Before you choose a sports psychologist it is important to understand what the difference is between someone who has completed a sports psychology/sports science education and a licensed psychologist. There are many people in the world who are perceived as sports psychologists but they lack the actual credentials to practice psychology in their state.
Most states require anyone who is practicing clinical psychology to be licensed by the state that they are practicing in. This helps to set a minimum standard of care and protect the general public. It would be against the law in most states to use the title “Psychologist” if you were not properly licensed.
A student who has successfully completed a sports psychology education will not be fully qualified to practice as a psychologist and will not be able to obtain a license from the state to do so. Their knowledge may be significant and they may be best known as a sports psychologist, however there is still a clear distinction between this type of sports psychologist and a licensed psychologist who is also a sports psychologist.
The most significant difference is that a clinical psychologist has been educated and trained in general psychology. This means that they have been trained to deal with general mental disorders and conditions like depression and anxiety. These are important fundamentals for all psychologists regardless of whether or not they focus on sports and athletes.
A real sports psychologist is someone who has been trained and educated in general psychology in addition to sports psychology.
I received a Master’s Degree from one of the best sports psychology programs in the country and I recall that in that process I learned very little about how to assess, counsel, or diagnose an athlete who had a general problem. Clinical psychology programs suffer from a similar fault in that the students here will learn very little about how to increase performance through mental skills training. There are numerous areas of study that a psychologist needs to become familiar with before they are truly qualified to practice as a sports psychologist.
So what is the most important element of training for a sports psychologist? While the initial education and classroom time is important to laying down the ground work for your knowledge base, the most valuable part of a psychologist’s education is the time spent doing on-the-job training.
This is where psychologists learn about how to interact with their patients and how to actually counsel them. This element is not part of most sports psychology programs and this is what I consider to be the most valuable part of the education phase. Psychology programs are set up to offer and require this while sports science programs are not.
In order to provide the best counseling and the most help for patients, a psychologist needs to understand their patients both as “people” and as “performers”.
So is it really necessary for someone to make sure that a potential sports psychologist is a licensed psychologist? Yes, the majority of the time that I spend counseling (even when working with athletes) is usually spent diagnosing, discussing, and resolving general issues that are not directly related to the sports field. In some cases this might be much as 70% of what we discuss.
While this article will likely provide a little bit of insight for my readers here, this is not any kind of revelation to the psychology world. Other publications like Sports Illustrated and the New York Times have published similar articles to this one that have made exactly the same point.