Expert Contributor
Dr. Sari Shepphird

Dr. Sari Shepphird is a psychologist specializing in sports and performance. In addition to operating a private practice in the Los Angeles area, she is also an award-winning author, consultant and educator who founded Sport & Perform, a consulting business devoted to sports and performance psychology.

With the emphasis on sports and exercise in society, it’s no wonder that sports psychology is a growing specialty within the broader field psychology. Sports psychologists examine the interrelation between human psychology and athletic performance, applying their skills and knowledge to enhance performance and maximize the benefits of physical activity.

Sports psychologists are not limited to work with dedicated athletes, however; they may also work with entertainers who have mental performance issues, such as stage fright, or with regular people who wish to improve their physical fitness or recover from a sports injury.

Psychology is an expansive professional scientific field focusing on the study of human behavior. Psychologists and mental health professionals work in a number of specialty areas, including the following:

Starting a Sports Psychology Career

Careers in sports psychology typically begin with graduate study through the doctoral level, as many states require a doctoral degree in order to become licensed as a sports psychologist. Even if being licensed isn’t required for a particular job, a doctoral degree is a de facto standard for those who want to be psychologists, including those with an eye toward sports psychology.

The most common educational path starts with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. From there, students move on to a master’s degree, then finish with either a PsyD or a PhD at the doctoral level. Some schools offer joint degree programs, allowing students to get a master’s and doctorate degree at the same time. After graduating, students are eligible to test for licensure and may pursue real-world experiences.

What Sports Psychologists Do

The sports psychology field offers many work settings and job tasks. Sports psychologists might treat patients in an office, or provide consultation and therapy to athletes on the field. They may also teach or conduct research. Typically, sports psychologists can expect to:

  • Provide psychological counseling services as they apply to performance, sports, exercise and fitness.
  • Assess athletes to determine the relationship between their mental state and physical performance.
  • Diagnose and identify mental strengths and weaknesses that are caused by or affect a person’s athletic performance.
  • Teach visualization techniques to individuals to enhance performance.
  • Counsel and treat athletes with mental health disorders and problems.
  • Counsel individuals who have suffered from physical injuries from sports.
  • Help athletes cope with pressures, both on and off the field.
  • Apply recently discovered scientific concepts to improve athletic potential.
  • Conduct research to build knowledge in the field of sports psychology.

An Insider’s Perspective

Dr. Sari Shepphird discusses her work as a sports psychologist

What attracted you to a career as a sports psychologist?

Sports have always been a big part of my life and culture, so it is a great fit for me personally to be involved in a profession that allows me to make an impact in areas for which I have a true passion. I also enjoy the fact that I am able to address both performance enhancement and mental skills training while still being able to offer assistance to athletes and performers who are stuck, or are experiencing issues that hinder their performance or life satisfaction. Additionally, compared to other branches of psychology, sports psychology utilizes many techniques and interventions that require very active participation from both the psychologist and the client. That is another factor that is very fitting with my approach.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I work with athletes and performers at every level, from novice and recreational to elite and professional, so the situations that I address are constantly evolving, bringing different challenges each day. I may give training to an entire team, meet with an individual client at my office, or observe a client at practice or at a competition. I may speak with their coaches or families; it just depends on what we are trying to accomplish. We work on developing the mental side of their game and performance. This involves building skills in areas such as focus, concentration, motivation, goal-setting, managing intensity, overcoming performance obstacles, stress management, and learning how to perform optimally even under pressure. We also address issues such as performance anxiety, burnout, lack of confidence, recovering from an injury, and handling performance pressures that come when new levels of achievement are attained.

What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

The challenges can come from a few different aspects. There is the level of difficulty that clients have in overcoming obstacles that they may be facing. Then there are outside dynamics that can make a difference, such as pressure that athletes may feel from their family, relationships, coaches, or even the media. One of the biggest challenges is when an athlete may lack some of the motivation necessary to bring change or develop a necessary skill—perhaps it was their coach’s or family’s idea that they see a sports psychologist and they are still uncertain about whether or not they want to put in the time to address the mental side of their game. Sports psychology is not a magic formula for success. It is an approach to performance enhancement that requires motivation and participation by the athletes themselves. So when that cooperation and motivation are lacking, it is perhaps the biggest challenge.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I find it extremely rewarding to be able to make a difference in people’s lives, not just in the quality of their performances, but also in their life satisfaction and overall well-being. When athletes are able to see the fruit of their work in developing performance skills and reducing performance barriers, it is rewarding to have been a part of that process.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to embark on a career in sports psychology or a related field?

There are a number of ways to work with athletes but investing in a comprehensive education will allow for the greatest number of professional opportunities down the line. If you have a passion for helping people overcome obstacles and achieve success, it is worth investigating which training path will ensure you the highest level of competence that you can attain.

Becoming a Sports Psychologist

Sports psychology is a relatively new field within psychology, and the educational path varies from person to person. In general, future sports psychologists should expect to:

Get a Bachelor’s Degree

Because most schools do not have a specific sports psychology undergraduate program, becoming a sports psychologist usually starts with an undergraduate degree in psychology or a sports-related field such as kinesiology or exercise science.

Complete Graduate Education

Once the bachelor’s degree is finished, a master’s degree is the next step. This may be specifically in sports psychology, or could be in psychology with a concentration in sports psychology. The final degree is either a PsyD or PhD in sports psychology. Some schools offer joint degrees that combine the master’s and doctoral degrees; a small number offer the doctorate degree to students with only a bachelor’s degree, but this is rare.

Obtain a License

Getting licensed is the final step. License requirements differ between states, but most require an applicant to have a PhD or PsyD degree, several years of experience, and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Practicing clinical psychologists are required to be licensed, and licensing is ideal although not absolutely required to become a certified sports psychologist.

Certification of Sports Psychologists

Beyond the recommended licensing, sports psychologists may seek out a certification to further demonstrate their specialty knowledge in the field.

What is certification?

Certification refers to the criteria and process an organization uses to declare that a psychologist possesses certain skills and knowledge about a particular area.

Why get certified?

While certification is not required to practice clinical sports psychology or become licensed, it is strongly recommended. Individual employers may require certification, and it can improve a psychologist’s marketability and standing because their skills are recognized by an independent third party.

Where can I get certified?

Two organizations provide of certification for sports psychologists. The better-known one is the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP); another option is the American Board of Sports Psychology (ABSP).

What do I need to do to get certified?

To get certified by the AASP, an individual must be a member of the organization, hold a graduate degree, demonstrate the requisite knowledge of the sports psychology field, and have several hundred hours of specific experience. Candidates with master’s degree are eligible for a provisional certification; a doctorate is required to obtain a standard certification.

ABSP certification requires a doctorate degree, plus either a license to practice or a certain amount of research/publications. The ABSP also requires candidates to pass the Board Certified Sports Psychologist Examination, as well as have a certain amount of practical experience, research experience, or outstanding contributions to the sports psychology field.

Sports Psychologist Career Proficiency

In 2003, the American Psychological Association (APA) officially recognized sports psychology as a specialized area, or proficiency, in psychology, with the goal of providing uniformity to the development and practice of sports psychology. Several key elements were identified, including the specific knowledge needed in order to be considered specialized in sports psychology; the groups of people that would benefit from this specialty; and the problems or issues addressed through its practice.

The APA determined that sports psychology specialists should demonstrate:

  • Understanding of the major concepts and theories underlying the sports psychology field
  • Familiarity with the background of sports psychology
  • Counseling proficiency
  • Understanding of the mental development process within a sports context
  • Ability to grasp social issues that relate to participation in sports at any level
  • Understanding of human biomechanics and sports physiology

It further identified target groups that would benefit from sports psychology, including active amateur and professional athletes; sports teams and leagues, athletes suffering from temporary or permanent injuries; as well as the family members, teammates, coaches and friends of athletes. Finally, the APA identified specific problems and the techniques that could be used to address them, including mental skills training, visualization and motivational techniques, rehabilitation counseling after injuries, stress management, boosting self-confidence, leadership and team-building training, and counseling for eating disorders or substance abuse.

Sports Psychology Specialties/Careers

Sports psychologists can choose from numerous work options and environments. Some of the more popular careers under the umbrella of sports psychology are:

College team psychologist

A college team psychologist works with a college athletic team (or teams) to maintain or improve the mental health of student-athletes, as well as enhance their athletic performance. Addressing off-the-field issues, such as social or academic pressures, is a crucial part of the job.

Fact: More than 100 Division 1 university athletic programs employ sports psychologists either on their staffs or through outside providers.

Clinical sports psychologist

A clinical sports psychologist provides psychological therapy to patient-athletes. They may help clients increase their motivation, find ways to take the next step in competition, or manage stress from other commitments, such as family obligations.

Fact: Clinical sports psychologists who work with high-profile athletes have the potential to earn more than $100,000 annually.

Working in Sports Psychology: Skills

Success in a sports psychology career depends on many things, but certain skills and personality traits go a long way in making a career flourish:

Active Listening

Sports psychologist must be skilled at gathering and interpreting information about an athlete’s situation. This requires a good listener who pays close attention to what’s being said (and perhaps more importantly, what is not said).

Good Communication

There are many ways to say something, but not all of them are the best way to get the message across. Good sports psychologists have a command not only of language and its nuances, but also know how to read between the lines and find other ways to effectively communicate with their clients.

Good Judgment

Not all issues for athletes have clear-cut solutions. Sports psychologists weigh all the factors, including social or ethical considerations, that come into play when deciding on the best course of action for a client.

Teaching Ability

In the course of providing counseling and guidance to their patients, sports psychologists often assume a teaching role. They must be able to effectively explain the theories and goals of particular techniques or treatments, as well as how to implement them on a practical level.

Understanding of the Sports Culture

Sports environments can be intense, demanding and rewarding to the extreme. It’s a must to have a strong awareness of the social and cultural contexts of sports.

Grasp of Physical Versus Mental

In addition to understanding the biomechanical and neurological principles of physical activity, sports psychologists must have clear knowledge of how mental and emotional states can affect the physical body.

Sports Psychology Salary

Sports lovers will likely find the field of sports psychology interesting, but choosing it as a career involves practical considerations—in other words, what’s the job outlook, and what’s the bottom line? As with most jobs, financial compensation largely depends on experience and education level, but as a growing field, sports psychologists have a generally good outlook.

The BLS reports sports psychologists fall under the broad occupation category of “psychologists, other” for reporting purposes and are part of the “social scientists and related workers” subcategory. Other occupations in these categories include social psychologists and forensic psychologists.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job category that includes sports psychologists had a 2014 median salary of $92,110, with an anticipated job growth rate of 11% from 2012 to 2022—about the national average.

The following salary tool will show you the annual median wage for each state.

Sports Psychology Related Careers

A love of sports or a fascination with psychology do not have to be combined into the same job. There are numerous career paths that draw more heavily on one or the other and may be preferable depending on individual interests. The following jobs, listing the median salary for 2014 and the 2012-2022 job growth, are worth a look:

Athletic
trainer

Median Salary: $43,370

Job growth: 21%

Industrial-organizational psychologist

Median Salary: $76,950

Job growth: 53%

Clinical, counseling and school psychologist

Median Salary: $68,900

Job growth: 11%

Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors

Median Salary: $34,980

Job growth: 13%

Physical therapist

Median Salary: $82,390

Job growth: 36%

Recreational therapist

Median Salary: $44,000

Job growth: 13%

Coach and scout

Median Salary: $30,640

Job growth: 15%

Sports Psychology Resources

Those looking for good resources in sports psychology, including employment opportunities and career development information, can start with this list of pertinent links