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What is a sport psychologist?

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Updated June 09, 2004

From Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

A psychologist is an individual who has completed graduate training in the field of psychology and is licensed by a specific state. In some states individuals with a Masters Degree can become licensed psychologists while in others a Doctoral degree is required. A sport psychologist is a psychologist with expertise in the following areas:

  • Performance enhancement through the use of psychological skills training
  • Issues that are specific to the psychological well-being of athletes
  • Working with the organizations and systems that are present in sport settings
  • Social and developmental factors that influence sport participation

While sport psychology is recognized as a specific field of study within the Kinesiology and Physical Education departments, it is not one of the traditional fields of practice offered by psychology graduate programs. For example, while one can obtain a graduate psychology degree with a concentration in children or substance abuse, the same can not be said of sport psychology. Although many psychology departments offer single courses in sport psychology, the opportunities for graduate level degrees are few and far between.

What credentials are needed?

At the present time, no credentials beyond a state license are needed in order to practice sport psychology. Ethically and practically speaking, you should have expertise in the above mentioned areas. Division 47 (Sport and Exercise Psychology) of the American Psychological Association recently submitted a proposal for the establishment of a proficiency to the CRSPPP (Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology). Individuals offering sport psychology services would have to adhere to the standards set forth in this proficiency. Otherwise, they would risk being in violation of ethical guidelines which could result in the suspension and/or termination of one's license to practice.

Although accreditation is not necessary, it does not mean that there are no benefits to becoming a certified sport psychologist. There are many organizations offering to certify individuals. The most reputable of these organizations is the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP). Designation as a Certified Consultant, AAASP carries the benefit of the possibility of being listed on the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Sport Psychology Registry. This is a listing of individuals who are approved to work with Olympic athletes and National teams. For more information, you should visit the AAASP web site.

How do you become a sport psychologist?

Two basic qualifications are needed in order to becoming anything in life: education and experience. This holds true for becoming a sport psychologist as well.

Education: The educational opportunities for working as a sport psychologist are limited. Perhaps the best way to get into a top flight graduate program is to go to a school that offers some formalized experience in the field. If your school doesn’t have a sports psychology major, we recommend that you stick with a psychology major and try to get experience however you can.

Some graduate programs in psychology offer a concentration in sport psychology. To see a listing of these, you may want to consider purchasing Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology by Michael Sachs.

If you are in a graduate program at a school that offers only an introductory sport psychology course but it is something that genuinely interests you, we recommend that you speak with your department chair. Ask if there is any independent study classes or independent research classes that you can take to gain further knowledge of this field. The independent research class is specially useful since it will bring you into direct contact with athletes for the purposes of performance enhancement.

Experience: Perhaps one of the most difficult things to get in the field of sport psychology is the direct contact with athletes. You should work with a supervisor with an expertise in sport psychology and find a population to work with.

There are different ways of getting experience. One way is to meet with the athletic director or their assistant to find coaches who are willing to support you. Some internship sites offer sport psychology training as part of their formal curriculum

Many professional athletes and teams have realized the value of sport psychology and regularly make use of the services. However, they tend to use the well established individual. When you start out, working with amateur and collegiate athletes is good experience. In addition, writing is a great way to develop additional experience and to tell others about your accomplishments and areas of expertise.

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