Sports Psychology Degrees & Careers
A lot of people outside of high-intensity sporting competition had never heard of the yips before the summer of 2021, much less known that the slang term describes a very real, and very serious, mental condition.
But in the summer of 2021 when famed American gymnast Simone Biles inexplicably stumbled during her qualifications at the Olympics held in Japan, sport psychologists watching the event had a pretty good idea what was going on. And when Biles withdrew from the finals of the individual all-round competition, where she was heavily favored to win the gold medal, she cited the “twisties” as her reason.
Twisties, yips, choke… they’re all slang descriptions of what sport psychologists call lost move syndrome. It’s the sudden and inexplicable loss of biomechanical control athletes experience in the heat of competition, despite decades of practice and experience. Whether it’s missing easy free-throws, forgetting how to putt, or, more dangerously, losing control in a mid-air flip, it’s part of the unique set of psychological conditions that sport psychologists exist in order to treat.
Biles picked up three Bronze medals in balance beam competitions at the Olympic games held in 2021, but for many athletes and sport psychologists, her highest prize was earned simply by going public with the condition she was experiencing.
If helping athletes of all calibers and capabilities get past mental blocks like the yips – from Olympians down to individual recreational players – then becoming a sports psychologist could be the right job for you.
What Is Sports Psychology?
For many people, playing sports is a fun way to stay fit while scratching that competitive itch. Far more Americans participate in daily physical exercise now than ever before. That upward trend has been tracking for decades now and there’s every reason to believe it will continue now that physical fitness is recognized as the key to every aspect of wellness – including psychological.
A select few of those folks are counted among those living the dream of being selected from a sea of eager athletes to make the elite leagues and circuits of professional sports. But what makes some strive to play sports at a competitive level? What makes some push themselves to their limits for nothing more than the satisfaction of winning? How does playing sports affect people mentally and emotionally?
These are just a few of the questions that sport psychologists try to answer.
Sports psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how individuals are affected by playing sports as well as how to improve a person's mindset in order to excel at sport and exercise.
A sport psychologist understands that individuals who play sports must be healthy in both their bodies and minds in order to succeed. At times, some athletes need help overcoming psychological issues that do not allow them to play to their full potential. Reducing stress and extreme anxiety before events often leads to better athletic performance.
Sport psychologists often work with several different types of athletes, from amateurs to professionals. Athletes might seek out these professionals on their own, or coaches might bring in sports psychologists for that extra edge in competition. According to one study, the majority of Olympic athletes have used several different types of psychological treatments to reduce anxiety before performances.
But learning how to become a sports psychologist doesn’t just mean working with elite athletes. Although pro athletes are the ones most likely to seek out professional psychologists, they’re definitely not the only ones that could something out of a session with a sport psychologist. In fact, anyone in in the upper echelons of a high-stress, high-stakes and highly competitive field might benefit from a few counseling sessions with a sport psychologist. This can include business people, performing artists, and politicians.
The same techniques could work just as well for a CEO making strategic decisions on a major acquisition or a performing artist gearing up for big opening night as it would for a quarterback putting together plays in a high-stakes playoff game. Sports psychology has applications anywhere that physical effort mixes with mental focus.
What Are the Three Major Topics in Sports Psychology?
When entering the workforce, sport psychologists typically focus on one of three primary specialties:
- Applied Sports Psychology: Concentrates on teaching the skills necessary for enhancing athletic performance, which includes goal-setting and imagery.
- Clinical Sports Psychology: Blends mental training strategies and psychotherapy as a way to assist clients suffering from mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.
- Academic Sports Psychology: Involves conducting research or teaching at the college or university level.
Sport psychology can be used to help understand what motivates athletes and what makes them perform better. Professionals in this field are very knowledgeable and compassionate regarding the challenges and pressures that most athletes face today. Athletes that take advantage of counseling from a sport psychologist will often be better contenders and have more fulfilling careers.
How Do You Become a Sports Psychologist?
A combination of physical education and psychology is essential for starting a sport psychology career. You’ll need to earn an advanced college degree in the field to have any real shot at a career in sports psychology, which means a master’s degree or higher. And you need to have an on-the-ground, sweat-soaked, muscle-burning familiarity with kinesiology and physiology too.
The combination of knowledge and command of mental and physical processes is what makes sports psychologists unique in the field.
Many sports psychologists also have to hold a license from their state in order to practice clinical psychology. That level of licensure requires a doctorate in psychology at a minimum, along with a year or two of post-doctoral practice and passing scores on a national standard test, the EPPP (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology).
What are the Education Requirements for a Sports Psychology Career?
The basic outline for your education is the same for any licensed clinical psychologist. Below is the complete educational path to qualifying for licensure:
|School Programs||Average Education Length||Choosing Online or Campus|
|1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree||View Programs||4 Years||Online or Campus|
|2. Earn A Master's Degree||View Programs||2 Additional Years||Online or Campus|
|3. Earn a PHD or PsyD||View Programs||2-4 Additional Years||Online or Campus|
A combination of physical education and psychology is essential for starting a sport psychology career. Some colleges and universities might offer sport psychology bachelor’s degree programs, which include a blend of psychology courses and physical education courses. A sport psychology career, however, can also usually be started with a bachelor's degree in general psychology. A few aspiring sport psychologists, however, may even be able to begin their careers with a bachelor's degree in physical education.
Because there are very few permanent sport psychology positions available for those with bachelor’s degrees, most individuals pursuing sport psychology careers also usually earn advanced degrees as well. Many universities offer master's and doctoral degree programs in sport psychology.
Certification 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. It is important to check with the state board of licensing where you want to practice for licensing requirements and examinations.
"Becoming licensed can be valuable as employers tend to like hiring those who can work with sport and other personal issues. Also, it may be good to become a Certified Consultant, AASP."
-Judy L. Van Raalte, Ph.D.
Voluntary national certification is a step beyond licensure that serves to highlight your specialized training and expertise specific to sport psychology. The certification process usually involves proving your educational credentials, passing a subject-specific test in sports psychology, and verifying some level of experience actually working in the field. In some cases, you’ll have to get even more familiar with the field through training seminars, and even collect some professional references. This all signals to potential clients or employers that you are the cream of the crop in sport psychology, putting you at the front of the line for jobs.
The Association of Applied Sport Psychology, for example, offers certification as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC). The CMPC is open to not only psychologists but also counselors and educators.
You can also become a Board-certified Sport Psychologist through the American Board of Sport Psychology. This credential is restricted to doctorally-qualified psychologists so it comes with even more stringent qualifications.
You Have to Be a Natural To Become a Great Sports Psychologist
But there’s something else that’s just as important as meeting all the degree, background experience and licensure requirements if you’re serious about learning how to become a sports psychologist. And it’s the one thing that can’t be learned in school. Any coach knows that training and focus can put you over the top, but it all has to start with being a natural. Just like with elite athletes, the best in the business often catch the eye of the recruiters in the stands because of the natural talent and unceasing drive they were born with.
"I was contacted by a professional sports team to help with selection. They were looking for the intangibles associated with success. The process included developing a personality measurement as well as looking at the belief system of successful athletes. We even added a measure of sociopathy to make sure they were not selecting people who would ruin the clubhouse atmosphere. This process goes beyond motivation and visualization commonly associated with sports psychologists."
– Dave Popple Ph.D., President of Corporate Insights
What Do Sports Psychologists Do?
In order to help any athlete, a sport psychologist must be able to first assess the problem that they are facing. An athlete might benefit from a counseling sport psychologist in a number of situations. Some athletes, for instance, may be having trouble concentrating due to personal issues, like family or relationship problems. As even the public is increasingly seeing, even top-flight athletic performers suffer from such things as confidence issues, low self-esteem, and body image problems.
Performance anxiety and burnout are other common problems many athletes face, no matter how talented they are.
Depending on the situation, a sport psychologist might work with athletes one-on-one or in groups. Teams, for instance, will often benefit from group therapy, since the members of the team must work together in order to win.
A sport psychologist will often lend a non-judgmental ear to frustrated and overwhelmed athletes. Sometimes, just the act of talking about certain negative situations can be all that is necessary to overcome them.
Most times, however, a sport psychologist will offer ongoing advice and guidance on how to overcome these problems. They may recommend a little rest and relaxation for the burnt-out athlete, or maybe teach an overly anxious athlete several different relaxation exercises to perform before each game or match. They might offer up visualization techniques to help tune out distractions in the heat of the moment, as the pressure on the field ratchets higher.
Some sport psychologists might also work closely with athletes who have suffered injuries as well. According to Johns Hopkins, there are around 3.5 million sports-related injuries among children and teens alone each year. Physical injuries can be a big mental health problem for anyone. But for world-class athletes who make their living with their body, an injury that puts them out of commission comes with a whole lot of extra baggage. On top of worries about their health, their career and livelihood may be up in the air.
Depending on the severity of the injury, a sport psychologist may attempt to help a recovering athlete segue back into their career with as little stress as possible. Some athletes don't have this choice, however, and they may need the help of a sport psychologist to help them deal with the fact that they may not be able to play their sport with as much talent and drive as they had at one time.
Earning a Sports Psychology Degree – Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate Options
What it’s like to be a psychologist in a major league sports team is something every sports fan with an interest in psychology thinks about.
But there’s a big reason most people never do it. It’s a very competitive field that takes a high level of education to get into. And once you get into it, it takes all your drive and knowledge to succeed.
Considering that most sports psychology careers will require a master's or doctoral-level sports psychology 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 level sports psychology degree, there are a number of undergraduate opportunities that would help set you up for graduate work in the field.
You had better bring your A game when you go to school to earn your sports psychology degree.
A student applying to study biomechanics should have at least some background coursework in physics, and an exercise physiology student should have a background in biological sciences. Similarly, 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
Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Psychology
Of course, you need to start this process with a four-year bachelor’s degree. The natural choice is from one of the sports psychology undergraduate programs available out there.
The right bachelor’s program helps set the stage for success later on by giving you a basic grounding in anatomy, physiology, psychology, and sports science. On top of that, a four-year sports psychology degree offers a solid foundation in the essential elements of a modern liberal arts education that employers count on for well-rounded employees. Social studies, history, communication skills, and the other basics help give you a solid start in critical thinking skills that help out in any kind of career.
You will find that bachelor’s-level sports psychology degrees are few and far between, however. You can broaden your horizons to prepare for an advanced degree with a bachelor’s in kinesiology or psychology, each of which may offer concentrations in the other as part of the program.
Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology
A master's in psychology is where you start to get more serious about in-depth sports psychology studies. Although these degrees typically last only two years, they are packed with advanced coursework in what makes athlete’s tick and how to tinker with their thought processes to get more out of their performance.
A sports psychology degree at the master’s level will include subjects like:
- Psychology of injury rehabilitation
- Psychosocial processes in sports and physical activity
- Sport sociology
- Psychology of exercise and health
A master’s-level sports psychology degree is where you’ll really start to plumb the depths of the latest knowledge in the field, engaging in research projects with your professors along the way. Then you’ll learn how to design and evaluate your own studies. Practicum and internship opportunities at this level and beyond are longer and more intensive. You’ll get legit hands-on experience in real sports facilities and working with college or professional teams.
Many going into the field skip the master’s level sports psychology degree entirely, however. If you plan to go on to earn a doctorate to become a full-fledged clinical sport psychologist, you’ll typically earn the master’s-level sports psychology degree in the process, or at least complete a curriculum equivalent to a master’s. Although you can shave two years off the doctoral program by earning a master’s first, many people choose to take on all the training at once.
Doctoral Degree in Sports Psychology
A doctoral degree program in sports psychology is what you need to be aiming for if you plan to practice serious clinical sports psychology at a professional level. Every state requires a doctoral degree in order to license clinical psychologists. Beyond that, the four to seven years you will spend in a doctoral program is the only place to get the depth of education you really need to succeed in a competitive field like sports psychology.
Technically, your sports psychology degree will actually be a PsyD or a PhD in psychology, with a concentration in sports or sports and performance psychology.
A PsyD in Sports Psychology is considered to be more practice-oriented, while a PhD in Sports Psychology is usually more academic and research-oriented.
You will receive the same core education as other doctoral psychology students, including coursework in advanced assessment, psychotherapy techniques, group practice, and the cognitive and affective bases of behavior.
But you’ll build on those foundations of psychological practice with additional courses such as:
- Advanced performance enhancement
- Advanced psychomotor development and kinesiology
- Sports and athletic rehabilitation
- Advanced group dynamics in sports settings
- Business and ethics in sports psychology
To cap it off, earning a doctoral-level sports psychology degree will require you to complete either a dissertation or doctoral project to demonstrate your ability to put all that training together. You’ll be expected to come up with original ideas and to conduct research to support them and present your case to a dissertation committee before you can graduate.
Online Sports Psychology Degrees
Sports Psychology Careers
There is no question that a career in sport psychology involves a lot more energy and excitement than just about any other kind of psychology career. Your office may be out on the football fields and tennis courts, stadiums filled with the buzz of competition and a front-row seat to high-stakes competition. As great as the salary can be, a lot of sport psychologists are in it for the thrill of the game and the enjoyment that comes with helping an athlete or team achieve peak performance.
But sport psychologists have a lot of options when it comes to crafting their career. You can specialize in certain types of sports, or in working with student athletes, or even advising major sporting regulation organizations on rules and standards. You may not want to work in an office, but if you do, that’s definitely an option.
And exercise and performance enhancement aren’t just relevant to organized sports. Individuals recovering from something as simple as a jogging injury in purely recreational circumstances might need a sport psychologist. There are opportunities all over the country to craft your own career in sport psychology.
How Much do Sports Psychologists Make
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a subsidiary of the Department of Labor, doesn’t independently track the salary rate for psychologists who specialize in sports psychology. It does record the national median salary for all psychologists as of 2020 as $82,180, however. And the sub-category that includes unclassified psychological specialties within that larger group has an even higher median of $105,780.
Since sports psychologists are an elite group even with clinical psychology practice, it makes more sense to look even higher in the salary range. Psychologists in the top ten percent of the field made more than $132,070 in 2020.
What is the Annual Average Salary for a Sports Psychologist?
The mid-point figures above show where the line is between the upper and lower half of salaries in the field. The overall average psychologist salary can also be a good predictor of what you can expect to earn. For the broader BLS category that includes all the unclassified psychology specialists, including sports psychologists, the average in 2020 was $100,130.
To nail down the brass tacks of the full range of salaries sports psychologists can earn in various settings, we talked to some people who are actually responsible for hiring sports psychologists, or retaining their services on a contract basis.
In private practice, the sports psychologist 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 caters to individual clients who pay for the services out of their own pockets.
According to estimates from Scott Goldman, the director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arizona, the sport psychologist salary in university athletic departments can be $60,000 to $80,000 a year depending on location and the highest salaries can exceed $100,000 annually.
What is the Career Outlook for Sports Psychologists?
As a field, psychology as a whole is a rock-solid institution that is as much a part of the economy as the broader healthcare sector. That means job growth typically tracks with broader trends and isn’t subject to the ups and downs seen in many other professions. In the same way that there will always be a consistent demand for healthcare services, there will be a demand for mental health services.
The BLS projects that we’ll see an 8% increase in the number of jobs opening up for psychologists during the ten-year run-up to 2030. Though you won’t find reliable job growth projections for sports psychologists specifically, or any other niche area of psychology for that matter, it’s very reasonable to conclude that it will track closely with the field as a whole.
It can also be surmised that as the world continues to embrace health and fitness as a key part of overall psychological wellness, the demand could be particularly strong for sports psychologists. And because sports psychologists represent such a small subgroup of the psychology field, there specialized services will be considered all the more valuable.
Is Sports Psychology a Good Career?
Sports psychology is as much a calling as a career. Although some sports psychologists make excellent money, it’s also a challenging and extremely competitive field. You have to love it and you have to be good at it. Not everyone has that combination of talent and drive, but if you do, sports psychology is really the only career for you.
Where Do Sports Psychologists Work?
Your picture of the life of a sports psychologist probably involves working for an NBA team or hanging out in the desert each spring for Cactus League tune-ups. And there are many sports psychologists who do work in pro sports and work in the major and minor leagues of every sport.
But there are many people in the field who have successful practices serving clients outside of the more popular and traditional roles. Sport psychologist careers typically involve working in facilities that cater to and accommodate athletes of all different shapes, sizes, and ages.
High schools and colleges might hire a sport psychologist to talk with and counsel their student athletes, for instance. Sport psychologists can also usually find employment at hospitals, physical rehabilitation centers, and gyms. Some are employed by national bodies that govern particular sports, or work with national Olympic teams.
Sports psychologists can also choose to open their own practices, much like most other psychologists. Like any kind of psychologist, finding a good fit between client and therapist is a must, so athletes may prefer to shop around for someone who works well for them.
"Some start their own private practice which can be a pretty big undertaking and takes a lot of hard work and patience…[find] a niche that separates [you] from others in the field. Find an area of specialization that expresses your love and passion for sports and being of service to athletes."
-Robert B. Andrews, M.A., LMFT, CSC Founder and Director of The Institute of Sports Performance in Houston, TX.
Some of the career options available to a sports psychologist include:
- Becoming a mental training consultant, working with athletes and teams to teach mental training techniques and team-building strategies.
- Providing consulting services to coaches and support staff to help create a team environment that achieves a maximum level of healthy motivation and trust.
- Working at a high school or college as an academic counselor (or academic coordinator) for student-athletes.
- Working with athletes at a sport medicine clinic.
- Educating the public as a sport psychology lecturer.
- Pursuing a doctorate in sport and exercise or clinical psychology, and becoming a staff sports psychologist at a sports organization or university.
- Establishing a private practice to counsel athletic clients on how to set goals, stay focused, better manage their energy, and develop effective pre-performance routines.
"Our alumni also work in other professional settings such as master resilience trainer/ performance expert with the U.S. Army, head coaches at various colleges, and program coordinator through the national First Tee Youth Golf Program, to name a few."
– Judy L. Van Raalte, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Springfield College
Ways for Sport Psychologists to Increase Their Chances as a Job Candidate
As a sport psychology student, pursuing some independent study with your college’s sports teams will provide extremely valuable hands-on observational experience and valuable insight on how athletic teams work both on and off the field.
You could find yourself helping injured athletes recover from the mental and emotional impact of sports related injuries, or be part of the coaching staff’s effort to go all the way in a championship series. And if you show promise, it could turn into a full-time position.
Here’s some suggestions on how you might be able to make that dream a reality:
- Demonstrate the willingness to learn: Taking CEU courses relevant to an area of expertise and interest is one way to highlight a desire to continue growing as a professional.
- Be an expert source of important information: Many coaches stay in touch with sports psychology student volunteers who present the coaching staff with relevant research findings. If they make room for another position, that’s the kind of person who is going to get the call.
- Become visible in the field: Attending conferences, participating in workshops, and word-of-mouth advertising is beneficial for sports psychologists looking for work.
"I never would have said this four or five years ago, but social media is such a huge part of my successful practice. I use Constant Contact, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and have built a really great website."
–Robert B. Andrews, M.A.
Keeping abreast of the latest therapy techniques and research related to sport psychology is a good way to increase desirability as a job applicant too. Subscribing to professional journals, reading books, and attending professional seminars are excellent ways to further expand your expertise in the field.
A few journal suggestions include:
- Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology
- Journal of Applied Sport Psychology
- The Sport Psychologist
"Get involved. I always pay particular attention to the students who contact me and have experience in the field in some way. They are pursuing a degree in psychology, participating in sports at the college level, working with little league organizations in their area as a volunteer, public speaking on topics that they have interest and passion about, etc."
–Robert B. Andrews, M.A.
Sports Psychology Continuing Education (CE)
Earning your degree isn’t the end of your education in sports psychologyTo keep your license as a clinical psychologist, every state requires you to go out and continue to study in the field. That’s also true of certifications, which often have to be renewed with proof of continuing education.
Even if you are working in a role that doesn’t require you to hold full authority psychology licensure, the state-of-the-art in both sports and psychology are constantly evolving so you have to put in work to keep up. Clients want to hire sports psychologist that can give them the ultimate edge, and are going to be looking for professionals who are up on the absolute latest knowledge in the field. That means continuing education is going to be a part of your life for the rest of your career.
In addition to state-approved CE programs for psychologists, the American Psychological Association also offers continuing education options for sport psychologists on diverse and important topics, which in the past have included seminars and literature such as:
- Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth: Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment
- Human Aggression and Violence: Causes, Manifestations, and Consequences
- Motivational Interviewing
Networking Organizations and CE Sources - Should You Join a Professional Association for Sports Psychologists?
Joining a professional association can give you access to awesome regional networking opportunities that can include everything from casual gatherings and fundraising events to full-on multi-day seminars. They make it easy to find continuing education opportunities as well as uncover new research and find job opportunities.
And attending professional conferences sponsored by these organizations is an effective way to meet and network with niche-related colleagues, including students, educators, and other psychology professionals – through workshops, lectures, athletic presentations, keynote speakers, and symposiums. Many conferences also provide a way for psychologists to earn continuing education credits.
Sport psychology is one of the specialty areas recognized by the American Psychological Association. The APA even has a dedicated arm specific to sports psychology known as Division 47, the Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology offering networking and resources at the national level for sports psychologists, and even fellowship opportunities for practitioners who are conducting cutting edge research and making important contributions to the field.
Other local and national professional associations and certifying agencies can not only offer continuing education opportunities and help you keep current on the latest developments in the field, but also keep you connected to a strong professional network of thought leaders, innovators and practitioners just like you.
Organizations dedicated solely to sports psychology and sports medicine that provide additional networking opportunities, conferences and workshops for members are:
- Association for Applied Sport Psychology
- American Board of Sport Psychology
- International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP)
- American Journal of Sports Medicine
- North American Society for Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA)
Ready to start your journey to becoming a sports psychologist? Learn which psychology degree program is right for you.