Sports Psychologist Career Guide


A career in sports psychology is the perfect way for the person who has an interest in sports to combine that interest with a professional career in psychology. Sports psychologists are trained to use psychological skills to help athletes excel in their sports careers. It is a specialized discipline that draws upon psychology as well as other disciplines such as biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology, and medicine to help athletes maintain optimal performance and adjustment.

Although improvement in performance is an important aspect in the sports community, it is not the only component of an athlete’s well-being that sports psychologists focus on. Other areas include the overall psychological and physical wellbeing of athletes, dealing with the systematic issues that are prevalent in sports organizations, and shaping the developmental and social impact that sports participation has on athletes.

What Does a Sports Psychologist Do?

Sports psychologists help both professional and amateur athletes in many capacities. Here is an outline of the various functions that sports psychologists provide during the course of their careers:

Athlete Performance: Olympians and other professional athletes frequently engage in mental strategies to improve performance. Sports psychologists can train athletes on every level how to use techniques such as visualization, self-talk, mental rehearsals, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation techniques to enhance their performance. These techniques help athletes to overcome problems, improve focus, reduce anxiety, and expand their potential.

Conflict Resolution: Sometimes athletes struggle with controlling their tempers or communicating effectively with team mates, coaches, and the press. Sports psychologists can help them develop more effective communication and anger management skills.

Coping skills: Sports psychologists help athletes learn how to better handle the pressures of competition. The pressure from parents, coaches, fans, team mates, and even their own personal expectations can create a lot of tension and anxiety among players. An expert will be able to help them learn better coping techniques.

Motivation: Athletes may sometimes struggle with adhering to routines. Alternatively, they may become discouraged when they fail to meet a goal that was established. A sports psychologist can help athletes keep their motivation high so that they can keep making progress

Recovery: Pain tolerance and undergoing physical therapy is something that an athlete may have to deal with following an injury. Athletes may also need help adjusting to being on the sidelines if they are used to being a starting player. A sports psychologist helps athletes deal with the aftermath of an injury as they recover.

Military specialist: Sport’s psychologists are also utilized in the military settings to help soldiers enhance their performance. Experts can also help soldiers, families, and civilians face various adversities relating to military service.

Team building: On the amateur or school level, organizations may hire a sports psychologist to promote an enjoyable and psychologically healthy program for youth. The psychologist will educate Coaches and other officials about the best approach to fostering a safe, stimulating, and emotionally healthy experience for young athletes.

The role of a sports psychologist can also be quite demanding, especially during busy sports seasons when working with a professional athlete or team of athletes. During the season, the psychologist is required to travel with the team, which means frequently being on the road. It also means dealing with other aspects of the job such as dealing with the press, maintaining confidentiality, working through coach-player conflict, and other potentially stressful scenarios.

What is the Job Outlook for Sports Psychologists?

Sports Psychology Experts indicate that career opportunities are continuing to grow in this field. There are significant opportunities in university and high school athletic departments as well as sports recreational clubs. Additionally, sports psychologists within the military are in high demand. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), the U.S. Army is the country’s largest employer of sport and performance psychologists. The Sports Psychology field continues to evolve and grow.

What is the Average Salary for a Sports Psychologist?

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA), the salary for sports psychologists can vary significantly. Most experts who are employed in university athletic departments can expect to earn between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, with some annual salaries reaching $100,000.

Private practitioners can expect a varied income, as well. Sports psychologists cater to a specific niche of clients who pay for services out of pocket. This means that there is no floor or ceiling for the amount of income that a practitioner can earn in this field. Private practitioners who take on more affluent clients may earn a significantly higher salary than practitioners whose clients are less affluent.

What are the Education Requirements?

Sports psychology is a very new field and therefore training programs are still emerging. Students typically enroll into a clinical or counseling doctoral program since sports psychologists have to be licensed before practicing in most states. In addition to enrolling into a doctoral level psychology program, most educational programs require that students take additional classes in other complementary fields such as biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology, and medicine. However, the first step towards any type professional psychology is to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Many students put together a program themselves with assistance from college advisors. Other schools have a formal sports psychology specialization or concentration within the doctoral level clinical or counseling psychology program. Although programs vary from school to school, there are a few components that are consistent among schools. According to APA it is recommended that one should obtain knowledge in specific areas, therefore, students should expect to take coursework in the following areas:

  • Theories of sports psychology
  • Principles of applied sport psychology, including sport-specific psychological assessment and mental skills training.
  • How to counsel athletes
  • Consulting with organizations
  • Understanding the social dynamics of sports participation
  • Knowledge of sports and exercise (e.g., exercise physiology, sports medicine, etc.)

Credit requirements and program length vary with the individual program, however doctoral level clinical and counseling psychology programs generally take 4-7 years to complete. As with most doctoral level programs in psychology, students enrolled in sports psychology programs are generally required to take a practicum as well as participate in a one year internship. Some programs also require a research project. Students are often encouraged to obtain a mentor to guide their curriculum development and training.

Why is Sports Psychology Important?

Sports psychology studies and applies psychological principles to help athletes perform consistently at their peak. It deals with the mental side of sports, allowing athletes to keep on track with training and focus on the fine details of their game. Sports psychology can also help with the physical performance of athletes by giving them the motivation needed to perform.

Professional athletes have a tough job to do. It is a high pressure job and they are expected to perform better than everyone else in their profession. With this type of pressure comes stress which can affect an athlete’s performance. This can cause an athlete to lose their focus and underperform, ultimately causing them their job. Sports psychology is important as it can help athletes having a performance problem associated with the non-physical aspects of their game.

Sports psychology studies the mental side of sports while coaches and training staff focus on the physical portion. Sports requires more than just physical ability. It takes concentration, something that must be learned and worked on just like physical training. Athletes seeking out sports psychologists can get help with enhancing their performance, recovering from injuries quicker, and enjoying their overall profession as much as those who watch them.

Sport psychology can also help with the physical side of sports. Training is difficult and athletes can quickly lose focus. Athletes who concentrate on their training are likely to perform better and as such often require help to maintain their focus. This is true with all sports as those who fail to train will fail when they perform. Having the mental energy to get into the gym is important to an athlete and sports psychology can help with just that.

What are the Disadvantages of Being a Sports Psychologist?

First of all, sports psychology is a limited career field. In other words, there aren’t that many available jobs in this particular industry. Another disadvantage is that it is hard to find credible undergraduate and graduate sports psychology programs, so it can take a while to earn a degree in this field.

Furthermore, sports psychology emphasizes teamwork, which can be challenging for psychologists, who prefer to work primarily by themselves. It can also be difficult for those, who have a hard time motivating and inspiring others. In addition, if an individual does not like sports, or does not know much about them, he or she will probably not excel in sports psychology.

Also, sports psychologists are sometimes required to travel with the athletes they counsel. In fact, they are often “on-call” at all times, which can be quite distressing. Lastly, if an individual is not familiar with the issues that athletes and their families commonly face, he or she will be unable to properly assist and counsel the athletes.

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