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 of practice, instinctive situational awareness, and, of course, a certain amount of innate talent. So much of what goes into the training of competitive athletes predicates on the understanding that the mental game is every bit as important as the physical one, and sports psychologists are trained to help athletes develop it. Sports psychology is a relatively new field that explores the intersection of sports and psychology to improve athletic performance.

Some experts suggest that the psychological training that helps athletes can be just as useful for professionals in many other competitive career fields, like business. Sports psychologists typically work with:

  • Professional and amateur athletes
  • Coaches, team managers, and athletic trainers
  • Business professionals
  • Marketing managers

Future sports psychologists who intend to work as licensed practitioners, teach collegiate courses or conduct research will need a doctorate, but there is no single pathway one must take to get there. This guide discusses your options at all levels of higher education and highlights ideal programs.

Sports psychology certificates and non-degree awards

Certificates in sports psychology range in both scope and purpose. An undergraduate certificate, for example, introduces students to field basics and may attract learners from several different disciplines. A graduate certificate, on the other hand, is usually geared toward students who already hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees or professionals already practicing. These programs cover more advanced topics to enhance or specialize one’s current knowledge of sports psychology. Program lengths vary but usually range from a few weeks to a few months, and online certificates in sports psychology are increasingly common.

Professional certifications are another, much different type of non-degree award. For example, some sports psychologists hold certifications through the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP). 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 commonly-sought certifications among sports psychologists include teaching credentials, certified athletic trainer (CTA) credentials and American Board of Physical Therapy certification.

Featured sports psychology certificates

Certificate in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Seton Hall University

Seton Hall University’s Sport and Exercise Psychology aims to develop biopsychosocial knowledge central to sport and exercise psychology among licensed professionals and graduate students. The University describes the certificate as an interdisciplinary credential that draws resources from the both the Department of Professional Psychology and Family Therapy and the School of Medical and Health Services’ Department of Physical Therapy. According to Seton Hall’s official website, students pursuing its Sport and Exercise Psychology Certificate develop “the knowledge and foundation to work with” athletes and athletic teams, in corporate wellness programs, in clinical settings and other health promotion areas.

Associate degrees in sports psychology

Associate degrees in sports psychology are not strictly required, but they offer distinct advantages:

  • Students who earn associate degrees from public community colleges before transferring to a four-year school can save hundreds to thousands of dollars in tuition and fees.
  • Associate degrees also let learners become acquainted with the field before committing to longer programs.
  • Some associate degrees in psychology prepare students for immediate work as psychological technicians and related professions. This scenario gives students valuable experience that could help fund more advanced degrees.

Associate degrees in sports psychology are rare, so students often pursue those in kinesiology or general psychology instead. Programs typically require two years of study. Degrees designed with college transfer in mind include the general coursework necessary to do so; those created for direct workforce-entry may minimize general education classes for more specialized and practical learning experiences. Lots of two-year schools now offer online associate degrees, so fret not if your nearest school does not offer the program you want.

Featured associate degrees in sports psychology

AA in Applied Psychology from the Florida Institute of Technology

Florida Tech’s AA in Applied Psychology program provides the training necessary to advance to — and succeed in — bachelor’s programs in psychology or sports psychology or careers as benefits coordinators, addiction rehab assistants and childcare providers. Coursework in psychology and sociology addresses psychological theoretical perspectives, empirical research and historical trends while general education classes establish a liberal arts foundation. Florida Tech’s AA in Applied Psychology program is delivered entirely online — not campus visits required. Online learning does not mean students receive less support than they would on campus: The Institute offers online learners several support services, including academic, career, financial aid and veterans programs.

  • Department: School of Psychology
  • Campus location: Melbourne, FL
  • Online learning options: This is a 100 percent online program.

Bachelor’s degrees in sports psychology

Bachelor’s degrees in sports psychology are more common than associate degrees in the discipline. Because master’s and doctoral degrees tend to be more specialized, however, one can earn a bachelor’s degree in an area like general or clinical psychology, exercise science or kinesiology and still become a sports psychiatrist. More tips for bachelor-level sports psychology:

  • The AASP encourages students who study psychology to minor in sport or exercise psychology, and vise-versa, when possible. A minor in kinesiology works, too.
  • Whichever path you choose, try to find a combination that offers training in psychological theory, analysis and methods while providing basic instruction in exercise and related sciences.

If you intend to continue to graduate school, research whether a particular program’s curricula aligns with typical master’s degree admissions requirements. Online bachelor’s degrees in sports psychology can help students short on options through area colleges.

Featured bachelor’s degrees in sports psychology

West Virginia University’s B.S. in Sports Psychology

Managed by its College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences, Western Virginia University’s B.S. in Sports Psychology is geared specifically toward students who intend to advance to graduate school, which means its curriculum aligns with standard graduate school admissions requirements. In fact, according to the University, program graduates consistently gain entry many different types of graduate programs, including counseling, business, law, physical therapy, business and law. Western Virginia University’s B.A. in Sports Psychology program provides an overview of the theories and principles one would use in the field. Students balanced targeted sports psychology, exercise science and professional development courses with general education classes.

B.S. in Kinesiology with a concentration in Sports Psychology at Western Washington University

Western Washington University’s B.S. in Kinesiology with a specialization on Sports Psychology offers a much more thorough physiological study of exercise, nutrition and fitness than most sports psychology degree programs, yet still imparts the core psychology knowledge used to evaluate and counsel athletes in the field. Core kinesiological courses provide concentrated instruction on the biomechanics of human movement, like motor development, growth and physical fitness while psychology classes focus on the science of human behavior. Students also participate in field experiences or internships. According to WWU, the curricula prepares learners for graduate school or allied health careers in occupational therapy, physical therapy or physician assistance.

Master’s degrees in sports psychology

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. Students engage in 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. While many graduates advance to doctoral study to meet state licensing requirements, a master’s degree in sports psychology alone can lead to careers ranging from sports program administration and coaching to athletic training and physical therapy.

Most master’s degree programs in psychology, including a master’s in sports psychology, are designed to be completed in about two years. Program length can still vary from school to school, 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 emphasize skills needed to pass 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.

Featured master’s degrees in sports psychology

MA in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Denver

The University of Denver’s MA in Sport and Performance Psychology is not your average program. According to its website, the University did not create the program by just combining existing psychology and sports science courses. It designed an entirely new curriculum grounded in sports and performance psychology application and theory, or what the University of Denver describes as the “most comprehensive sport and performance psychology curriculum” in the world. Its achievements support its claim: Several alumni garnered ASSP recognition and grants, including the AASP Student Practitioner Award and the AASP Community Grant, and studies in such academic journals as the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology and The Sport Psychologist.

MS in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Purdue University

Purdue University’s MS in Sport and Exercise Psychology program is heavily research-focused, which can be particularly helpful for graduates who move on to research or teaching positions. Students complete courses in sport and exercise psychology, kinesiology and health, human development and research methods. Though it does have a core curriculum, PU says students can tailor coursework to their interests and backgrounds. Weekly faculty and graduate research seminars also provide learners with additional knowledge from the University’s Kinesiology program. According to Purdue, recent graduates moved on to graduate programs or careers in health care, social work and athletic administration. Purdue’s MS in Sport and Exercise Psychology is designed to take two years of full-time study.

Doctorates in sports psychology

Doctorates in sports psychology come in two basic packages: the Ph.D. (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 Ph.D. programs tend to be more research oriented, while PsyD programs place a greater emphasis on clinical training. Both are appropriate for students who aim to pursue a career as a therapist, which is common in sports psychology. Ph.D. program can take longer to complete — three years, as opposed to two — due to the research inherent in a doctoral dissertation requirement.

Regardless of whether you pursue a Ph.D. or a PsyD in sports psychology, there are several key areas of study you should expect to cover, such as kinesiology, cognitive process in sports psychology and clinical counseling. As with other doctoral programs, research projects, dissertations, research fellowships or supervised field practice requirements are common. Those pursuing online doctorates in sports psychology often complete all or most of any on-site training at local clinics and/or universities. Some online programs will require that they report to campus to defend their dissertations or complete capstone projects. Whatever the format, make sure you choose a program that aligns with state licensing and professional certification requirements.

Featured sports psychology doctorates

Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Science with an emphasis on Sport and Exercise Psychology from Oregon State University.

Oregon State’s Ph.D. in Sports and Exercise Science’s Sport and Exercise Psychology track is a research-oriented program emphasizing physical activity and social psychology. Students can further specialize their training by selecting a sub-concentration in Motivation and Physical Activity, Psychology Factors in Physical Activity, or Lifespan Sport and Exercise Psychology. The University notes that students who are pursuing careers in higher education teach lower- and upper-division coursework and receive additional instruction in grant writing, conference presentation and research publication. Among the department’s most recent research topics: The states of exercise behavior in various cultures, self-concept’s impact on exercise behavior, and the transtheoretical model of behavior changes among people with disabilities. Students attending Oregon State’s Sport and Exercise Psychology program can complete master’s degrees while pursuing Ph.D.s — a pathway that adds two additional years to the four years it typically takes to complete a doctorate.

Online sports psychology degrees

As sports psychology is a relatively new field, online program offerings are likely to emerge alongside on-campus offerings. Along with the above programs that have online options in the field or general psychology, some schools have fully established online programs for sports psychology.

Featured online degrees in sports psychology

California Southern University’s MS in Psychology with a concentration in Sports Counseling

California Southern University’s MS in Psychology – Sports Counseling program helps students prepare for doctoral admissions — a requirement for state licensure and, in turn, clinical practice. Students learn how to teach athletes performance-enhancing mental health techniques, but also how to motivate competitors and counsel coaches. According to CSU, its Sports Counseling track curriculum was written by an experienced sports psychologist. Core psychology courses complement such specialized classes as motivation, imagery and the psychology of coaching. This 100 percent online program does not just spare you travel or relocation — it is entirely self-paced. That means students can fit college around other work or family obligations.

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