Performance Psychologist Career Guide

The Basics

The wide variability in the skills and talents that people possess makes the human race one of great diversity. But despite each of us having our own unique characteristics, we share a common desire to do the best we possibly can. Whether we want to be the best teacher or doctor, the fastest sprinter or the best quarterback, the best husband, wife, or student, there is a common thread of wanting to achieve a level of performance that signifies greatness.

Reaching our optimized potential requires much hard work and dedication. But with the guidance and assistance of a performance psychologist, just about anyone can reach that pinnacle of peak performance.

What is Peak Performance Psychology?

Over the last several decades, there has been an increased emphasis on maximizing one’s ability to achieve success. The development of human factors and industrial-organizational psychology increased the spotlight on improving peoples’ ability to perform at their optimum level.

Performance psychology is the embodiment of this self-improvement movement. Essentially, the goal of peak performance psychology is to facilitate an individual’s ability to achieve to the level of which they are capable. There is a focus on building skills, enhancing talents, and maximizing potential. In this regard, peak performance psychology is centered around the notion of self-optimization. Clients seek to improve themselves and performance psychologists facilitate that improvement.

What is a Performance Psychologist?

Performance psychologists focus on helping individuals develop the knowledge, talents, and skills to maximize their ability to perform in a number of settings. Although performance psychology is often most closely tied with sports psychology, this field of psychological work is actually well suited to helping people perform better at work, regardless of their type of employment. Athletes, doctors, and managers are just a few of the types of clients performance psychologists often help.

More recently, performance psychologists have begun to address how humans can improve their performance in relationships of all types, be that friendships or those that are romantic in nature. Some performance psychologists also strive to help their clients get a better handle on tasks related to daily life. Regardless of the specific application, performance psychologists utilize essential psychological skills pertaining to counseling and research to promote improved performance of their clients.

What Does a Performance Psychologist Do?

As noted above, performance psychologists seek to help people from all walks of life with varying levels of skills and talents to maximize those skills and talents in pursuit of peak performance.

Often the work of performance psychologists is most closely associated with high-profile performers. The work done with these performers is usually individually focused. Performance psychologists will work one-on-one with their client to identify barriers to their peak performance, and devise strategies and interventions that will help their client overcome those obstacles and achieve a greater level of self-optimization. For example, a performance psychologist might work with a senior-level business executive on dealing with his or her nerves when delivering a speech in front of a live audience. This might involve teaching the executive relaxation techniques, such as purposeful breathing, that slow his mind and body down and facilitate an improved performance.

Many performance psychologists are contracted by businesses and industries to work with employees to maximize their on-the-job performance. In this organizational context, performance psychologists operate much like their industrial-organizational counterparts to bring efficiency and production to a pinnacle – both of which are measures of performance. Performance psychologists achieve these goals through various means. They might work with management to set attainable production goals for their employees. Performance psychologists might also oversee organizational changes that promote improved employee performance, such as the addition of an on-site gym or healthier eating options at the on-site cafeteria.

Performance psychologists also work in more day-to-day settings to help regular people improve their abilities to achieve their goals. This can take many forms. For example, a performance psychologist might work with a student who is struggling in school to build the skills he or she needs to improve their classroom performance. Likewise, performance psychologists might offer services to various professionals, like doctors, lawyers, and teachers, such that they are able to more adequately perform the duties related to their occupation. While these everyday examples of improving performance aren’t as high profile as working with athletes or corporations, they represent a large part of a performance psychologist’s work with clients.

Whatever the context in which they work, performance psychologists rely on psychological principles related to education, motivation, attitude, and personality to help their clients identify and develop skills and strengths that are facilitative of improved personal performance. Psychologists in this field are also charged with helping clients enhance existing skills and maintain those skills to achieve long-term success.

Why Do We Need Performance Psychologists?

Performance psychologists serve the important function of inspiring and equipping people to achieve their highest possible potential. Where some other areas of psychology are focused on past troubles or solutions to present problems, performance psychology is much more future-focused. In this regard, performance psychology helps people to better themselves with practical solutions, but also inspires people to better themselves. This two-pronged approach of training and inspiration is effective in working with people from diverse backgrounds and for helping people meet highly diverse life goals.

What are the Career Opportunities for a Performance Psychologist?

Private Practice

The career opportunities for performance psychologists are many. A good number of performance psychologists opt to work in private practice. Private practice affords psychologists much more leeway in terms of the type of work they do and with what kind of client. In this context, performance psychologists might focus on counseling techniques to help individuals overcome obstacles to performing at their best, or they might take a more educational approach, offering their clients practical, concrete training that improves their skill and ability level. For example, a performance psychologist might be hired by a professional golfer to teach him or her techniques for improving concentration, which is a highly important skill in the game of golf.

Business

In business environments, performance psychologists might work as part of a management team. The focus in this context is much more on a macro level, as opposed to the micro level seen in private practice. The functions of performance psychologists employed by large companies revolve around improving employee production in order to improve the company’s bottom line. Work in this field tends to be educational, rather than counseling in nature. For example, performance psychologists would be more likely to offer employee trainings, such as how to combat work-related stress, as opposed to offering one-on-one counseling as is typical of psychologists in private practice.

Research

Many performance psychologists also focus on research. Working in both field and laboratory settings, performance psychologists conduct experiments that expand our understanding of human performance in a variety of settings, including what motivates and drives us to succeed. For example, researchers might conduct investigations regarding the personality traits that highly aspirational people possess or seek to identify the motivational factors most likely to encourage people to improve their on-the-job performance.

What are the Requirements to Become a Performance Psychologist?

Educational Requirements

The pursuit of a career in performance psychology begins with undergraduate studies in general psychology. The aim of undergraduate studies is to provide a broad-based foundation of knowledge upon which students can build a deeper understanding of human behavior. Typical courses at the undergraduate level include abnormal psychology, the psychology of learning, psychological statistics, and research methods. Additionally, undergraduate courses in general education areas, such as math, science, and language arts, are undertaken. Undergraduate programs in psychology are among the most popular, and, as a result, can be found at virtually all public and private four-year institutions.

Once a bachelor’s degree is completed, prospective performance psychologists must complete a graduate degree program. At this level, coursework becomes much more specific to the student’s area of interest. Students interested in performance psychology might take courses that explore motivation, emotion, and stress. If interested in applying performance psychology principles to the corporate world, industrial-organizational and social psychology classes may be part of the curriculum. Individuals interested in working with athletes would likewise take courses specific to physiological psychology, biological psychology, sports psychology, and exercise psychology. Regardless of specialization area, much coursework would involve clinical and research components.

Graduate programs in psychology can be anywhere from 30 to more than 60 credit hours in length. The wide variability is due, in part, to the type of program, the student’s individual areas of interest, and the licensure and certification requirements established by professional organizations.

While many job opportunities are available for performance psychologists with a graduate degree, the best job opportunities, generally, are available for individuals that hold a doctorate/licensure. Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs are popular terminal degree options in this career area.

Doctoral programs offer students ample opportunity to specialize further and develop knowledge and skills that pertain to their specific area of interest, particularly in the research, thesis, and post-doctoral phases of study. For example, a student that wishes to specialize in working with medical professionals might conduct doctoral research on sources of stress for healthcare workers and devise new and innovative ways of helping medical professionals cope with work-related stress in a manner that helps them achieve optimal work performance.

Licensing Requirements

Licensure is controlled by individual states, so licensing requirements can vary somewhat. Additionally, depending on the type of employment setting, licensure may or may not be required. For example, a performance psychologist in private practice would be required to be licensed by the state in which they work. However, without a doctoral degree and licensure, one cannot officially call him/herself a “psychologist”.

There are several steps in the process of obtaining a license to practice psychology. First, prospective psychologists must complete a doctoral program from an accredited institution. Second, a period of supervised practice must follow. Third, licensees must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Lastly, some states require potential licensees to pass a state-level exam as well.

Important: Not all doctoral programs lead to licensure. Read program details carefully.

What Personality Traits are Required for a Performance Psychologist?

Performance psychologists should exude many qualities. Chief among the questions you should ask yourself when considering a career in this field are:

  • Are you an effective listener? Much of a performance psychologist’s job is to identify errors in their clients’ thoughts and behavior and provide honest, accurate feedback to help their client improve their performance. This cannot be accomplished without having the ability to actively listen and participate in a therapeutic relationship with the client.
  • Can you communicate well? In addition to listening effectively, performance psychologists must have the ability to communicate well with their clients. This goes beyond telling a client what they should do. Instead, performance psychologists must be able to explain interventions that they design to help their client get back on track. Likewise, performance psychologists must convey confidence that the client has the tools he or she needs to overcome the obstacles in their life and perform at their best once again.
  • Are you likable and approachable? In any psychology setting, the approachability of the psychologist will have a great impact on the success of the client. Clients must be made to feel comfortable. They are already in a vulnerable state, and being with a counselor that isn’t approachable, warm, and caring will only serve to deepen the client’s difficulties.
  • Are you confident? Performance psychologists make a living out of helping people regain their confidence. As a result, performance psychologists must be highly confident that their abilities and training will be of good use to their clients. They must be able to execute as a professional, and they must exude confidence as well.
  • Are you able to be flexible in your treatment methods? Performance psychologists must rely on a wide variety of tools to help their clients achieve optimal performance. This requires psychologists in this field to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of each and every client. Part of this is the commitment to continued education and research. Doing so enables performance psychologists to operate at their own peak performance, which, in turn, facilitates peak performance from their clients.

How Much Does a Performance Psychologist Make?

According to PayScale, the median annual wage for a psychologist in the United States is $69,274. This figure is dependent on a variety of factors, including the amount of experience one has and the geographic location in which they work.

Psychologists of all disciplines that work in urban areas tend to make far more money each year than their rural counterparts. In fact, wages for psychologists in New York City and Los Angeles are 13 percent and 9 percent above the norm, respectively.

Likewise, the more experience a psychologist has on the job, the higher the income they can command. PayScale notes that workers with 5-10 years of experience report an average annual wage of $84,000, or $15,000 above the national average. Incomes over $90,000 per year are common for psychologists that have 20+ years of experience.

For performance psychologists, another critical factor in determining wages is the type of employment setting. Performance psychologists can work in a whole host of settings, from government research facilities to private corporations to private practice. The incomes available in these settings vary widely, with government jobs paying towards the lower end of the pay band and private practice having the highest income potential.

Some performance psychologists work with athletic programs at the collegiate or professional levels to help athletes improve their on-field performance. At larger universities, performance psychologists can expect a yearly income in the $60,000-$80,000 range, according to the American Psychological Association. Performance psychologists that work with professional athletes, whether as part of the organization’s training staff or as a private practitioner, stand to earn incomes in the six figures.

What Careers are Similar to Performance Psychology?

While performance psychology tends to be most closely tied with sports psychology, there are actually several other careers that are equally similar. These include:

Sports Psychologist – Using the principles of performance psychology, sports psychologists seek to help their clients improve their performance in a sports setting. This might include helping an athlete overcome performance anxiety or helping them build skills to control their anger in high-stress situations. Some sports psychologists also engage in research to better understand the mental aspect of athletic performance. Employment in this field requires extensive training. A doctorate degree and licensure is highly recommended.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist – Where performance psychologists seek to improve the output of individuals, IO psychologists seek to improve output at the organizational level. Psychologists in this field deal with many of the same issues as those in the performance psychology sector – problems related to training and development, on-the-job performance, motivation, and stress-related factors to name a few.

While some entry-level jobs can be found in IO psychology with just a bachelor’s degree, these jobs are few and far between. To maximize one’s ability to find employment in this sector, a master’s degree is strongly recommended. Individuals that hold a doctorate/licensure can find even greater opportunities for employment.

Clinical Psychologist – Performance psychologists often engage in counseling to help their clients overcome personal issues and obstacles that prevent them from performing at their best. Clinical psychologists work to achieve the exact same results with their clients. Additionally, both clinical and performance psychologists tend to work in one-on-one or small group situations in which talk therapy or psychoeducational programs are a hallmark characteristic.

Clinical psychologists, like virtually all other practicing psychologists, must have a doctoral degree and licensure to practice.

Experimental Psychologist – A critical aspect of performance psychology is research into the factors that negatively and positively affect human performance. This basis in experimental psychology makes them highly similar occupations. Naturally, experimental psychologists do not specialize in researching performance psychology, but conduct experiments regarding a wide variety of human behaviors and phenomena, from memory and cognition to personality development and stress management.

Entry-level positions in experimental psychology research can be had with a bachelor’s/master’s degree. However, plenty of advanced work in this field may be found at the doctoral level.

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