Professional Training

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.

Undergraduate Training

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.

Graduate Training

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.

Continuing Education

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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  2. 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.). Madison, WI: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
  3. Cox, R. H. (2011). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Lesyk, J. J. (1998). Developing sport psychology within your clinical practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. McCullagh, P., Noble, J. M., &Portenga, S. (in press). Education in sport and exercise psychology. In J. L. Van Raalte & B. W. Brewer (Eds.), Exploring sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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