Guide to Becoming a Sports Psychiatrist

The Basics

Sports psychiatrists specialize in dealing with the special issues athletes face. Athletes have a lot of problems that the average person doesn’t have.

One significant problem is that an athlete is often surrounded by a “posse” of advisors that might include agents, trainers, coaches, groupies, reporters and various other people, all clamoring for the athlete’s attention, each of them with a different agenda. These advisors and friends can foster a sense of entitlement in an athlete or lead him to engage in questionable endeavors.

Another serious problem is that many athletes take performance enhancing drugs to gain a competitive advantage, which can lead to addiction and to physical and psychological problems.

Athletes who are aging or recovering from an injury often need a psychiatrist to help them cope with their situation, because an injury can deeply affect an athlete’s self-confidence.

A sports psychiatrist isn’t the same as a sports psychologist, though their jobs do overlap to some extent. A sports psychologist specializes in maximizing an athlete’s performance through teaching techniques like visualization, concentration and motivation to overcome mental blocks, cope with injuries or deal with substance abuse.

But unlike sport psychiatrists, sports psychologists aren’t physicians, so they can’t prescribe or administer prescription pharmaceuticals.

A sports psychiatrist can perform most of the same functions as a sports psychologist, but a psychiatrist normally specializes in the medical aspects of an athlete’s performance problems. In today’s world of specialization, a sports psychiatrist often works as part of a team of specialists that serve the same athlete, a team that might include a neurologist, psychologist, masseuse, physical therapist, trainer, etc.

Some athletes choose to only use a sports psychologist, at least at first, because a psychologist specializes in performance enhancement and is cheaper than a psychiatrist. But if the athlete’s problems turn out to be more than a psychologist can handle, a psychiatrist is normally called to help with the deeper problems.

Other athletes choose to use only a psychiatrist in order to avoid the complications of having to listen to two opinions.

Disorders that involve gambling, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, psychoses, suicidal tendencies or hyperactivity normally call for the intervention of a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are also often called in to deal with problems an athlete is having with his or her family, team or partner, or if the athlete has suffered a brain injury or other traumatic event.

Work Environment

Most professional sports teams employ sports psychiatrists to aid them in dealing with illegal drug issues, and some teams hire them to deal with other issues. Some colleges employ a sports psychiatrist for their students. Some sports psychiatrists travel with their patients, so their work environment is fluid.

Some sports psychiatrists have a private practice and cater mainly to athletes in solo sports like golf or tennis. They normally have a private office, though they sometimes travel with their patients.



All psychiatrists must get a bachelor’s degree, with recommended coursework in biology, physiology, anatomy, neurophysiology, pharmacology, and sports psychology. A pre-med major is necessary, because psychiatrists must, upon graduation, attend medical school for four years. Because med school is highly competitive, it’s important to get good grades to gain acceptance into med school.


After graduation from medical school, most psychiatrists must also undergo four or more years of residency, where they diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of a trained psychiatrist and other doctors. There normally isn’t much coursework to do or classes to attend during a residency. Because sports psychiatry is a relatively new field, it might be hard to find a sports psychiatrist to train under.

Most sports psychiatrists are trained to use various types of equipment like biofeedback machines and Heart Rate Variability instruments that can prove quite helpful for athletes.

Licensing and/or Certification

Because they dispense prescription drugs, all American psychiatrists must become licensed medical physicians.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Sports psychiatrists must be likeable and approachable in order to gain the necessary trust for developing a working rapport with clients. They must be flexible enough to adapt their techniques to suit their individual clients.

Because athletes tend to have big egos, sports psychiatrists need to give them a lot of individualized attention rather than relying upon a lot of group counseling. Psychiatrists must also learn as much as possible about the particular sports their clients play and to adapt their methods to those sports.

Further Reading

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