Sport psychology is a growing field with exciting career opportunities for anyone interested in the psychological and emotional processes involved in sport and exercise participation (Appleby, 2007). A sport psychologist may focus on several different career paths including, but not limited to (a) coaching athletes toward athletic excellence; (b) teaching students about the psychological aspects of sport; (c) exercise participation such as motivation, goal orientation, self efficacy, and communication; and (d) consulting one-on-one with athletes in a private setting. All of these career paths have one thing in common: they require advanced graduate education.
Undergraduate Curriculum Choices
There are many steps you can take to prepare yourself for graduate study in sport psychology. First, find an advisor with whom you have a good working relationship. Second, research your undergraduate course options. Third, create a semester-by-semester master plan of courses you need to graduate.
It is extremely important for you to meet with your advisor and decide if you are compatible with this person. The next step is to discuss your specific interests in sport psychology, which will allow your advisor to help you choose an appropriate major, enroll in the classes you will need to graduate, select appropriate electives, and engage in suitable extracurricular activities. Your advisor can also be a valuable resource when it comes time to begin the application process for graduate programs.
The educational backgrounds of practicing sport psychologists in North America are diverse. For instance, Teetor-Waite and Pettit (1993) discovered that approximately 75% of doctoral students in sport psychology had undergraduate and/or masters degrees in physical education, kinesiology, sport studies, sport science, or exercise science. Therefore, if you decide to pursue an undergraduate degree in kinesiology, it would be wise to choose electives from your psychology department (e.g., Motivation). On the other hand, if you select an undergraduate degree in psychology, taking courses in your kinesiology department (e.g., Introduction to Sport Psychology) would be beneficial. For a comprehensive list of recommended undergraduate courses, see Finley’s (2001) very helpful resource for those who plan to go to graduate school in sport psychology.
Once you have researched course options and requirements, as well as graduate school requirements, work with your advisor to create a master plan. In this plan you should place all your required and elective courses into a comprehensive, semester-by-semester sequence. It is critical to update and modify this plan with your advisor every semester to ensure you are on track and aware of your progress toward graduation and graduate school. It is also crucial to check with your advisor to make sure the courses you are planning to take in particular semesters are actually offered during those semesters.
Finding and Gaining Internship Experience
Another important aspect of gaining admission into a graduate program in sport psychology is to acquire practical experience. Hands-on experiences will enable you to apply the theoretical information you learned in the classroom, as well as network with professionals in the field. Networking in sport psychology is a crucial step in becoming a professional, because it is vitally important to create connections with current professionals in the field as sources of information, contacts, and referrals (Segrist & Pawlow, 2009).
An important concept to remember in the networking process is that every contact is valuable. Keeping an open mind when developing a network will generate learning opportunities from professionals with an assortment of backgrounds, experiences, and pathways to success. A great way to start developing a diverse network is to make yourself known by those around you who can be important to your success, such as other members of the student body, athletes, graduate students, past and present coaches, administration, staff, athletic directors, and professors.
Stepping out of your comfort zone and increasing the circumference of your network is also imperative. It is essential to create and seek opportunities to participate in "face-time” with members of your current network—in particular, professionals within the field of sport psychology—as well as to generate new network contacts. Attending lectures featuring guest speakers on campus, seeking out research opportunities, participating in relevant student clubs and organizations, and attending professional conferences will provide valuable learning and networking opportunities with other students also interested in sport psychology and professionals working within the field (Galli, 2010). Additionally, such "face-time” will help you build the resources you will need as you travel your career path to becoming a sport psychologist; market your current skills, accomplishments, and goals; and create future opportunities for education and research (Greene, 2010). Always remember that connections are the keys to future doorways of success. You may be surprised at the doors that open by unexpected contacts.
Gaining Research Experience
The ability to perform research is one of the most crucial skills needed to gain entrance to and succeed in sport psychology graduate programs. As an undergraduate, finding research experience can be difficult because you may not have access to classes that emphasize research skills (Perlman & McCann, 2005). Participation in extracurricular activities, such as athletics or student government, can also limit the time a student has to pursue research. How can I do research, how do I get involved, and where do I go to find research? These are challenging questions, and even faculty will admit it can be difficult to find an opportunity to explore, create, and think scientifically—but it can be done.
So why is research so important? Beyond the basic answer that it promotes growth, learning, and moves the field forward, research can also provide you with a number of valuable experiences. Completing research allows you to use your creative and inquisitive skills and to integrate the knowledge and abilities you have learned in your courses (Perlman & McCann, 2005). Gaining research experience helps when applying to graduate programs because it will make your application stronger. This experience can also provide you with a greater sense of preparedness, selfconfidence, and a more positive outlook about graduate school, where research will be heavily emphasized (Huss, Randall, Patry, Davis, & Hansen, 2002; Page, Abramson, & Jacobs-Lawson, 2004).
You can gain research experience simply by looking in your university’s course catalog. Psychology research classes can offer you a valuable starting point when you want to learn about and perform research. Many of these courses emphasize basic skills in critical thinking and writing, as well as statistical and data entry. Advanced research courses expand on these concepts in more applied settings and allow you to take more creative control of projects. Though these types of courses are excellent in creating experience and knowledge of research, they are often hard to find at the undergraduate level. Perlman and McCann (2005) have shown that, while 98% of institutions offer a basic research course in their psychology program, only 38% offer an undergraduate thesis or major project course. Despite the challenge of finding these courses, it would be worthwhile to seek them out. These advanced learning opportunities focus on all aspects of the research process and are one of the main criteria graduate school admission committees use when a potential student is being considered. If your undergraduate program does not offer advanced research courses, one of the best ways to achieve research experience is to collaborate with one of your professors on a research project. If that is not an option, use national programs and grants (e.g., Psi Chi) to help you create and fund projects.
Regardless if you are able to do an independent research study or work with professors at your school, it is important to continue to take research-based courses. If your university offers a senior thesis or capstone course, take it (Perlman & McCann, 2005). While the course may require many hours of hard work, it will pay off. Students who complete research during their undergraduate years feel more prepared to enter graduate school (Huss, et al., 2002; Page, et al., 2004). Therefore, the experience of designing your own project, collecting data, writing the report, and presenting your results will serve you well when you seek admission to graduate programs in sport psychology.
Effective Ways to Research Graduate Programs in Sport Psychology
The final step in the graduate application process for sport psychology programs is learning which programs will best fit your individual needs. Researching graduate school programs can be a confusing and frustrating process. How do you know if one program is better than another? How do you know if your research and professional goals will be met by the curriculum in a specific program? Here are some tips that may help answer these questions.
Searching for the Right Program
When searching for appropriate programs, it is important to identify your potential career path. If you desire a career in academia, you must find a program with an academic focus that will prepare you for research and teaching responsibilities. If you desire to become a practicing sport psychologist, there are professionally-oriented degree programs that provide more hands-on experiences that will help you apply your classroom knowledge in locations other than colleges and universities.
Searching for the Right School
Once you have identified the type of program you desire, the next step is finding a school. Before searching for graduate programs, you must consider geography. Identifying a geographical region that you find attractive can help you focus your choices. A quick web search for graduate programs can help in this process. Two web sites that are great starting points are the American Psychological Association’s site (www.apa.org) and Gradschools.com (www. gradschools.com). Both of these sites allow you to limit your search to sport psychology programs. Another excellent resource is the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology (Burke, Sachs, Fry, & Schweighardt, 2008), which provides program-specific information on faculty research engagement, degrees offered, student admission trends, internships, and contact information.
Once you have created a list of suitable schools, the next step is to research each school on its university’s website. It is extremely important to identify the research activities of each program’s faculty members so you can determine if their research interests match yours. It is also beneficial to communicate directly with some of the faculty to get a feel for the culture and demands of their program. Once you have narrowed your choices to a small number of best-fitting programs, scheduling an on-site visit is the next step.
Searching for Financial Assistance
After you have engaged in the steps described above, it is important to explore scholarship and assistantship opportunities. An assistantship is essentially a partnership between a university department and a student. The student provides some sort of service to the department in exchange for tuition and possibly living expenses. These are great opportunities to earn a graduate degree and not incur large amounts of debt. Within an academic department, assistantships are generally provided for students who can teach undergraduate courses (teaching assistant or TA) or provide research assistance (research assistant or RA). Although it differs depending on the university and program, a TA is generally responsible for teaching all or part of a class, which can be an activity course such as Beginning Basketball or a more academically oriented course such as Introduction to Kinesiology. Although guidance is provided by full-time faculty, TAs are often expected to work independently and oversee all aspects of the course. An RA generally works on an existing grant or research project and can be responsible for a variety of aspects of the research process. RAs may be required to write proposals, organize undergraduate research assistants, collect and analyze data, and write up results and discussions along with a variety of other research-related responsibilities. Again, RAs receive guidance from faculty, but are expected to execute projects and work independently during the research process.
The last funding opportunity, a graduate assistantship (GA), can come from a variety of places on a university campus. If you are interested in sport psychology, an excellent place to look for a GA is in the university’s athletic department, which should have a range of GA opportunities such as assistant coaching, sports information, game management, academics, or compliance. Although the work may be different from teaching and research, the outcome is the same: you work and, in return, you receive compensation for your education. These opportunities are available at every institution, but they differ depending on the funding of each department. Contact each school to determine what positions are available and how to apply for them. It is important to note that the application process for these funding opportunities will exceed what is required for acceptance into the school, so both procedures should be researched carefully.
Being accepted into a sport psychology graduate program can open exciting professional doors. In order to get there, it helps to start early. Making smart undergraduate curriculum choices, finding and securing hands-on internship opportunities, gaining research experience, and critically exploring different sport psychology graduate programs are the crucial first steps in your journey toward a career as a sport psychologist.
Appleby, K. M. (2007, Fall). Sport psychology: History, professional organizations, and professional preparation. Eye on Psi Chi, 12(1), 22-24.
Appleby, K. M., Appleby, D. C., Carr, C., Mullins, D., Bastien, C., Christensen, B., Cook, A., DeLion, J., Griffiths, L., & Scorniaenchi, J. (2010, March). The many faces of sport psychology. Presented at the IUPUI Sport Psychology Symposium, Indianapolis, IN.
Burke, K., Sachs, M., Fry, S., & Schweighardt, S. (2008). Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (9th ed.). Mogantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Finley, D. L. (2001). So your students want to be sport psychologists! Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology website: http://www.teachpsych.org/otrp/resources/finley03.pdf
Galli, N. (2010). Tips for undergraduate students interested in a career in sport and exercise psychology. Retrieved from Association for Applied Sport Psychology website: http://appliedsportpsych.org/searchResults/showPage/p/id/454
Greene, H. (2010). Who’s in your network? Networking tips for young professionals. Retrieved from Association for Applied Sport Psychology website: http://appliedsportpsych.org/searchResults/ showPage/p/id/528
Huss, M. T., Randall, B. A., Patry, M., Davis, S. F., & Hansen, D. J. (2002). Factors influencing self-rated preparedness for graduate school: A survey of graduate students. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 275-281.
Page, M. C., Abramson, C. I., & Jacobs-Lawson, J. M. (2004). The National Science Foundation research experience for undergraduates program: Experiences and recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 241-246.
Segrist, D., & Pawlow, L. (2009). Who do you know? Demonstrating networking in a careers in psychology course. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 36, 352-356.
Perlman, B., & McCann, L. I. (2005). Undergraduate research experiences in psychology: A national study of courses and curricula. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 5-14.
Teetor-Waite, B., & Pettit, M. E. (1993). Work experiences of graduates from doctoral programs in sport psychology. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 5, 234-250.
Author Note: Preparing for and choosing a graduate program can be a challenging process. In the field of sport psychology, this process can be even more daunting because few undergraduate programs focus on the discipline of sport psychology or provide adequate advice about how to become a sport psychologist. In order to alleviate this situation, the current authors participated in a symposium titled "The Many Faces of Sport Psychology” (Appleby, et al., 2010), during which sport psychologists described the different components of the field and graduate students in sport psychology provided advice about how to make wise undergraduate curriculum choices, find and gain internship experiences, become competent in research, and engage in effective strategies to discover appropriate graduate programs in sport psychology. The response to our symposium was so positive that we decided to share its contents with a wider audience by writing this article. Please note that although this document specifically targets students interested in graduate study in sport psychology, the recommendations we provide can be helpful for any potential graduate student in psychology.