Graduate Training and Career Possibilities in Exercise and Sport Psychology

Considerations in Selecting Exercise and Sport Psychology Careers

As interest has grown in exercise and sport psychology, requests from students and prospective students for information about graduate training and career possibilities have increased. Here we address some of the commonly asked questions about careers and academic preparation in the field of exercise and sport psychology. The answers reflect the current state of the field, not necessarily the ideal state.

What roles do exercise and sport psychologists perform?
Exercise and sport psychologists typically perform three primary roles: 1) teaching, 2) research, and 3) practice. Career opportunities in exercise and sport psychology may emphasize various aspects or combinations of these roles. Careful selection of a career track will guide you in determining the type of graduate training needed to qualify for career opportunities available in the field of exercise and sport psychology, hereafter referred to as sport psychology.

What sort of education do I need to become involved in sport psychology?
Sport psychology has traditionally been an interdisciplinary field and, therefore, academic training can come from departments of psychology, counseling, or physical education. Many departments of physical education have changed their emphases and now call themselves Exercise and Sport Sciences, Kinesiology, Movement Sciences, Human Performance, or some similar variation (hereafter referred to as sport sciences). The career track that you select will determine the type of academic preparation needed, and will ultimately influence the career opportunities for which you optimally qualify. 

Whatever degree you choose to obtain (masters or doctorate), and whether the degree comes from a department of psychology or the sport sciences, you should take supplemental course work from the allied discipline not represented by your home department. For instance, both the U. S. Olympic Committee (USOC) Sport Psychology Registry and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) "Certification Criteria" recommend that psychology majors take sport psychology classes and supplemental course work in sport sciences (e.g., biomechanics, exercise physiology, motor development/learning/ control, and sport sociology). Likewise, sport science graduate students specializing in sport psychology should take undergraduate and graduate courses in departments of psychology or counseling psychology (e.g., abnormal psychology, principles of counseling, psychopathology, personality, and social psychology). Further information about the specific coursework requirements for becoming an AASP certified consultant is available from AASP.

A well-integrated graduate program would combine traditional psychology, sport sciences, and sport psychology; however, few such formal programs exist. Often students must seek courses as well as research and applied mentoring from professionals in different disciplines/departments.

How much training will I need?
Most of the professional employment opportunities in sport psychology require doctoral degrees from accredited colleges and universities. In addition, students in counseling or clinical psychology doctoral programs usually complete post-graduate internships (normally not in sport psychology) as part of their education. Even if students with a masters degree complete sport psychology internships, these graduates compete at a distinct disadvantage for the limited number of full-time positions available in sport psychology.

Because of the limited number of full-time positions, many individuals work in the sport psychology field on a part-time basis. Whether you want a part- or full-time position in the field is a salient consideration in selecting a graduate program. Depending upon the area you wish to pursue within the field (i.e., teaching, research, and/or practice), there are four possible career tracks that are discussed below. Three of the career tracks (academic sport sciences, academic psychology, clinical/counseling sport psychology) require doctoral degrees while one rather diverse track (e.g., academic athletic counseling, health promotion, or coaching) requires at least a masters degree.

  • Career Track I: Teaching/Research in Sport Sciences and Work with Athletes on Performance Enhancement

  • Career Track II: Teaching/Research in Psychology and also Interested in Working with Athletes

  • Career Track III: Provide Clinical/Counseling Services to Various Populations, Including Athletes

  • Career Track IV: Health Promotion and Working with Athletes but not Necessarily Directly in Sport Psychology