Sports Psychologist Career

In general, sports psychologists work with amateur and professional athletes to improve their mental and physical health, as well as athletic performances, by using goal setting, imagery, focus strategies, and relaxation techniques, among others. Sports psychologists also strive to help athletes to mentally prepare for competition. There are approximately 179,000 psychologists employed in the United States, although sports psychologists comprise only a small segment of this number.

History of Sports Psychologist Career

Sports Psychologist CareerIn the 17th century, French philosopher Rene Descartes described his belief that human behaviors could be classified in two ways—voluntary and involuntary. Those behaviors which were completely mechanical, instinctual, and similar to those of animals, he characterized as involuntary; those behaviors which required or submitted to reason were characterized as voluntary. Based on this early model, and the subsequent work of others, including John Locke, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, later philosophers and scientists experimented with sensation and perception, culminating with an introspective analysis of the many elements of an individual’s experience.

William James advanced modern psychology by asserting the theory of a stream of thought; G. Stanley Hall, a contemporary of James, established the first true laboratory of psychology at Clark University in 1883. Sigmund Freud introduced the medical tradition to clinical psychology. A physician and neurologist, Freud’s methods of psychoanalysis included word association techniques and later, inkblot techniques as developed by Hermann Rorschach.

After World War II, psychology became formally recognized as a profession. The American Psychological Association has developed standards of training for psychologists, and certification and licensing laws have been passed to regulate the practice of professional psychology.

Since psychology deals with human behavior, psychologists apply their knowledge and techniques to a wide range of endeavors including human services, management, law, and sports.

The Job of Sports Psychologists

Sport and exercise psychology is the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise, and other types of physical activity. In general, sports psychologists work with amateur and professional athletes to improve their mental and physical health, as well as athletic performances, by using goal setting, imagery, focus strategies, and relaxation techniques, among others. Sports psychologists also strive to help athletes to mentally prepare for competition.

Sports psychologists are divided into three categories: clinical, educational, and research. Clinical sports psychologists work mainly with individuals who are experiencing emotional problems that are usually, but not always, somehow connected to their sport. Educational sports psychologists have two roles, one as a classroom instructor and the other as a consultant. In the classroom, they teach students methods and techniques related to sports psychology. On the field, they usually function as members of the coaching staff. Just as the coach teaches physical skills, the sports psychologist teaches mental skills. Research sports psychologists conduct studies that provide the clinical and educational sports psychologists with scientific facts and statistics.

All sport psychology professionals are interested in two main objectives: helping athletes use psychological principles to improve performance (performance enhancement) and understanding how participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity affects an individual’s psychological development, health, and well-being throughout the life span.

Sports psychologists work with individual athletes and entire teams. They may concentrate on the problems the athlete is having with the sport, from a bad slump to the feelings of low self-esteem that come when the crowd jeers the athlete’s performance. Sports psychologists also work to help the individual athlete to overcome feelings of depression, drug or substance abuse, and violence.

They work with teams in many ways, the most notable of which is creating a feeling of cohesion among the many different personalities that constitute a team. Team members are also counseled when they are traded to another team or released.

Sports psychologists also work with individual athletes and team members on improving their level of performance, concentration, and mental attitude. The phrase “a winning attitude” derives its power from the fact that sports psychologists can help the athletes with whom they work to actually visualize a winning shot or a perfect golf swing and then execute that vision.

Sports psychologists don’t work with only exceptional, elite athletes or teams; most sports psychologists, in fact, work with college athletes or amateur athletes, and many teach in academic settings or offer motivational lecture series. Some sports psychologists have their own columns in specialized sports magazines and others work in athletic training facilities, hired full time by the owners to work with the athletes who come there to train.

Sports Psychologist Career Requirements

The requirements for entering the field of sports medicine as a sports psychologist are somewhat tricky to understand, so it helps to understand the various paths available in psychology in general, as determined by the American Psychological Association. Students should expect to spend five to seven years in graduate work for a doctoral degree.

High School

High school students should take a college preparatory curriculum that concentrates on English, mathematics, and sciences. You should also take a foreign language, especially French and German, because reading comprehension of these languages is one of the usual requirements for obtaining a doctoral degree. Participation in sports will give you the background necessary to effectively understand the athletes you work with in your practice.

Postsecondary Training

A doctoral degree is generally required for employment as a psychologist, but there are two different degrees that psychologists can seek at the doctorate level. The first degree is called the Ph.D., and psychologists with this degree qualify for a wide range of teaching, research, clinical, and counseling positions in universities, elementary and secondary schools, and private industry. The second degree is called a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology); psychologists with this degree qualify mainly for clinical positions. The Ph.D. degree culminates in a dissertation based on original research, while the Psy.D. is usually based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation. In clinical or counseling psychology, the requirements for a doctoral degree usually include a year or more of internship or supervised experience.

Individuals who have only a master’s degree in psychology are allowed to administer tests as psychological assistants and, if they are under the supervision of doctoral- level psychologists, they can conduct research in laboratories, conduct psychological evaluations, counsel patients, and perform administrative duties. They are also allowed to teach in high schools and two-year colleges and work as school psychologists or counselors.

Those individuals with only a bachelor’s degree in psychology can assist psychologists and other professionals and work as research or administrative assistants, but without further academic training they cannot advance further in psychology.

Having said all of this, it will perhaps come as a shock that there are no sports psychology doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). One of the controversies behind this is whether professionals working with athletes in applied areas of sports psychology should be required to have doctoral training in clinical or counseling psychology—training which would qualify them to provide psychological treatment to athletes as well. The solution reached by the APA, along with the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology (AAASP) and North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, is that any practitioners of sports psychology who do not also have doctoral-level clinical or counseling training should refer athletes who need treatment to licensed professionals. Sports psychologists who work with Olympic athletes are required to have doctoral-level degrees.

Those students who are interested in academic teaching and research in sports psychology can earn doctoral degrees in sport sciences and take additional courses in psychology or counseling. Over 50 schools in the United States offer this type of program, including the University of North Carolina–Greensboro ( and the University of Florida ( Typical subjects covered include sports psychology, performance enhancement, concentration skills, stress and attention management, and motivation.

Those students who want more emphasis on psychology in their training can pursue a psychology doctorate in areas such as group procedures, psychotherapy, learning, education, and human development or motivation, with a subspecialty in sports psychology. At most universities, students take courses like these in the sport sciences department, while at a few schools, such as the University of Washington ( and the University of California–Los Angeles (, it is possible to take similar courses through the psychology department.

Students who wish to provide clinical services to athletes can pursue a doctoral degree in APA-accredited clinical or counseling psychology programs, with a concentration in sports psychology. This track offers students the widest range of job opportunities, from teaching and research in sports and psychology to counseling athletes as well as the general population. Institutions where this mode of study is typical include the University of Wisconsin-Madison ( and the University of North Texas (

For those students who are interested primarily in educating people about the health benefits of exercise or in helping student athletes, a master’s degree is an option. More than 100 sport sciences departments offer a master’s degree in areas related to sports psychology.

For more detailed information on graduate programs in psychology and sports psychology, look for The Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology, edited by Michael L. Sachs, Kevin L. Burke, and Diana C. Schrader (Morgantown, W.Va.: Fitness Information Technology, 2004).

Certification or Licensing

In addition to educational requirements, most states require that all practitioners of psychology meet certification or licensing requirements if they are in independent practice or involved in offering patient care of any kind (including clinical and counseling). Once the educational requirements are fulfilled, a sports psychologist should contact the AAASP for details about certification and licensing requirements, as they usually vary from state to state.

Other Requirements

Because sports psychology is such a broad field, various personal attributes apply to different psychology positions. Clinical sports psychologists should be able to relate to others and have excellent listening skills. Educational sports psychologists should have strong communication skills in order to convey ideas and concepts to students and clients. Research sports psychologists should be analytical, detail oriented, and have strong writing and mathematics skills.

Exploring Sports Psychologist Career

You can gain experience in this field by volunteering to work for research programs at area universities or by working in the office of a psychologist. Another option is to learn more about sports by working as a gofer or intern with the sports medicine departments of college, university, or professional athletic teams. Even by participating in a sport in high school or college, you can gain valuable insight into the mental and emotional stresses and demands placed upon athletes.

In addition, students should begin their understanding of psychology by taking as many courses in the field as possible.


Sports psychologists are employed by athletes at the amateur, college, or professional level and by owners of professional, college, and private organizations. They may also be employed at colleges and universities as teachers and researchers.

Starting Out

Along the road toward a Ph.D. or Psy.D., students of all levels can get involved in the research or educational aspects of psychology, either as a volunteer subject or a paid helper. These positions will gradually increase in responsibility and scope as the student progresses in his or her studies. Eventually, the student will be eligible for internships that will, in turn, provide him or her with valuable contacts in the field.

Graduates can explore job opportunities with a wide variety of employers, from the university research branch of psychology or sport sciences to the world of elite athletes. Finding work with the latter, however, can prove extremely difficult.


Sports psychologists advance in several ways, but primarily by increasing the scope and caliber of their reputations in the field. This is accomplished, of course, by consistently helping athletes to improve their athletic performance and to reduce the emotional and/or mental strain placed upon them. Advancement might come in the form of a new position (working for a professional team) or it might come in the form of a solid private practice.

Sports psychologists who make their living largely in the academic world do so by successfully publishing the results of studies, research, or theories in specialized medical journals.


Specific salary figures for sports psychologists are not readily available. In general, psychologists’ salaries depend on the area of their expertise, the location of their practice, and whether or not they practice alone or in a partnership. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings for all psychologists were $57,170 in 2005. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $34,040, and the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $99,270. Be forewarned, however, that with the higher salary comes long years of study in order to attain the educational background necessary to practice. In fact, in order to stay current with topics ranging from treatment to medication, psychologists must continue to learn and study their field for as long as they intend to practice.

Work Environment

Sports psychologists spend most of their time working in office and hospital environments, but some of their time is spent in the same environments as the athletes they counsel. This may mean spending several hours on a golf course, on a ski slope, or in the gymnasium. Much depends on the type of psychologist. For example, the clinical psychologist would probably spend most of his or her time with athletes in the relative comfort of an office setting and the psychologist would meet with athletes during a regular nine-to-five day. Educational sports psychologists would be more likely to be in the gym or on the golf course, working side-by-side with the rest of the coaching staff. Depending on the nature of the study, a research sports psychologist might spend some time with athletes while they are practicing, but in general, he or she would spend most of the workday in an office or laboratory setting, reviewing or studying the data from his or her studies.

Sports psychologists need to stay up-to-date with developing theories and research. To accomplish this, they may have to spend additional time reading journals, books, and papers; conducting research in the library; or attending conferences on relevant issues. They may need to take additional course work to stay abreast of new theories and techniques, as well as to maintain current certification or licensing. Although sports psychologists spend a lot of time with the athletes they’re helping, they also spend large amounts of time working alone.

Sports Psychologist Career Outlook

While employment in the general field of psychology is likely to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014, it is hard to say how this prognosis affects the subspecialty of sports psychology. Largely due to the fact that so much time goes into the training, very few people leave the field entirely. Many stay in the general field of psychology and merely move around, switching specialties, but even this is rare.

While competition is incredibly tough for positions with elite athletes, most experts believe that other areas of sports psychology will continue to offer a substantial number of jobs to new graduates, especially in academe.

Sports psychology can lack the steady income of a private practice or academic teaching post because practitioners are frequently only on call, not steadily billing for their time. It can also be difficult to get work because while they might have a great, famous athlete for a client, chances are pretty good that the athlete doesn’t want it known that he or she is getting counseling for a bad marriage, a slump, or a drug problem. This forces the sports psychologist to rely on referrals, which they may not receive all that often when athletes and their agents are trying to keep the athlete’s therapy a secret.

For More Information:

American Psychological Association

Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP)