 47: Exercise & Sports Psychology. APA Division 47 adds that students should strive to complete coursework, internships, research and/or supervised practice in each of these subject areas.
“Sport psychology is a multidisciplinary field spanning psychology, sport science and medicine…”

“Whatever degree you choose to obtain (masters or doctorate), and whether the degree comes from a department of psychology or the sport sciences, you should take supplemental course work from the allied discipline not represented by your home department,” states APA Division 47. This is something to keep in mind even at the undergraduate level. For example, if you are majoring in psychology at the Bachelor’s level, it is a good idea to select electives related to sport sciences.

Generally speaking to become a recognized Sports Psychologist, you need a doctoral degree; however there are some related careers obtainable with lower level degrees. And of course it is important to note that there is more than one specific career/educational track for becoming a sports psychologist, especially because some students may start out in psychology, others in sport sciences, while others may come from an entirely different background and start focusing on sports psychology at the graduate level.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s Degree: Some schools offer a Bachelor degree in Sport Psychology or a Bachelor of Sport Sciences (with some coursework in psychology). If you take a more general Bachelor of Psychology degree, opt to complete courses, electives and internships related to sport psychology, sport science, sport management/coaching, biology, communication, kinesiology, abnormal psychology, counseling/helping skills, etc., state Kuther and Morgan.

Relevant Careers

Relevant Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: Fitness Instructor, Physical Education Teacher (often requires certification/licensure plus completion of a teacher preparation program), Recreational Worker, Coach (i.e. for a school or assistant coach for a university athletics department), Manager of a Fitness Club, Youth Probation Officer…

Master’s Degree

Master’s Degree: Examples of relevant programs include, a Masters in Sports Psychology, a Masters in Clinical or Counseling Psychology (with significant courses/research in sport sciences and sport psychology), a Masters in Sport Sciences (with significant courses/research in psychology), a Master’s in Educational Psychology with a major in Sport Psychology, an M.Ed. in Career and Sport Psychology, a Masters in Sport and Exercise Science with a concentration in Sport Psychology, etc.

Relevant Careers

Careers with a Master’s Degree: Academic Athletic Advisor, Health & Fitness Promoter, Coach-Educator (i.e. for a university athletics department or a sporting association), Consultant, Researcher, Athletic Trainer, Athletic Career Counselor, Life Coach, Athletic Administrator, etc. (Note that some positions require licensure/certification).

Master’s Degree

Doctoral Degree: According to APA Division 47 (Exercise & Sport Psychology), there are four main career tracks related to sports psychology—three of which involve getting a doctoral degree. (The fourth involves getting a Master’s degree, see above). These three career tracks that involve getting a doctoral degree are:

  1. Completing a Ph.D. in Sport Sciences (specializing in sport psychology/ completing psychology and counseling courses) to pursue professions that involve “teaching/research in sport sciences and work with athletes on performance enhancement”.
  2. Completing a doctoral degree in Psychology (emphasizing research/coursework on sport & exercise science) to pursue professions that involve “teaching/research in psychology and work with athletes on performance enhancement”.
  3. Completing a Ph.D. in Clinical/Counseling Psychology, from an APA-accredited program (with coursework in sports psychology and sport sciences) to pursue professions that involve “[providing] clinical/counseling services to various populations, including athletes.”

Certification & Licensing Requirements

To practice as a sports psychologist providing clinical and/or counseling services, you must be licensed. Licensure guidelines vary by jurisdiction or state and these are outlined by the Association of State and Licensing Boards. Usually these requirements include completion of a doctoral degree, approximately two years of supervised practice (i.e. one year completed during the Ph.D. program) and passing national and/or state exams.

  • References:
  • * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS