What is a Real Sports Psychologist?

Sports training has advanced so far in recent years, and the field of sports psychology is no exception. As we roar into 2019 and beyond, it is very important that athletes, teams, groups and even people in business looking for advanced mental coaching know what they are getting and what to expect when they hire a sports psychologist.

Before you choose a sports psychologist it is important to understand what the difference is between someone who has completed a sports psychology/sports science education and a licensed psychologist. There are many people in the world who are perceived as sports psychologists but they lack the actual credentials to practice psychology in their state.

States require anyone who is practicing clinical psychology or counseling people and using any form of the word psychology or psychologist to be licensed by the state that they are practicing in. This helps to set a minimum standard of care and protect the general public. It’s simple against the law  to use the title “Psychologist” or “Sports Psychologist” or any form of the profession for that matter, if you were not properly licensed.

A student who has successfully completed a sports psychology education within a sports science program will not be fully qualified to practice as a psychologist and will not be able to obtain a license from the state to do so with those credentials alone. Their knowledge may be significant and they may be known by some as a sports psychologist, however there is still a clear distinction between this type of sports psychologist and a licensed psychologist who is also a sports psychologist.

The most significant difference is that a clinical psychologist or counseling psychologist has been educated and trained in general psychology too, and it is extensive. This means that they have been trained to deal with general mental disorders and conditions like depression and anxiety. These are important fundamentals for all psychologists regardless of whether or not they focus on sports and athletes.

A real sports psychologist is someone who has been trained and educated in general psychology in addition to sports psychology.

I received a Master’s Degree from one of the best sports psychology programs in the country and I recall that in that process I learned very little about how to assess, counsel, or diagnose an athlete who had a general problem. Clinical and counseling psychology programs suffer from a similar fault in that the students here will learn very little about how to increase performance through mental skills training or other valuable techniques. There are numerous areas of study that a psychologist needs to become familiar with before they are truly qualified to practice as a sports psychologist, and pass the ethical standards.

So what is the most important element of training for a sports psychologist? While the initial education and classroom time is important to laying down the groundwork for your knowledge base, the most valuable part of a psychologist’s education is the time spent doing on-the-job training.

This is where psychologists learn about how to interact with their patients and how to actually counsel them. This element is not part of most sports psychology programs and this is what I consider to be the most valuable part of the education phase. Psychology programs are set up to offer and require this while sports science programs are not.

In order to provide the best counseling and the most help for patients, a psychologist needs to understand their patients both as “people” and as “performers”.

Is it then necessary for someone to make sure that a potential sports psychologist is a licensed psychologist too?  Absolutely YES.  The majority of the time that I spend counseling (even when working with athletes) is usually spent diagnosing, discussing, and resolving general issues that are not directly related to the sports field. In some cases this might be much as 70% of what we discuss.

While this article will likely provide a little bit of insight for my readers here, this is not any kind of revelation to the psychology world. Other publications like Sports Illustrated and the New York Times have published similar articles to this one that have made exactly the same point.

Keep learning, and always check the credentials of your sports psychologist before you hire. Make sure they have the proper state license to practice psychology and have also had extensive training, education and experience providing sports psychology services to athletes!