Master’s Degrees in Sports Psychology

In 1974, a California-born spiritualist who’d been a captain of Harvard University’s tennis team leapt to the top of the New York Times best-seller list with a book called The Inner Game of Tennis. Its premise was fairly simple: physical training and innate talent were certainly important in athletic performance, but mental focus, confidence, and other similar psychological factors were equally if not more crucial to competing at an optimal level, both for competitive professionals and casual everyday players. The author, W. Timothy Gallwey, would go on to write several more “Inner Game” guides that addressed skiing, golf, and then winning in general. By 2000, he’d translated what he’d learned on the tennis court into life lessons: The Inner Game of Work came out that year, followed by The Inner Game of Stress in 2009.

Not surprisingly, in the midst of all this inner gaming, the American Psychological Association (APA) responded to the surging interest in the mental side of competition by establishing a new division dedicated to exploring the intersection between sports and psychology. The Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, officially Division 47 of the APA, was created in 1986, with a mandate to, “further the clinical, educational and scientific foundations of exercise and sport psychology.” In fact, as a formal area of specialization within the larger profession, sports psychology has become an integral part of how athletes train and prepare for competition. But the mind/body link between physical and mental health has also led to broader applications of the principles that underlie sport psychology, in schools, in the business world, and in everyday life. Sports psychologists work with professional and amateur athletes, and with coaches, team managers, and athletic trainers. But they also consult and counsel business professionals, marketing managers, and other individuals who face competitive challenges in life.

Master’s in Sports Psychology Concepts

  • Performance enhancement
  • Individual motivation
  • Team motivation
  • Injury recovery
  • Stress management
  • Help coaches
  • Help physical educators
  • Lifespan development
  • Psychological learning theories
  • Biological basis of behavior
  • Principles of sport psychology
  • Goal setting
  • Self-monitoring
  • Improving consistency
  • Social and community factors
  • Protocol for working with schools, communities, and professional organizations

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Sports Psychology

As recently as November of 2012, the APA’s gradPSYCH magazine ran a story spotlighting sports psychology as a “Hot Career.” Subtitled “From Olympic champions to weekend warriors, athletes of all levels are hiring sport psychologists to give them a mental edge,” the piece pointed out that, “the U.S. sports market — everything from ticket sales for major league games to equipment sold in sporting goods stores — generates $400 billion in revenue in a typical year,” and included a telling quote from Mark Aoyagi, PhD, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver: “We believe the field really is performance psychology. This isn’t specific to sports, even though it developed from sports.”

A master’s degree in sports psychology offers the opportunity to combine a deep interest in competitive sports, exercise, and physical activity with the scientific study of the human mind and behavior. In this sense, it’s a hybrid field that draws on the theories, research practices, and counseling techniques of psychology, and on the health sciences of physiology, kinesiology, and biomechanics. At its core, sports psychology rests on the scientific study of how people respond both physically and mentally to stress, competition, and other psychological challenges, and the application of techniques that may include setting goals, mindfulness training, mental imaging, and other therapeutic techniques to optimize performance. Training in sports psychology can lead to careers at all levels in the competitive world of sports, as well as in fields like education and healthcare.

What to Expect in a Sports Psychology Master’s Program

Most master’s degree programs in psychology, including a master’s in sports psychology, are designed to be completed in about two years. This can vary from program to program, depending on requirements such as supervised internships, and research and thesis projects. Because state licensure to practice professionally as a psychologist requires a doctoral degree, master’s programs in sports psychology won’t necessarily be geared toward passing the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards’ Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). However, the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AAPS) does offer provisional certifications to candidates who have earned a master’s degree. So it’s worth looking into how well an individual program prepares students to enter doctoral programs in sports psychology and/or apply for provisional AAPS certification, which we’ll discuss further below.

The APA stresses three key areas of specialized competency in sports psychology: 1) Psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes; 2) Developmental and social aspects of sports participation; 3) Systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations. This is further broken down into seven areas of study:

  • Theory and research in social, historical, cultural and developmental foundations of sport psychology
  • Issues and techniques of sport specific psychological assessment and mental skills training for performance enhancement and participation satisfaction
  • Clinical and counseling issues with athletes
  • Organizational and systemic aspects of sport consulting
  • Developmental and social issues related to sport participation
  • Biobehavioral bases of sport and exercise (e.g., exercise physiology, motor learning, sports medicine)
  • Specific knowledge of training science and technical requirements of sport and competition (i.e., International Olympic Committee and NCAA rules and regulations)

In terms of courses you can expect to take as part of a master’s in sports psychology, they will also vary from program to program. But here are some typical course names and descriptions:

  • Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods: How research is modeled and applied in professional psychology, including the design, implementation, and analysis methods for social and behavioral science experiments.
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Sports Psychology: A guide to best practices in the field of sports psychology, including client confidentiality, and the legal implications of organizational rules and regulations.
  • Psychopathology and Assessment: Theories of psychological dysfunction, including assessment and treatment protocols.
  • Cognitive, Biological, and Affective Bases of Behavior: Theories of how thinking, perception, and biochemistry impact behavior and performance.
  • Kinesiology: The biomechanical, physiological, and psychological components of human movement and physical performance.
  • Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention: The uses of psychology in improving athletic performance and minimizing injury risks in sports.
  • Social and Historical Issues in Sports: An overview of the role sports plays and has played in society over time.
  • Counseling Techniques in Sports Psychology: Theories of psychological counseling and their application in sports psychology.
  • Sports and Education: The role of sports in the educational system, and how psychological principles can be applied in youth sports.

Choosing the Right Degree: MA vs MS in Sports Psychology

Sports psychology master’s degree programs can be housed in different schools or departments, including schools of psychology, education, or health and health sciences. They may be designated as sports psychology degrees, sport and exercise psychology degrees, or sport and performance degrees. And, depending upon how the degree program was set up, it may be designated as a master of arts (MA) in sports psychology, or a master of science (MS) in sports psychology. The actual differences between the degrees are rather minor: an MA in sports psychology may be more theory based, while an MS in sports psychology may focus more on applied science. But, generally, there’s greater variation school to school than there is from degree type to degree type.

In addition, sports psychology is considered to be an area of specialization in psychology in and of itself. So, specialization inside of sports psychology tends not to happen at the master’s degree level. Instead, master’s degree students in sports psychology may have the opportunity to take elective classes in areas such of the following:

  • Recreational Sports Administration in Higher Education
  • Pediatric Exercise Science
  • Behavior Modification
  • Health Psychology
  • Sociology of Sports
  • Physical and Recreational Therapy
  • Psychopharmacology and Performance Enhancing Drugs

Careers in Sports Psychology

Sports psychologists often go into the field in order to work in the realm of youth, college, and professional athletics, either counseling individual athletes or consulting with teams and organizations. Top tier jobs tend to go to those who have earned a doctoral degree and are licensed as professional psychologists. However, a master’s degree in sports psychology can lead to a number of different career paths, from sports program administration and coaching, to athletic training and physical therapy.

Job growth in most of these fields is expected to be strong through 2024, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. And, while the BLS doesn’t collect specific data for sports psychologists, the chart below compiles average annual salaries in various related professions as of May 2015, along with job growth estimates and entry-level educational requirements.

OccupationAverage Annual SalaryJob Growth through 2024Entry-Level Education
Physical Therapists$82,39034%Doctor of Physical Therapy
Dietitians and Nutritionists$56,95016%Bachelor’s Degree
Recreational Therapists$44,00012%Bachelor’s Degree
Athletic Trainers$43,37021%Bachelor’s Degree
Fitness Trainers and Instructors$34,9808%High-School Diploma
Coaches and Scouts$30,6406%None

Certification and Licensure in Sports Psychology

Full licensure to practice professionally as a psychologist is handled at the state level, and almost always requires a doctoral degree plus between one and two years of supervised professional experience. Licensure is then conferred upon passage of the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology. In addition, sports psychologists can gain certification through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Full AASP certification requires a doctoral degree. But a provisional certification in sports psychology is available to those who have completed a master’s in sports psychology, as well as a 400-hour mentored experience.

Other licensures and certifications are commonly pursued and/or renewed by graduates of master’s degree program in sports psychology include a teaching credential, a certified athletic trainer (CTA) credential, a licensed professional counselor license, and American Board of Physical Therapy Certification. You should check with individual degree programs and state requirements to find out if you’ll need any additional coursework to qualify for licensure and certification.

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