Dr. Sean Richardson

Sports Psychologist

Many people fail to realize the entrepreneurial aspect of psychology. But not Dr. Sean Richardson, he understands it quite well.

We reached out to Dr. Richardson to see if he would share his story and impart some of his life and career experiences upon us.  Thankfully he was eager to share what he has learned.

Richardson believes in following dreams and achieving career goals, and he also understands the importance of a broad education that you can fall back on while you encounter obstacles along the path.   Richardson's advice for a career in psychology is "Focus niche, but look broad".  Read on to find out more about what exactly he means by that. Enjoy!

Featured Sport Psychology Program

Can you start off by telling us a bit about yourself and how you came to find yourself in a sports psychology career?

I grew up in Vancouver.  In high-school, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do for a career at the time.  My father was a lawyer and he owned his own law firm so it just made sense to be a lawyer, but in my second year at the university, I had second thoughts about what I was doing.  I figured maybe I would take a year off college, but then decided instead to do a year as an exchange student in Australia.

That is where I took my first psychology class.  I really liked it and decided to switch my major.  I still wanted go to law school, but I wanted to do my undergraduate in psychology.  I ended up taking an extra year of courses to complete my bachelor's in psychology.

At some point, I decided I was going to continue with my education in psychology and stop working toward law school, much to my parents' dismay at the time.  Then I got into the master's program in Psychology at UBC, getting my master's in research.  However, I always wanted to practice and work with clients, rather than being in education and research.   Once I finished my master's degree I realized that I couldn't stay there for my PHD, it just wasn't set up for the goals I wanted to achieve.

The program I was in was mostly prepping you for research and academia, and like I said I wanted to work with athletes and other types of clients in professional practice.  I came across a book of programs for aspiring sport psychologists published Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology.  There were programs in the States and in Australia that would actually help me get practical experience as a psychologist practitioner in my studies.   At that time, there were very few programs that offered sports psychology with practical clinical experience.

I ended up going back to Australia because they had programs that offered the professional psychologist education coupled with the clinical skills that I actually needed to get experience in sports psychology.  I ended up going to Victoria University in Melbourne, which had an incredible program, with outstanding staff.

During my studies, while still a student, I did some practical experience with a senior staff member psychologist of a professional football team.  I did that for about a year and a half and got some experience in professional sports.  Thanks to my master's degree, I had the ability in Australia to work as a psychologist while finishing my PhD.   I had my own private practice during this time and I was working with musicians, ballet dancers, individual and corporate clients.

After that, following from my PhD in over-training and injury, I also ended up consulting for the Australian Ballet company for about five years.   Professional ballet dancers are some of the most athletic artists you can imagine, they put a huge amount of stress on their bodies.

When I really got out there looking for a job in the professional sports realm, I got an offer as a player development manager for a professional football team.  They wanted me in that role because they figured that would be a good role for me and then I could also be their sports psychologist at the same time.  There were some aspects about that offer that I didn't quite like.  But then another offer came through about two months after that from another professional football team to be their sports psychologist.

They had a new head coach and it was his first time as a head coach, and he had a sports psychologist on his last team, so he found it to be very important for the team to have a good sports psychologist.  So when they were doing hiring, my name came up and they brought me on.  The football gig was really my jumping-off point in my career.

I worked with that coach for 5 years in Australia and then  I ended up leaving Australia in 2010. I figured that would be it; I was done with Australian football, but over the years I ended up creating a very strong relationship with this coach, so he decided to keep me on when he moved to a new team, and we communicate via phone and internet to this day. It's really the psychology of the future that we can start working more over the Internet with our clients.

Working with a head coach is where I think I found my leverage as a sports psychologist.  A head coach is the absolute expert of what to do in the game.  Some coaches are really good at being able to get into the player's heads and figuring out how to tap into their potential, but ultimately, most coaches haven't done a PhD in psychology.  It's not really their role to understand all the layers of the human being at a deep psychological level.   They are an expert in the game.

So good coaches, like say Phil Jackson, will have their psychology experts working along side of them to develop the team.

I play a mentor role to coaches on the mindset stuff for the players.

I moved back to Canada in 2010 and decided to get a little bit more into corporate work with sports psychologist roles on the side.  I work with the National Women's field hockey team, and I would love nothing more then to work with the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and a few other private clients.

The thing is, while I love working with athletes, I would really have to travel around and chase professional teams in North America - be prepared to move to wherever they are.  I have a great track record from Australia, so I think if I really wanted to I could find a team in North America to work with.  But re-locating isn't what I want for myself or for my family.  There would be a lot of travel involved, and I really just want to stay in Vancouver and raise my kids and family here.   You have to be prepared to travel a lot and market yourself a lot to the teams in order to be a full-time sports psychologist.

What kind of pointers can you give us on the education of a sports psychologist?

For someone looking to get into sports psychology you have to really ask yourself,  "what do you really want to do?"  Most of the programs in North America and Canada focus on human movement or human kinetics.  If you take one of these programs and get a PhD, you don't actually get to be a psychologist.   You are an expert in sports psychology but you don't actually get to do practicums, you don't do clinical skills, you don't get to do internships, you don't get to do the actual stuff that makes you a psychologist.   So you really have to make sure that you find the right program if you want to work as an accredited psychologist.

Classical sports psychology is a mix of mental skills training, imagery, visualization, goal setting, and self talk.  I find that in my practice, though I am only teaching the mental skills about 20-30 percent of the time.  Most of the time I am just dealing with the human being in front of me; it's a bit more of a counseling or coaching model.  You're trying to help them deal with things in their life that may be holding them back from achieving higher performance.

What should students know about starting a career as a sports psychologist?  Could you tell us a bit about how you developed your own career?

So I basically I  had to craft my career.  Sports Psychology is a very small career pool.  Basically, there are a few teams and individuals that have a lot of money that can afford a full-time sports psychologist.   That doesn't leave a large amount of job openings in the sports realm.  So in terms of going to school for sport psychology and then getting out of school and going to work full-time as a sports psychologist it can definitely be challenging.

The writing is on the wall from the start.  Every other athlete that isn't on a professional team is on the opposite end of the spectrum.  They are typically students living at home who are trying to make it to the Olympics, or living in a basement suite, and pretty much they don't have money to spend on a psychologist.  At some point in the college level and amateur national level they will need sports psychologists. But generally members of the public aren't looking for a sports psychologist, it's still a very young field.

When you go through your academics there is actually a lot of discouragement about your chances of getting a job. You're sitting there learning all this stuff you're really passionate about and you're finding out you may not be able to get a job when you're done.  I think that is where, for me, combining and getting a broader base of learning, like getting your psychologist license and making sure you have the clinical skills is important because then you will have more of a choice in the career field.  If you really want to make a career as a sports psychologist happen, consider the field a bit more of the field of performance psychology, and you will have a much larger market for your skill-set.

You say you worked in the corporate area for a bit as a sports psychologist, can you tell us about how you used sports psychology in the corporate world?

The thing about sports psychology is you're working with people that want to be the best in the world.   It's a lot different from a clinical model.  Often times a psychologist is working to get someone to a place of function.  A lot of clients come to a psychologist because they are having dysfunction in their lives, so the psychologist tries to get this person functional again.  As a sports psychologist you are working with someone that is reasonably or highly functional. But you are trying to help them get to the highest level of performance and functionality.  The idea is to really get someone to be the best at something.  It really switches the way you think about your clients.  In sports, functional isn't good enough, they need help getting to the highest level of performance, to be the best in the world.

In the end, it is not just about sports. There are a lot of people that want to be the best at something that is not about sports.  I wanted to go and get practical experience in the human resources consulting and corporate world.  Interestingly enough, when you come from a sports psychology background and you enter business, you find yourself very quickly talking to the people at the head of these corporations, mostly because these are the kind of people that are trying to be the best at something or want their company to be the best at something, very similar to athletes.  They share a similar mindset.  I was able to find practical experience working with HR companies like Hudson and Right Management.

 Have you found it difficult to build your own business or brand?

I think it's challenging in any area of psychology.  As a registered psychologist, you create a lot of security for yourself by getting your license in the job field.  That license is sort of a fallback so that you can accept members of the public.  If you get like 10 hours per week from walk-in clients at $200 per hour, you will be able to at least pay your bills and then focus additionally on your sports psychology roles.

In terms of marketing yourself, you have some channels through your different associations.  But for me, it was all about professional development and experience.  Often times universities don't tell you how to build your business.  They teach you how to work on patients, but they don't teach you how to market and manage your own practice. Unless you're going to get a job in a hospital as a clinical psychologist,  you're going to have to be a bit of an entrepreneur.  I don't want to say it's difficult, you just have to be smart about it. You have to be proactive and find out which avenues will be fruitful.

I actually found an organization, called Thought Leaders, and they basically teach you how to build a business model around your expertise.  That company was a revelation for me, I highly recommend that service. I think that is where I learned the most in regards to marketing and growing my business.  To develop a strong practice you're going to need to develop a business sense.  One of the things I did was reach out to psychologists that I knew had been successful and get an idea of what they did to develop their business.

What are some of the things you like most about your job?

I have a very diverse career model.  It's not always sitting in an office talking to people.  I occasionally get to be a professional keynote speaker, some speaking events can pay up to $10,000 for a few hours of my time.  That way I get to really share my experience, I get to do workshops, speaking, work clinically with clients, and more importantly, I get to help people try to be the best at what they do.  I like to be able to help people.   When someone comes to you and tells you that you have made a difference in their life, that really means a lot.  Making a difference and getting to see the results in your clients is probably the best thing about the job.

The stuff that you learn in sports psychology is amazing. We are able to help people to find that extra edge in their lives, and it is a skill that you just don't see in other areas of psychology.  You can use that skill-set in many different areas if you're smart and you diversify your career.

What are some difficulties that someone should expect when entering into this field of work?

The thing about sports psychology is that you're generally always on contract.  If you think about a professional team, the coach turnover is about every 3-4 years.  And when that coach leaves, there is usually a turnover in staff too.  The new coach often will bring in his own staff and his own sports psychologist, or hire a new psychologist.

There is often this turnover in staff in the professional sports teams and for that reason it isn't often that you will find a job as a sports psychologist for a team for 15 years. It just doesn't work like that.  There will be times when you are working 90 percent in sports psychology and then other times you will find yourself doing more work in other industries and down to 20 percent of your work with actual athletes.  It just varies.

Also, this specific career field is for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.  If you're looking to go look at a job board and get your dream career, that just probably won't happen in this career field.  There are jobs in academia, there are jobs in research, but to really go out there and build your practice you're going to need some entrepreneurial spirit.  That's something you will have to be prepared for.

 What are some other ways you can use your education as a sports psychologist to find work?

From a contract entrepreneur standpoint, you will have a skill-set that you can apply everywhere.  You're going to be an expert in the psychology of excellence. It would be so easy to get employed full-time as a psychologist at an HR consulting firm, like at the drop of a hat.  I think I got my first HR job almost immediately after getting out of school.   So there is great job security with having this education.  If you have a PhD in psychology they will tend to put you into the senior consultant level pretty early on.

I personally don't want to work for other people.  I like to do my own thing and work on my own business.  So for those that actually want to go out and find a job in the corporate industry, you will probably have no problem getting a job.  It's a great fallback to know that you could work at these big companies.

It's important to be diverse in your career so that you can move into different niches that your employable in.  The main message from me to students is to focus niche but look broad in your career.

What are some general cases that have really inspired you during your work as a sports psychologist ?

I have had a few.  But in general terms, I had an athlete that was struggling with a bit of a performance issue. But really the big obstacle wasn't about what was happening in their sport.  Their issue was showing up in their sport and through examination we came to this very deep personal issue.  Maybe it was family, or abuse, and in reality the person has a very fractured sense of self-worth.  In the media they look amazing and they seem like they really have things together, but internally they are suffering.

So when you get to help them change their perspective and emotional experience, and they walk away feeling good about themselves,  that's amazing. When you see that you got to actually change someone's self-worth and know that going forward they are going to live much more enriched lives, that is amazing.  Then, in turn, you get to see that person then change on the field and become even better in sports and reach a new level of competitive functionality.

If you would like to know more about Dr. Sean Richardson you can follow him on Twitter.