What it Took to Become a Sports Psychologist

Sports Psychology Commentary – John F. Murray – December 18, 2018 – Hello students, clients and potential clients!  I get a lot of students contacting me every year about the profession and science of sports psychology, and I try to get back to them all. Often they will ask me what school to go to or what the requirements are to become a sports psychologist, and it is this latter question that I will try to answer as briefly as possible here.

Back in the 1980s I was a tennis pro and coaching the sport worldwide.  Around 1986 or so we started putting on mental training sessions for our tennis clientele in Europe, and sports psychology to me consisted of what I could find in books such as the Inner Game of Tennis, Flow, and books for specific mental training in particular sports. I was so fascinated by the subject that with a bachelors degree in psychology I decided to go back to graduate school and become a sports psychologist. I left a great career in tennis when I returned to America in 1990 and enrolled at the University of Florida Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences in the Spring of 1991 to start the process of becoming a sports psychologist.

As I got into their great program, and played tennis almost daily with the department chair, I quickly learned that if I was going to realize my dreams of becoming a practicing sports psychologist, I would need to also become a licensed psychologist. The exercise science folks were great academically, but there was simply no training model in place to train sports psychologists within academic sports science programs. There still is not. By contrast, psychology had been doing it for more than fifty years.

After obtaining a masters degree specializing in sports psychology, I enrolled in the Fall of 1992 at the University of Florida’s Department of Clinical and Health Psychology. They were also excellent and they were able to provide me not only the overall background I needed in psychology to understand, assess, and treat problems clinically, but the route I needed to obtain a license to practice psychology.  The only way you are going to become any kind of practicing psychologist (I wanted to do it rather than research it) requires graduation from a psychology doctoral program. Thankfully, they allowed me to continue to pursue my passion for sports psychology, and I conducted my PhD dissertation on the football team that won the national title in 1996.

The following year I went on internship, and was able to secure the only American Psychological Association approved internship in the country that had a full year rotation in applied sports psychology too.  I came back after that year, defended my dissertation, and then realized that in order to become a sports psychologist (or any kind of psychologist) there was still a requirement to complete 2000 hours of supervised clinical work after the PhD. So I secured a postdoctoral fellowship and after another year had the required hours, sat for the licensing exam and passed it, and became an officially licensed psychologist (and sports psychologist too since my academic and practical training was also in that area).

If you are exhausted having read all that, imagine how I felt in this pursuit from 1991 to 1999! The clear reality is that there is a way to become a legitimate or real sports psychologist. I have done it.  Why does it take so much education?  To help understand and help human beings, it makes sense to study human beings generally, and not only athletic performance of people!  To know athletes it also makes sense to study athletes, sports sciences, and all those unique factors too. Elite athletes have worked their entire lives to be able to play a sport, so it makes sense that we sports psychologists have to grind it out too, and our athlete clients respect us better as we know the value of sacrifice and dedication the way they have known to get to the top.

While there is room for everyone to help athletes in some way or another, the truth is that becoming a sports psychologist is a daunting proposition that requires years of hard work, financial delays, luck, and creativity. I stayed with it because I was extremely passionate, and I am glad I did. But if you miss either the sports science side of the equation or the psychology side, you are missing too much, and you are not really going to be fully qualified and you are not going to become a sports psychologist. 

It is true that the bare minimum to use the title in most every state is a psychology license to practice, and that is the hardest part to acquire because you have to go through a formal psychology program which takes 4-5 years at a minimum and requires a very high score on the GRE to get into the program in the first place.  I was low, and I scored 1300 which was around the 95th percentile! There are some smart cookies in the field! 

Some say that doctoral programs in psychology are harder to get into than medical school. But even with the psychology training and license, you cannot open shop independently and hold yourself out to the public as a sports psychologist without the coursework and other academics in the sports psychology/sports sciences realm as well as a ton of supervision by another qualified and licensed sports psychologist! To do so otherwise would violate the ethical requirement to practice within your established area of competence and training.

I have written about mental training and the field. My book Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game (Smart Sport Series) aims at helping tennis players and all athletes really to play the game better mentally, whereas my book revised in 2013 The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History is a much more comprehensive book that is part auto-biography, part new discovery, part social change agent, part football lover’s guide to the Super Bowl, and part coaches manual for success with a team. I think you will love this latest book and you will also like Smart Tennis if you want to improve performance in a specific sport.

I know that was a long one, and I am sorry if I wore some of you out! I wanted to share my story – and do go much more into depth about all this in The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History … the bottom line is anyone who is ambitious and bright enough can become a sports psychologist, but you really need almost 10 years to do it right.  As we approach 2019 and beyond, there are still very few practicing sports psychologists like myself out there, so it’s hard to gain the supervision … but it is a great profession and I am daily stimulated by a variety of challenges.

Thanks for listening!

John F Murray, PhD
Clinical & Sports Psychologist &
Author of The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History
Author of Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game (Smart Sport Series)

I hope you enjoyed this voyage into the sports psychology education!