When I directed the Sport Psychology Program at University of Iowa, I was frequently asked questions concerning a career path in sport psychology. After a few years and literally hundreds of inquiries, my response became a bit rehearsed. The following is a condensed version of my perspective on how to pursue sport psychology as a career.
In the United States there are over one hundred academic programs in the sport psychology area. On the other hand, applied sport psychology programs (those which train practitioners, not just academicians) are much fewer in number. For a listing and description of all programs, check out the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology available from AAASP (Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology.) You can obtain a copy of this directory by calling 1-800-477-4348 or writing: Fitness Information Technology Publishers, P.O. Box 4425, University Avenue, Morgantown, WV 26504, USA.
As yet, I'm not aware of an undergraduate degree program in sport psychology. In the U.S., there are masters and doctoral programs. A masters is helpful for continuing in coaching and related fields; a doctorate is imperative for academic work in sport psychology, especially at the highest level (large research institution,) and not imperative, but very helpful, for consulting in the field. I have heard that more and more smaller universities and colleges are looking for people who are qualified to teach sport psychology as a supporting area, (e.g. a person could teach physical education courses plus one course in sport psychology.) A masters could be the terminal degree for this kind of work. This is encouraging news to graduating students of sport psychology programs. Academic positions are very hard to come by and very competitive once they are open; so the broader the playing field, the better.
So, how does a person become attractive as a candidate to a graduate program in sport psychology? Acceptance into a program depends on general departmental requirements, and to a great extent, the program director. University of Iowa provides a good example. While I directed the program, if a candidate met basic academic requirements, (undergraduate degree with 3.0 GPA and above 1500 on GRE's,) the number one asset was the breadth and depth of their experience in sport. This meant participation in sport at all levels--not that it was imperative to be a world class athlete. The important level to reach was a level of personal excellence. Under my direction, that's what the program at Iowa was all about: studying the dynamics of personal and team excellence and trying to apply that knowledge to help others pursue their personal and/or team definitions of excellence. Under new direction by Dawn Stephens, Ph.D., the University of Iowa program requirements emphasize a background or academic interest in the social psychological issues of sport such as moral development and achievement motivation, (Dr. Stephens' area of expertise and research focus.) She looks more closely at writing skills, verbal scores, and the student's statement of purpose, as she strives for compatibility between the students' research interests and her own. Overall, her goal is to train academicians, not practitioners.
Whether the program emphasizes experience in sport or academic excellence or both, a second asset prospective students have is a genuine desire to learn all that they can learn about sport psychology. This means a fundamental desire to answer and contemplate the burning questions they have developed over the years pertaining to human behavior in the sport arena. Ideally, a sport psychology student has found a workable balance between love of sport and academics, which soon turns into a scholarly approach to higher education in sport psychology.
When I was at the University of Iowa, nine out of ten inquiries were from people wanting to pursue a career in the performance enhancement area of sport psychology. I'd venture to guess that most of those people are not in the field of sport psychology per se today. Many are coaches and physical educators; others are pursuing a wide range of "unrelated" fields, physicians assistant, athletic training, and so forth. This is important because as yet, there is no set career path for the sport psychologist outside of academia. Hence, my last suggested requirements: enthusiasm, commitment, and initiative. Those that stay in academia have found that the pursuit of scholarship, research, and teaching suits them best. Others must continually scramble for a living, e.g. sell themselves as consultants and public speakers, or apply what they have learned to other seemingly unrelated professions.
One advantage of pursuing sport psychology as a discipline, is that it can not be a waste of time. By its very nature, it is relevant to life, unless of course, happiness, health, and excellence are not a part of a person's life plan or dream. Which brings me to the bottom line. Sport psychology is all about pursuing dreams. In fact, people who pursue their dreams are "getting into" sport psychology, whether they know it or not.
As always, I try to explain to people that sport psychology is like a frontier. Even in today's fast-paced world of high technology, there are few steadfast rules about how the mind interfaces with body and spirit. Living and working on the frontier isn't for everyone. The more grassroots experience, desire, and initiative people have, the farther they will go. In many ways, a career in sport psychology means trail-blazing on this fascinating and challenging frontier.
Barbara T. Waite, Ph.D.
Waite & Associates/Sportdoc
P.O. Box 5072
Coralville, IA 52241-5072
319-354-4000 (voice or fax)