Careers in Sports Psychology: Helping Athletes Excel

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An athletic trainer works with an athlete.
“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” — a phrase made famous by ABC’s Wide World of Sports — evokes an athlete’s challenges: not only to maintain peak physical condition but also to deal with physical, mental and emotional stress. More and more, athletes rely on people with training in sports psychology to help them boost their performance through science-based techniques for optimal mental conditioning. With a strong interdisciplinary background, professionals in a variety of athletic leadership careers apply principles of sports psychology to help athletes maintain their physical and mental health both on and off the field.

What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), “addresses the interactions between psychology and sports performance, including the psychological aspects of optimal athletic performance.”

Sports psychologists know how psychology and sports performance relate to each other. They teach athletes mental skills to help them improve their performance, overcome injury and reach their goals.

While athletes are often inherently resilient, they sometimes struggle with getting back on track following a setback. Some athletes experience depression and anxiety. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and professional basketball player Kevin Love have discussed their struggles with mental health. Athletes can also go through traumatic experiences, like the athletes sexually abused by USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. The drive to meet weight standards or conform to body image expectations can lead to eating disorders, and the drive to excel can lead to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Sports psychologists motivate athletes to improve their performance and recover mentally from injuries, mental health disorders and other factors using various techniques, such as visualization and relaxation.

The demand for sports psychologists comes not only from athletes but also from other people in stressful jobs. The U.S. Army employs more sports psychology professionals than any other organization in the country, according to the APA. Sports psychologists teach soldiers methods that help them focus on the battlefield and react to stressful situations in healthy ways.

The Link Between Athletic Leadership and Sports Psychology

Teaching mental techniques and applying core concepts such as concentration, goal setting and relaxation are fundamental skills for professionals in sports psychology roles. An athletic leadership program can help individuals cultivate these competencies, as well as leadership, communication and teamwork skills, to succeed in a career in sports psychology.

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership and its Sports Psychology track can prepare students to lead athletes to excel. Through courses such as Applied Sport Psychology, Clinical Sport Psychology and Assessment in Sport Psychology, students learn about how the mind works and how to apply sports psychology principles to help athletes become better competitors.

A Look at Sports Psychology Careers

Advanced study of athletic leadership and sports psychology can lead to a variety of careers, including the following three.


Coaches motivate athletes and work with them to enhance their abilities. They have strong communication skills. Coaches strive to teach athletes good sportsmanship and the value of teamwork, and they often serve as role models, both on and off the field. Coaches need to understand financial and legal issues, scheduling, and fundraising.

The median annual wage for a coach was $33,780 as of May 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS projects the employment of coaches to increase by 11% from 2018 to 2028, more than double the 5% projected growth in employment for all professions.

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers provide health care services such as injury and illness prevention and rehabilitation, wellness education, clinical diagnosis, and therapeutic interventions, typically under a physician’s guidance. The American Medical Association, the Health Resources Services Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services identify the athletic trainer role as an allied health care profession. In treating injuries, athletic trainers exercise compassion. The role also requires skills in decision-making and interpersonal communication.

Athletic trainers have clinical training and follow the ethical principles of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA). According to NATA, 70% of athletic trainers have a master’s degree. Most states require athletic trainers to be certified by the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer.

The median annual wage for an athletic trainer was $47,510 as of May 2018, according to the BLS, which projects the employment of athletic trainers to grow by 19% from 2018 to 2028, significantly exceeding the overall U.S. average.

Guidance Counselor

Guidance counselors help students at all levels, from elementary school to college, to improve academically and support their social and emotional well-being. Their responsibilities include conducting student evaluations, identifying factors impacting student performance, and counseling students individually or in group settings. They also work with teachers, administrators, parents and other counselors to develop academic achievement plans. School counselors typically hold a master’s degree. Licensure is required in some states.

School counselors earned a median annual wage of $56,310 as of May 2018, according to the BLS. The bureau also projects the employment of school counselors to grow by 8% from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.

Give Athletes the Psychological Edge

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership program and its Sports Psychology track can help you elevate your career in sports psychology. Students acquire essential skills, learn best practices and explore trends with faculty members who are experienced coaches, trainers, counselors and administrators.

Explore how Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership program and its Sports Psychology track can prepare you for a successful career in sports psychology.

Recommended Readings

What Does a Sports Marketing Director Do? 

How to Become an Athletic Director: A Look at a Key Career in Athletic Leadership

Exploring Careers in Athletic Communications


American Psychological Association, “A Growing Demand for Sport Psychologists”

American Psychological Association, Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology

American School Counselor Association, Role of the School Counselor

Association for Applied Sport Psychology, About Applied Sport & Exercise Psychology

Houston Chronicle, “Sports Psychologist & Their Responsibilities”

Houston Chronicle, “What Does an Athletic Coach Do?”

IMDb, ABC’s Wide World of Sports

National Athletic Trainers’ Association, What Is Athletic Training?

Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, “The Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes”

PayScale, Average Sports Psychologist Salary

Rider University, Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership

Rider University, Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership – Sports Psychology Track

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Athletic Trainers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Coaches and Scouts

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors