Sport Psychology Degree and 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 doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) with a specialization (also called concentration, specialty, or emphasis) in sport psychology (leading to licensure as a sport psychologist) or a master’s degree with optional certification (leading to other non-clinical jobs in the field). In all states, becoming a licensed sport and performance psychologist requires a doctoral degree in psychology with a 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.
Table of Contents
- Sport Psychology Degree Requirements and Coursework
- Select Sport Psychology Degree Programs
- Sport Psychologist Career Information
- Becoming a Sport Psychologist
- Job Description
- Salary and Job Outlook
- Additional Resources
- Frequently Asked Questions
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 committees 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 in 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
Select Sport Psychology Degree Programs
Traditional Master’s Programs
The University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology offers a Master of Arts in Sport and Performance Psychology (MASPP) designed for professionals working in athletics, performing arts, mental health, or health and fitness. The program develops students’ professional skills for working with individuals in performance positions and helping them to improve their performance by examining how psychological factors affect performance and growth. The MASPP program can also prepare individuals to pursue a doctoral degree in sports psychology. The focus of this program is on applied and practical techniques, with ample hands-on experience through consulting and coaching placements as well as through the Center for Performance Excellence (CPEX), a student-led consultation service for underserved and minority populations that is supervised by faculty. Students must complete 72 credits of coursework, which is designed to be completed in two years. The program culminates in a master’s project capstone, in which students must demonstrate their comprehensive knowledge of sport and performance psychology (SPP) concepts and applications. Applicants to the program must submit transcripts showing a GPA of 3.5 or higher, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. The University of Denver also offers an online Master of Arts (MA) in Sport Coaching, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Strength and Conditioning and Fitness Coaching (SCFC) that can be completed online.
At Springfield College’s Department of Psychology, there are two options for students of sport psychology: a Master of Science (MS) in Sport and Exercise Psychology with a thesis option and a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Sport and Exercise Psychology, which is a non-thesis track. The MS degree allows students to pursue their desired research interests and is recommended for those who plan on continuing to doctoral study. The M.Ed. degree focuses on connecting students with high school and collegiate sports programs and is recommended for students wishing to become Certified Mental Performance Consultants (CMPC) through the AASP; rather than a thesis, this track culminates in a written portfolio and oral defense of their applied work. Undergraduate prerequisites of Anatomy and Physiology I and II as well as Physiology of Exercise are required before students can be accepted into the program. Springfield College also offers a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Traditional Doctoral Programs
Purdue University’s PhD in Psychology offers an emphasis in Exercise Psychology focusing on research and also including 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, which includes developing a program of research (thesis/dissertation) 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. In addition to the research project, students are required to participate in a seminar during their first year, take a comprehensive exam during their third year, and fulfill a publication requirement. Coursework is chosen to complement the chosen field of research for each student and their dissertation and includes advanced sport psychology, research methods, research analysis, human development, and social psychology. PhD students typically take at least 34 graduate credit hours beyond the master’s degree or 52 graduate credit hours beyond the bachelor’s degree. Applicants must submit transcripts, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation to be considered for the program.
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 Kinesiology with a concentration in Biophysical Kinesiology or Psychosocial Kinesiology. The Biophysical option focuses on biomechanics and exercise physiology, while the Psychosocial option focuses on motor development and the sociology of sport. 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 core coursework, 18 credit hours in the area of concentration, and additional coursework, bringing the total minimum credit hours for the program to 84. To be considered for admission to the program students must have a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 and must submit GRE scores along with three letters of recommendation and a personal statement of career goals and research interests. An Adapted Physical Activity option is available as an add-on to the graduate program which prepares graduates to work with people with disabilities. A related Master of Science (MS) in Kinesiology is also offered at Oregon State.
The University of North Texas (UNT) offers a PhD in Counseling Psychology with an elective cluster in Sport Psychology. The program gives students a broad education in practical counseling psychology and builds the specific skills and experience needed to work with athletes, coaches, and sports teams. 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. Graduates will be prepared to pursue licensure as a psychologist in any state as well as certification as a sport consultant through the AASP. Students entering the program with a master’s degree with at least 15 transferable credit hours can expect to complete the sport psychology program in five years, including the one-year predoctoral internship; students entering with a bachelor’s can typically complete the program in six years. Students applying to the program must complete an online application and submit transcripts that prove a minimum of a 3.5 GPA from a master’s program or a 3.0 GPA from an undergraduate program. Students must also submit a resume, GRE scores, and a statement of career goals.
Online and Hybrid Programs
California University of Pennsylvania (Cal U) 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 Cal U sport psychology program is designed for coaches and professionals in fitness or healthcare, equipping them to identify injuries and their precursors and to assist in rehabilitation and recovery and to refer them to other specialists when necessary. The core 36-credit hour program can be completed in 12 months of full-time study or in 17 months of part-time study. Optional focus areas add 12 credit hours and include Applied Sport Science, Group Fitness Leadership, Nutrition, Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention, Wellness and Fitness, Rehabilitation Science, and Wellness Coaching. Post-bachelor’s certificates in sport psychology comprising 12 credit hours are offered at Cal U in all of these focus areas as well. Admission requirements include a minimum 2.5 undergraduate GPA, although applicants with lower GPAs are still invited to apply for conditional admission with additional requirements.
National University’s Master of Arts (MA) in Performance Psychology program focuses on sport science, performance psychology techniques, enhancing performance, and counseling athletes and other performers and can be completed entirely online. The program requires that students complete 15 courses comprising 67.5 total quarter credits as well as hands-on experience. Courses are taken in four-week blocks, with multiple start dates offered for maximum flexibility. Examples of courses in the program include Organizational Behavior, Performance Consulting Skills, Behavioral Research, Ethics in Performance Psychology, and Theories of Behavior Change. The coursework completed at National will prepare students to take the next steps to become certified by the AASP. 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.
Sport Psychologist Career Information
How to Become a Sport Psychologist
Practicing sport psychologists must be licensed in all states, which requires a PsyD or a PhD in Psychology. However, clinical practice is not the only pathway for people wishing to enter a career in sport psychology; many positions in the field can be entered with a master’s degree. In general, to become a sport psychologist, you will follow these steps:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field.
- Earn a master’s degree (optional) in sport psychology.
- Get certified as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) by the AASP (optional) and begin practicing as a consultant.
- If you wish to become licensed and/or practice research, earn an accredited PsyD or PhD in Psychology with a specialization in sport psychology.
- Complete supervised clinical experience requirements for your state.
- Pass the required exams for your state, including the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
- Apply for and receive a license from your state’s board of psychology.
- Begin practicing as a sport psychologist.
- Complete continuing education requirements each year to keep your license current.
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 should be caring, patient, good listeners, and able to solve problems with practical solutions.
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 as mentioned, certain positions in this field require a doctoral degree. Some of the jobs available in the field of sport psychology include:
- Academic researcher*
- Athletic coach
- Clinical sport psychologist*
- Health program coordinator
- High school teacher
- Performance coach
- Private practice clinical sport psychologist*
- Professor or lecturer*
- Sport psychologist for a performing arts group*
- Sport psychologist for a club, college, Olympic, or professional team*
- Sport rehabilitation specialist
*A doctoral degree is usually required for this job title.
Salary and Job Outlook
Projections for jobs in the field of psychology (including clinical, counseling, and school psychologists as well as those in the psychologists, all other category) suggest that job growth will be 13.1% through 2028.4 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), non-clinical psychologists earn $98,230 on average, with the top-paid 90% of earners making over $129,530.5 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
- APA’s Exercise and Sport Psychology (Division 47): APA 47 is a division of the APA that supports and provides resources for professionals in exercise and sport psychology.
- American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP): Professional psychologists of all specialties can seek certification through the ABPP.
- Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP): The AASP is a professional organization for sport psychologists that also provides certification and promotes research in performance and sport psychology.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need a doctorate degree to be a sport psychologist?
Yes, to be a certified clinical psychologist, according to the ABPP, a doctoral degree is required.2 However, master’s degrees in sport psychology can be useful for those interested in enhancing their current career working with athletes and performers, those who are seeking non-licensure jobs, and those who want to continue on to earn a doctoral degree. Though you cannot technically call yourself a “sport psychologist” without a doctoral degree, a master’s in sports psychology can still be valuable for your career. For example, organizations such as the AASP offer certification programs 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. In either case, 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 four to seven years of full-time study to complete. Some programs are postdoctoral and require additional specialization and study after earning a PhD in clinical psychology. Master’s programs typically take two years of full-time study to complete.
What can I do with a master’s in sport psychology?
While clinical sport psychologists must hold 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. As mentioned, a master’s degree in sport psychology can also be used as a stepping stone to pursue CMPC certification through the AASP.
1. American Psychological Association (APA), Sport Psychology: https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/sports
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/current/oes193039.htm
6. American Psychological Association: A Career in Sport and Performance Psychology: https://www.apa.org/action/science/performance/education-training