Sports Psychology Career Overview

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According to Division 47 of the American Psychological Association, sports psychology encompasses a range of topics including "motivation to persist and achieve, psychological considerations in sport injury and rehabilitation, counseling techniques with athletes, assessing talent, exercise adherence and well-being, self-perceptions related to achieving, expertise in sport, youth sport and performance enhancement and self-regulation techniques."

While popular perceptions often presume that sports psychology is only concerned with professional athletics, this specialty area includes a broad range of scientific, clinical and applied topics involving sports and exercise.

There are two key areas of interest in sports psychology: understanding how psychology can be applied to improve motivation and performance and understanding how sports and athletics can improve mental health and overall well-being.

Sports psychologists may also choose to specialize in a particular area. Some examples of major specialties within this field include:

  • Applied sports psychology focuses on teaching skills to enhance athletic performance such as goal setting and imagery.
  • Clinical sports psychology involves combining mental training strategies from sports psychology with psychotherapy to help clients who are experiencing mental health problems including eating disorders and depression.
  • Academic sports psychologists teach at colleges and universities and also conduct research.

What Sports Psychologists Do

Sports psychologists typically perform a range of tasks related to sports performance and education. Some opt to teach at the university level, while others work directly with athletes to increase motivation and enhance performance. Other options include client counseling, scientific research and athletic consulting.

In addition to working with professional athletes, sports psychologists also utilize their expertise to increase the mental well-being of non-athletes. They may work with a range of non-professional clients, including children and teens involved in athletics and injured athletes working toward returning to competition.

Salary

Pay ranges vary considerably within sports psychology based on training, education, and area of specialization. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, average salaries for clinical, school, and counseling psychologists range between $44,040 to $129,310. The median salary for university faculty positions ranges from $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Some top sports psychologists earn six-figure salaries working as consultants for professional athletes, but most earn a more modest yearly income.

Educational Requirements

Entry-level positions with a bachelor's degree are rare, usually taking the form of internships. Most positions require a master's or doctorate degree in clinical, counseling or sports psychology as well as direct training and experience in applying psychology to sports and exercise.

The American Board of Sport Psychology offers a professional certification for licensed psychologists who want to pursue this specialty. This board certification signifies that the holder has advanced training and experience in sport psychology and is especially aware of ethical, methodological, and research issues associated with the application of methods to enhance the psychological performance of athletes. In order to pursue this certification, applicants must have a doctorate degree and a license to practice in at least one state.

Because there are few graduate programs offering specialized degrees in sports psychology, it can be difficult to determine what exact combination of training and experience qualifies a professional to be called a 'sports psychologist.' Division 47 of the APA suggests that sports psychologists should be licensed psychologists with "experience in applying psychological principles in sports settings." Additionally, extensive educational background and training in sports, motivation management, performance, and athletics are also recommended.

Is a Career in Sports Psychology Right for You?

Only you can decide if a sports psychology career is suited to your needs, interests, talents, and goals. If you dislike sports or exercise, this career is probably not for you. But if you enjoy helping people achieve their full potential, solving complex problems and working as part of a team, this field might be an ideal match for you.

Pros and Cons

Like all careers, sports psychology has its advantages and disadvantages. Before you decide if this career is right for you, spend some time learning more about sports psychology. Explore your options by taking an introductory course on the subject and weigh your choices carefully before you decide.

Benefits of a Career in Sports Psychology

  • Sports psychologists often work as part of a collaborative team.
  • There are diverse career paths and specialization opportunities (i.e. teaching, youth sports, professional athletics training).
  • It can be a fun, challenging and exciting job.

Downsides of a Career in Sports Psychology

  • The emphasis on teamwork may be difficult for independent-minded individuals.
  • Requires extensive education, training, and experience.
  • Opportunities are generally more limited for bachelor's and master's degree-holders.
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Article Sources
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  1. APA Division 47. About Div. 47.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 19-3031 Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists. Updated March 29, 2019.

  3. American Psychological Association. A career in sport and performance psychology. Published March 2014.

  4. American Board of Sport Psychology. Certification roadmap.

  5. APA Division 47. How a psychologist becomes a sport psychologist.