Sports Psychology Careers

For individuals seeking a career in sport psychology  (SP),  there  are  numerous  options  for  those who have earned master’s and doctoral degrees in SP. Most individuals with master’s degrees work in athletic academic advising, as teachers or coaches, as  licensed  professional  counselors  (LPCs)  within certain specialized areas, or go on to pursue a doctoral  degree.  The  two  primary  career  paths  for those  with  doctoral  degrees  are  in  the  clinical  or counseling  psychology  profession  or  in  research and teaching in academia.

A  master’s  degree  in  SP  may  lead  to  one  of five  main  options  (excluding  pursuing  a  doctoral degree).

  1. Athletic academic advising. Most U.S. universities are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). All universities in the NCAA’s Division I are required to operate athletic academic advising entities, which provide academic counseling for their student–athletes. Athletic academic advisers work with student–athletes on course scheduling, study skills, and time management, but may also address a variety of life skills with their student–athletes. The National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics (www is the main professional association for athletic academic advising. An SP’s background is an excellent preparation for this career.
  1. Teaching and coaching. Depending on one’s academic interests (psychology or other areas), an SP degree allows one to work potentially more effectively as a school teacher, coach, or both and may allow for private practice work in performance enhancement consulting. The master’s degree may also potentially increase one’s salary by having obtained a postgraduate degree.
  2. Fitness and performance training for the military. A relatively new and very exciting career route is with the military through the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness–Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program. These individuals work at U.S. Army bases with soldiers to better prepare them for their combat experience, as well as with the soldiers and families when the soldiers return from combat (Wounded Warriors; transitioning back into the community).
  3. Licensed professional counseling. Working as an LPC (termed differently in different states) requires a clinical or counseling psychology master’s level degree. The trained individual is licensed, certified, or accredited, depending on the state, to work within psychology, and get paid, including third-party reimbursement.
  4. Consulting. Positions developed by individuals to suit their skills—niche creation—may include performance enhancement consulting in educational sport psychology work with athletes and recreational sport participants. This could also involve work in a health club or fitness center, in a research position, or as a wellness or life coach. The possibilities are only limited by an individual’s imagination.

sports-psychology-careers-psychology-of-sportCareer  paths  for  holders  of  a  doctoral  degree center on work as a licensed psychologist or work in academia. Obtaining a doctorate, either a doc- tor of philosophy (PhD) or a doctor of psychology (PsyD) degree in clinical or counseling psychology provides  the  clearest  route  toward  becoming  a licensed psychologist and being able to work competently,  ethically,  and  effectively  as  a  sport  psychologist.   Such   individuals   may   be   found   in private  practice  (individual  or  group  practice)  or in  a  more  formal  position.  Individuals  in  private practice  generally  see  clients  across  a  number  of areas within clinical or counseling psychology and develop  the  sport  component  of  their  practice  as an  added  area  of  expertise.  Although  very  few individuals  have  been  able  to  become  sport  psychologists with 100% of their clientele being sport and exercise participants, it remains a possibility. Such  professionals  see  clients,  individually  or  in groups,   for   areas   that   can   encompass   performance-related  skills  such  as  goal  setting,  arousal control, imagery, attentional control, and self-talk but  also  clinical  issues  such  as  eating  disorders, substance abuse, anger management, relationship issues,  and  so  on.  They  may  conduct  workshops on a variety of sport psychology-related topics for teams.  It  is  more  common  for  psychologists  to work with nonsport populations for part of their practice and sport participants for the other part. This may be by choice or because of client demand in the geographical area in which the psychologist practices.

Making  a  living  as  a  psychologist  in  private practice  is  challenging,  and  many  individuals  opt for  more  formal  positions  such  as  in  a  university setting,  perhaps  within  an  athletics  department (there are a limited number of these opportunities), or  more  often,  as  part  of  a  university  or  college counseling  center  working  part  of  the  time  with athletes. There are many different models for how this can work, such as half-time in the counseling center  and  half-time  in  athletics.  The  more  elite positions are those as sport psychologists with the United  States  Olympic  Committee  (there  are  six such positions in the United States, although there are,  of  course,  positions  available  with  Olympic teams  in  other  countries)  or  with  professional teams.  However,  even  though  there  are  hundreds of professional teams across the various sports and levels (including minor leagues), there are very few sport  psychologists  who  have  full-time  positions. More  commonly,  sport  psychologists  in  private practice (or in academia) consult with such teams as needed.

What  qualifies  licensed  clinical  or  counseling psychologists  to  call  themselves  sport  psychologists?  Although  ethical  standards  require  one  to only  work  within  one’s  area(s)  of  competence, some  clinical  or  counseling  psychologists  believe that,  because  they  are  avid  exercise  and  sport participants,  this  automatically  provides  them with  the  expertise  to  work  as  a  sport  psychologist.  However,  although  they  may  be  excellent clinical  or  counseling  psychologists,  there  is  a body  of  knowledge  and  research  that  the  profession of SP believes is necessary to work effectively as a sport psychologist. Division 47 (Exercise and Sport  Psychology)  of  the  American  Psychological Association  is  working  on  guidelines  to  facilitate  developing  one’s  competency  in  SP.  For  the moment,  the  process  of  becoming  a  Certified Consultant  within  the  Association  for  Applied Sport  Psychology  (CC-AASP)  provides  the  clearest  path  for  developing  a  level  of  competency. The  CC-AASP  process  does  not  have  a  clinical or  counseling  focus  but  rather  a  performance- enhancement  focus.  The  CC-AASP  certification process, as well as AASP ethical guidelines, specify the performance enhancement focus of this certification.  Thus,  clinical  or  counseling  psychologists and academic sport psychologists are aware of the limitations and extent of this certification.

There are a few clinical or counseling psychologists  who  work  in  academia,  generally  within psychology departments. The majority of individuals  within  academia  in  SP  are  found  through  the kinesiology route, which is another primary career path  for  those  more  interested  in  an  academic career.  Primarily  within  kinesiology  (or  exercise and sport sciences or physical education or other such names), individuals with doctoral degrees in sport  psychology  from  such  departments  remain within   the   discipline   and   teach   and   conduct research. Many of these individuals have consulting  practices  outside  of  their  primary  job  within academia.  A  few  of  these  positions  are  found  in psychology  departments,  but  these  individuals have  usually  earned  their  degrees  in  psychology departments.  These  academic  sport  psychologists  teach  a  variety  of  SP  related  courses  at  the undergraduate  and  graduate  levels,  and  conduct research across a wide variety of topics within the field. They also engage in service to their university as  well  as  to  the  profession  (becoming  an  officer in a sport psychology organization such as AASP).

Some individuals work as performance psychologists,  some  with  clinical  or  counseling  psychology  degrees  and  many  as  licensed  psychologists, in  occupations  where  performance  is  critical  to success.  These  individuals  may  work  with  companies  such  as  Cirque  du  Soleil,  the  New  York City  Ballet,  Wall  Street  traders,  or  with  medical school students, police, and firefighters. Although this  encyclopedia  focuses  on  sport  psychology,  it should  be  noted  that  many  of  the  skills  learned within  this  field  are  generalizable  across  other performance  settings  and,  depending  on  one’s background,  one  can  find  success  in  these  other performance  domains.  A  number  of  books  are available  by  those  who  have  worked  in  these specialized  settings,  particularly  dance  and  the performing  arts.  This  area  has  become  known as  performance  psychology,  to  acknowledge  the emphasis on performance in general (in a variety of  performance  domains,  especially  the  performing arts) rather than sport per se.

While the focus of many individuals (and most books in the field) is on sport psychology, particularly with high-level and elite athletes, there will be many opportunities in the future for work within exercise  psychology.  Increased  attention  is  being paid to the high prevalence of obesity and sedentariness  in  the  general  public,  and  exercise  psychologists can work effectively within health care settings  to  facilitate  motivation  and  adherence  to exercise  and  physical  activity  and  counteract  this trend,  now  widely  recognized  as  a  public  health issue. These opportunities may come through academia or in private enterprise within health clubs or fitness centers, corporations, insurance companies, and other entities.

Although  there  are  a  few  undergraduate  pro- grams  in  sport  psychology,  the  main  route  to a  career  in  the  field,  as  noted  earlier,  is  through graduate study. To become a clinical or counseling psychologist, the recommended route is to obtain a  PhD  or  PsyD  in  clinical  or  counseling  psychology, either as the next step after one’s undergraduate program or after obtaining a master’s in sport psychology  from  a  kinesiology  department.  The academic  route  generally  finds  individuals  with master’s degrees in kinesiology or clinical or counseling  psychology  followed  by  a  PhD  in  kinesiology, specializing in sport and exercise psychology. These  individuals  often  work  as  performance enhancement consultants.

Deciding on the best career path can be a challenge, although the availability of numerous paths to one’s goal can be advantageous for individuals with a variety of backgrounds. Full descriptions of a  variety  of  educational  programs  are  available, as well as other resources to assist the prospective sport psychologist, including extensive coverage of career opportunities in exercise and sport psychology and personal accounts by professionals in the field (see References:).


  1. Bach, P. L. (2011). Taking the next step: What to ask as you review the directory. In M. L. Sachs, K. L. Burke, & S. L. Schweighardt (Eds.), Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (10th ed., pp. xxv–xxxviii). Indianapolis, IN: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
  2. Hanton, S., & Mellalieu, S. D. (Eds.). (2012). Professional practice in sport psychology: A review. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
  3. Lesyk, J. L. (1998). Developing sport psychology within your clinical practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Sachs, M. L., Burke, K. L., & Schweighardt, S. L. (Eds.). (2011). Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (10th ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
  5. Sachs, M. L., Lutkenhouse, J., Rhodius, A., Watson, J., Pfenninger, G., Lesyk, J. L., et al. (2011). Career opportunities in the field of exercise and sport psychology. In M. L. Sachs, K. L. Burke, & S. L. Schweighardt (Eds.), Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (10th ed., pp. 251–277). Indianapolis, IN: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
  6. Silva, J. M., III, Metzler, J. N., & Lerner, B. (2011). Training professionals in the practice of sport psychology (2nd ed.). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

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