Psychologist, sports

Sports psychologists help athletes and other sports people to use psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance on the field.

Job description

Motivation, concentration and focus, as well as overall mental health, are considered vital components in a winning athletes training. As the mental component in sport is such an important factor, psychology is assuming an increasingly important role in the field. It’s believed that the difference between a sports person with strong psychological training and a sports person without this could mean the difference between first and second place.

Sports and Exercise Psychology (SEP) is the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise and other types of physical activity. Sport and exercise psychologists are interested in helping athletes use psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (performance enhancement). They also work to promote understanding about how participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity affects an individual's psychological development, health and well-being throughout their life.

Sports psychologists work with sports participants across a range of both team and individual sports, from amateur to elite levels of competition. They help athletes at all levels of sport participation to add mental skills to their physical ones.

Psychologists will help athletes to set effective goals, to deal with wins and losses, to stay composed under pressure, and learn when and when not to exert themselves. The aim is predominately to help athletes prepare psychologically for competition and to deal with the psychological demands of both competition and training.

Work activities

  • Consulting with athletes and teams with a view to providing psychological skills training appropriate to the individual and commensurate with their level of participation.
  • Organising and operating workshops for coaches, teachers and exercise specialists.
  • Guiding and advising clubs, schools, coaches, parents and athletes in the application of sport psychology theories and practices.
  • Assisting governing bodies in the area of planning and implementing policy relating to participation, performance and training from a psychological perspective.
  • Counselling referees to deal with the stressful and demanding aspects of their role.
  • Advising coaches on how to build cohesion within their team.
  • Helping athletes to deal with the psychological and emotional consequences of sustaining an injury.
  • Planning and conducting research in sports psychology.
  • Keeping up to date with the literature and best practice in their field.
  • Providing an arena for sports people to engage in reflective assessment of their involvement in sports and future developments.

Work conditions

Travel: during the working day can be a regular feature. Although consultancy work may be office-based, consultants also work in field settings such as team premises, competition venues, clinical rehabilitation and recreational exercise settings.
Working hours: can involve some evening or weekend work particularly for those in private practice.
Location: mainly in towns or cities throughout the country.
Opportunities for self-employment: possible.

Typical employers

  • Professional sports teams
  • National governing bodies
  • Psychological consultancies
  • Schools and HE institutions
  • Youth groups
  • Private practices
  • Prisons and psychiatric institutions.

Career development

Diverse career paths and specialisation opportunities (i.e. teaching, youth sports, professional athletics training, lecturing and in research) exist.

Entry requirements

Republic of Ireland: There are few graduate and no undergraduate programmes in Ireland offering specialised degrees in sports psychology. However, psychology is one of the professions listed for statutory registration with the relevant registration board of the Health and Social Care Professionals Council. The title of the profession is protected by law and can only be used by registered practitioners.

An honours undergraduate degree or a post-graduate conversion course accredited by the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) where psychology is the major subject is a recommended path.

Completion of a postgraduate training programme in sports and exercise psychology is also likely to be recommended or even required.

UK: In order to practice in the UK as a sports and exercise psychologist, you must be registered with the Health Professions Council and also meet the requirements laid down by the British Psychological Society.

Specific degree subjects required

  • Psychology.

Other relevant degree subjects

  • Physical education.

Postgraduate study

While there are a number of accredited programmes in the UK, there are currently no accredited courses in sports psychology in Ireland. However, it is possible to complete a postgraduate taught degree in sports psychology tohelp you to develop a career in the area.

Specific entry requirements

Excellent academic record and appropriate personal qualities (maturity, emotional stability etc) are required for postgraduate programmes. Relevant experience is essential.

Police/Garda clearance may be required particularly if working with younger ages.

Tips for applications

Competition is very keen for entry to all postgraduate courses in psychology. You can enhance your chances of achieving a place on a postgraduate programme by achieving a high grade at undergraduate level (minimum 2.1 grade) and obtaining relevant experience working.

Skills and qualities

  • Commitment to helping people achieve their full potential.
  • Patience and a caring personality combined with the ability to empathise with clients.
  • Excellent listening, interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Excellent motivational skills.
  • Sensitivity, tact and diplomacy combined with ability to build and maintain a trusting relationship.
  • Confidence in working with people from a wide range of backgrounds.
  • Ability to explain complex issues to people with little or no specialist knowledge.
  • Excellent observational and analytical skills.
  • Ability to solve complex problems and work as part of a team.