Working in a field you are passionate about can make your job feel like a vacation. But not everyone believes that they can follow multiple passions at the same time - until they do a little digging and find there are industries and job positions available at the intersection of their passions.
Some sports psychologists describe feeling this way upon discovering their career path. Yes, I said “sports psychologist. Baseball, tennis, football - all these sports are played, coached, and watched by people whose mindsets can give insight into improving sports and help different sports organizations meet goals for their players, owners, and employees. If you are passionate about sports but also love learning about psychology and human nature, you can still pursue a career that speaks to your passions.
What does a Sports Psychologist Do?
A sports psychologist studies assesses, and shares how human behavior and decision-making impact the world of sports and vice versa. They look at sports through a psychologist’s lens. Their goals range from improving player performance to elevating the world of sports through safety initiatives and different expectations for players.
While some sports psychologists spend their careers researching different theories about playing, coaching, or watching sports, others are “on the field,” working with players, coaches, and larger sports organizations. Some sports psychologists give speeches about being better athletes, while others advocate for policies that protect players and make sports more fun to watch globally.
The Intersection of Sports Psychology and Data: A Look at "Moneyball"
A popular example of the convergence of psychological insights and sports is the movie "Moneyball." Based on the true story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team's 2002 season, "Moneyball" showcases how the team's general manager, Billy Beane, used statistical analysis to assemble a competitive team despite a limited budget.
While the primary focus of "Moneyball" is on sabermetrics (the empirical analysis of baseball statistics), the underlying theme is deeply rooted in understanding human behavior, decision-making, and potential - key elements in sports psychology. Beane's revolutionary approach wasn't just about crunching numbers; it was about understanding player value, potential, and performance from a unique perspective, breaking away from traditional scouting methods.
The success of Beane's approach demonstrates the importance of mindset, adaptability, and understanding human potential in the sports arena. It emphasizes that by leveraging data alongside an understanding of human psychology, sports teams can gain a significant competitive edge. This melding of data and psychology is in many ways parallel to the work of sports psychologists, who delve into the mental aspects of performance to find ways to optimize it.
For those interested in sports psychology, "Moneyball" serves as a reminder that the field is not just about understanding the minds of athletes but also about leveraging insights to make strategic decisions in the broader realm of sports.
You don’t have to be a star athlete to become a sports psychologist, but being a star student helps! Sports psychologists must earn a doctorate, either a Ph.D. or a PsyD, specializing in sports psychology. (Yes, plenty of schools offer sports psychology programs!) Depending on your desired position and employer, you may also have to get board certification by completing an internship and passing an exam.
Salary (How Much Do Sports Psychologists Make?)
You might not have the same salary as Tiger Woods or Bill Belichick, but as a sports psychologist, you can still make a pretty decent salary. Salaries range based on who you work for (a research facility will have fewer funds available to them than a professional sports team,) where you live, and how long you have been working in the field. Use these salary ranges as an estimate as you plan which college to attend and where you want to look for work as a sports psychologist:
Sports Psychology Reported Salary
Schools for Sports Psychology Degrees
Sports psychology programs aren’t as common as more general psychology courses, but there are still a handful of schools that you can attend to become a sports psychologist. Start your school search with these 10 colleges and universities:
- University of Denver (Denver, CO)
- Springfield College (Springfield, MA)
- Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
- Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR)
- University of North Texas (Denton, TX)
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
- The University of Michigan (East Lansing, MI)
- Boston University (Boston, MA)
- Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL)
- Ball State University (Muncie, IN)
Companies That Hire Sports Psychologists
Sports psychologists may work directly with players, but not always. Suppose you are interested in sports but want to advocate for public policy or answer the biggest questions you have about sports and decision-making. In that case, you may find yourself in a research lab or working with other organizations. Sports psychologists work at:
- Colleges and universities
- Professional sports teams
- Healthcare providers
- Research facilities
- American Psychological Association
Sports psychologists may open up their private practice or business. Based on the research you have done and where you want to go in your career, you may find yourself at multiple different organizations or starting your practice at different points throughout your career.
Interviews with a Sports Psychologist
Want to know more about what it takes to be a sports psychologist? Hear it from sports psychologists themselves! Read this interview with Jim Taylor or Adwait to learn about what sports psychologists do worldwide.
You can also watch these videos online. From Seattle Seahawks sports psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais and the US Olympic Committee’s Karen Cogen about their field and daily work.
Interviews with athletes also show the impact that sports psychologists have on the world! Listen to a clip where Joe Rogan interviews kickboxer Rico Verhoeven on the importance of sports psychology.
Famous Sports Psychologists
Did you know that an educational psychologist pioneered sports psychology? That’s right! In the 1920s, educational psychologist Coleman Griffith published the first papers on sports psychology, including The Psychologist of Athletics. Griffith is considered “the father of sports psychology.”
Many other sports psychologists have greatly impacted the field. Dr. John F. Murray is one of the most notable sports psychologists today, often called “The Freud of Football.”
Dr. Robert Nideffer has published 15 books and over 100 articles on sports psychology. He has worked with US Olympic teams and institutions around the world.
Although Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is not primarily known as a sports psychologist, his work on the idea of “flow” has been applied to sports. He and Susan Jackson published “Flow in Sports” in 1999.
Sports Psychology Examples
Not all sports psychologists do the same thing day-to-day or have the same job as the sports psychologist next door. When you work in this position, you might find yourself:
- Giving a speech to athletes on how they can improve their mental health
- Researching how consumers watch, enjoy, and spend money on sports games
- Interviewing coaches on their leadership styles and how they treat players before a game
- Writing and publishing a book about how mindset affects sports performance
- Holding a workshop on team building and how coaches can support their players after a loss