Sport and exercise psychologists use their psychological skills, knowledge and expertise to support the behaviours, mental processes and wellbeing of individuals, teams and organisations involved in sport and exercise
If you choose to specialise in sport psychology, you'll help athletes and teams involved in sport, from amateur to elite professional level, deal psychologically with the demands of the sport. You'll also help them improve their personal development and performance in order to reach their full potential.
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 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
- provide athletes with strategies to help them handle issues such as nerves, self-confidence and motivation
- set up activities to help improve both individual and team performances
- 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 or 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 typically range from around £20,000 to £23,000.
- With experience, you can earn in the region of £27,000 to £38,000.
- Senior sport and exercise psychologists can earn in excess of £48,000.
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 depending on where you work, the size of company or organisation you work for and the demands of the role. For example, salaries for sport and exercise psychologists working for elite sports teams, 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 or exercise psychology role. 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 practise as a sport and exercise psychologist you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). There are various ways to achieve registration, depending on your qualifications and experience.
To register via the British Psychological Society (BPS) route, you'll need:
- Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC)
- an accredited MSc in sport and exercise psychology
- either an accredited Professional Doctorate in Sport and Exercise Psychology or Stage 2 of the BPS Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology (QSEP).
To be eligible for GBC, you'll need to successfully complete a BPS-accredited undergraduate degree or conversion course. Conversion courses are suitable for those who have a degree which is not accredited by the BPS, and usually take one year full time or two years part time. For details of approved courses, see BPS - Accredited courses.
Depending on your qualifications, you may be eligible for GBC as a non-UK applicant or via the special case criteria route. For more information, see BPS Graduate Membership.
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. The Masters course must be accredited by the BPS if you're looking to qualify for BPS Chartered Membership upon completion of Stage 2. Before applying, check that your course is approved by the HCPC (see the HCPC register of approved programmes).
The Professional Doctorate in Sport and Exercise Psychology can be done on a full or part-time basis and typically takes either two or three years (full time) or four to six years (part time).
The QSEP Stage 2 is an independent route to qualifying and involves undertaking a minimum of two years' structured supervised practice. It is a more flexible route for those who can't or choose not to do the professional doctorate. You will gain the required competence through your supervised practice placements.
You can also qualify as a sport and exercise psychologist through the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) Sport and Exercise Psychology Accreditation Route (SEPAR). SEPAR is a programme of professional development, skills acquisition and supervised practice that leads to BASES Accredited Status.
To be eligible for the programme, you'll need to show that you have evidence of underpinning psychology knowledge. You can achieve this by completing one of the following:
- a professionally accredited (e.g., BPS accredited or similar) undergraduate psychology degree or conversion course
- a professionally accredited PG Cert or psychology conversion course
- the 60-credit Investigating Psychology 2 module offered by The Open University.
Prior recognition of underpinning psychology knowledge from a professional body such as the BPS may also be accepted.
You'll also need to have Graduate membership of BASES and a relevant Masters-level qualification, usually an MSc in Sport and/or Exercise Psychology.
The SEPAR programme lasts from two to four years and you must carry out a minimum of 3,200 hours of practice. At least 20 hours of this must be observed by your supervisor. You will also need to submit portfolios of evidence, case studies, provide references from clients and complete a series of core workshops. For more information, see the BASES SEPAR Route.
Once you've successfully completed all your training, whichever route you've undertaken, you will be eligible for registration with the HCPC as a 'practitioner psychologist' and can use the title 'sport and exercise psychologist'.
If you want to follow an academic career, you'll usually need a PhD in sport and exercise psychology.
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
- teamworking skills
- commitment to research and continuing professional development (CPD)
- the ability to work under pressure and cope with challenging situations
- a methodical approach to work
- general IT and administrative skills.
It's important to gain some experience in a sport or exercise environment. This could be through a placement, internship, vacation work, volunteering or shadowing position. You'll also need relevant experience before being accepted onto a Masters course. Check with course providers to find out what type and how much work experience they're looking for.
You could also 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 and exercise psychology experience, but you can still obtain useful experience in areas such as:
- fitness and exercise instruction
- health promotion
- PE teaching
- sports performance.
Information on relevant work experience opportunities is available from the BASES website.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
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. You may get involved in GP exercise referral, cardiac rehabilitation schemes or work within the NHS or private healthcare providers. You could also work in a prison or psychiatric setting or in workplaces, setting up and evaluating exercise programmes for staff.
Look for job vacancies at:
- BASES - Vacancies
- Jobs.ac.uk - for teaching and research posts.
- NHS Jobs and NHSScotland Jobs
- Jobs in Psychology
- UK Sport
If you're looking to work in consultancy you'll need to establish a network of contacts during your training and beyond, 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 every two years 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 by the BPS. They provide online eLearning and webinars, for example, through BPS Learn.
Sport and exercise-related events, workshops and conferences are also offered by BASES.
You may decide to undertake further study to broaden your expertise in other branches of psychology, for example, such as clinical or health. Alternatively, you could do further research by completing a PhD.
Opportunities for advancement exist both within professional practice and through research within an academic environment.
Within the field of sport psychology, you may decide to become a consultant and build up your own client base and business. You will typically combine consultancy work with teaching and research or with other work in areas such as clinical and occupational psychology.
Alternatively, you could progress into a senior position 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.