Being physically fit isn't the only skill you need to work as a sport and exercise psychologist; you'll also need patience, a motivational attitude and the ability to cope in potentially stressful situations
Your concern as a sport and exercise psychologist will be the behaviours, mental processes and well-being of individuals, teams and organisations involved in sport and exercise. Typically, you'll specialise in either sport or exercise, although some work across both fields.
Specialising in sport psychology you'll work with athletes and teams involved in sport from amateur to elite professional level, with the aim of helping them deal psychologically with the demands of the sport. You'll also help them improve their personal development and performance.
Working as an exercise psychologist you'll work with the general public to increase motivation and participation in exercise, encouraging a healthy lifestyle and advising on the psychosocial benefits that exercise can offer.
As a sport and exercise psychologist, you'll need to:
- assess your clients' needs and abilities, and monitor sporting performance and behaviour
- implement strategies to help clients overcome difficulties, improve performance or realise potential
- work with a multidisciplinary team including other psychologists, nutritionists, GPs, coaches and physiologists
- deliver counselling and/or workshops covering issues such as goal setting, visualisation and relaxation
- conduct and apply research in sport or exercise psychology.
If you work in sport psychology, you'll need to:
- work with a broad range of clients including individual athletes, teams, coaches and referees, from amateur to elite professional level across a range of sporting disciplines
- develop tailored interventions to assist athletes in preparation for competition and to deal with the psychological demands of the sport
- equip athletes with mental strategies to cope with and overcome setbacks or injuries
- advise coaches how to improve squad cohesion or communication
- deliver group workshops on areas such as self-analysis of performance or techniques to develop mental skills within the sport.
If you work in exercise psychology, you'll need to:
- counsel clients who are ill, in poor physical or mental health, and who may benefit from participation in more regular exercise
- advise individuals about the benefits, both physical and psychological, that can be derived from exercise
- work with individuals and groups in a variety of settings including GP surgeries, employers' premises, the client's home, clinical settings and local fitness centres
- devise, implement and evaluate exercise programmes based on the needs of the client
- provide counselling and consultations to a cross-section of the public including people who are depressed, GP referrals, people in prison or groups of employees as part of a workplace-exercise programme.
- Starting salaries range from around £20,000 to £22,000.
- Salaries for experienced sport and exercise psychologists typically range from £27,000 to £37,000.
- Senior psychologists and heads of department can earn around £48,000 or more.
For up-to-date salary scales for further education (FE) and higher education (HE) positions, see the University and College Union (UCU). Experienced consultants working with top professional athletes can expect to charge up to £1,000 a day in consultancy fees. Salaries vary according to the type of employer. The salaries of those employed by professional clubs or national governing bodies tend to be higher than those of amateur ones.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours for practitioners vary depending on the client and the nature of the sport. Although you would generally work office hours, evening or weekend work may also be required to fit in with training and sports competitions.
Hours within education or healthcare settings are mainly 9am to 5pm.
What to expect
- Work environments vary depending on the client and could include an office base within a university campus, GP surgery or hospital, or field settings such as the athletes' village at major sports events, the team training base or employers' premises.
- Jobs are available with sports teams and organisations, as well as universities and colleges, throughout the UK and abroad. Sport psychology is well established in the USA.
- Travel within a working day is common, particularly if working with sports professionals. You may form part of a support team travelling with a team or athlete to competitions and tournaments locally, nationally and internationally.
To qualify as a practising sport and exercise psychologist you'll need to complete:
- a degree in psychology accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS) leading to the Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC)
- a BPS-accredited MSc in sport and exercise psychology
- Stage 2 of the BPS Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology (QSEP) (two years of supervised practice).
Once you've completed Stage 2 of the BPS QSEP you will be eligible for registration with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) and can use the title 'sport and exercise psychologist'.
If you have a degree in a subject other than psychology, you may be able to gain eligibility for GBC by taking a BPS-accredited conversion course, which usually takes one year full time or two years part time. For details of approved courses see BPS - Find an accredited course.
Entry with an HND or foundation degree only is not possible.
Entry on to a Masters course is competitive and you'll normally be expected to have at least a 2:1. Graduates with a 2:2 who also have a research-based higher qualification may be accepted. Before applying, check that your course is approved by the HCPC (see the HCPC register of approved programmes).
Once you've completed the Masters course, you'll also need two years' supervised practice before you can register with the HCPC.
If you want to lecture in sport and exercise psychology, you'll need to follow a career in research. A PhD in sport and exercise is usually required.
You'll need to show evidence of the following:
- an interest in sport
- excellent communication and interpersonal skills
- active listening and reflection skills
- patience and the ability to motivate others
- flexibility in order to work in a range of settings with different clients
- problem-solving skills
- decision-making ability
- commitment to research and continuing professional development (CPD)
- ability to work under pressure and cope with stressful situations
- a methodical approach to work
- IT skills.
It's important to gain some experience in a sport or exercise environment and you can do this either through a placement, internship, vacation work, volunteering or shadowing position. You'll also need relevant experience before being accepted onto a Masters course.
BASES (The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences) has lots of relevant information about work experience opportunities on its website. Also, you could try contacting your local sports club to ask about opportunities to help out. Until you're qualified it may not be possible to gain specific sport psychology experience, but you can still obtain useful experience in an area such as sports performance, coaching, fitness and exercise instruction, health promotion or PE teaching.
Some sport psychologists work as private consultants or work full time for professional sports teams or national governing bodies of sport.
Most, however, combine consultancy work with teaching and research within universities or colleges throughout the UK and abroad, or work in other areas of psychology, for example clinical or occupational.
Similarly, exercise psychologists tend to combine consultancy with teaching and research. Your work might see you involved in GP exercise referral, cardiac rehabilitation schemes or work within the NHS or private healthcare providers.
You may get involved with setting up exercise and health programmes in prisons or for staff in the workplace as well as in psychiatric settings.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Jobs.ac.uk - for teaching and research posts.
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- Jobs in Psychology
- UK Sport
If you're looking to work in consultancy you'll need to establish contacts and build networks, even during your Masters course (if you do one), as referrals are often by word of mouth or facilitated through contacts with GP surgeries or other health professionals.
All practising sport and exercise psychologists are required to register with the HCPC (Health & Care Professions Council). Registration renewal takes place on a two-year cycle and applicants for renewal must sign a professional declaration. Contact the HCPC for further information.
In order to stay registered with the HCPC, you must undertake and keep a record of continuing professional development (CPD). Activities may include attending courses, workshops and conferences run, for example, by the BPS.
BPS provides learning and CPD opportunities through its Professional Development centre, and runs an annual learning and professional development programme.
BASES runs a number of sport and exercise-related workshops and conferences, which you may find help keep your skills fresh.
You may decide to undertake further study, for example to broaden your expertise in other branches, such as clinical or health psychology. Or further research, by completing a PhD, especially if you're employed in a lecturing role. See the BPS website for a guide to postgraduate research degrees.
Opportunities for advancement exist both within professional practice and through research within an academic environment.
Within the field of sport psychology, you may find the opportunity to advance to a private practice as a consultant or to move to senior positions within a professional club, with individual athletes or a governing body.
Elite athletes work for many years to reach such a level and expect the same level of expertise from their support staff. For this reason, it's usually necessary for a sport psychologist to have several years' experience before being able to work with top professional athletes.
Within the field of exercise psychology, there may be opportunities for advancement to a consultancy role or involvement in GP referral schemes. There is an increasing role for professional staff within the area of health promotion. The role of health psychologist within the NHS may also present opportunities for qualified exercise psychologists.