What Do Exercise and Sport Psychologists Do?

Exercise and sport psychology professionals are interested in how participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity may enhance personal development and well-being throughout the life span.

Have you ever heard a coach say that a sport is 50-90 percent mental? It is this mental side of sport that exercise and sport psychology professionals work with. Coaches often deal exclusively with the physical and strategic components of sport, whereas, exercise and sport psychology professionals seek to enhance the minds of athletes and exercisers to help them improve their performance by coming closer to reaching their potential in a competitive setting.

Among other things, exercise and sport psychology professionals help individuals who:

  • lose focus during competition.

  • lack confidence during games.

  • get scared or anxious while competing.

  • have trouble communicating with teammates.

  • choke during important competitive events.

  • have trouble motivating themselves in sport and exercise settings.

  • get angry easily when they perform below their expectations.

Are you looking for a competitive edge? Would like to learn how to have more fun while participating in sport? Are concerned with your child's experience in youth sports? Are looking for a way to get more out of your sport or exercise experience? Then you should keep reading to help you gain useful information about exercise and sport psychology and learn about how to find an exercise and sport psychology professional to fulfill your needs. 

Why Do People Contact Exercise and Sport Psychology Professionals?
  • To improve performance. This is the most common reason for consulting an exercise and sport psychology professional. In general, performance may be enhanced through the teaching of mental strategies that either refine the practices of effective performers or help other performers overcome obstacles that prevent them from reaching their potential.

  • To deal with the pressures of competition. Athletes at all levels seek help in dealing with the pressures of competition. Such pressures may stem from parental and/or coach expectations as well as the athlete's own expectations regarding performance.

  • To enhance the experience of youth sport participants. Youth sport organizations may employ an exercise and sport psychology professional to educate coaches about how to increase the satisfaction and enjoyment of participants and about the coaches' role in promoting the development of healthy self- esteem. 

  • To get psychological assistance with injury rehabilitation. People with injuries may seek assistance with adjusting to non-participant status, adhering to physical therapy, tolerating pain, or other issues. 

  • To assist with an exercise program. People who want to exercise regularly may work with an exercise and sport psychology professional to increase their motivation and help with other issues related to exercise adherence. 

  • To receive guidance in dealing with life challenges. Concerns with personal problems can adversely affect exercise and athletic performance. People often find that counseling helps to put things in perspective and allows for greater satisfaction in life, career transition, and time management. 

  • To help make the transition out of sport participation more easily. People spend a lot of time in sport, and the transition to being a non-participant can be very difficult.

What Services Can an Exercise and Sport Psychology Professional Provide?

Exercise and sport psychology professionals may provide a variety of services to individuals, groups, and organizations related to the psychological factors affecting sport, exercise, physical activity and team dynamics. The most common services focus on:

  • assisting with exercise adherence, communication, teamwork, or program development and evaluation

  • teaching participants specific mental, behavioral, psychosocial, and emotional control skills. They might, for example, focus on relaxation, concentration, self-talk, self-confidence, goal setting, aggression, burnout and/or the use of imagery

Exercise and sport psychology professionals who have special training or licensure in areas such as social work, counseling, counseling psychology or clinical psychology may also provide services such as diagnosis and treatment of psychological difficulties (e.g., depression, eating disorders, substance abuse), marital, family or group therapy, or the administration and interpretation of psychological tests in addition to those services listed above. 

What Roles May Exercise and Sport Psychology Professionals Assume?

Exercise and sport psychology professionals may be trained primarily in the sport sciences with additional training in counseling or clinical psychology, or they may be trained primarily in psychology with supplemental training in the sport sciences.

The activities of a particular exercise and sport psychology professional will vary based on the practitioner's specific interests and training. The three major roles of an exercise and sport psychology professional are teacher, researcher, and service provider/practitioner. Those individuals who focus mostly on teaching and research typically teach at colleges and universities. In some cases, these individuals also work with athletes, coaches, or other athletic personnel. They provide education as well as develop and implement programs designed to maximize the overall well-being of sport, exercise, and physical activity participants. For the most part, their consultations will focus on enhancing the performance of individuals in these settings.

Service providers/practitioners in exercise and sport psychology often use exercise and sport psychology concepts and principles to enhance sport, exercise, and physical activity performance or enjoyment. They spend the majority of their time working directly with individuals or groups who have asked for their help. Individuals working in this are of exercise and sport psychology may consult with a broad range of clients and often serve in educational and/or counseling roles. Many of these practitioners may have additional training in counseling or clinical psychology.

How Do I Know a Sport Psychologist Could Help Me?

We can’t promise you that a sport psychologist will help you perform better. However, there is a lot of scientific evidence suggesting that exercise and sport psychology techniques help to enhance sport performance. Without boring you with these numbers, let’s take a look at some evidence. During the last three decades exercise and sport psychology has received increased attention from elite and non-elite level athletes, coaches, parents, and the media. Consider, for example:

  • A large number of elite, amateur, and professional athletes work with exercise and sport psychology professionals, and talk in the media about the benefits of this work.

  • Coaches at the high school and university levels seek exercise and sport psychology professionals to work with their athletes and teams on game preparation, team cohesion, communication skills, and other areas that affect performance.

  • Exercise and sport psychology professionals are put on staff at universities to work exclusively with athletic teams on issues such as life skills development and coping with the demands of being a student-athlete.

  • Exercise specialists, athletic trainers, youth sport directors, corporations, and psychologists use exercise and sport psychology professionals and exercise and sport psychology techniques to improve exercise adherence, aid injury rehabilitation, educate coaches, build self-esteem, enhance group dynamics, and increase program effectiveness.

Who is Considered a "Qualified" Exercise and Sport Psychology Consultant?

Only those individuals with specialized training and appropriate certification and/or licensure may call themselves a sport psychologist. Anyone seeking the services of an exercise and sport psychology professional should ask about the professional's credentials, clientele, experience, and membership in professional organizations such as the APA and/or the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). A growing number of exercise and sport psychology professionals are certified by AASP. These professionals — who earn the designation Certified Consultant, AASP (or CC, AASP) — have met a minimum standard of education and training in the sport sciences and in psychology. They have also undergone an extensive review process. The AASP certification process encourages exercise and sport psychology professionals to maintain high standards of professional and ethical conduct while giving service to others.

Some exercise and sport psychology professionals may be listed on the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) Sport Psychology and Mental Training Registry, meaning that they are approved to work with Olympic athletes and national teams. To be on the Registry, a professional must have a doctoral degree, be a CC, AASP, and a member of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Some exercise and sport psychology professionals are also licensed psychologists. This means that they have met the minimum educational and training requirements by their state, and have passed a comprehensive test related to the practice of psychology. These are the only people who may call themselves "psychologists", and they would be qualified to help you with personal or clinical problems (e.g., eating disorders) in addition to problems of a purely performance nature.

How Can I Find a Qualified Exercise and Sport Psychology Professional?

Word of mouth . . . talk to athletes and coaches who have worked with an exercise and sport psychology professional to find out how it was helpful, the types of services provided, and the names of competent professionals they have worked with.

If you don’t know anyone who has worked with an exercise and sport psychology professional, check with your local college or university. Many institutions have academic programs in exercise and sport psychology and/or have exercise and sport psychology consulting arrangements established with one or more qualified professionals through their athletic department.

Check with professional organizations that certify, register, or license professionals. You should contact APA Division 47, AASP, and/or USOC Sport Psychology Services for more  information about exercise and sport psychology and certification of sport psychologists.

Contact
APA Division Services
APA Division 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology)
American Psychological Association
750 First St, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002-4242
Telephone: (202) 336-6121 or (800) 374-2721
Fax: (202) 218-3599