Combining an interest in psychology with a passion for sports, sport psychologists aim to improve the performance of everyone from amateurs to professional athletes
What is sport psychology?
Strictly speaking, sport psychology and exercise psychology are two separate areas but they are often referred to jointly, due to the fact that 'sport and exercise psychologist' is the official protected title for professionals working in the UK.
Practitioner psychologists who specialise in sport contexts 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 wellbeing not performance.
Why choose a career in sport psychology?
The role is varied as you'll get to work with a range of people at all levels and from all backgrounds, meaning that each day is interesting as it presents new challenges. Local travel is a feature of the job and you could work from university campuses, GP surgeries or hospitals, athletes' 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 sport psychologist.
Dr Andrew Manley, head of subject and chartered sport and exercise psychologist 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, COVID-related challenges to engagement in physical activity, exercise and sport) that have direct links to sport and exercise psychology.
'Given that such issues have been identified at global, national and local policy levels as having far-reaching implications for people's health and prosperity, 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 and to their potential can give you a huge sense of achievement.
Do I need a sports degree?
'There are currently two principal routes to working in sport and exercise psychology, both of which lead to registration with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) and legal right to the use of the protected title sport and exercise psychologist,' explains Andrew. 'These two routes are via The British Psychological Society (BPS) and the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). The chosen route will depend largely on the individual's educational background.'
If you follow the BPS route, you'll first need to study for a Bachelors degree in psychology accredited by the BPS, which leads to the Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC). If your undergraduate degree is in an unrelated subject or is not accredited by the BPS, 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 (although this can be studied prior to or after the completion of a conversion course).
Entry on to a postgraduate course 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 that include a focus on contemporary theories that explain concepts such as coping with stress, doping, the psychology of injuries, and physical inactivity. The course also includes a unique practicum module, which affords students the opportunity to engage in at least 40 hours of supervised, client-related work,' explains Andrew.
On the BPS-accredited, one-year MSc Psychology of Sport and Exercise degree at Leeds Beckett University, you'll study modules including 'Contemporary Issues in Sport Psychology', 'Psychosocial Development in Sport and Exercise', 'Professional Practice' and 'The Research Process'. You'll be assessed through a combination of coursework, practical assessments, and group activities. Tuition fees for UK and EU students currently stand at £9,000.
The final step in the BPS route is to complete Stage 2 of the BPS Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology (QSEP), which involves a minimum of two years of supervised practice. Once this has been achieved, you can apply to become a Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist with the BPS, and eligible to register with the HCPC as a qualified practitioner sport and exercise psychologist.
'The other route is via BASES and the Sport and Exercise Psychology Accreditation Route (SEPAR). To be eligible for this training route, you must hold graduate membership with BASES, and be able to show evidence of having obtained sufficient 'underpinning psychology knowledge',' adds Andrew.
'This would typically be achieved through the completion of a BASES-endorsed or BPS-accredited undergraduate degree, as well as a Masters degree in sport and/or exercise psychology (or other related area of psychology). The Open University offer a 60-credit module which candidates can complete if they have not obtained sufficient underpinning psychology knowledge through their previously completed degree programmes. Once enrolled onto SEPAR, candidates will complete a period of supervised experience over a period of typically two, three, or four years.'
Entry to the BPS or BASES professional training routes is not possible without a degree, nor with a foundation degree or HND only.
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 and/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.
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?
Sport psychology graduates most commonly pursue careers as 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. Many also combine their work as a practitioner psychologist with academic roles within higher or further education.
'Graduates of the course at Leeds Beckett 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 Andrew.
Exercise psychologists, meanwhile, are more likely to work alongside GPs within the NHS or private healthcare providers such as Bupa. They too may also choose to combine consultancy work with teaching and research within higher or further education.
If you decide not to pursue a career as a professional sport and exercise psychologist then all is not lost as your skills could still be used in other areas of psychology, teaching and education, human resources (HR), and healthcare.