Sports Psychology Degree Programs & Schools

Compared to the rest of the disciplines under the umbrella of psychology, sports psychology is relatively new. Formally, it has only been around since the 1920s when European countries starting measuring the body and mind and the effect of sports on both. The discipline is rapidly growing in popularity however as professional teams in every major sport have started to tap into psychology to help get the most out of players mentally. Simply put, sports psychology focuses on using knowledge of kinesiology, biomechanics and plenty more to study what factors of psychology impact performance and vice versa.

Ostensibly, a sports psychologist's primary task is to focus on training and honing the minds of athletes to improve performance on the field or on the court. But sports psychologists can also work with coaches and parents regarding subjects like the mental side of injury and rehab, how to foster team communication and how to improve communication with an athlete or athletes.

There are three types of officially recognized sports psychologists:

  • Applied Sport Psychology - This is teaching skills to enhance athletic performance
  • Clinical Sport Psychology - This combines mental training strategies from sport psychology with psychotherapy to help those with mental health issues
  • Academic Sport Psychology - This is more of the teaching at colleges and universities and conducting research.

There is some debate over whether sports psychologists whether the discipline should count as psychology or counseling and how legitimate and formulaic the discipline should be. This debate continues today as the professional sports psychology organization fights within itself over the group's purpose. What is clear however is that sports psychology has taken a giant leap forward as an industry since the early 1980s and regardless what the future holds, it is bright.

Sports psychologists can also be called, more generally, performance psychologists. According to the American Psychological Association, at least 20 NCAA Division I universities have a sport psychologist on staff and another 70 to 100 contract with outside specialists. Also, the U.S. Army is, somewhat surprisingly, the country's largest employer of sport and performance psychologists. In military settings, performance psychologists work with soldiers and their families on any number of issues.

Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Psychology

There aren't many Bachelor's degree in Sports Psychology but that doesn't mean there isn't a recommended undergraduate path to entering the field. The Association of Applied Sports Psychology keeps a list of all the undergraduate programs around the country. Considering that most sports psychology positions will require a Master's or Doctoral degree, it is best for students to consider a Bachelor's degree to be the foundation of their education.  If you are interested in pursuing a Master's degree in Sports Psychology, there are a number of undergraduate opportunities that would help set a student up for niche graduate work.

For example, a student applying to study biomechanics should have at least some background coursework in physics or an exercise physiology student should have a background in biological sciences. This means that a sport and exercise psychology student, should have some coursework showing a background in psychology. This doesn't necessarily mean majoring in psychology, but a background is helpful.

Typical courses in the undergraduate curriculum would be:

  • Human Anatomy
  • General Psychology
  • Introductory Nutrition
  • Motor Control and Learning
  • Exercise Physiology

Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology

Master's degrees specifically in Sports Psychology are still few and far between because the industry is still sorting out how to formalize education of the discipline. That said, the programs are becoming more prevalent as the industry expands.

Most Master's degrees in the field are designed to take two years of full-time study. Students generally complete 24 credit hours of coursework in kinesiology, research methods and statistics, psychology and human development. Students will likely complete a thesis with the idea of preparing them for a Doctoral degree program in the field.

Master's degree holders can start careers in athletic administration, health care, and social work.

Typical classes in a clinical psychology Master’s program curriculum include:

  • Stress and Coping in Sport
  • Advanced Kineisiology
  • Research Methods
  • Advanced Exercise Physiology
  • Sport Sociology
  • Sport Psychometrics

Doctoral Degree in Sports Psychology

Most PhD programs in Sports Psychology are designed to take four years to complete. The primary emphasis is almost always on developing a program of research. Coursework requirements can be determined in collaboration with the student and are designed to complement dissertation research and the student’s development as an independent scholar.

Coursework has an emphasis on advanced sport and exercise psychology, quantitative and qualitative methods and analysis, and supporting areas such as human development, social psychology, communication, and sociology. The PhD program is designed to educate and prepare students to pursue employment in academic settings.

The degree requires a minimum of 34 credit hours beyond the master's degree and almost always includes a real-world experience requirements.

Career Outlook for Sports Psychologists

Most careers in sports psychology require a doctoral degree.

There is not a lot of salary information available specific to health and medical psychologists. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clinical psychologists earned an annual average salary of $70,580 as of 2014.

According to estimates from Scott Goldman, the director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arizona, sport psychologists in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year depending on location and the highest salaries can exceed $100,000 annually.

In private practice, the salary range is quite wide. According to Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, sports psychology is still a boutique service that is catered to individual clients who pay for the services out of their own pockets. Thus it can be fluid.

Learn more about becoming a sports psychologist and the employment outlook for sports psychology.

Certifications and Licensing for Sports Psychology

There aren't any specific regulations about sports psychologists on the books. But almost all sports psychologists should expect to earn licensure as a clinical psychologist first. It is important to check with the state board of licensing where you want to practice for licensing requirements and examinations.

Certification is available through the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. The Society of Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology has a lot of continuing education resources as well and it is a division of the APA.

Professional organizations for sports psychology include:

Online Sports Psychology Degrees

There are a number of Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree programs for psychology offered online. At the Master’s level, supervised clinical work is also necessary. There are no online doctoral programs, though some classes may be available.