Do You Want to Become a Sports Psychologist?
Where does the field and the science of sports psychology stand today in 2013? In a nutshell, it is still an emerging science and profession that is often cloaked in mystery and ignorance. Part of the problem is that there are so few people who have actually become fully licensed and legitimate psychologists who specialize in sport. Another aspect is that to become a licensed psychologist and sports psychologist who can see clients independently and provide both mental training for sports and more general psychotherapy too, you have to obtain training and experience in two vastly different disciplines: psychology and the sports sciences. Understanding the field and profession of sports psychology can be difficult at best!
Ponder the implications for a second. Psychologists are social scientists who usually come from an orientation of helping others through careful listening, understanding, reflecting and providing a needed therapeutic intervention for mental distress. Of course there are exceptions but I believe I speak for many. Now contrast that with the role of a competitive sports psychologist like myself, coming from a sports and coaching background, whose mission is more likely to help my clients win the Super Bowl, become the heavyweight champion of the world, or find the strike zone better in baseball. Whereas one profession is associated with “therapeutic” and gentle caring, the other is directed toward helping athletes sharpen their fighting skills to destroy their opponent! Imagine the sea of potential differences!
In some ways this contrast in styles is true and in some ways not, as even top prize fighters need therapy at times and even depressed middle aged managers need to perform better in their weekend bowling leagues! Of course, extreme contrasts are more salient in memory than fine nuances or technical differences. The fact is that to help an athlete or team in a profession that is known as sports psychology, you really would be well suited if you could offer a broad range of skills acquired through a total and complete exposure to both sports and the various sports sciences, as well as all that professional psychology has to offer. It is the merger of these two often contradictory and different disciplines – the various sports sciences and psychology – that produces state of the art applied sports psychology today. Mental toughness is rooted in a lot of training and experience!
Training for this profession is never easy or rapid, and only the most persistent and completely focused graduate students and beginning professionals will even stand a chance of gaining specialization in two totally separate academic disciplines that appear so different. Patience and practical experience in these two areas is needed. Try to find a supervisor to help you gain the hours needed for a state license and it is not easy at all as there are so few psychologist/sports psychologists. Those not licensed by definition cannot supervise. It is a classic catch 22!
While psychology programs for years have been organized to provide academic and professional training opportunities (after WWII injured soldiers’ needs led to the creation of vast internship opportunities at VA Hospitals), similar programs in sports science departments have not been nearly so well organized and usually do not exist. As a result, a student going through a sports science program is not likely to obtain the hands on training gained by his psychology student counterpart even if he or she is exposed to marvelous research and literature, ideas and dogma. In a similar way, the psychology student does not receive sports science training because the courses do not usually exist in those areas in a psychology department. The key for the student is independent thinking and resourcefulness, and mental toughness too.
As a general rule in life, we become who we are surrounded by. The sober truth is that if you go to a sports science program you will become just that – a sports scientist – because your mentors will be those people. The same holds true in reverse with those being trained by psychologists. This all further highlights the fact that to gain this training and experience students need to be extremely open-minded, creative, and flexible. In my own pursuits as a graduate student, I started in a sports science program, got a masters degree, and was fortunate to jump ships and gain admittance to a totally different world – a clinical psychology doctoral program. It was like going from a football stadium during homecoming to a university library on Spring Break. The world of contrasts jumped out at you. Students in sports sciences tended to be fitter, more jock-like, and less rigorous academically. This is not to say that the jocks were lacking intelligence or that the egg-heads lacked in physical coordination, but there was a clear distinction between blue and white collars, GPA, GRE scores, educational background, sports experience and more.
The same contrasts held true for practical training opportunities in each program. The psychology part was easy to gain since the system is set up for that. The hardest part for me was to find an internship (the last year of any PhD program in professional psychology) that was both APA accredited as a psychology internship but also with a full year training program in sports psychology. You might be shocked to hear this, but it was the only accredited psychology internship in the country with this dual designation! I had been granted a truly rare internship and this was going to help me become the sports psychologist I had always wanted to become.
The following year this pattern continued with a similar set-up of working with athletes on my post-doctoral fellowship at FIU in Miami where I was hired in the counseling center, but did a lot of outreach to the athletic department and the various teams and coaches. I was able to work with athletes and teams on many issues including performance enhancement with a tennis team that had their best season in history (the same happened the previous year on internship with the tennis team) as well as working with general students through the counseling center.
While you may not have the opportunity or time to gain training in separate graduate school programs like I did, you don’t need to lose hope or give up. You might consider looking into some programs that did not exist when I was in school. You can also gain this experience in the community once you finish your formal studies, and one way is to pay a current practicing sports psychologist for extra supervision until you are qualified (usually 2000 hours after the doctorate of supervised work).
The main message here is that the bare minimum to be able to practice this profession independently, ethically and legally, compels you to obtain training, supervision, and academics in two arenas that may seem worlds apart. You definitely need a state license to practice. There is no getting around that if you want to practice independently.
If you think getting entry into this field is hard, you are right. But don’t lose hope. It is possible to do what you love. I do it. With persistence anything is possible and what is nice about the challenges in getting properly educated and credentialed is that it nicely mirrors what we are asking our athletes and teams to do on a regular basis! Just as they need to achieve and become one of the top 1% of 1% of 1%, those who make it into this profession are often the hardest workers who just refuse to quit or give in, even to monetary pressures!
I am hopeful that more get into this profession so that more know about sports psychology. I often feel like I am fighting an uphill but winning battle in letting others know about it and that is why I am so grateful to the media for helping me spread the good word.
Whether you are a sailor, salesman, stock broker or sports psychology student, never give up on your dreams. Work hard and you will find that your luck increases! Did I really say that? I am supposed to be a scientist! I am just kidding. Let’s get real. And let’s tune into sports psychology! If the most basic need in life is survival, and sports psychology teaches and trains people to survive and even thrive better, then by definition a huge key to life is sports psychology and what it offers!
There are great benefits for athletes, coaches, managers and owners for fully integrating this sports psychology science and profession into their training and programs. If you want to get into the profession, you have to battle and hang in there and battle again, and never lose hope. You really get to use the skills you teach others! With effort you can make it in this exciting science and profession of success. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the world of sports psychology and I would be happy to help you on your career course by answering any questions.