If you have a passion for sports or fitness and a desire to help others, you might enjoy a career as a sports psychologist. While sports may seem like a purely physical activity, many mental processes can affect athletes’ competitive strength. When you study sports psychology, you will learn how applying psychological principles can influence and benefit physical activity.
What Is Sports Psychology?
Some people dream of a career as a professional athlete, but only a select few achieve it. Professional athletes are highly competitive people who are intrinsically motivated to propel themselves to the top of their game. Nevertheless, they are also humans and are subject to mental hang-ups and complex emotions. Sports psychology is a specialized field that seeks to understand the minds of athletes, and to apply scientific principles to help athletes achieve optimal performance.
What Do Sports Psychologists Do?
Sports psychologists tackle some of the same issues as traditional psychologists, such as mental health, trauma, self-doubt and eating disorders. However, sports psychologists support their clients’ growth not just as individuals but also as athletes, to help them feel and perform better. Through individualized support, encouragement and motivation, sports psychologists can empower their clients to rise to their potential.
Some areas of focus include:
- Injury recovery: Psychologists can help athletes develop mental tolerance for pain and adjust to being on the sidelines.
- Performance improvement: With relaxation, introspection and visualization techniques, sports psychologists can help athletes boost their performance.
- Mental resiliency: Athletes face an incredible amount of pressure from fans, coaches, teammates and themselves. Sports psychologists can help athletes learn to cope with difficult and pressured situations while maintaining their mental health.
How To Become a Sports Psychologist
To become a sports psychologist, you must meet educational and licensing requirements. The details of requirements vary from one job position to another; clinical practice may require a graduate degree and licensure.1
1. Earn Your BS in Sports Psychology Degree
The first step to becoming a sports psychologist is to earn a traditional or online sports psychology degree. A Bachelor of Science in Sports Psychology can both fulfill the necessary educational requirements and provide the knowledge to support your vocational path. In this initial step toward becoming a sports psychologist, you will be exposed to psychological theories, methods of assessment, theories of motivation and methods of implementation.
Typical courses in an undergraduate sports psychology degree include:
- Personality psychology
- Psychology of coaching
- Health psychology
- Leadership and team building
- Social psychology and cultural applications
2. Take the GRE Exam
In completing your sports psychology degree, you’ll want to take the GRE General Test. This exam is necessary for entry into many graduate schools. As one of the most widely accepted graduate admissions tests, it measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills.2 These are all necessary for success in graduate-level coursework. Give yourself ample time to study for the exam and possibly retake it before applying for graduate school.
Even if the GRE is not necessary for entry into certain graduate programs, it may still be worth taking. Preparation for the GRE can help students feel better equipped to take on upper-level coursework and studies.
3. Complete Your Master’s in Psychology
Graduate school is an essential step toward becoming a sports psychologist. In the process of earning a master’s degree in psychology, you will deepen and build on the knowledge gained through your bachelor’s program.
Coursework for a sports psychology master’s program may include:
- Health psychology
- Social and cultural psychology
- Learning, cognition and motivation
- Human development
- Research methods
While you are earning your online sports psychology degree, look for applicable internships that will help you build your experience and enhance your credibility as a psychologist. An additional benefit of an internship is that professionals you meet there may be able to help you find job openings or provide references during your job search.
4. Fulfill Requirements for Sports Psychology Licensure
Many sports psychologist positions require candidates to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state. Some states require a doctoral degree from an accredited institution in addition to a set number of hours of experience supervised by licensed professionals.
After meeting the necessary requirements, you may apply for sports psychology certification from the American Board of Sport Psychology or the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.3 Each organization has its own set of certification requirements. For the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding state licensure, be sure to review the requirements listed by your state board.
Careers in Sports Psychology
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide job data on sports psychologists specifically, the BLS does state that 13,500 new jobs are estimated to open for psychologists in general from 2020 to 2030.4 The BLS also reported a median annual wage for psychologists of $82,180 as of May 2020.5
Sports psychology careers can be pursued in many settings, including professional athletic teams, amateur athletic teams, schools and universities. With a degree in sports psychology and appropriate additional certification, sports psychologists can find work under a variety of different titles.
- College team psychologist: This type of sports psychologist works with college sports teams, and occasionally with certain fine arts teams such as theatre or dance.
- Clinical sport psychologist: This kind of psychologist maintains a strong focus on mental health.
- Applied sport psychologist: By providing helpful techniques and goals, applied sports psychologists help athletes improve their performance.
- Sports psychology professor: In this career, the focus is on teaching students in a college setting. This role may also include research.
- Exercise psychologist: Like sports psychologists, exercise psychologists help their clients overcome mental barriers to appropriate exercise. This includes creating individualized programs to support a healthy exercise schedule and mindset.
- Mental performance coordinator: This role involves counseling athletes to foster a higher level of performance and team cohesion.
- Health coach: The general role of a health coach is to help individuals improve their health and adopt a healthy lifestyle.
- Athletic coach: Athletic coaches work in a wide range of settings. As an athletic coach, you may be responsible for instructing students, providing physical training, mentoring athletes and overseeing sports teams.
- Vocational rehabilitation counselor: In this role, you may teach basic vocational skills, develop rehabilitative plans, manage caseloads and documentation, lead vocational groups and workshops and conduct vocational assessments of patients.
Where Do Sports Psychologists Work?
Sports psychologists may work in private practice as consultants. Some of them may be full-time staff members at professional sports teams. Others may work for national governing bodies of sports or focus on research and teaching in academic institutions.
While sports psychologists often work with professional athletes, some may support recreational and amateur athletes in high schools or colleges. For instance, a youth sports organization may hire a psychologist to educate coaches about best practices. Through this education, coaches can learn to help young participants grow and improve self-confidence.
5 Skills for Success as a Sports Psychologist
If you want to become a sports psychologist, you can work on cultivating applicable skills while you move toward completing the necessary prerequisites.
- Empathy: Sports psychologists must be able to empathize with their clients to understand their emotional or physical states as well as their goals.
- Listening skills: As sports psychologists work with athletes, they need to be able to identify areas that need support. This is accomplished through careful listening.
- Sports knowledge: The best interaction with athletes springs from a strong understanding of the sports they are engaged in. This understanding enhances communication and enables psychologists to perform their job more effectively.
- Patience: Some athletes may not be cooperative or may not experience linear growth. Patience is necessary to sustain continual support of individuals through their process.
- Visualization: Sports psychologists must be able to visualize success for their clients. Helping athletes see how they can improve and how mental-conditioning techniques can support them is crucial for successful implementation.
Consider enrolling in the Bachelor of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Performance and Sport Psychology at Grand Canyon University. Students will benefit from the guidance of qualified faculty at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
1 Psychology.org, How to Become a Sports Psychologist in February 2021
4 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists.
5 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Psychologists as of May 2020. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as psychologists. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path.
6 Psychology.org, How to Become a Sports Psychologist in February 2021
Approved by the assistant dean of Behavioral Health for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Dec. 29, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.