Charlie Brown, PhD, was looking for a new dimension in his psychology career — a way to merge his professional skills in strategic problem-solving with his personal interests in athletics and travel. A recreational triathlete and avid skier, Brown found the perfect fit in sport psychology. The transition meant extra training: a second master's degree and supervised practicum work while phasing out his traditional, office-based practice in Charlotte, N.C.
But the effort paid off. Today Brown's clients include the USA Canoe and Kayak Whitewater Slalom team and SwimMAC of the Carolinas, a training center that sent five swimmers to the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Two — Nick Thoman and Davis Tarwater — brought home gold medals.
"I have the best job in the world," Brown says.
Working with Olympians is just part of the picture. Leaders in the sport psychology field say opportunities for their expertise are growing in university athletic departments, high schools and club sports. After all, the same techniques used to keep elite athletes mentally fit — visualization and stress management, among others — can help athletes at all levels stay on top of their game.
Why it's hot
We live in a sport-loving society. Industry analyst Plunkett Research Ltd. estimates that the U.S. sports market — everything from ticket sales for major league games to equipment sold in sporting goods stores — generates $400 billion in revenue in a typical year.
Our passion for sports, however, means that the athletes we cheer for face increasing pressures to achieve consistent peak performance. "Everyone is trying to figure out how to maximize talent," says Scott Goldman, PhD, director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arizona.
That means finding an edge that goes beyond being in top physical form. Experts in the field no longer think of peak performance as a natural by-product of practice and physical conditioning, says Brown. Now they take a broader view. Instead of focusing on playing-field victories, they recognize that athletes need the same sharp mental skills used to compete successfully in business, the arts and in the operating room.
"We believe the field really is performance psychology," says Mark Aoyagi, PhD, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. "This isn't specific to sports, even though it developed from sports."
That means opportunities for sport psychologists aren't limited to Olympians and elite athletes. Career options are opening up on stages and in boardrooms. If a pro quarterback can visualize a precise pass to his receiver in the end zone, a dancer can envision making a perfect pirouette, says Brown. The same mental preparation that helps NBA players sink half-court shots can help an advertising executive land the big account. It's all about achieving top form and a positive outlook despite setbacks, losses or distractions.
How to do it
With the right training — and luck — you could land a job helping the long-suffering Chicago Cubs try to win the World Series or guiding the Cleveland Cavaliers to a shot at an NBA championship in the post-LeBron James era. But most sport psychologists work in lower-profile jobs, such as at university athletic departments, says Gloria Balague, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
"It's not just for performance, but to make sure that student athletes are well-rounded," she says.
Student athletes face a lot of distractions. Bad weather causes travel delays to away games. The sting of missing a buzzer-beater won't go away. In these circumstances, sport psychologists can help student athletes maintain good "mental hygiene" to stay competitive in the classroom as well as on the field, says Goldman.
At least 20 NCAA Division I universities have a sport psychologist on staff and another 70 to 100 contract with outside specialists, Goldman adds. "The field is strong," he says.
Job prospects are good in the military, too. A commitment to keeping troops mentally fit for battle has made the U.S. Army the country's largest employer of sport and performance psychologists, says Aoyagi. In military settings, sport psychologists (called Performance Enhancement Specialists or PESs) work with soldiers, their families and civilians to build resilience in the face of adversity — whether it's leaving for a third deployment to Afghanistan or coping with a loved one's death during combat.
Sport psychologists also work in private practice, helping a wide range of athletes. For example, parents of promising high school athletes often hire sport psychologists to give their children an edge, as do amateur athletes looking to improve their performance. Triathletes, golfers, tennis players and equestrians are all potential clients, whether amateur or pro. In his consulting business, called Get Your Head in the Game, Brown divides his time among Olympic athletes, the North Carolina Dance Theater and executives and other professionals with high-pressure jobs. "The possibilities are limited only by your imagination," he says.
Depending on location, Goldman says, estimates indicate that sport psychologists in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year; the highest salaries can exceed $100,000 annually.
In private practice, the salary range is quite wide, he says. Sport psychology is a "boutique service" that caters to niche clients who pay for services themselves, Aoyagi notes. "There is no ceiling to how much you can make, but there is no floor, either," he says.
How to get there
It's not enough to be a licensed psychologist who plays sports, says Balague. And knowing how to get the proper training can be confusing, she adds. "The training path is still something [many] students have to put together themselves," she says.
Often, future sport psychologists enroll in a clinical or counseling doctoral program, and then take additional classes in kinesiology, physiology, sports medicine, business and marketing, Goldman says. Sport psychology education still is evolving, so mentors can help guide your training, too. Your advisor could be a mentor, or Balague suggests getting to know the sport psychologists consulting with your university's athletic department. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology also has a program to match students with mentors.
It is recommended that students who want sport psychology careers pursue specific training in sport psychology (typically this occurs at the master's level) and a doctoral degree, says Aoyagi. A handful of schools have tried to take the guesswork out of doctorate-level training by developing concentration areas in sport psychology.
For example, students at the University of North Texas can choose a specialization in sport psychology within the PhD program in counseling psychology. Requirements include three courses — exercise and sport psychology, social psychology of sport and applied sport psychology — as well as a sport psychology practicum, one research project in sport psychology and a one-year internship.
At Florida State University, the doctoral program in educational psychology has a sport psychology major. Students and their advisors select a four-member supervisory committee that approves a course of study in the major.
APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport) recognizes sport psychology as a postgraduate area of expertise and has developed proficiency recommendations. The division's website includes a list of resources for students and licensed psychologists interested in the field.
Pros and cons
Working with clients who want to excel is the challenge Balague enjoys most about her job.
"You're not working from a deficit; you're working on how these clients can use everything they have," she says. "There's also less burnout when you work from this very positive perspective."
Aoyagi, too, finds an engaged, high-achieving population fun to work with. But the downside, he adds, is that some clients want to run at cheetah-like speeds or bend at severe angles before they're ready. "They sometimes want to do too much, too soon," he says.
Traveling with a sports team and gaining the players' trust can be rewarding, says Brown. But it can have ethical pitfalls — maintaining confidentiality, for example. "If the performance venue is the only place I can counsel an athlete, what if ABC is taping while we have that conversation?" he says. Sport psychologists also walk the ethical line in deciding how much information to share with coaches and team physicians.
Being on the road with a team also means little time to relax and unwind. "You're always 'on,' " Brown says. That's why it's important for sport psychologists to care for their own emotional health while they care for the players.
Sometimes a sport psychologist has the difficult job of counseling a student athlete who wants to quit the team despite the coach's opposition, says Goldman. It can be a delicate balance. Even so, he doesn't see many cons in his profession.
"It's really rewarding to be part of this and watch the athletes shine after all the hard work they've done," he says.
Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.
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