Sports Psychology Career Overview

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A sports psychologist holds a magnifying glass up to an athlete’s brain.

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” The late baseball legend’s compendium of expressions, known as Berra-isms, often lacked logic. Still, this saying makes an odd kind of sense to athletes because mental health plays such a significant role in athletic performance. Take, for example, runners. Even as they condition their bodies for a race, they may experience negative thoughts that cause them to cross the finish line in subpar time.

Additionally, an athlete’s mental state following an injury can lead to a lack of motivation, frustration and poor outcomes. In this scenario, sports psychologists can play a pivotal role in restoring performance and confidence.

Whether athletes need to overcome mental barriers or regain confidence in their abilities, a sports psychologist can help provide them with the tools to succeed.

What Is Sports Psychology?

Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary field that’s concerned with not only athletes’ psychology but also physiology and biomechanics. The two main areas of interest in sports psychology careers are:

  • Understanding how sports technology techniques can influence performance and motivate athletes to excel
  • Understanding how sports technology techniques can promote the mental well-being of athletes, coaches and others participating in sports or physical activity

Sports psychology addresses the interactions between the mind and body of athletes in professional and college sports organizations, students who participate in sports activities and other fitness enthusiasts.

The History of Sports Psychology

The origins of sports psychology in the late 19th century involved the work of psychologists Norman Triplett and Edward Wheeler Scripture. Triplett, who studied the performance of cyclists, developed the social facilitation theory, which describes how competing with others can improve an athlete’s performance.

While studying runners, Scripture discovered cross-education: a form of strength training that can rehabilitate stroke victims after neurological injury. However, sports psychology didn’t become a formal research area until the 1920s, when Carl Diem founded the world’s first sports psychology laboratory in Germany (1920). Later, Coleman Griffith established a sports psychology lab at the University of Illinois (1925).

Today, sports psychology plays a critical role in modern sports — both at the professional level and among youth athletes and amateur enthusiasts. In attempting to meet their performance goals, athletes face challenges, such as mental blocks that inhibit performance and loss of confidence due to injury. Increasingly, sports psychology also helps support athletes through mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, as well as eating and compulsive exercise disorders.

The practice of sports psychology has expanded beyond sports to include supporting professionals who work in high-stress, physically demanding roles, such those in the military. For example, the U.S. Navy is working with professionals with a background in sports psychology to help increase the performance of explosive ordnance disposal technicians and divers.

What Is a Sports Psychologist?

Sports psychologists are licensed mental health professionals. They identify athletes’ psychological strengths and shortcomings and develop strategies that can impact performance. They understand physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology and psychology. They also recognize how these areas work together to help athletes:

  • Achieve their performance goals
  • Advance their physical endurance
  • Become more competitive
  • Improve their emotional and mental well-being

Athletes face many mental challenges, such as self-doubt following an injury. Physical activity can often lead to injury, ranging in severity from minor (a cut) to serious (broken ribs). When an injury hampers athletes’ ability to perform at the highest levels, they can lose confidence. A sports psychologist can help them regain that confidence by developing mental strategies, such as goal setting and visualization, that enable athletes to cope with challenges.

Professional and collegiate sports organizations also hire sports psychologists to manage team dynamics. They advise coaching staff on how to best promote athletic performance and endurance and develop strategies to help teams recover from losses. A sports psychologist can also provide counseling to franchises trying to restore team unity if it’s been disrupted by dysfunctional relationships and outsize sports personalities.

Sports Psychologist Resources

The following resources show how sports psychologists help athletes improve their performance and the origins of the field:

Sports psychologists use various techniques to help athletes improve their performance.

Important Sports Psychology Topics

Four central topics are of particular interest in the sports psychology field: performance enhancement; resilience and injury recovery; emotional stress; and anxiety management.

Performance Enhancement

High performance sets an athlete apart from others, and performance enhancement is a core principle of modern sports psychology. Performance is so critical to sports success that athletes often turn to performance enhancement drugs. The use of performance enhancement drugs is unethical, unsportsmanlike and illegal. It can also present health risks.

Performance enhancement in sports psychology focuses on strategies for improving athletes’ mental and physical performance. The techniques that sports psychologists use can correct problems that hinder athletic performance and help athletes overcome psychological barriers. These techniques include goal setting, visualization, mindfulness and self-talk.

Resilience and Injury Recovery

Resilience and injury recovery focuses on helping athletes overcome stressful short-term events and stressors that can have a lasting impact. To excel, athletes must balance both sports-related and personal challenges. For example, a short-term injury can have an immediate physical effect, but a long-term impact on the athlete’s mental state. Athletes also deal with personal issues, such as loss of loved ones or marital problems. A 2018 study of resilience and injury recovery in sports focused on factors that can impact performance and help athletes adapt to adversity in their professional and personal lives.

Emotional Stress

The pressure to compete at optimal levels is a significant stressor in an athlete’s life. Symptoms that indicate an athlete is dealing with emotional stress include sadness, irritability, anger, isolation and lack of motivation. In addition to sports-related stressors, psychosocial stress factors, including team and organizational dynamics, family problems, lifestyle changes, and traumatic events, all influence athletes’ performance. Sports psychologists can address emotional stress by forging trusting relationships with athletes. This allows them to get athletes to open up and discuss their problems, creating opportunities for sports psychologists to offer mitigation and coping strategies.

Anxiety Management

Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations,” according to Anxiety.org. Athletes feel anxious for several reasons, including game day jitters, fear of large audiences and fear of falling short of expectations. These causes of anxiety are often self-inflicted and can worsen when athletes don’t perform at their best. The inability to perform at the necessary level for success is commonly referred to as “choking.” Anxiety management is an area of sports psychology focused on helping athletes understand their thoughts and feelings. It helps them work toward modifying mental processes to help overcome challenges.

Essential Sports Psychology Techniques

Injuries are a part of sports. About 2 million people every year are injured in sports-related activities, according to Healthgrades. Among the most popular sports in the United States, basketball has more injuries than any other sport, followed by football, according to Insurance Information Institute statistics. Athletes can recover from their injuries to perform as they did before becoming injured. For example, after many years recovering from injuries, including a double stress fracture of his left tibia, back issues and surgeries, Tiger Woods won the PGA Tour Championship in September 2018 and the 2019 Masters Tournament.

Poor performance can also be the result of a mental block. Take, for example, the phenomenon known as “the yips”: a mental barrier affecting athletic performance. In golf, the yips can cause involuntary wrist spasms when golfers putt, creating missed opportunities.

Any athlete in any sport can get the yips. In baseball, for example, pitcher Rick Ankiel struggled so badly with the yips that it ended his career on the mound. Years later, he made a triumphant return as a home run-hitting outfielder. According to MedPage Today, Ankiel says his sports psychologist, the late Harvey Dorfman, helped him overcome anxiety and transform his career.

Motivation

Sports psychologists help athletes motivate themselves. They guide them through techniques such as visualization, mindfulness and self-talk to help improve their focus.

Goal Setting

The elements of a goal-setting program include identifying areas of improvement, developing skills, establishing completion dates for specific goals, implementing strategies for reaching goals and evaluating.

Attention and Focus

Sports psychologists can help athletes effectively understand and accept their current situation through attention control training, which includes strategies for avoiding distractions. This enables athletes to be more attentive and focused.

Imagery and Visualization

Athletes can use their minds’ senses — including sight, sound, touch and hearing — to visualize experiences. This enables them to create imagery that can help control their anxiety, be more attentive, build self-confidence and learn new skills.

Team Building

Team-building exercises promote cohesion, trust and improved communication. This enables athletes to work together for mutual success in sports and can enhance group performance to achieve common goals.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises and observing sensations in the body, can sharpen athletes’ mental focus. This includes athletes participating in the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games.

Sports Psychology Resources

The following resources provide information on how sports psychology is used to influence athletes’ performance and cognitive well-being:

Individuals with an understanding of sports psychology can pursue careers in sports leadership.

Sports Psychology Careers

Sports psychologists can pursue various careers and work in a number of settings, from sporting arenas to academic institutions. The following sections contain examples of popular sports psychology careers.

Sports Psychologists

Sports and exercise psychologists are active listeners with strong motivational, counseling and people skills who help athletes, teams and coaches improve their performance. Their responsibilities include developing strategies to help athletes overcome anxiety, become more self-confident, improve concentration and cope with injuries. They help athletes develop essential mental skills to enhance their well-being and physical condition.

Athletic Director

Athletic directors lead sports programs in high schools and colleges, managing budgets and overseeing game and practice scheduling. An athletic director’s role is primarily administrative. Still, it plays a central role in ensuring that student-athletes can balance their athletic and academic performance. Athletic directors with a background in sports psychology are equipped with the skills to promote school morale and establish programs that encourage student-athletes’ overall mental well-being.

Coach

Coaches are on the front line of athletic performance. They leverage sports psychology techniques to get athletes excited, encourage optimal performance, promote good sportsmanship and teach teamwork. Formal training in sports psychology allows coaches to understand athletes’ psychology. It helps them develop strategies such as self-talk and visualization to get athletes mentally prepared for games — elements of building resilient, cohesive teams.

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers are allied health care professionals, according to the American Medical Association (AMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Following a physician’s direction, they help athletes with injury and illness prevention and rehabilitation, wellness education, and therapeutic interventions. Athletic trainers with a background in sports psychology can rehabilitate an athlete’s body and mind following injury.

Performance Enhancement Specialist

Performance enhancement specialists help athletes overcome career slumps due to past performance or injuries. They use sports psychology knowledge to equip athletes with the mental skills to pursue and surpass their personal sports goals. They teach mindfulness, helping athletes focus on the field of play, maximize their performance and reduce the risk of injury.

Sports Marketing Consultant

Sports marketing consultants use their understanding of the psychology of fan loyalty to develop marketing programs that elevate sports organizations’ visibility. They’re directly involved with marketing products, promotions and athletes. Marketing consultants with a background in sports psychology can help guide athletes in making tough decisions about their careers.

Resources About Sports Psychology Careers

The following resources provide additional information about sports psychology careers:

Sports Psychology Salary

According to Verywell Mind, sports psychologists are among the highest-paid professionals in the psychology field. This is particularly true for those who work with professional athletes. PayScale reports that the median annual salary for sports psychologists as of June 2020 is about $72,300. The median annual salary varies by experience. For example, a sports psychologist with between five and nine years of experience earns a median annual salary of about $77,700. A sports psychologist with between 10 and 19 years of experience earns a median annual salary of about $96,000, according to PayScale.

Help Others Stay on Top of Their Game

Sports psychology can be a rewarding field for people who want to help athletes — professional and amateur alike — make the most of their time on the field, and address issues of well-being that affect them off it. It is also an essential concept for sports professionals to understand as they pursue careers in athletic leadership.

Infographic Sources:

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

Intermountain Healthcare, How Sports Psychology Can Help Athlete’s Beat Mental Health Challenges

PayScale, Average Athletic Director Salary

PayScale, Average Sports Marketing Consultant Salary

PayScale, Average Sports Psychologist Salary

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Athletic Trainers

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

Verywell Fit, “An Overview of Sports Psychology”