How to become a sport and exercise psychologist

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
October, 2016

If you'd love to improve the sporting performance of a range of clients, from professional teams and athletes to members of the public, or just get more people exercising, a career as a sport and exercise psychologist could be just for you

Strictly speaking, sport psychology and exercise psychology are two separate domains. However, there is some common ground. Regardless of your choice, you'll likely work alongside other professionals - such as nutritionists, GPs, coaches and physiologists - to achieve your professional goals, and deliver counselling and/or workshops that cover wide-ranging issues such as goal setting, visualisation and relaxation.

However, sport psychologists typically help athletes, teams and coaches - from amateur to elite-level - deal with the psychological demands of the sport, improving performance and enhancing their personal development. Exercise psychologists, meanwhile, typically work with the general public to increase motivation and participation in exercise.

Why choose a career in sport and exercise psychology?

First and foremost, the workload is flexible and fulfilling. For example, most sport and exercise psychologists - aside from those working within healthcare or teaching and education - have the opportunity to travel both nationally and internationally. Sport psychology is a particularly great career for those who want to work abroad, especially if you fancy working in the USA.

'It can be a challenging but exciting world to work in, and one that you need to really commit to,' explains Dr Misia Gervis, senior lecturer in sport psychology at Brunel University London. 'It's very rewarding when you see someone who you've been working with perform successfully at the highest level.'

Dr Stewart Cotterill, head of the Sport and Exercise Department at the University of Winchester, and programme leader of MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology, also heralds the role's variation. 'Every day in the career offers something different, and a great opportunity to meet a wide range of people from different backgrounds with differing aspirations,' he says.

'You're always learning and developing what you do and what works most effectively. The field offers individuals the opportunity to specialise in something that they're really passionate about, and spend their days doing something they love.'

How do I become a sport and exercise psychologist?

Regardless of whether you're aiming to become a sport psychologist or exercise psychologist, you'll follow one of two pathways to becoming a professional: the British Psychological Society (BPS) route or the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) route. The one that you choose depends on your academic and professional background.

The BPS route is aimed at those who've completed a BPS-accredited undergraduate degree or relevant conversion course, such as the Graduate Diploma (GradDip) in Psychology. It takes at least three years and is split into two consecutive stages:

  • Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology (QSEP) Stage 1 - This involves completing a BPS-accredited Masters degree in sport and exercise psychology.
  • QSEP Stage 2 - This involves gaining and developing professional competencies by practising for at least two years with the supervision of an accredited sport and exercise psychologist.

Graduates of this route can apply for full chartership and membership of the BPS's Division of Sport & Exercise Psychology (DSEP). They're also eligible to become a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)-registered sport and exercise psychologist.

The BASES route is aimed at students with a background in sport and exercise science who don't want to explicitly practise as a registered sport and exercise psychologist. It takes between three and seven years, and involves studying for a Masters degree in a sport and exercise discipline before undertaking two to six years of supervised professional training.

Graduates become a BASES Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist, and usually enter related fields such as sports coaching, business coaching, health promotion and exercise referral.

What do graduates do?

Dr Cotterill explains that sport psychology graduates most commonly become full-time practitioners who are employed by a team or a professional sporting governing body such as the English Institute of Sport (EIS). They may, however, choose to become self-employed consultants - this can be particularly lucrative, with consultancy fees for those working with elite athletes commonly exceeding £1,000 per day.

Exercise psychologists, meanwhile, are more likely to work alongside GPs within the National Health Service (NHS) or private healthcare providers such as Bupa. They may also choose to combine consultancy work with teaching and research within higher education.

However, Dr Gervis adds that there are plenty of contexts in which those who don't wish to become a professional sport and exercise psychologist can apply their skills and knowledge. These include other areas of psychology, teaching and education, human resources (HR) and healthcare.