Individuals preparing for a career in sport and exercise psychology (SEP) have traditionally followed one of two educational paths, training in kinesiology or training in psychology. In keeping with most international credentialing guidelines for certification or licensure of SEP professionals, both educational paths typically feature substantial coursework in the other discipline, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Retraining is possible for established professionals in either discipline who wish to specialize in SEP. Continuing education is available to help SEP professionals stay abreast of the latest developments in the field. Taking into account the roles that they wish to fulfill in the field of SEP, prospective professionals can choose the training options that best match their career goals.
Professional Practice in SEP
SEP professionals have been identified as performing research, educational, and clinical or counseling functions. These three functions encompass a wide range of professional activities. The research function is generally performed within colleges, universities, and other academic institutions by doctoral-level professionals who examine such topics as psychological factors affecting sport performance, motivation to engage in sport and exercise activities, coping with stress, group and team dynamics for athletes and exercisers, psychological skills training for sport and exercise, and psychological effects of sport and exercise. In addition to conducting research, professionals occupying the research role are likely to teach undergraduate and graduate courses.
The educational function involves using educational approaches to enhance the experience, performance, and outcomes of sport and exercise involvement. In this, the most versatile of the three primary functions, professionals with master’s and doctoral degrees apply psychological principles and methods to address performance-related issues in a variety of settings, such as academic institutions, military environments, youth sport academies, health maintenance organizations, and private consulting firms.
The clinical function involves providing services to sport populations and exercise participants for subclinical or clinical issues. Professionals who perform the clinical function generally have a graduate degree (a doctorate in some countries but a master’s degree in many other countries) in clinical or counseling psychology, licensure or registration (depending on the country) appropriate for the provision of clinical services, and specialized training in SEP. Among the sorts of issues addressed through the clinical function are mental disorders (such as anorexia nervosa and dependence on performance-enhancing substances, which can be directly intertwined with physical activity), and subclinical syndromes (such as adjustment reactions to injury and other life stressors) that can have a profound impact on sport and exercise involvement. Professional activities within the clinical function may include prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders in sport populations as well as enhancement activities, such as career development or life skills programming, more traditionally associated with counseling psychology. Some professionals use exercise as a therapeutic technique with their clients.
It is important to note that the three primary professional functions in SEP are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Professionals may perform multiple functions across clients or with a single client, as in the case of a professional who works with a client on a clinical issue, uses an educational approach for performance enhancement, and documents the work in a case study. Also, there are professional activities in SEP that do not fall neatly within the three primary functions, for example, talking with the media, but are nevertheless within the realm of professional practice in SEP.
Paths to Professional Practice in SEP
Given the diverse array of activities that constitute professional practice in SEP, it is not surprising that there are multiple paths that people aspiring to become SEP professionals can take. Beginning with undergraduate education and proceeding through graduate education, possible retraining, and continuing education, SEP professionals-intraining face numerous choices and options on the way to launching their careers in the field.
Opportunities for specialized training in SEP at the undergraduate level vary considerably around the world. At some Asian universities, students can enroll in undergraduate degree programs in sport psychology. At some universities in Europe and Australia, students can pursue advanced study in SEP as part of their undergraduate honors degree. In much of the world (including North America), however, most colleges and universities do not offer an undergraduate major in SEP, and the bachelor’s degree is not generally considered a terminal degree in SEP. Consequently, in regions where there is no specialized undergraduate training in SEP, undergraduate education can be thought of as a means of preparing prospective SEP professionals for graduate school. The undergraduate paths trod most commonly on the way to graduate school in SEP are majors in kinesiology (also known as sport science, physical education, human movement studies, human kinetics, health and human performance, and exercise science) and psychology. Although it is most common for students to select one major or the other, some students double major in kinesiology and psychology or major in one discipline and minor in the other.
The content of undergraduate kinesiology curricula varies widely, with some universities adopting a liberal arts approach in which students are exposed to a broad base of courses across the discipline and other universities maintaining a professional career-based approach in which students receive training in a subdiscipline of kinesiology (e.g., athletic training, cardiac rehabilitation, strength and conditioning) that prepares them for a specific career. In either type of program, students who pursue an undergraduate degree in kinesiology can expect to take courses in general subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology, as well as discipline-specific subjects such as biomechanics, exercise physiology, motor learning, SEP, and sport sociology. Such coursework not only helps prepare students for graduate study in SEP but also can be counted toward requirements for certification as a SEP consultant in some countries.
Students enrolled in undergraduate psychology programs generally sample broadly from major subareas in the discipline. Common course offerings include surveys of introductory psychology, social psychology, experimental psychology, abnormal psychology, physiological psychology, sensation and perception, personality psychology, developmental psychology, applied psychology, health psychology, history of psychology, research methods, and statistics. Aside from the occasional specialty course, SEP does not typically figure prominently in undergraduate psychology education. Students wishing to augment their training in the fundamentals of psychology with coursework in SEP are sometimes able to do so by taking classes offered through departments of kinesiology.
Because a graduate degree is the terminal degree for SEP in most of the world, it is important for students to align their choice of degree program with the activities they wish to perform as professionals (and the degree requirements corresponding to the certification or licensure criteria for engaging in those activities). Students seeking to be involved primarily in SEP research activity are typically best served by earning a doctorate in kinesiology, as SEP research and coursework do not regularly receive strong support in academic departments of psychology. Students interested in activities associated with the educational function in SEP can benefit from graduate training in either kinesiology or psychology, as long as the graduate program in which they enroll is receptive to the students’ applied interests and affords the students opportunities to partake in relevant coursework and supervised practical experiences. Students wishing to perform the clinical function in SEP, almost without exception, choose to pursue graduate study (either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, depending on local professional and legal standards) in clinical or counseling psychology and augment their training with SEP coursework and supervised experience. Although it is not mandatory for students to have completed an undergraduate degree in the same field as their intended graduate degree, they may be more competitive in the application process if they have done so and may be required to complete undergraduate coursework in the field of their graduate degree if they are admitted into a graduate program in a field not corresponding to their undergraduate degree.
Graduate study in kinesiology with a concentration in SEP is similar to undergraduate study in kinesiology except that the specialization in SEP and the emphasis on research are likely to be more pronounced. Degree requirements typically include coursework in general research methods and statistics; discipline-specific, such as exercise physiology, motor control, motor development, motor control, sport history, and sport sociology; and concentration-specific, such as applied sport psychology, exercise psychology, and sport psychophysiology courses. Supervised and independent research on specific topics in SEP is also a central feature of most SEP master’s and doctoral programs in kinesiology. Graduate SEP programs in kinesiology departments vary widely in terms of their acceptance of and emphasis on applied SEP, so prospective students aspiring to do applied work are advised to investigate this aspect prior to enrolling in a given program.
Similar to graduate study in kinesiology, graduate study in psychology is more specialized than its undergraduate counterpart. Among students in graduate psychology departments interested in SEP, most enroll in clinical or counseling psychology programs. Some students with research interests in SEP pursue degrees in developmental, experimental, industrial or organizational, or social psychology, but these students do not receive training to perform the clinical function in SEP. Graduate psychology degree requirements may include courses on biological bases of behavior, cognitive and affective aspects of behavior, social aspects of behavior, history and systems of psychology, psychological measurement and assessment, research methods, techniques of data analysis, and concentration-specific topics. For students in clinical and counseling psychology programs, training and supervised practica in counseling and psychotherapy are prominent components of graduate study. Supervised and independent research also tend to be salient aspects of graduate programs in psychology. Among doctoral programs, the extent to which research is the emphasized aspect of the program is influenced to a large degree by whether the program awards a doctor of philosophy (PhD, research-oriented) or doctor of psychology (PsyD, practice-oriented) to students who complete degree requirements.
Sometimes, people who have completed a terminal degree in kinesiology, psychology, or a related field and worked in their profession for a period of time develop an interest in SEP and wish to shift their professional focus to become more involved in SEP. For these individuals, retraining may be required to enable them to achieve competence in the professional practice of SEP and satisfy credentialing requirements in SEP. Retraining typically involves some combination of independent study, coursework, and supervised practice. In cases where there is a large gulf between the credentials of professionals and the requirements of the certifying or licensing body in SEP, professionals may need to undertake another degree to acquire the requisite knowledge, skills, and academic background.
Professional training in SEP does not end with the receipt of a degree or completion of an internship. The knowledge base is continually expanding with advancements in the science and practice of SEP. Credentialing bodies in SEP recognize the need for professionals to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field and build continuing education into the process of certification and licensure. It is common for professional organizations to offer continuing education programs, sometimes in workshop format in conjunction with annual meetings and sometimes in the form of home study using text and video materials. Regular enrollment in continuing education offerings provides professionals with the opportunity to keep current and hone their skills while maintaining their career development trajectory.
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