Athletic coaches focus on how to help athletes master the physical aspects of a particular sport, while sports psychologists focus instead on helping athletes improve their mental game. Sports psychologists help both amateur and professional athletes achieve their goals by focusing on the necessary mental skills needed to excel. The field of sports psychology is multidisciplinary and requires a broad base of knowledge spanning psychology, sports science and medicine.
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What Does a Sports Psychologist Do?
On the Surface
A sports psychologist uses a multitude of tools to help athletes take their game to the next level. They use a variety of applied psychological techniques, including scientific research, observation and assessment. Sports psychologists can have a wide variety of clients, whether high school, college or professional teams, to working with individuals, from children to adults.
A sports psychologist uses applied psychology methods to help athletes who struggle with anxiety and lose focus, who have lost their motivation and drive, or who may have trouble communicating with teammates, or with controlling their temper.
A sports psychologist is a licensed psychologist with the skills, knowledge, and experience to work with athletes, teams, coaches and sports organizations. A sports psychologist can be hired by a professional sports organization, secondary or post-secondary schools or by individual athletes. Sports psychologists can also teach at the college level. They study the nature of human behavior in the sports environment in addition to the benefits of mental training on enhancing sports performance.
As a psychology subspecialty, sports psychology seeks to study, understand and improve the psychological factors involved in helping athletes achieve optimal performance. Even when athletes may have the physical skills to perform well on the field, there are multiple factors that may impact their performance. They might be nervous after returning from an injury, they may be stressed about the big game or they may have a tendency to choke under pressure.
Sports psychologists spend years training to identify and treat a wide range of performance barriers such as fear, slumps and difficulty concentrating. They help athletes and teams develop a comprehensive strategic plan to control nervousness, distraction and anxiety, establish a directed focus and increase self-confidence and self-esteem. These psychologists can offer one-on-one mental training consultations and counseling, small group educational workshops as well as neuropsychological testing. Some clients may benefit from being tested for ADD/ADHD or other learning disorders in order to improve a client’s focus and concentration.
Athletic teams as a whole can often benefit from the resources of an effective sports psychologist. The psychologist can help a team improve their chemistry, trust and cohesion, help team members develop their leadership skills, prepare for major competitions and address performance challenges that may affect the group, such as anxiety and concentration problems. Relationship issues with coaches, team members and other support systems can also be addressed and resolved with the help of the sports psychologist.
Sports psychologists can operate within the military as a Performance Enhancement Specialists or PESs. In this setting, sports psychologists are hired to work with soldiers and their families. They can help soldiers learn how to break down mental barriers on the battlefield and build resilience in the face of adversity. Their families face difficult struggles as well — whether preparing for their loved one to go on yet another deployment or helping them cope with trauma. The PESs also work with combat units to teach team building skills, energy management, imagery management, and other performance-related skills.
Sports psychologists help their clients maximize their performances, increase concentration and focus and reach personal and professional goals they only dreamed of achieving.
Steps to Becoming a Sports Psychologist
Pursuing a sports psychology degree requires in-depth study of both psychology and physical education. An enthusiasm for sports and athletic performance is expected.
While you may be able to launch a career with just a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, the majority of sports psychologists hold a doctorate in sports psychology or counseling-related field.
1Education – You will need to pursue a psychology doctorate, typically a PhD at an accredited counseling psychology program with sports psychology as their specialization.
2Practicum – Most schools and licensing local sports organizations require field research. You may work with a youth sports club or a high school athletics team.
3Licensing – Doctoral program graduates will be eligible for licensure as a psychologist.
4Certification – Licensed psychologists can apply for certification as a sports consultant through the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.
Skills Required to Become a Sports Psychologist
1An interest in understanding highly differentiated skillsets needed and challenges faced by athletes in dozens of different sports.
2An aptitude for solving multi-faceted and often complex problems facing athletes, from motivation to rehabilitation to leadership and team building.
3Love for travel – If you work with college or professional athletes you need to be where the action is and that may mean across the state or around the world.
4A strong ethical framework is necessary when having to balance the needs of athletes with the sometimes competing needs of the team.
5Thorough assessment skills are critical to identifying, diagnosing and treating issues affecting performance.
6Ability to learn and incorporate a wide variety of treatment modalities, from self-hypnosis to guided imagery and more.
Sports Psychology Degree Options
Your academic career will begin with a Bachelor’s degree, typically in psychology. Undergraduate psychology courses focus mostly on the biochemical and biological basis of behavior and mental function. Business and marketing classes are also recommended, as many sports psychologists operate independent practices.
At the Master’s level you will likely be pursuing a sports psychology degree that includes coursework on how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, kinesiology and recovery. Classes provide you with an extensive understanding of the psychology of human movement and performance, particularly as related to sports and exercise contexts.
You will need to earn a counseling psychology doctorate with an elective cluster focused on sports and exercise psychology. Your coursework will focus on sports psychology, social psychology of sports and applied sports psychology — and may include a sports psychology practicum, a research project in sports psychology and/or an internship.
Sports Psychologist Salaries: State by State
While you may get an opportunity to help your favorite professional football team win the Super Bowl or guide an Olympic athlete to a gold medal, most sports psychologists work in more sedate settings. Many sports psychologists work with high school and college level athletes and teams.
Pay ranges vary considerably within sports psychology based on training, education, and area of specialization. Scott Goldman, PhD, director of clinical and sports psychology at the University of Arizona, estimates that sports psychologists who work in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year. There are some college salaries that exceed $100,000 per year, though those salaries tend to be linked to schools with football or basketball teams that generate significant income.
Pay ranges can vary considerably within sports psychology based on training, education, and area of specialization. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook released by the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wage in May 2014 for psychologists was $70,700. Some top sports psychologists working for professional athletes earn six-figure salaries, but those positions are hard to find.
In an interview for the American Psychological Association, Mark Aoyagi, PhD, director of sports and performance psychology at the University of Denver suggests that salaries for those in private practice vary significantly. Aoyagi observes that sports psychologists often service niche clients who pay for services themselves. “There is no ceiling to how much you can make, but there is no floor, either,” he says.
Job Growth and Career Trends
Employment of psychologists is estimated to grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is significantly faster than the average for all other occupations.
Earnings for sports psychologists vary by location and position. Sports psychologists working for professional sports organizations typically achieve the highest income.