Careers in Sports Psychology

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 suffer from 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 clients including children and teens involved in athletics, professional athletes and teams interested in improving their performance and injured athletes working toward returning to competition.

Pay ranges vary considerably within sports psychology based on training, education, and area of specialization. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor, average salaries for clinical and counseling psychologists range between $41,850 and $71,880. The median salary for university faculty positions was $55,000 in a 2001 salary survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) (Singleton et al., 2003). 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 apply psychology to sports and exercise.

The American Board of Sports Psychology offers a few different professional certifications. The highest level credential is the Board Certified Sports Psychologist-Diplomat, which “…signifies that the holder has advanced training and experience in Sports Psychology and is especially aware of ethical, methodological, and research issues associated with the application of methods to enhance the psychological performance of athletes.” Many who hold this certification are also certified or licensed clinical, counseling or health psychologists.

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, an extensive educational background and training in sports, motivation management, performance, and athletics is 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.