Sports Psychology Degree Career Guide

Sport psychology, also commonly called sports psychology or sport and performance psychology, is a proficiency recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA).1 There are two main degree paths to practicing in the field: a PhD with specialization in sport psychology (leading to licensure as a sport psychologist) and a master’s degree with optional certification (leading to other non-clinical jobs in the field). To be a licensed sport and performance psychologist requires a doctoral degree in psychology with postdoctoral specialization in sport and performance-related topics. Psychologists training to work in sports and performance commonly specialize in applied sport psychology, clinical sports psychology, or academic sport psychology. A master’s degree in sport psychology is often paired with certification as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). Jobs suited for a master’s degree with certification include coaches, trainers, athletic directors, and even business professionals. It is possible to earn an undergraduate degree in sports psychology, but these are typically in preparation for continued study to earn a master’s or doctoral degree.

Degree Requirements and Coursework

Graduate programs in psychology and sports psychology typically require a bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology, or at the least, a certain number of credits of psychology coursework, and possibly kinesiology or other sports-related courses. Admissions boards commonly want to see a minimum GPA of 3.0 and higher than average scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), as well as references and experience in athletics, coaching, psychology research, or other related environments.

Graduate students studying sport psychology learn the basics of professional psychology and clinical work, as well as topics related to working with athletes and other types of performers. Coursework for a sport psychology program may include:

  • Advanced Kinesiology
  • Applied Sport Psychology
  • Ethics in Sports and Exercise
  • Motivational Processes
  • Psychology of Athletic Injury
  • Sport and Exercise Psychology
  • Sports in American Culture
  • Stress in Sport and Exercise

Profiles of Sport Psychology Programs

There are several schools offering a master’s degree in sport, performance, or exercise psychology. Remember that while clinical sport psychologists must have a doctoral degree, a master’s degree can offer solid preparation for further graduate study and can also be useful for prospective and current physical education teachers, coaches, and others working with people who perform in sports.

Master’s Programs

University of Denver: The University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology offers an MA degree in sport and performance psychology designed for professionals working in athletics, performing arts, mental health, or health and fitness. The program helps professionals develop skills for working with those in performance positions. This program can also prepare individuals to pursue a doctoral degree in sports psychology. The focus of this program is on applied and practical techniques. In addition to coursework, students are required to participate in a practicum, a practical experience in which they put learned skills to use in settings like high school athletic departments, Boys and Girls Clubs, and ski academies. Applicants to the program must submit transcripts showing a GPA of 3.5 or higher, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay.

National University: National University’s Master of Arts in Performance Psychology program focuses on sport science, performance psychology techniques, enhancing performance, and counseling athletes and other performers. The program requires that students complete 14 courses comprised of 63 quarter credits as well as hands-on experience. Examples of courses in the program include Organizational Behavior, Performance Consulting Skills, Behavioral Research, Ethics in Performance Psychology, and Theories of Behavior Change. The program prepares students to work with college and professional athletes, with children in school and community sports groups, as coaches, and in performing arts settings.

Doctorate Programs

Purdue University: Purdue’s Sport and Exercise Psychology Graduate program focuses on research and also includes the study of self-perception, motivational processes, emotional processes, social relationships, and adversity in athletics and exercise. PhD students take approximately four years to complete the program and focus on developing a program of research that will be complemented by their coursework and contribute to their dissertation. The research project must be aligned with a faculty member’s research and each student works closely with the supervising faculty member to develop and implement the project. Coursework is chosen to complement the chosen field of research for each student and the dissertation and includes advanced sport psychology, research methods, research analysis, human development, and social psychology. Applicants must submit transcripts, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation to be considered for the program.

Oregon State University: Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences offers a unique option for those interested in graduate study in sport psychology. Students can earn a PhD in exercise and sport science with a concentration in sport psychology. The program emphasizes research and focuses on the study of the social psychology of being physically active. Completion of the degree requires 12 credit hours in research methods and conducting an actual research project with a dissertation. Students must also take 18 credit hours of complementary coursework on topics like motivation in exercise, psychosocial factors of physical activity, recreational sports administration, and other special topics. To be considered for admission to the program students must have a minimum GPA of 3.00 and must submit GRE scores along with three letters of recommendation and a personal statement of career goals and research interests. Most accepted candidates have a master’s degree, but it is not required.

University of North Texas: The University of North Texas offers a PhD in counseling psychology with a concentration in sport and exercise psychology. The program gives students a broad education in practical counseling psychology and builds the specific skills and experience needed to work with athletes. Specialized courses for this program include Exercise and Sport Psychology, Social Psychology of Sport, and Applied Psychology. Students must also complete a practicum, in which they gain real-world experience working with athletes and sports teams under the supervision of a faculty member. Students applying to the program must complete an online application and send in transcripts that prove a minimum of a 3.4 GPA from a master’s program or a 2.8 GPA from an undergraduate program. Students must also submit a resume and a statement of career goals.

Online Programs

Californa University of Pennsylvania: California University of Pennsylvania (CALU) offers an online Master of Science (MS) in Exercise Science and Health Promotion with a concentration in Sport Psychology. Students in this program enjoy one-on-one mentoring from faculty mentors, along with flexible scheduling options. The core 36-credit hour program can be completed in 12 months of full-time study or in 17 months of part-time study. Focus areas include injury and rehabilitation, performance enhancement and intervention, and practice referrals. Students can also elect to pursue a 48-credit hour program with a formal dual concentration in complimenting areas including Applied Sport Science, Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention, and Rehabilitation Science. CALU also offers a 12-credit hour graduate sports psychology certificate, as well as certificates in related areas.

Sports Psychology Job Description

A degree in sport and performance psychology can be useful for professionals in a variety of fields. Although a doctoral degree is required to be a licensed psychologist, a master’s degree in sport psychology can enhance the skills and knowledge of athletic coaches, physical education teachers, physical therapists and trainers, and others working with athletes or people in the performing arts. In addition to having the necessary knowledge of the psychology of sport and performance, these professionals are caring, patient, listen well, and can solve problems with practical solutions.

What Jobs Can You Get with This Degree?

Having a master’s degree in sport psychology may open the door to coaching jobs, working in supportive roles for licensed psychologists, or the administration of recreational sports and athletics, but many positions in this field require a doctoral degree (noted with a “D” below). Some of the jobs available in the field of sport psychology include:

  • Academic researcher (D)
  • Athletic coach
  • Clinical sport psychologist (D)
  • Health program coordinator
  • High school teacher
  • Performance coach
  • Private practice clinical sport psychologist (D)
  • Professor or lecturer (D)
  • Sport psychologist for a performing arts group (D)
  • Sport psychologist for a club, college, Olympic, or professional team (D)
  • Sport rehabilitation specialist

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a doctorate degree to be a sport psychologist?

Yes, to be a certified clinical psychologist, according to the American Board of Professional Psychology, a doctoral degree is required.2 However, master’s degrees in sport psychology can be helpful for those interested in enhancing their current career working with athletes and performers, those who are seeking non-licensure jobs, or those who want to continue on to earn a doctoral degree. Though you can’t call yourself a “sport psychologist” without a doctoral degree, a master’s in sports psychology may still be valuable for your career. For example, organizations such as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) offer a certification program for sport psychology graduate degree holders.3 The AASP’s Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) designation is for members with a master’s degree or above who have met certain course requirements in the subjects of sport and exercise psychology and who have gained applied mentor-supervised work experience. To become a CPPC, you must be able to demonstrate the completion of applicable coursework, complete a minimum of 400 hours of “mentored and applied experience,” and be evaluated by the Certification Review Committee. Currently there are over 2,500 members in 55 countries.

Should I attend a traditional or online sports psychology program?

For a doctoral degree in sport psychology, a traditional program is highly recommended because of the applied nature of the coursework. An online master’s degree in sport psychology can be a good option for working students who need flexibility and who want to add to their knowledge base. Make sure the program you select is accredited, especially if you aim to become a licensed clinical psychologist.

How long will it take for me to get a sports psychology degree?

Most doctoral programs in sport psychology take a minimum of four years to complete. Some programs are post-doctoral and require additional specialization and study after earning a PhD in clinical psychology. Master’s programs typically take two years to complete.

Sports Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

According to the APA, sport and performance psychology is a hot career field that is growing. Projections for jobs in the field of psychology generally suggest that jobs growth will occur at a rate of 10.3% through 2026.4 According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, non-clinical psychologists earn $93,440 on average with top earners making over $126,140.5 The APA states that sport psychologists in university athletic departments typically make between $60,000 to $80,000 per year, but can exceed $100,000.6

Additional Resources

1. American Psychological Association (APA), Recognized Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology: https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/recognized.aspx
2. American Board of Professional Psychology: https://www.abpp.org/
3. Association for Applied and Sport Psychology: https://appliedsportpsych.org/
4. Projections Central: https://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Psychologists, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes193039.htm
6. American Psychological Association – Hot Careers: Sport Psychology: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/11/sport-psychology