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What does a Sports Psychologist do?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A sports psychologist is a licensed mental health professional who helps athletes improve their performance and focus. He or she works with sports players to help them identify their challenges, work through difficult times, and set goals. Psychologists employ many established therapy methods as well as specialized techniques tailored to the unique attributes of athletics. Most sports psychologists work in private practice, providing counseling to individuals on an appointment basis; some, though, are employed by college and professional sports organizations to work specifically with members of a team.

An athlete might seek the services of a sports psychologist if her performance is waning or she seems to lose interest in her sport. The psychologist asks questions in an attempt to uncover the underlying reasons for poor play or a change in attitude. The athlete may have personal issues at home, for example, that are preventing her from dedicating all her focus to her sport. The psychologist can help her work through problems and figure out important life decisions. She may be advised to take a break from athletics or engage in activities designed to help her reduce stress and improve mental focus during activities.

Sports psychologists work with athletes from every sport, age group and skill level. A psychologist who counsels youth and amateur athletes in a community typically works in a private practice, meeting with individuals to discuss issues. Many professional teams and sports stars hire psychologists to provide full-time help. A sports psychologist who is employed by a professional golfer, for example, travels with him to tournaments and spends countless hours both on and off the golf course to help him keep his focus and understand performance issues from a psychological standpoint.

In most countries, a two-year master's or four-year doctoral degree is needed to become a sports psychologist. Relatively few accredited master's and doctoral programs are specifically geared toward sports psychology, and most professionals enter the field after receiving a more general degree and gaining counseling experience in other settings. An individual is usually required to pass a written licensing exam administered by his or her state or country after earning a degree and gaining supervised experience.

Additional certification is not typically necessary to start working as a sports psychologist, though many people decide to join private organizations and take voluntary exams to improve their credentials. Organizations such as the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology in the United States provide certification and job search services for new professionals in the field. With training, dedication, and patience, an individual can find a fulfilling career working with sports stars.

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Discussion Comments
By tigers88 — On May 01, 2012

I have a friend who saw a golf sports psychologist. He was an avid golfer and one day his swing just completely went away. He could not hit a golf ball to save his life. He felt fine and had no particular stress in his life but the swing disappeared all the same.

He asked around the course and got a recommendation to a guy who worked with a lot of golfers, even a few PGA guys. They spent some time in an office and also time at the driving range. I don't know exactly what they talked about, obviously there is a personal dimension to that kind of stuff, but whatever was said it worked. His swing came back in a matter of weeks.

By summing — On Apr 30, 2012

I know that some teams employ a sports psychologist less for trying to fix people and more for trying to encourage them. The mind works in subtle and complicated ways and there are all kinds of methods for encouraging focus, calm and discipline that a sports psychologist can try and promote.

They might switch the way the locker room looks, the food the team serves, the routine a player has when he is at home. Anything they can do to get that player performing on an elite level as consistently as is humanly possible. In the same way that trainers work out the muscles to make them stronger and faster, sports psychologists work out the mind.

By Ivan83 — On Apr 29, 2012
Sports psychology is interesting to think about when you consider how much is resting on the performance of some of those players. Professional athletes make millions, sometimes even hundreds of millions of dollars. If their game is suffering because of psychological problems there is a huge incentive to get a professional to fix that.

Most psychologists don't have this kind of pressure. If the average depressed teen or bored housewife comes to a therapist there is not the same pressure on them to get results. Ethically there is, but realistically there is not. But sports psychologists have to fix the mind that controls the body that plays the game which makes gigantic profits. That is serious pressure.

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