Last Updated on July 28, 2021
Sport Psychology Career Guide
“Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”Yogi Berra
The fundamental concepts of sport psychology have been around as long as competition itself. Athletes know all too well that regardless of how much you practice and prepare, a slight change in your attitude or outlook, a minor distraction, or a word of encouragement can make all the difference in your athletic performance. Sport psychology is generally understood as using psychological expertise to achieve success and solve issues arising in sport. As defined by the American Psychology Association,
“Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations. ”
In a world where athletes, coaches, and organizations put a great deal of time and resources into the quest for any sort of competitive advantage, sport psychology is a growing field. A master’s degree in sport psychology has become an effective way to help administrators, coaches, and players advance their careers.
There are all sorts of opportunities to help individual athletes, teams, and organizations to improve their mental performance, which in turn boosts their physical performance. At the micro-level, sport psychology is very helpful working with individual athletes and their coaches, or with individuals who are hoping to find a new exercise regimen to get in better shape. At the macro level, the principles of sport psychology can be used with groups of players and teams to help cohesion and camaraderie.
SportsDegreesOnline.org recently spoke with Lindsay Ross-Stewart from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and she had this to say on Sport Psychology.
Sport psychology is also frequently utilized at the organizational level, where athletic directors and executives will determine a broader philosophy philosophy for the organization. This underlying philosophy – possibly expanded into mission, vision, values and priorities statements – can help the team in a variety of ways. According to the APA, sport psychology can help individuals enhance performance, cope with the pressures of competition, and recover from injuries [source] while also improving team dynamics and cohesion.
This guide will explain how a master’s degree in sport psychology help you redefine and achieve your professional goals. Sport psychology can be applied in a wide variety of contexts – from youth sports to world champion athletes and teams, and everything in between. An eduction in sport psychology will help you be a better manager, mentor, and motivator. It can help everyone at your organization be the best versions of themselves, and it can help your team achieve better results.
Equally as important, the principles of sport psychology will help the team enjoy themselves and build positive life skills that will serve them well for years to come. It can have a remarkable affect on everyone involved in your organization, whether it be a youth team, a local fitness center, or a professional sports franchise.
A Degree in Sport Psychology Can Put Your Career Goals in Reach
Earning a degree in sport psychology can take graduates in a number of different directions, depending on the career goals of the individual. At the very pinnacle of the field are clinical sport psychologists and PhD level sport psychology graduates. Clinical sport psychologists are trained to help athletes cope with any mental issues that they may encounter, which may include things like eating disorders and depression. For those who aspire to teach at the collegiate level or conduct cutting edge research in the field, a PhD in sport psychology is also required.
Unless you expect to pursue the clinical route or a career in academia, a master’s degree in sport psychology is a means to achieving your goals rather than a destination. In other words, a master’s degree in sport psychology will provide you will the skill set you need to be the very best professional version of yourself.
Since many top-tier positions now require a master’s degree, a master’s in sport psychology is an excellent way to level-up your career and elevate yourself over a plateau. The basic steps are easy enough to list but will take time, energy, and grit to complete them all. We will go through the steps below.
- Earn your undergraduate & graduate degree*
- Gain professional experience
- Choose a path and set your goals
- If you find yourself at a plateau, earn your master’s in sport psychology* to get your dream job
- If required, pass certification exams and fulfill licensure requirements
The first step is earning a bachelor’s degree. There are sport psychology bachelor’s programs across the country, but a degree in sport psychology is not a requirement. A bachelor’s in general psychology is a popular option for people breaking into the field. However, a degree in psychology is not always required for a master’s program. A degree in physiology, exercise science, or kinesiology are all viable pre-requisite degrees that will prepare you the the background knowledge needed for a master’s in sport psychology. Check out our guides for bachelor’s degrees in exercise science and kinesiology for more information about those fields.
After that, there are two different schools of thought about the best time to earn your master’s degree in sport psychology. Some students choose to immediately pursue a master’s degree after earning their bachelor’s degree, while others choose to get some experience in the professional world before beginning their graduate degree. There are benefits to both approaches.
On one hand, since many positions in sports and athletics are very competitive, earning a master’s degree as quickly as possible sets you apart from the crowd. However, there is also a great deal to be learned from some real world experience in your field of interest. Whichever path you choose, the key thing is that earning your master’s degree in sport psychology can help you achieve your goals by a) checking the box of a master’s degree – which many sought-after positions now require in sports – and b) preparing you with the skills to succeed as a leader.
Whenever you decide to pursue your master’s degree in sport psychology, it is worth taking your time to consider which school and location are best for you and your career goals. Our comprehensive sport psychology master’s guide is an excellent resource to help narrow and direct your search for the ideal program.
Gaining Professional Experience
The best way to gain professional experience during your degree program is through internships and volunteering. Many colleges and universities have staff dedicated to helping students gain internships in their desired field. If a school requires an internship for graduation, then that is a sign that they have an established internship program and also have systems built in to help students gain internships.
The American Board of Sport Psychology highlights different internship opportunities in the world of sport psychology. The Association of Sport Psychology also has a very thorough manual that serves as a guide to gaining internships. SportsDegreesOnline.org Internship Guide is also a valuable resource.
Those who choose to enter the workforce after earning their bachelor’s degree will naturally have the chance to get plenty of professional experience prior to beginning their master’s degree. Choosing to get experience in the workforce prior to getting your master’s degree can give you a better idea about what type of role and work environment suits you best. If you are able to find the a position with good feedback workplace culture, you can also become aware of your strengths and weaknesses which can be very helpful during your graduate education.
Benefits of a Sport Psychology Degree
For a wide variety of athlete-facing positions – including coaches, counselors, teachers, strength and conditioning coach, mentor, sport rehabilitation specialists – a degree in sport psychology can provide you will the tools and techniques to do your job better. For many, earning a master’s degree can also mean earning more money – so in addition to making you more marketable, the degree may also pay for itself rather quickly. What’s more is that the same sport psychology techniques that help athletes succeed are also very effective at helping people in other professional environments as well.
Another reason why a sport psychology degree is a valuable asset for those working directly with athletes is because of what a big deal mental health issues are for athletes today. With Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles recently having the courage to voice sentiments that have long been hidden from public view, it is clear that we are now in a new era where mental health will be a priority for athletes. Even without earning a PhD and becoming a clinical psychologist, those with a degree in sport psychology can do a great deal to help support their students and athletes.
Sport psychology teaches a variety of techniques including visualization, cognitive restructuring, and deep breathing that can be beneficial for teams and individuals in a wide variety of settings. So while you may be in pursuit of a sport psychology degree to be successful in athletics, you can expect your education to serve you well in other professional contexts as well.
There are paths like exercise psychology where students and academics do research into why people do or do not get enough exercise (amongst other topics). There are academic opportunities as well as corporate opportunities for this type of work and the research coming out of these studies can be quite valuable. Corporations, insurance companies, and even municipal governments often hire exercise psychologists to develop physical activity programs that increase health and wellness. Believe it or not, but the largest employer of sport and performance psychologists is the U.S. Army.
Careers in Sport Psychology
Many professionals can benefit from a sport psychology degree that will allow them to be the best versions of themselves. However, there is also a growing market for those who would like to be true sport psychology professionals, and this field is expected to grow considerably in the coming decade. The APA even considers the field of sport psychology to be a “hot” and growing part of the field. And every time a sport psychologist is credited with helping a professional athlete get over the hump, the field will surely get stronger.
The requirements, salary, and responsibilities vary from job to job. For example, being a clinical psychologist or researcher will require a Ph.D., while other fields like coaching have less stringent academic requirements. What can be said with certainty is that there is plenty of opportunity in this field, and it is growing at a steady rate. According to ZipRecruiter, the the average salary of a sport psycholgist is over $73,000.
Listed here are a few different positions and their requirements for people interested in the field of sport psychology:
- Applied Sport Psychologist
- According to the American Psychology Assocation, “Applied sport psychology is the study and application of psychological principles of human performance in helping athletes consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the sport performance process.” This is a fairly broad definition, and can have loads of applications in the real world. An applied sport psychologist could work in academia researching and teaching the subject, or could work with athletes, teams, business, and other organizations as a cognitive performance specialist. As a specialist, there very well could be research involved, but likely the role is going to be either working directly with athletes and individuals, or creating plans and systems that can support people looking to improve physical and mental health. The level of degree necessary is dependent on the position and workplace.
- Clincial Sport Psychologist
- According to the American Psychological Association, “…clinical psychology is the psychological specialty that provides continuing and comprehensive mental and behavioral health care for individuals and families; consultation to agencies and communities; training, education and supervision; and research-based practice.” When applied to sports and athletes, a clincial sport psychologist examines the athlete on a physical and mental level, and looks to help athletes maximize performance and increase their own mental well being. The No. 1 mental health best practice listed by the NCAA is that “…schools are encouraged to ensure that the mental health care of a college athlete is provided by a licensed individual who is qualified to provide mental health services.” On top of this, many professional teams and amateur teams have positions available for clincial sport psychologists to help ensure that the mental health of athletes is a top priority. Being a licensed psychologist requires advanced degrees and certification which is discussed below.
- Sport Rehabilitation Therapist
- It is becoming increasingly popular for sport psychology to play a role in athlete rehabilitation. According to a 2008 study, “Injury rehabilitation programs that include the use of psychological skills, such as mental imagery and relaxation, may benefit through higher adherence rates and faster recovery times.” (Hamson-Utley, Martin, & Walters, 2008) Depending on your role, there may be specific licensing and education necessary. Being a licensed physical therapist requires a specific degree, as well as passing licensing exams. However, work as an assistant, or being on a team of sport rehabilitation therapists may require only a bachelor’s degree. Higher positions will require more advanced degrees.
- Coaches with a background in sport psychology have an amazing advantage over coaches without such knowledge. It can be a tremendous benefit to athletes if they have a leader who is teaching them both the physical and mental skills. For this role, a bachelor’s may satisfy any education requirements, but the more knowledge you can gain in their arena, the better equipped you will be to be an effective and winning coach.
- Sport Psychologist Professor
- A Phd or very impressive professional experience is required to teach this dynamic topic. For many professors, an academic career is incredibly rewarding. Sharing their passion with the next generation can be incredibly fulfilling. Professors will likely participate in research and thus have a great opportunity to expand the knowledge within the field of sport psychology.
Keep in mind that new opportunities are opening up all the time for sport psychology professionals, according to Charles Brown, PhD. In fact, the industry has already changed a great deal since he shared with the APA years ago:
“Opportunities for sport psychologists aren’t limited to Olympians and elite athletes. Career options are opening up on stages and in boardrooms…. The same mental preparation that helps NBA players sink half-court shots can help an advertising executive land the big account. It’s all about achieving top form and a positive outlook despite setbacks, losses or distractions.” [source]Charles Brown, PhD
Certification and Licensure
Many professional roles in sport psychology require the candidate to be a licensed psychologist. Every state is different, but you can expect that in order to be a licensed psychologist, you need to become licensed through the state board in the state that you want to practice in. Depending on the level of licensure, some boards require candidates to gain a Ph.D., while other boards will grant the proper licensing after a period of supervised work experience, while in other states master’s degree holders are able to gain a title of an associate or assistant counselor or psychologist with a mater’s degree.