Sports psychology is the use of psychological techniques to improve the performance, mental health, emotional health and general well-being of athletes. Sports psychology not only draws from psychological science, but also from sports science and physical fitness science.
Athletes share an unusual set of problems. Like rock stars, they are often surrounded by admirers and groupies who stroke their egos but also can lead them into a world of decadence or drug abuse. Sleazy agents or managers might try to manipulate them for their own advantage. And athletes are often bombarded by conflicting voices telling them what to do.
Sports psychologists are trained to read people, and they can often help athletes sort through the maze of influences surrounding them. Sports psychologists also help athletes deal with personal problems that they don’t want to share with managers, family or friends. Sports psychologists maintain confidentiality and are trained to counsel people concerning personal issues.
Injuries can be quite problematic for athletes; not only do injuries limit or prohibit their ability to perform, but they can rob an athlete of self-confidence. Sports psychologists can help maximize an athlete’s performance by teaching techniques of concentration, visualization and motivation that can help athletes cope with injuries, gain self-confidence, overcome mental blocks, alleviate depression, lessen anxiety and deal with substance abuse. Many sports psychologists are trained to use techniques like hypnosis, stress reduction therapy, biofeedback and behavior modification.
Here are some common techniques that sports psychologists use or teach:
Arousal regulation refers to techniques for entering into and maintaining an optimal mental and physiological state for maximizing performance. These includes techniques for relaxation, including meditation, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and music. One of the newest and most popular methods is the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) technique, which involves specific protocol that uses meditation and acceptance.
Pre-performance routines are actions and rituals that athletes use while preparing for an event. They usually incorporate warm-up exercises into these routines. Performing the same routine consistently before each event readies the athlete mentally and physically for the event, and usually leads to consistent performances.
Imagery refers to the creation or re-creation of mental experiences by using a variety of senses. Athletes often use it on the day before an event by visualizing themselves performing well at the event. The more realistic the imagery and the more senses that are involved, the better the results are likely to be.
Self-talk refers to cues athletes use to direct their attention to something that requires their focus. For example, golfers might say or think “smooth stroke” right before they start to putt.
Goal Setting is the systematic planning for achieving specific objectives within a given timeframe. The goals should be difficult but attainable. They also need to be measurable, with a mixture of short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goals should get progressively more difficult.
What is a Sports Psychology Degree?
Sports psychology degree programs are designed to train students to not only provide psychological services to athletes, but also to research, implement, and analyze methods and strategies that help improve an athlete’s performance in their sport. This means students must take part in years and years of classroom work and supervised practice in order to develop the appropriate skills.
Students that wish to obtain a degree in sports psychology have to start at the bachelor’s degree level. Undergraduate studies specifically in sports psychology are extremely rare, so students typically pursue degrees in psychology, sports medicine, kinesiology, and the like. Because bachelor’s degrees are basic, introductory programs of study, the coursework at this level is similarly broad.
Students learn about general concepts related to their major, such as physiology, anatomy, and health issues in a kinesiology degree program. Students that major in psychology at this level would focus more on psychological concepts, such as how people learn, developmental psychology, and theories of motivation. To achieve the best outcomes for moving forward in sports psychology, however, students should take a mixture of psychology and kinesiology classes, perhaps majoring in both or selecting one area as a major and the other as a minor.
After completion of a relevant bachelor’s degree program, students can then move on to a graduate program in sports psychology. Graduate studies focus on developing the specific skills and aptitudes that students will need to provide the services athletes need to excel. This is accomplished through advanced coursework on concepts related to theories of performance, team and organizational dynamics, sports psychology interventions, kinesiology, motor systems, and exercise physiology, to name a few.
Master’s degree programs in this field also carry a significant practicum or internship requirement during which students put the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom to practical use in the field. Programs differ on how many hours students must spend in practicum or internship, but the overarching purpose remains the same: to get students experience working with athletes to improve their performance in real world settings. Practicum and internship experiences also give students excellent opportunities to learn under the supervision of an experienced sports psychologist. There are also many opportunities to network and meet other workers in this field.
The highest degree available in this field is a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Doctoral studies build upon the foundation of graduate studies and take students further into the realm of research and practical application of sports psychology theories and techniques. In most cases, a doctorate is required in order for students to become licensed to practice as a sports psychologist.
Learning experiences at the doctoral level revolve around mental disorders among athletes, team dynamics, physiology, and the relationship between psychological and physiological performance. As noted above, research is a primary component of doctoral studies, so students engage in long-term, original academic research that culminates in the development and defense of a dissertation. Clinical hours in a sports psychology setting are also required to complete a Ph.D. program, and are much like the practicum or internship experiences at the graduate level. However, clinical experiences for Ph.D. students typically involve more independent practice and research opportunities than were afforded them at the graduate level.
What is an Online Sports Psychology Degree?
Online sports psychology degree programs are increasing in popularity to meet the demand of students that wish to enter this field of work. Like on-campus programs, the goal of online studies in sports psychology is to prepare students to work with athletes to help them improve their performance and functioning.
Most online degree programs in this field seem to be at the master’s level. Here, online students, like their on-campus counterparts, participate in coursework and practicum experiences that help them build the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to be successful sports psychologists.
Naturally, online coursework takes a much different form than campus-based classes. Students may or may not have weekly “meetings” with their classmates and professors in an online learning environment, such as a chat room or video chat session. Concepts studied are the same, however, and focus on building competencies in the fields of psychology, physiology, and performance. Ethical standards of practice, research methodologies, and psychological theory are also central components of online coursework in this field.
Many sports psychology programs that can be completed online offer flexible learning options for students, which can be an advantage over more traditional learning methods of on-campus programs. Learning at one’s own pace allows students that have the time complete their studies more rapidly, while students that have other obligations, such as work, can work more slowly and finish their degree in an extended time period.
Online degree programs may or may not have a practicum or internship component. Programs that require a practicum are often quite flexible in terms of where students get their supervision hours due to the fact that online students live in a wide variety of locations. Programs that do not offer this learning experience often substitute it with a capstone project that requires significant research into a topic related to sports psychology. This research is usually presented in some form – written, verbal, or both – much like a master’s thesis.
What are the Career Opportunities?
Most sports psychologists get into counseling and therapy, though some get into teaching or research. Some work for amateur or professional sports teams, traveling to games alongside managers, trainers and coaches. Others set up their own private office, form a partnership or work for an agency.
Many sports psychologists specialize in a particular area of sports psychology or specialize in a particular sport.
How Much Can You Make With a Degree in Sports Psychology?
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA), sports psychologists working in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 per year.