Programs in sports psychology aim to teach students the fundamentals of psychology as well as sport science—how the body responds to physical activity and how mental processes in turn affect performance. Theoretical coursework is paired with hands-on experiences to arm students with practical skills in counseling to help clients.
A master’s degree is the bare minimum requirement to become a practicing sports psychologist; most employers prefer candidates who have earned a doctorate. As such, most dedicated sports psychology degree programs are at the graduate level. However, students will begin with an undergraduate degree. The specific sports psychology degree is rare at the undergraduate level, but pursuing another major, often in a field related to psychology or sports, is a common pathway to becoming a sports psychologist.
While it’s possible to find an undergraduate degree in sports psychology, it’s more common to choose a four-year bachelor’s degree that combines those elements in a different structure. For example, some schools offer a degree in exercise science or kinesiology with a psychology concentration, or a general psychology degree with a sports concentration.
Even a degree completely unrelated to psychology can be used as an entry point to a graduate degree program in sports psychology, as long as the student has completed certain psychology-related prerequisites. For example, many master’s programs will require students to have taken Statistics and/or Introduction to Psychology before entering their program. Other schools allow students to take such courses as part of a graduate program, but including them at the undergraduate level can save students time and money down the road.
There are two primary master’s level degrees available to sports psychology students, a Master of Arts or a Master of Science. Generally speaking, a Master of Arts will slant more to liberal arts and humanities, while the Master of Science will emphasize science and mathematics. Either degree will prepare students to obtain a doctorate degree in sports psychology. Students starting a sports psychology master’s program can expect to take some of the following classes:
Covers psychological research, methods and theories as they apply to athletic performance.
Examines both types of research methods, although qualitative methods are typically emphasized. Students explore topics such as interviewing and statistical data analysis.
Students learn the underlying theoretical bases of methods used to improve athletic performance, such as stress management and visualization, as well as how to implement such techniques.
In addition to regular coursework, most master’s degree programs in sports psychology require an internship or practicum, and a final research project. Depending on the school, students can choose between a thesis or a non-thesis degree track. The former requires the completion and defense of a thesis research project and is more suited for those who want to enter academia, conduct research, or obtain a doctoral degree. The latter also includes a research project, but it is generally not as in-depth. The non-thesis option is recommended for students who plan to practice immediately after getting their master’s degrees.
As with the sports psychology master’s degree, there are two primary doctoral degrees for those interested in sports psychology. The first is the PhD, which is focused primarily on research. The second is the PsyD, which is more practice-driven. These degrees are the only two which will allow graduates to sit for the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology, the test which must be passed in order to become a licensed psychologist.
Coursework in a doctoral program covers qualitative and quantitative research, social psychology, and the completion of advanced practicums or internships. Credit is also earned for the research and writing of the final dissertation. Sample classes at the doctoral level include:
Delves into the relationship between performance and human behaviors, such as communication, group dynamics and leadership.
Reviews how psychological factors impact sports injuries, including how injuries are experienced and how they are treated.
Addresses statistical theories, methods and concepts specific to psychology, emphasizing the development of statistical analysis skills.
In addition to the required coursework, students will usually take classes that provide hands-on experience, as well as complete a dissertation and accompanying research. The dissertation process involves several steps: consulting with an adviser to choose a topic, conducting research, writing the dissertation paper, and finally defending it to a committee.
Upon completion of the doctorate, graduates can become licensed by taking the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology. Either the PsyD or PhD degree will prepare students to become a sports psychologist, whether in clinical practice, education or research.
While the master’s and doctoral degrees can be pursued in tandem, students may also choose a joint degree program that combines a master’s with a PsyD, MBA or other degree. Both degrees are conferred at the conclusion of the program.
Many students today like the idea of pursuing their degrees through an online program, and psychology is no exception. Though some psychology coursework lends itself very well to online study, students should be aware that some degree requirements will require a more traditional approach.
The bulk of the coursework will be offered online, usually through a distance learning tool that allows students to interact with professors and peers, and access textbooks and other course materials through their computer at any time. Some classes can be taken at the student’s own pace, as long as they’re completed within a certain time period. Other classes may be conducted at a scheduled time, so that all students are online with the professor simultaneously.
Even though most coursework is delivered online, due to the nature of the sports psychology discipline, most online degree programs in the field also have an in-person requirement. Depending on the school and the degree offered, students might need to travel to campus in order to take a class that lasts a few days; such classes are often offered on weekends. Other schools may be willing to accommodate different approaches, such as allowing students to work at their local gym or college to complete their practical training requirements.
Such a wide variety of online degree programs in sports psychology exist that narrowing down the choices can be tricky. Students should consider several factors during their search, including:
Sports psychologists can choose a number of different tracks, from practice to research to teaching. Students should identify their ultimate goal and then pick a school accordingly. For example, those who want to work in professional sports should look for schools with connections to professional sports organizations, such as faculty members or alumni who work with well-known teams. Likewise, future researchers should find attend a school that offers a PhD rather than a PsyD degree, and has plenty of research opportunities.
Most schools include internships as part of their curriculum, but the extent and variety differs. Students should consider the nature of the available opportunities, how long they last, and how competitive they are. Practicing sports psychologists work with a lot of different people, and handle a multitude of problems. The more exposure they get to different issues, and the more practice dealing with them, the better.
Unless students have already lined up their postgraduate employment, a school’s ability to help students find a job after graduating should be considered. Does the school offer contacts and networking with alumni? How about with businesses in the field? There is also the school’s reputation to consider. Does it have regional or—even better—national recognition?
Accreditation is a key way to ensure a particular degree program meets education quality standards. Most schools are accredited, but students should double-check before enrolling. In order to become a licensed psychologist, most states require that a doctorate be earned from an accredited school. Individual employers also may not recognize degrees that come from unaccredited institutions.
After getting initial information about tuition and fees, students may wish to investigate ways to offset those costs through financial assistance. Some schools offer need- or merit-based scholarships or grants. Hidden costs may play a role as well. For example, if the school requires on-campus visits as part of the education process, students will need to factor in travel expenses.
The path to becoming a sports psychologist is a long one, but along the way there are many avenues for help with everything from financial assistance to career development. Students may consult the following resources: