PhD/PsyD in Sports Psychology

A nine-foot putt on a golfing green, a backhand volley on a tennis court, a quick toss to the first baseman on a baseball diamond — these are all deceptively complex feats of physical and mental prowess. Like many of the everyday, in-the-game actions that the best athletes pull off with routine ease, they require skills honed through hours upon hours of practice, instinctive situational awareness, and, of course, a certain amount of innate talent. Even in the case of what may appear to be extraordinarily fortunate plays, most coaches and athletes readily attest that being in the right place at the right time to make the right move is less about luck than the result of carefully calibrated physical conditioning, intense mental focus, and the ability to get the mind and body working together to achieve peak performance. For example, when undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler stepped up to nab the goal-line interception that sealed a win for the New England Patriots over the Seattle Seahawks in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, he promptly admitted that it was preparation and alertness, not magic or luck, that sealed the deal. “I remembered the formation they was in,” he said after the game, “And I just knew they was throwing a pick route.”

The preparation that went into Butler’s Super Bowl play, and so much of what goes into the training of athletes in all areas of competitive sports, is predicated on an understanding that the mental game is every bit as important as the physical one. And this is the arena in which sports psychology now thrives as a specialty in the larger discipline of psychology. As with the athletes they advise and treat, sports psychologists undergo specialized training in applying the principles and methods of psychology to the practice of sports. They study the mental processes that underpin the behaviors, emotions, attitudes, and motivations that affect an athlete’s performance in training and in play. And they work with teams, coaches, and individual athletes to help optimize performance across the board, whether that means overcoming anxieties, filtering out distractions, improving mental toughness, or dealing with any number of other factors that can play a big part in making the big plays.

Doctoral Degrees in Sports Psychology

Sports psychologists may work with athletes and deal with issues related to competition, but the tools and methodologies are rooted in the discipline of psychology. So, a career in sports psychology begins with the study of the principles of psychology, usually at the undergraduate level. A BA or BS in psychology is a good place to start, and it certainly helps to have an interest in sports, physical education, and/or fitness and exercise. But, it’s important to realize that a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or even one that’s more targeted toward sports psychology, is generally not considered sufficient for most sports psychology jobs.

There are an increasingly large number of master’s degree programs in sports psychology that are designed to be completed in two years, and these programs can lead to employment in the field. However, in most states the completion of a doctorate in psychology — either a PhD or a PsyD — is required for full licensure as a practicing professional psychologist. In other words, anyone who wants to call him- or her-self a psychologist in any capacity must be certified, and this requires a doctoral degree. The Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP) does offer provisional certification in sports psychology for those with a master’s degree, but full state licensure and standard certification from the AASP and from the American Psychological Association requires a PhD or PsyD degree. Inclusion on the Sports Psychology Registry maintained by the United States Olympic Committee is similarly limited to fully-licensed and certified psychologists, which entails earning a doctorate along with proficiency in the specialized area of sports psychology.

Sports Psychology: An Introduction

A good way to conceptualize sports psychology in relation to psychology as a whole is to think in terms of sports medicine as a particular specialization for physicians. A sports medicine doctor is simply a doctor who has experience and training working with athletes and the specific medical concerns and issues that are pertinent in the realm of sports. A sports psychologist studies the ways in which the social, behavioral, and mental factors present in all of psychology influence athletic performance and competition, and then applies this knowledge to specific situations involving athletes, just as a child psychologist uses the tools of psychology to treat children.

The APA defines sports psychology broadly as, “the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise, and other types of physical activity.” The AASP has further tailored the definition to include, “Extending theory and research into the field to educate coaches, athletes, parents, exercisers, fitness professionals, and athletic trainers about the psychological aspects of their sport or activity. A primary goal of professionals in applied sport and exercise psychology is to facilitate optimal involvement, performance, and enjoyment in sport and exercise.”

A Quick History of Sports Psychology

  • 496 BC — In The Art of War, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of mental preparedness for any physical confrontation.
  • 380 BC — Plato, an accomplished wrestler and philosopher, makes the mind-body connection in his famous treatise The Republic.
  • 1913 — French philosopher Pierre de Coubertin, widely acknowledged as the “Father of the Modern Olympic Games,” publishes Essais de psychologie sportive, an essay on the psychology of sports.
  • 1921 — German sports psychology pioneer Robert Werner Schulte publishes Body and Mind in Sport.
  • 1937 — American psychologist Coleman Griffith, author of Psychology of Coaching (1926) and Psychology of Athletics (1928), is hired as a consultant by the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
  • 1965 — The First World Congress of Sports Psychology convenes in Rome, Italy.
  • 1967 — The North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity is founded.
  • 1974 — Former Harvard University tennis team captain Timothy Galloway publishes the best-seller The Inner Game of Tennis, the first of his several “Inner Game” books that popularized the psychology of sports.
  • 1983 — The United States Olympic Committee establishes the USOC Sports Psychology Registry for licensed sports psychologists.
  • 1985 — The Association for Applied Sports Psychology is founded to create standards for the practice of sports psychology.
  • 1986 — The American Psychological Associations creates Division 47, its group dedicated to the study and application of exercise and sports psychology.

The Job of a Sports Psychologist

The immediate goal of most sports psychology interventions essentially falls under the wide umbrella of performance enhancement, which involves the kind of assessment, diagnosis, and counseling treatments that are common in psychology. Sports psychologists may also work with athletes on maintaining an optimal mental state, through managing stress, anxiety, and various emotional states, overcoming chronic pain and dealing with the setbacks that come with injury and age. In addition, sports psychologists can be called on to work collaboratively with athletes and coaches on team building, morale, and communication strategies. Indeed, an APA report on sports psychology in November of 2012 pointed out that the US military had become one of the largest employers of sports psychologists for somewhat obvious reasons: “In military settings, sport psychologists (called Performance Enhancement Specialists or PESs) work with soldiers, their families and civilians to build resilience in the face of adversity — whether it’s leaving for a third deployment to Afghanistan or coping with a loved one’s death during combat.”

Coursework in Sports Psychology PhD or PsyD

Doctorates in sports psychology come in two basic packages: the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and the PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). The differences have less to do with the areas of study than with the philosophical or pedagogical aims of the particular program. The APA points out that PhD programs tend to be more research oriented, while PsyD programs place a greater emphasize on clinical training. Both are appropriate for students who aim to pursue a career as a therapist, which is common in sports psychology. PhD program can take longer to complete — three years, as opposed to two — due to the research inherent in a doctoral dissertation requirement. The APA also points out that prospective students should be aware that PsyD programs tend to be more expensive than PhD programs, especially those offered by large for-profit institutions.

Regardless of whether it’s a PhD or a PsyD in sports psychology, there are several key areas of study that students should expect to cover during the degree program. This chart illustrates some typical classes in a sports psychology doctoral program:

CourseAreas of Study
KinesiologyThe physiological, mechanical, and psychological components of human movement in relationship to peak performance in sports and exercise.
Cognitive Processes in Sports PsychologyManaging motivation, concentration, emotional balance, and self-esteem in the social context of a competitive team setting.
Clinical Counseling in Sports PsychologyTheories and applications of psychology in sports to manage stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other problems pertinent to athletes, including aggression, injuries, and identity crises.

Certification and Licensing in Sports Psychology

Sports psychology is a relatively new and rapidly evolving field in which it wasn’t unusual just a decade ago for sports psychologists to earn a doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology and then take additional classes in physiology, kinesiology, and the sociology of sports as a means of entering practice. The APA currently does not offer specific certification in sports psychology, but the AASP has a protocol for earning a CC-AASP, or Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, credential. This is available to members with a master’s or doctorate degree who have completed a course of study that includes sports and exercise psychology, and have a minimum of 400 hours of supervised experience in the field.

Licensing for psychologists is handled on the state level, but almost always requires completion of a PhD or PsyD in psychology, as well as passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. There is, however, no specific licensure in sports psychology currently in place.

Sports Psychology: Career Options and Salary Outlook

Sports psychologists are employed throughout professional and semi-professional sports, as well as by schools, colleges, and universities. The US military employs sports psychologists as performance enhancement specialists, and there is also a growing market for sports psychologists in private practices that cater to both amateur and professional athletes, young and old. In a 2012 story for the APA, University of Arizona director of clinical and sport psychology Scott Goldman, detailed that, “At least 20 NCAA Division I universities have a sport psychologist on staff and another 70 to 100 contract with outside specialists.” An increasing number of smaller college athletic programs and high schools are also seeking out the expertise of sports psychologists, and there’s a growing market for sports psychology counseling among amateur athletes who may be looking to improve their golf or tennis game.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t compile data for sports psychologists, but the median annual salary for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists as of May 2014 was $68,900. And, the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts a 12 percent growth in the job market for psychologists up through 2022. In the 2012 APA story on careers in sports psychology, Scott Goldman estimated that, “Sport psychologists in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year; the highest salaries can exceed $100,000 annually.”

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