Sports Psychology

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Sports psychologists study the link between psychology and sports and how it influences athletic performance, physical activity and exercise. Often, they work together with coaches and professional athletes, trying to increase motivation and improve performance. Others look at how sports is a tool to increase overall health and well being. Another field of interest is sports addiction.

What We Do

A sports psychologist may be involved in a variety of different tasks. These include:

  • Working with athletes who feel they have a problem in their performance caused by mental instability. For instance, they may become anxious before a competition, causing them to lose focus. Alternatively, they may struggle to control their temper, to communicate with team mates or to motivate themselves. Some may freeze at key moments during a game.
  • Working with athletes to increase overall performance by using tools such as self-talk, visualization and relaxation in order to achieve full potential and overcome obstacles.
  • Helping athletes cope with the pressure that comes with competition. Pressure is placed on athletes by coaches, parents, themselves, and their fans.
  • Helping athletes to recover from an injury. Athletes often struggle to cope with pain, but they also find it very difficult to have to be inactive for a period of time.
  • Designing exercises programs that allow athletes to fulfill their goals, so long as these are realistic. These include increasing motivation and addressing various concerns.
  • Increasing enjoyment in sports across the board, working not just with professional athletes but also with children and young people, or with population groups who struggle to take part in regular physical exercise. This often also involves increasing self-esteem.
  • Working within organizations to use sports-related disciplines, such as mental rehearsing, visualization, relaxation and cognitive restructuring, to increase performance and productivity.

Why It’s Hot

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for psychologists was $69,280 in May 2012. They have not created a specific category for sports psychologists. However, it is a growing field with high demand, particularly for those who have a Specialization, like sports psychology. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Competitive sports is a true field of work, which means athletes require specialized mental health treatment as well.
  • As sports are more and more in the public eye, athletes need to learn coping strategies to deal with fame.
  • The stigma on mental health is being broken, which means it is becoming far more acceptable to seek help with specific mental health issues. Within sports psychology, this is becoming more prevalent, for instance with people who suffer from anxiety or eating disorders.

Work Environment

As a sports psychologist, you can get to work in a variety of different settings. These include:

  • Research facilities, where you will study athletes and find out what motivates them to push past their own barriers, and why they so badly want to be a winner. You can use this information to help athletes break through obstacles and perform better overall. The research you do can then be used by others in counseling and therapy.
  • Working directly with athletes to offer them counseling in a variety of different areas. Athletes are people too, and they have family problems, money worries and other personal issues. They may have confidence problems, issues with their body image or low self-esteem. Additionally, you will be able to provide counseling in cases of burnout or performance anxiety.
  • Working with teams, delivering group therapy and group motivational sessions. This teaches team members how to work together, which will increase the likelihood of winning.
  • Working with coaches to identify problems in individual athletes. You will offer an opportunity for anybody to talk without being judged for their feelings. By then communicating with coaches, you ensure they are able to best support those in their teams, reducing anxiety. This includes teaching visualization techniques, relaxation exercises, methods to tune out distraction and more.
  • Working with injured or retired athletes. Very often, leaving a sports career behind has tremendous negative effects on mental health. This is also due to the fact that exercise releases endorphins, which is an addictive hormone. When no longer able to exercise, an athlete may feel extreme stress and anxiety. In the case of injuries, it may be possible that athletes are told their career is over, which is difficult to accept on an emotional level.

How to Do It

In order to become a sports psychologist, you must first complete a four year bachelor’s degree in psychology. After that, you can major in sports psychology during a two year master’s program. In almost every state, you will need to obtain a doctorate degree in order to be able to practice as a psychologist. You have two options to choose from.

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Firstly, you can choose the Ph.D., which generally takes around five years to complete. This will allow you to become a university lecturer, or to work in research. The other option is the Psy.D., which will prepare you to work in direct service delivery, working with athletes and coaches. It generally takes around three years to complete a Psy.D.

Whether your choose the Ph.D. or the Psy.D., you should make sure that the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Furthermore, it is usually better to choose a program that includes a residency or internship. This is because you will also need to complete supervised professional experience and some of this (usually half of the full requirement) can be completed while you study towards your doctorate. The other half must be completed after graduation.

The final step is to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). This is a national test delivered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). It consists of 225 multiple choice questions that cover the eight core areas of psychology. To pass, you must answer at least 70% correctly. The current cost of the EPPP is $600, although this is subject to change.

Pros & Cons

There are a number of clear advantages and disadvantages to becoming a sports psychologist. In terms of the advantages:

  • You have a very large choice of different employment opportunities.
  • It is a rewarding career in which you will be able to truly help people.
  • You could get to work with famous athletes.

However, there are also some clear disadvantages:

  • The educational pathway is very long.
  • The best paid jobs, which are available through professional sports teams, are highly competitive.
  • You will have to deal with real emotional trauma, which can be very hard to cope with.
  • You may have to travel a lot, which can make it difficult to also have family time.

Career Path

You can work in many different settings doing many different things as a sports psychologist. In most cases, however, you will work within some sort of organization or facility that works with athletes of any age and background. Some of these facilities include:

  • Schools and colleges, where you can work with student athletes and particularly those that have been granted admission based on a sports scholarship.
  • Professional sports teams and athletes.
  • Hospitals, gyms or physical rehabilitation centers, where you will most likely work with athletes who have sustained certain injuries.
  • Private practices, where you can deliver tailored services to different athletes, as well as consultancy services and advice.

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