Becoming a Sport Psychologist

The thoughts behind this post came about through conversations I had with two MSc students and an applied practitioner at the British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology (DSEP) conference in December 2019. The topic of the conversation was on developing a career in Sports and Exercise Psychology and how there are limited career opportunities in the field. The students were concerned about opportunities that exist within the field upon graduation.

This conversation took be back to the start of my MSc in 2014 when the reality of careers in Sport and Exercise Psychology were presented to us. The question posed to us was “how many full-time Sport Psychologists do you think are employed in academy football in the UK?”. A few people in the class gave an answer and I made a guess that there would be around 12 full time Sports Psychologists in academy football given the fact that there were 20 Premier league clubs. Everyone in the class was surprised when the answer that we were given was 0. At the time although I believed that psychology played an important role in sport, it did make me question why I had signed up for a MSc with such limited job prospects.

Speaking with the students at the DSEP conference I could empathize with them around what they seen as the job prospects within the field. At the time of the conversation I was within six months of finishing my Professional Doctorate course (Stage 2 training) and although I understood the student’s point of view, I now had a different outlook on employment opportunities within the field compared to when I started stage 1 training.

As practitioners we understand the importance of athletes having a broad identity and the importance of balance for performance and well-being. An athlete overly focused on their athletic identity at the expense of other areas of their life, (e.g. being a friend, a student, family member, career) can experience negative consequences when injury or setbacks occur. Likewise, as Sports Psychology practitioners if we overly focus on one area when developing our careers (e.g. only working in football, with professional athletes, or only working a specific way) we too can experience negative consequences such as burnout when we experience setbacks that will inevitably occur. I explained that if at the beginning of a career there is a sole focus on searching for jobs as a Sports Psychologist then this narrow focus can potentially result in the negative consequences that an athlete experiences when they invest too much in just their sport.

I explained to the students that if they are looking only for advertised Sports Psychology jobs, they are right, there are limited job prospects. This reflects applying the knowledge of Sports Psychology to the role of a Sports Psychologist. When applying for a job in this scenario, you will need a unique selling point over other Sports Psychologists. However, if we can take our knowledge of psychology and apply it to other jobs and roles in sport, we open lots of other areas for employment within the sports industry. In this scenario the understanding of psychology applied in sport can be a unique selling point.

The second scenario reflects my journey as a practitioner. The roles I have occupied include being a head coach of football teams, being an assistant coach with football teams, working in sports development, lecturing, providing performance lifestyle support to student athletes, research and managing a Dual career support scheme for student athletes. As a Head Coach I tried to utilize my understanding of psychology to try and create an autonomy supportive environment. As an assistant coach I have tried to integrate sports psychology within the teams training sessions, help the coach perform and help the coach develop the environment. As a Sports Development officer I have tried to take a systems approach to understanding and attempting to increase participation and performance in sport. As a lecturer I have tried to help students understand the theory and its application to practice. Providing performance lifestyle support I have tried to help student athletes balance their sport and academic demands. As a researcher I have tried to better understand the development pathway in Irish football so that players can be better supported in the journey. As a manager of a Dual Career support scheme for students athletes, I have tried to design a research and best practice informed environment for student athletes. None of the above roles had a designated title of a “Sports Psychologist”, however they provided an opportunity to bring Psychology to life through the role.

The inspiration for putting these thoughts down on paper, came about through two Podcasts I listened to recently. The first was the Slice of PIE podcast where Pete Jackson spoke with Dr. Richard Keegan on career development in Sports Psychology. Richard highlighted how it is important for practitioners to develop a range of skills. He highlighted how if he woke up and he was told he could not teach any more, he could engage in applied practice and vice versa. The second podcast was by Keir Wenham-Flatt where he interviewed Mark Baker about Marks experience after he made the decision to become “unemployable” and not work for anyone again. Throughout the podcast the importance of the concept of robustness is discussed, and the ability to be able to adapt to the competitive work environment. In strength and conditioning it was highlighted how there are two types of coaches, the unemployed and the soon to be unemployed!

Both podcasts highlighted to me how it is important to develop a good base as a practitioner across a range of areas instead of specializing in one area. This is something that has resonated with me on my journey as a practitioner so far, with opportunities often arising unexpectedly from areas I often started exploring due to an interest. I think it is important to understand the reality of working in sport as a Sport and Exercise Psychologist, however it is also important to recognize that Psychology and its theories can be applied beyond the role of a Sports Psychologist. This opens up a multitude of jobs markets in which we as Sports Psychologists can apply our skills.

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