Have you have ever marveled over an athlete’s ability to stay completely focused in the pursuit of a win, or witnessed a sports team working synergistically to bring about a celebrated victory? Then you might be interested in a career in sports psychology. Sport psychologists work behind the scenes with players, teams, and coaches to increase performance using motivating techniques, creative visualization and goal attainment strategies. Some sport psychologists may also work in corporate settings with elite business leaders, or work in specialized niches, as in the case of working and traveling with an Olympic team.
Sports psychology looks at how the psychological and mental effects of being an athlete influence that athlete’s performance. Sports psychologists use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help athletes work through an injury or setback. Athletes participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics used aspects of sports psychology training to succeed in their events. One of the most famous faces in the Olympics, Michael Phelps, has spent most of his life being trained by Bob Bowman who is not only a swim coach, but also a sports psychologist.
Coaches do apply these practices as well, but a trained sports psychologist is often better able to get to the athlete's underlying issues the athlete. The sports psychologist also works with coaches to help them learn the techniques.
“Athletes, coaches and team directors are starting to realize that the top six inches of the body matter just as much as the rest. And they need the mind to work as optimally as the body for top performance,” said sports psychologist Matthew Cunliffe in an interview for Quartz.
Sports psychologists will either end up researching or counseling athletes. Researching involves observation of athletes to discover reasons for motivation, or ways to enhance performance. A sports psychologist may work with an individual, or with entire teams. They could find themselves employed by a professional team, a college, a hospital or may start their own private practice.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide data specifically about sports psychologists, but employment in the field of psychology is expected to grow by 19% from 2014-2024. In 2015, the average salary for a psychologist was $72,580. Actual salary may vary based on experience and education, as well as location and place of employment. Many sports psychologists are self-employed or work as consultants, so they typically have a flexible schedule.
Education and Training
Fully certified sport psychologists hold Ph.D. degrees from a regionally accredited institution of higher education. This highest level of degree requires a total of at least five years of higher education above and beyond the usual four year bachelor's degree. Because sport psychologists need to have a broad background in exercise science or kinesiology as well as psychology, professionals in this field hold multiple degrees with specialties that match a particular niche. Multiple internships, fellowships and volunteer experiences are expected in order to build an impressive and competitive résumé in this field.
The American Board of Sport Psychology offers a variety of credentials for professionals at the Masters and Ph.D. level. Coaches, athletes, and professionals in healthcare management related to sport, such as physical therapists, may seek certification to show competence in a subset of knowledge related to sport psychology. See American Board of Sport Psychology.
Employers may offer tuition assistance making it more affordable for students with a four year bachelor's degree in psychology or kinesiology to continue on a sport psychology career path. There are many supporting roles in sport psychology such as administrative assistants, trainer and coaching assistants, research assistants in academic studies, and team assistant managers.
The field of sport psychology often attracts high-energy individuals who have an authentic connection to the philosophy of sport and can motivate a team to work in unison to achieve group goals. The sport psychologist is part of the whole group of individuals that supports a team, such as the coaches, trainers, and physicians, and as such needs to be a team player in that regard. A person with an extremely individualistic personality may find the constant focus on teamwork a challenge.
Remaining positive and patient is just as important as securing a great education through an accredited college or university. Travel is often a requirement when working with elite teams and athletes, which may be a factor and should be considered when choosing a particular career path. Internships, volunteering, and extensive experience are necessary for top positions.
Other required skills for sports psychologists include:
Is a Career in Sport Psychology Right for Me?
For career changers and students alike, pursuing a career path in sport psychology or a related discipline can be an exciting opportunity. Working alongside top trainers, coaches, and athletes requires a team vision and impeccable skills. The work is rewarding and the lifestyle can be glamorous, which attracts many into the field. Teachers, behavioral analysts, and physical therapists are just a few of the careers which could merge nicely into a supportive sport psychology job with additional training and experience.
With a number of supporting roles available in sport psychology, career changers can obtain additional training through online coursework while still engaging in a steady job with full time hours. Seeking volunteer or internship opportunities through a professional organization such as the American Board of Sport Psychology or through a resource website such as Work in Sports can provide incredible résumé boosting experience. Meaningful and extensive experience is needed to increase the chances of competing for the best jobs.
The wide world of sports is exciting, engaging, and can be lucrative for those working alongside coaching and trainers to support the team of their choice in the thrill of victory as well as in the agony of defeat. With the right education, training and experience, professionals in this elite field can enjoy longevity in a thrilling sports environment for decades to come.
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