A Sport Psychologist is an individual who has completed a Doctoral degree (e.g., Ph.D., Psy.D.) in the field of psychology, is licensed by the state to practice psychology (LP = Licensed Psychologist) and has additional expertise and training in performance psychology such as: psychological skills training, mental health of athletes, team dynamics in sport settings, psychological factors that influence performance, and assessment of psychological and performance variables. “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. Applied sport psychologists are uniquely trained and specialized to engage in a broad range of activities including the identification, development and execution of the mental and emotional knowledge, skills and abilities required for excellence in athletic domains; the understanding, diagnosing and preventing of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent, excellent performance; and the improvement of athletic contexts to facilitate more efficient development, consistent execution and positive experiences in athletes.” (American Psychological Association Division 47, 2016).
2. What do sport psychologists study in school?
Sport psychology is comprised of two general fields of study: performance psychology and counseling/clinical psychology. Performance psychology emphasizes the use of mental skills training (e.g., focus training, goal setting, imagery, energy management, self-talk) and works to educate clients on how to use these skills effectively during performance. To provide performance enhancement services, an individual’s graduate training will often include coursework in kinesiology, exercise physiology and/or sport science, but does not include extensive training in counseling/clinical psychology, therefore individuals solely trained in performance psychology are not licensed psychologists; however they will often seek certification by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) as a certified consultant.
Clinical/Counseling psychology applies complex psychological theories to counseling interventions with performers/athletes and focuses on personal development, well-being, and treating psychological problems such as stress, depression/anxiety, relationship issues, substance abuse, disordered eating, or other mental health concerns. Clinical and counseling sport psychologists are licensed by law, and are therefore legally allowed to use the term “psychologist” in their title. Terms such as “psychological” or “psychology” are also protected terms in the state of Minnesota to licensed psychology professionals. While these individuals are trained in graduate psychology programs, many obtain additional education and training in performance psychology and do practicums in sport and exercise settings. They too can seek additional certification by (AASP) as a certified consultant.
Professionals within sport psychology are often licensed psychologists, other licensed mental health professionals, or kinesiologists/exercise scientists who are frequently certified consultants by a sport psychology organization (e.g., AASP) or can demonstrate comparable training to meet a similar certification requirement. The field is complex in this way and does not have one training model to reflect competency. People without these credentials who claim to offer sport psychology services may not have received proper training or supervision in the field, and thus may not be able to provide quality service. Anyone seeking consultations should always ask about the professional’s credentials, education, consulting experience, clientele, and current membership in professional organizations.
3. Who can call themselves a sport psychologist?
Each professional possesses a specific set of skills that defines the scope of his or her competencies. There are many providers that call themselves “mental game coaches,” “sport consultants,” and “high performance coaches,” but none of these individuals are sport psychologists. In order to be called a sport psychologist, an individual must be licensed to practice psychology in the state in which they work AND they must meet the American Psychological Association-Division 47 “Proficiency in Sport Psychology” educational and training standards (see APA-DIV 47 standards). They may also choose to seek additional certification by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), but this is NOT required.
Is the individual licensed to practice psychology? In Minnesota, they need to be licensed by the Minnesota Board of Psychology.
Did the individual receive specialized training in sport psychology AND counseling/clinical psychology as demonstrated by graduate and post-graduate work, training, supervised practicum experiences, degree and licensure? Ask the professional to see proof of licensure and/or references to check professional training background.
It varies! Sport psychologists are well-trained to work in applied settings as both performance-enhancement consultants as well as mental health counselors, and most of the time the work heavily overlaps. They can teach mental skills, conduct research, work with team/coaches/athletic staff, present or lead workshops, teach, or do program development to name a few. Sport psychologists can work in private practice, at universities, for sport organizations, in counseling centers, for healthcare systems, or in the military, among many other settings.
5. What does a typical day look like?
It really depends on the setting in which you work. For our sport psychologists, we work in private practice at Premier Sport Psychology, in several athletic departments, with USA national teams at their training centers, and with professional teams in their facilities … so we end up doing a lot of different things. We also go to a lot of clubs and high schools for presentations and workshops. In general, we provide a lot of individual sport psychology sessions to a wide variety of athletes/performers/business professionals, as well as working with sport teams and coaches. For example, we may work with a 9-year-old swimmer afraid to compete, a 45-year-old triathlete who wants to be mentally tougher, a 14-year-old gymnast with a mental block, a professional hockey player dealing with anger on the ice, or an Olympian wanting to mentally prepare for the Games. An entire day can be full of sport psychology sessions with athletes/performers; however we also do a lot of presentations on sport psychology topics at local and national conferences, for medical organizations, and private teams/clubs. We conduct research in sport psychology, receive grant funding and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals. As licensed psychologists, we also provide mental health services including psychological counseling, triage, and assessment; consultation on multidisciplinary treatment teams; and education/supervision/teaching. We have long hours! Many sport psychologists work weekends as well, in order to attend sporting events and accommodate athletes/performers’ schedules.
6. What do you find most challenging about the field?
The field is not well defined, and thus, there are many individuals who will advertise themselves as “sport psychologists” who are not. It’s difficult to have to compete in a profession with individuals with much less training or no training because the hiring individual does not know what to look for in a competent sport psychology professional. Also, the field is young, so you will find that you sometimes have to educate teams/athletes/coaches/sport groups that you have a valuable service that can be useful. The field is growing, but there are very few actual jobs posted and advertised in the field, so many individuals upon graduation have to work hard for a position or get creative in “paving” their own path or creating a position for themselves. Many hold a primary job in teaching or research and provide applied sport psychology services on the side.
7. If I want to become a sport psychologist, where do I start?
It is often recommended to obtain an undergraduate degree in psychology or kinesiology/exercise science in order to meet requirements for graduate schools. It will be useful to acquire some research experience as well.
There are different training avenues you can pursue in the field of sport psychology that will allow you to work in different capacities. You will likely need to decide which general direction you want to take when applying to graduate programs. Remember, if you choose clinical/counseling psychology, you will be trained as a mental health provider first and foremost, with specialized focus on performance psychology, whereas if you choose kinesiology, you will be trained in sport & exercise science and will not be trained as a mental health provider. So, consider which you are most interested in.
Kinesiology/Exercise Science – Ph.D or M.A.
Clinical/Counseling/Educational Psychology – Psy.D. or Ph.D.
8. As a student, what kind of experience should I be trying to get?
As far as experience goes, working with athletes of any level will help you along the road, as will doing research at your university. Reach out to various sport psychologists and firms for advice and to see if they have any internships—many will post information on their websites. In order to find sport psychologists, quick Google searches will take you a long way, and check out AASP’s (Association for Applied Sport Psychology) website.
9. Interested in applying to graduate school for a career in sport psychology?
You can also email a student at a current graduate program to learn more about the field or that specific program. Check out this database of graduate student mentors. The list contains graduate students who are willing to help undergraduates and new members to the field become more involved.