Role of a Sports Psychologist

Sports psychology
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From Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

A psychologist is an individual who has completed graduate training in the field of psychology and is licensed by a specific state. In some states, individuals with a master's degree can become licensed psychologists while in others a doctoral degree is required. A sports psychologist is a psychologist with expertise in the following areas:

  • Performance enhancement through the use of psychological skills training, and performance improvement, imagery, and athlete's self-talk.
  • Issues that are specific to the psychological well-being of athletes
  • Working with the organizations and systems that are present in sport settings
  • Social and developmental factors that influence sport participation

While sports psychology is recognized as a specific field of study within the Kinesiology and Physical Education departments, it is not one of the traditional fields of practice offered by many psychology graduate programs.

For example, while one can obtain a graduate psychology degree with a concentration in children or substance abuse, the same has not always been said of sports psychology. Due to the rising popularity of the subject, however, some schools have begun adding sports psychology as a specific concentration, with the possibility that more will follow suit in the future.

What Credentials Does a Sports Psychologist Need?

At the present time, no credentials beyond a state license are needed in order to practice sports psychology. Ethically and practically speaking, you should have expertise in the above-mentioned areas. While there is no American Psychological Association certification for sports psychology, the organization does recognize it as a proficiency. Individuals offering sport psychology services would have to adhere to the standards set forth in this proficiency. Otherwise, they could risk being in violation of ethical guidelines which could result in the suspension and/or termination of one's license to practice.

Although accreditation is not necessary, it does not mean that there are no benefits to becoming a certified sports psychologist. There are many organizations offering to certify individuals. One of these organizations is the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP). Designation as a Certified Consultant, AASP carries the benefit of the possibility of being listed on the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Sports Psychology Registry. This is a listing of individuals who are approved to work with Olympic athletes and national teams. For more information, you should visit the AASP web site.

How to Become a Sports Psychologist?

Two basic qualifications are needed in order to become anything in life: education and experience. This holds true for becoming a sports psychologist as well.

Sports Psychology Education

The educational opportunities for working as a sports psychologist are limited. Perhaps the best way to get into a top-flight graduate program is to go to a school that offers some formalized experience in the field.

If your school doesn’t have a sports psychology major, we recommend that you stick with a psychology major and try to get experience however you can.

Some graduate programs in psychology offer a concentration in sports psychology. To see a listing of these, you may want to consider purchasing Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sports Psychology edited by Kevin Burke, Michael Sachs and Rachel Tomlinson.

If you are in a graduate program at a school that offers only an introductory sports psychology course but it is something that genuinely interests you, we recommend that you speak with your department chair. Ask if there is any independent study classes or independent research classes that you can take to gain further knowledge of this field. The independent research class is especially useful since it will bring you into direct contact with athletes for the purposes of performance enhancement.

Sports Psychology Experience

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to get in the field of sports psychology is the direct contact with athletes. You should work with a supervisor with an expertise in sports psychology and find a population to work with.

There are different ways of getting experience. One way is to meet with the athletic director or their assistant to find coaches who are willing to support you. Some internship sites offer sports psychology training as part of their formal curriculum

Many professional athletes and teams have realized the value of sports psychology and regularly make use of the services. However, they tend to use the well-established individual. When you start out, working with amateur and collegiate athletes is a good experience. In addition, writing is a great way to develop additional experience and to tell others about your accomplishments and areas of expertise.

By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.