Combining an interest in psychology with a passion for sports, sports psychologists improve the performance of sporting professionals at all levels, from amateur teams to professional athletes

What is sports psychology?

Strictly speaking, sports psychology and exercise psychology are two separate domains but they are often referred to jointly.

Sports psychologists primarily work with athletes, coaches and referees, from amateur to elite-level. Their work is centred on how psychology influences sport and how it can improve performance. Their aim is to prepare sporting professionals for the demands of their job, such as competition and training. For example, a sports psychologist could help a referee cope with the stressful aspects of their role or counsel athletes to successfully deal with the consequences of sustaining an injury.

Exercise psychologists, on the other hand, typically work with the general public to increase motivation and participation in exercise. The driving force behind their work is health and well-being, not performance.

Whichever you choose you'll work alongside a number of professionals - such as nutritionists, GPs, coaches and physiologists - to achieve your goals.

Why choose a career in sports psychology?

The diversity of the workload and working environments is a big attraction to those who prefer a bit of variety during the working day. Each day as a sports psychologist will offer something different; you'll work with a range of people at all levels and from a range of backgrounds. Local travel is a feature of the job and you could work from university campuses, GP surgeries or hospitals, athlete's villages, gyms and team training grounds.

For most sport and exercise psychologists - aside from those working within healthcare or teacher training and education - international travel is also an option. If you'd like to work abroad, especially in the USA you should consider a career as a sports psychologist.

Dr Faye Didymus, senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Leeds Beckett University explains how the profession is particularly relevant in today's society. 'There are a host of contemporary issues (e.g., the London 2012 Olympiad and its legacy, reports of high rates of physical inactivity and obesity in the UK) that have direct links to sport and exercise psychology.

'Given that such issues have been identified at national and local policy levels as having far-reaching implications for the health and prosperity of the nation, it is difficult to recall a time when sport and exercise psychology has been more relevant than it is today.'

While the work can be challenging it is also exciting and incredibly rewarding. Watching an individual or team that you have worked with perform successfully at a high level can give you a huge sense of achievement.

Do I need a sports degree?

Regardless of whether you're aiming to become a sport psychologist or exercise psychologist 'There are currently two routes to working in an applied capacity within the sport and exercise psychology profession,' says Faye. 'The predominant route is through the British Psychological Society (BPS).'

You'll first need to study for a Bachelors degree in psychology accredited by the BPS, leading to Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC). If your undergraduate degree is in an unrelated subject you could study for a relevant conversion course, such as the Graduate Diploma (GradDip) in Psychology.

Next you'll need to undertake a BPS-accredited sport and exercise psychology Masters degree.

The final step is to complete Stage 2 of the BPS Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology (QSEP), which involves two years of supervised practice. Once this has been achieved you'll be able to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as a qualified sport or exercise psychologist.

Entry on to postgraduate courses is extremely competitive and you'll typically need a 2:1 undergraduate qualification in a relevant subject. The MSc Psychology of Sport and Exercise at Leeds Beckett University is accredited by the BPS and focuses on the study of psychology in a range of sport and exercise settings. ‘Designed with students’ futures in mind, the course consists of six taught modules and a Major Independent Study (MIS).

'Modules cover a range of topics including a focus on the contemporary theories that can be used to explain concepts such as skill acquisition, coping with stress, doping, the psychology of injuries and physical inactivity. The course also includes a practicum module, which requires students to engage in at least 40 hours of supervised, client-related work,' says Faye.

On the BPS-accredited, one-year MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology degree at Loughborough University you'll study modules including 'Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity in Youth', 'Current Research in Performance Psychology and Management', 'Mental Health in Sport and Exercise' and 'The Psychology of the Coach-Athlete Relationship'. You'll be assessed through a combination of exams, coursework and group activities. Tuition fees for UK and EU students currently stand at £10,650.

'Our Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc programme moves beyond the fundamentals of psychological science by focusing on significant areas in the applied contexts of sport and exercise, while providing a critical understanding of sport and exercise psychology,' explains professor Sophia Jowett, Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc course director.

'The other route to working in sport and exercise psychology is via the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES), whereby graduates must have completed an endorsed undergraduate degree, followed by a period of supervised experience to become BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist who specialises in psychology support,' adds Faye.

Entry without a degree or with a foundation degree or HND only is not possible.

Search for postgraduate courses in sport and exercise psychology, and learn more about postgraduate funding.

Where can I find work experience?

Work experience is essential for aspiring sport or exercise psychologists, as relevant work placements or internships are usually required to gain a place on a Masters course.

Specific sports psychology internships can be tricky to find but you can still obtain relevant experience in a number of ways.

Contact your local gym to see if you can work shadow a personal trainer or teach a fitness or exercise class. You could also get involved in coaching a local or university sports team. Alternatively, try approaching schools in your area to see if you can gain some experience in PE teaching.

Sophia also suggests looking for paid or unpaid experience with private consultancy companies, such as Lane 4.

Volunteering is also an option. Why not give some of your free time to local youth sports teams?

If you like the idea of working abroad, Sporting Opportunities offer a 4 to 12-week sports psychology internship in Ghana.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

What jobs can I do?

'Jobs vary from becoming a sport psychology consultant as a freelance, or working for private companies or for public organisations such as the English Institute of Sport,' explains Sophia. 'The skill set of sport psychology graduates can be applied in diverse contexts that span from working as a sport coach, PE teacher or physical activity/health specialist to working as human resource personnel in public or private-based companies. The choice depends on the interests of the individual and their future aspirations.'

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.

'Graduates of the course at Leeds now lead sport science support programmes for teams and elite athletes, work in physical activity initiatives and interventions within the NHS and enjoy careers with national governing bodies and academic institutions,' adds Faye.

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

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.

Find out more