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 Overview

According to the American Psychological Association, sport psychology encompasses a range of topics including “motivation to persist and achieve, psychological considerations in sport injury and rehabilitation, counseling techniques with athletes, assessing talent, exercise adherence and well-being, self-perceptions related to achieving, expertise in sport, youth sport and performance enhancement and self-regulation techniques.”

While popular perceptions often presume that sport psychology is only concerned with professional athletics, this specialty area includes a broad range of scientific, clinical and applied topics involving sports and exercise. There are two key areas of interest in sports psychology: understanding how psychology can be applied to improve motivation and performance and understanding how sports and athletics can improve mental health and overall well-being.

Sport psychologists typically perform a range of tasks related to sports performance and education. Some opt to teach at the university level, while others work directly with athletes to increase motivation and enhance performance. Other options include client counseling, scientific research and athletic consulting.

Education

Most college sport psychology programs entail a master’s degree. Robert Morris University (RMU) in Moon Township, Pennsylvania is one of the only undergraduate programs in the United States to offer formalized coursework in the area of psychology. The bachelor’s program explores how psychological factors affect sport performance and how engaging in sport and exercise impacts a person’s physical health and psychological well-being. RMU’s sport psychology curriculum is based within the psychology program. Students take a series of six courses related to psychology, sport, learning, performance, physical activity and nutrition, and development.

Here is a sampling of the RMU curriculum for their 4 year degree program:

  • General Psychology
  • Social and Child Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Argument and Research
  • Applied Psychology
  • Industrial Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Psychology of Sport

One example of a Master’s degree in this field is the one offered by Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. They have a Master of Science in Kinesiology with a Sport Psychology Specialization. The program consists of 36 semester credit hours, including course work in research methods, data analysis, individual and team interventions for performance enhancement, team dynamics, life skills interventions, the psychological aspects of elite performance, and the development of a sport psychology consultation private business.

The University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, offers a Masters of Sport and Performance Psychology (MASPP) which is a 72 credit curriculum. The core courses include Statistics and Research Methodology, Scientific and Professional Ethics, and Human Diversity, to name a few. The next level is the Sport and Performance Psychology Core of 36 credits followed by Electives of 12 credits. This is a partial list of electives:

  • Psychology of Injury
  • Exercise Psychology
  • Applied Motor Learning
  • Scholarly Writing
  • Psychology of Excellence
  • Psychophysiology & Biofeedback

Of course, there are doctoral programs such as those offered at Florida State University and the University of North Texas. North Texas students can choose a specialization in sport psychology within the PhD program in counseling psychology. Requirements include three courses — exercise and sport psychology, social psychology of sport and applied sport psychology — as well as a sport psychology practicum, one research project in sport psychology and a one-year internship.

Employment

Sports are a revenue-generating obsession in our society. Research shows that everything from ticket sales to sporting goods sold generates about $400 billion in revenue annually in the United States. Experts in the field no longer think of peak performance as a natural by-product of practice and physical conditioning. Instead of focusing solely on the physicality of a sport, coaches and managers recognize that athletes need the same sharp mental skills used to compete successfully in business, the arts and in the operating room.

At least 20 NCAA Division I universities have a sport psychologist on staff and another 70 to 100 contract with outside specialists, Goldman adds. This creates ample opportunities in the field of sports psychology at all levels of competition from amateur to professional athletes to Olympians.

Depending on location, estimates indicate that sport psychologists in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year; the highest salaries can exceed $100,000 annually. In private practice, depending on the psychologist’s clients, the salary range can be much higher.