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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2015

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2015 | Volume 19 | Issue 4


Meet the Professionals! Preparing for a Career in Sport Psychology

Karen M. Appleby, PhD,
Idaho State University;

Drew C. Appleby, PhD,
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis;

Andrew D. Polenske,
Idaho State University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I am a professor who teaches sport psychology, their usual response is, “That sounds very interesting! I’ve never heard of sport psychology. What does a sport psychologist do?” At this point, I jump right into my 30-second “this-is-what-sport-psychologist-is” elevator speech. My brief description of a very broad profession is focused on two important aspects of the field: (a) teaching students about the interaction of psychological skills and performance, and (b) helping athletes and exercisers use these performance enhancement techniques in performance and exercise settings.

This description, although accurate and appropriate for an impromptu description of the field, is not a sufficiently adequate explanation for students who are interested in pursuing sport psychology as a profession. Sport psychology is a unique field that involves a wide range of professional opportunities. In order to learn more about sport psychology, or any field for that matter, several critical steps are required.

Step 1 is to understand the history, tradition, professional organization, and major tenants of the field. There are two Eye on Psi Chi resources that students who are interested in sport psychology can access to accomplish this first step. In the article “Sport Psychology: History, Professional Organizations, and Professional Preparation,” Appleby (2007) discussed the history, progression, and current professional state of sport psychology. In “Some Psychological Factors for Promoting Exceptional Athletic Performance,” Rushall (2000) provided information on the important link between psychological skills and performance in sport. Both resources introduce students to foundational concepts of sport psychology.

Step 2 is learning how to prepare for a career in the field by strategically considering course requirements and undergraduate activities that will be beneficial. Appleby et al. (2011) offered advice to undergraduate students related to undergraduate course curriculum and preparing for graduate study in sport psychology in the article “Preparing for Success in Sport Psychology Graduate Programs.” This article can help students determine a beneficial curricular path for gaining entry into graduate programs in sport psychology.

Step 3 is learning what current professionals in the field actually do and receiving their advice about how to use both undergraduate and graduate opportunities to gain positive professional momentum to prepare for a career in sport psychology. The current article is meant to help students take this third step. In this article, we will introduce five professionals who specialize in the field of sport psychology and who consult with athletes at various levels, from youth to professional, in a wide variety of capacities. We will address the following three important questions that students should be able to answer if they are genuinely interested in becoming professionals in the field of sport psychology: (a) What type of educational training do sport psychologists have and in what professional fields do they work? (b) How can students prepare for a career in sport psychology? and (c) What advice do the professionals have for students who are interested in following in their professional footsteps?

Meet the Professionals

Dr. Chris Carr earned his BA in psychology with a concentration in communications, his masters in counseling psychology, and his PhD in counseling psychology with a minor in sport and exercise psychology. Dr. Carr currently works as the Coordinator of Sport and Performance Psychology at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, IN. He has worked with collegiate athletes, two Olympic sports teams, and six different professional sports teams. He has been working with the Indiana Pacers since 2011. Dr. Carr has been practicing sport psychology for 27 years and has been chosen to give the distinguished Coleman Griffith Lecture at the 2015 Association for Applied Sport Psychology Annual Conference.

Gregory Chertok earned his BA in psychology and his master of education in sport and exercise psychology. Chertok is the Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in New Jersey, where he works primarily with youth athletes. However, he also works with all skill levels of athletes who are looking to improve their skills. Chertok has been practicing sport psychology for almost eight years.

Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach earned her PhD in exercise science with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology, and is an associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. She works with athletes of various ages and ability levels, but most of her clients are high-level master’s athletes who compete in endurance sports such as running, cycling, and triathlons. Dr. Dieffenbach has been practicing sport psychology for 15 years.

Dr. Melinda Houston earned her BA in psychology, her masters in kinesiology with a sport psychology emphasis, and her PhD in sport studies with a sport psychology emphasis. Dr. Houston is currently Head Strength and Mental Conditioning Coach at Occidental College and a part-time professor of sport psychology. Although she works primarily with collegiate and high-school level athletes, she has also worked with youth, recreational, Olympic, and professional athletes in a variety of sports. Dr. Houston has been practicing sport psychology for 16 years.

Dr. Vanessa Shannon earned her BA in psychology and health and human performance, her master’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise psychology, and her PhD in sport studies with a sport psychology emphasis. Currently, Dr. Shannon is a mental conditioning coach at the International Management Group Academy where she works with athletes of all skill levels, but primarily with 13- to 19-year-old female basketball and soccer players. She also works with women’s soccer, lacrosse, golf, and volleyball teams at the NCAA Division I university level. Dr. Shannon has been practicing sport psychology for 10 years.

Preparing for a Career in Sport Psychology

Determining a career path can be a daunting task. If you are preparing for a career in sport psychology, you must be very clear on a number of crucial details. First, it is imperative to understand the personal and professional dispositions the profession requires. A second valuable detail is to identify and engage in the appropriate curriculum that will help you gain an applied understanding of the field. Finally, you must develop a theoretical perspective from which you will make professional decisions.

Contemplating sport psychology as a profession: Is it a good fit for me? Before you consider a career in sport psychology, you should verify (a) if you have a strong interest in sport psychology as a career, and (b) why you are interested in pursuing this career. Having a background as an athlete or experience in sport or exercise can be a first step. Dr. Carr mentioned, “I was an NCAA DIII student-athlete and graduate assistant [Football] coach at Ball State University; I have always loved sports, but saw the need for better psychological care of collegiate/professional athletes.” Dr. Houston discussed how her continued athletic experience helps in her work with her clients. She said, “My athletic background has also helped me. I think I am aided by the fact that I’m a currently competitive athlete [in the sport of Triathlon] rather than just someone who has competed in the past.”

Although many of the professionals consulted for this article noted that their personal athletic backgrounds aided in their understanding of the field, they stated that personal experience in sport was not enough. A strong knowledge base in the history, science, and application of kinesiology was also identified as an important prerequisite. Specifically, Dr. Dieffenbach noted that those who are pursuing sport psychology as a profession “should understand the context of sport beyond just being a sports fan or a participant.”

Next, it is important to engage in self-assessment. Are you a person who enjoys working with others to help them perform better or to gain satisfaction from their efforts? When asked about the most rewarding aspects of her job, Dr. Shannon stated:

On a daily basis, I have the opportunity to impact someone’s life, not just their athletic performance, but their whole life. The strategies that we provide athletes are designed to help athletes with performance-related issues, but an athlete can take those strategies and apply them to any performance situation in life (e.g., preparing for a test or a job interview).

To help athletes in this manner, strong interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate well, build rapport, and establish appropriate connections with others are critical. Silva, Metzler, and Learner (2011) noted that, although sport psychology professionals may have different approaches to their craft, the key element in being successful is “developing skills that foster positive and open environments” (p. 85). Chertok supported this point when he said, “I’d say the largest and most critical possession is one’s ability to establish rapport with clients. A person who is able to build a meaningful relationship through trust, open and direct communication, and empathic interactions will be successful.”

Putting my plan into action: What classes should I take? After you have decided that pursuing a career in sport psychology is right for you, you must then take the next step of determining a strategic plan for your undergraduate curriculum. Unfortunately, researchers have found that many undergraduate psychology programs do not include much information on sport and exercise psychology in their curriculum (Stanley & Robbins, 2015). Therefore, as an undergraduate student, you should be thoughtful and strategic about your curricular choices if you are interested in pursuing sport psychology in graduate school (Appleby et al., 2011). Having a basic understanding of the sport setting is essential foundational knowledge for a student interested in sport psychology. As Dieffenbach noted, it is “important to have a solid understanding of context, meaning that those who want to work with athletes should be educated in sport science, sport history, and sport policy.”

The professionals consulted for this article identified courses that aided their professional development specifically in the area of counseling (which helped Dr. Shannon “know what she didn’t know”) such as positive psychology, solution-focused brief counseling, and group dynamics. Other courses devoted to cultural diversity, social psychology, and kinesiology were also considered extremely helpful. Finley (2001) provided a specific list of courses for undergraduate students who are interested in sport psychology to consider taking. These include fundamental psychology courses such as Developmental Psychology, Learning, Cognition, Group Dynamics, and Social Psychology, as well as kinesiology-based courses such as Introduction to Sport Psychology, Sport Sociology, Motor Development, and Anatomy and Physiology. Authors such as Silva et al. (2011), Appleby et al. (2011), and Finley (2001) have also provided helpful resources for students who are currently contemplating their undergraduate curriculum choices to enhance their learning and preparation for careers in sport psychology.

Putting your plan into action: Using theory as a professional foundation. Once you have developed and actualized a plan to educate yourself about the field, and have created and successfully navigated a curriculum with courses that have helped you gain the necessary skills and foundational knowledge in sport psychology, you are ready for the next challenge that often occurs in graduate school: working with athletes. Acquiring both a strong theoretical and interpersonal skillset is fundamental to the development of sport psychology consultants.

Silva et al. (2011) indicated that it is important for sport psychology professionals to have a “working knowledge of both theory and research” in the field (p. 59). All five of the professionals highlighted in this article mentioned the importance of theory-informed practice. To be effective with their clients, each professional explained using a consistent theoretical framework, but modified their approach to fit individual athlete’s needs. Dr. Carr said, “as a counseling sport psychologist, I operate from a humanistic, cognitive-behavioral framework. Yet, each client requires a tailored/individualized approach to intervention.” Similarly, Chertok explained:

I am schooled in a cognitive-behavioral approach. I ask lots of questions and make sure I understand why the client is here to see me. Beyond that, everyone is idiosyncratic, and this demands a tailored approach. The tools or strategies I equip one athlete with may be remarkably different—opposite, even—to another.

The sport psychology consultants interviewed for this article also discussed their intuitive skills when working with clients or, as Dr. Houston termed it, the “art” of being a consultant. She said, “The art of being a good consultant is making athletes feel cared about, understood, and having the ability to facilitate their own process of self-discovery as a part of their mental training.”

Concluding Remarks

The field of sport psychology is constantly advancing, and a high level of competency must be achieved by those who want to increase their professional development and work in this field (Fletcher & Maher, 2013). To this end, we will close this article with the sage advice the sport psychology professionals consulted for this paper have offered or students who wish to pursue sport psychology as a profession.

Dr. Carr. I encourage students to explore “what” they want to do in the field first. If they want to teach, do research, or some educational training, then pursue a degree in physical education and/or kinesiology (best done with undergraduate degree in psychology and/or exercise science) and plan on an academic career. If the student says “I want to do what you do,” then I encourage a doctoral degree in clinical and/or counseling psychology, but I strongly recommend graduate training in sport psych and/or exercise science. It appears that most full-time positions in the sports world occur in collegiate athletics, and most, if not all, positions require licensed psychologists. This is an occupational trend that should be noted. I encourage students to explore both APA Division 47 and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology websites for [information] as well.

Chertok. Read lots of books—not only journals and clinical publications, but popular sport psychology and performance psychology books. Harvey Dorfman, Ken Ravizza, Bob Rotella, Malcolm Gladwell, among so many others, all have simple, well-written books. Aside from lots of personal reading, reach out to sport psych practitioners, meet with them, hear their stories, and ask questions. Do an internship if possible to see if this is something you’d really like to do. Don’t let the idea of “sport psychology” (hey, I like studying human behavior, and I like sports—perfect!) be sufficient grounds for adopting the field as your permanent career. Get your feet wet and then decide.

Dr. Dieffenbach. Strive to get outside the box of sport psychology and spend time with other sport disciplines and within the coaching and sport community. If at all possible, get an international perspective. The field is so rich and broad, and the power of sustainable sport psychology comes from integration and connection with other sport science fields. In my experience, the only time that a silo approach, a narrow view of what sport psychology is, works well is when the path is to be a pure researcher. Get out and get uncomfortable. Embrace and understand the difference between training and education. Strive to be educated and commit to lifetime education. And no matter where the journey takes you in the field, because it is almost never linear, enjoy the experiences.

Dr. Houston. Think about what you could see yourself doing on a daily basis. What will energize you? It’s also important to think beyond what a job description says. My current job was listed as a head strength coach position, but after talking to the athletic director, I realized that they could use someone who had a background in sport psychology, and I sold them on a different position. I also think it’s important to find graduate programs that are a good fit for you, both personally and professionally. I am confident that I would not have the success that I do if it weren’t for my mentors and the opportunities that were available in the graduate programs I selected. I picked programs that I knew would support my applied goals, had good relationships with their athletic departments so that I could get hands-on work with athletes as a student, and my mentors had significant consulting experience.

Dr. Shannon. Rather than share “advice,” I would like to share Don Migueal Ruiz’s four agreements: (a) Be impeccable with your word, (b) Don’t take anything personally, (c) Don’t make assumptions, and (d) Always do your best (Ruiz, 1997). I believe all undergraduate students hoping to become sport psychologists will be successful if they can live by these agreements.


Appleby, K. M. (2007, Fall). Sport psychology: History, professional organizations, and professional preparation. Eye on Psi Chi, 12(1), 22–24. Retrieved from

Appleby, K. M., Appleby, D. C., Cook., A., Christensen, B., Griffiths, L., Scorniaenchi, J., . . . Delion, J. (2011, Spring). Preparing for success in sport psychology graduate programs. Eye on Psi Chi, 15(3), 24–27. Retrieved from

Finley, D. L. (2001). So your students want to be sport psychologists! Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology website:

Fletcher, D., & Maher, J. (2013). Toward a competency-based understanding of the training and development of applied sport psychologists. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 2, 265–280. doi:10.1037/a0031976

Ruiz, D. M. (1997). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom (A Toltec wisdom book). San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc.

Rushall, B. S. (2000, Winter). Some psychological factors for promoting exceptional athletic performance. Eye on Psi Chi, 4(2), 14–18, 55. Retrieved from

Silva, J. M., Metzler, J. N., & Lerner, B. (2011). Training professionals in the practice of sport psychology (2nd ed.). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Stanley, C. T., & Robbins, J. E. (2015). The relevance of sport and exercise psychology in undergraduate course curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 163–168. doi:10.1177/0098628315573142

Please address correspondence to: Karen M. Appleby, PhD, Professor, Department of Sport Science and Physical Education, Idaho State University, Campus Box 8105, Pocatello, ID 83209-8105, Office: (208) 282-5614, Fax: (208) 282-4654,

Karen M. Appleby, PhD, received her BA from Hanover College (IN) in 1998 and her doctorate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2004. Currently, Dr. Appleby is a full professor in the Sport Science and Physical Education Department at Idaho State University where she teaches classes in sport psychology, research and writing, senior capstone, and marketing and management in sport. She has conducted research in the areas of student professional development in higher education, women’s experiences in sport and physical activity, and life quality issues in the master’s athlete population. She has published in journals such as Teaching of Psychology; Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal; the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; the Journal of Sport; and the Qualitative Report. Dr. Appleby was named the Outstanding Collegiate Educator by the Idaho Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; was awarded the Idaho State University Distinguished Teacher Award; and is a three-time National Masters Cycling champion. In her spare time, she likes to cross country ski, race her road bike, and run with her husband and dogs in the Idaho mountains.

Drew C. Appleby, PhD, received his BA from Simpson College (IA) in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. During his 40-year career, he served as chair of the Marian College Psychology Department (IN), Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Psychology Department, and Associate Dean of the IUPUI Honors College. He has authored over 100 publications and made over 600 presentations including 20 invited keynote addresses to a variety of professional and nonprofessional audiences. He was honored for his outstanding contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named as a Fellow of the American Psychological Association’s Division 1 (General Psychology) and Division 2 (The Society for the Teaching of Psychology), the Midwestern Psychological Association, and as the 32nd distinguished member of Psi Chi. He has also received 39 national, regional, and institutional awards and recognitions for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service. His work with IUPUI’s varsity athletes led him to be named “My Favorite Professor” by 61 student-athletes. He was designated as a mentor by 777 IUPUI psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life, and his effect on me has been invaluable.” Dr. Appleby retired from IUPUI in 2011 with the rank of Professor Emeritus.

Andrew D. Polenske is currently finishing his degree in physical education with an emphasis in exercise science from Idaho State University and plans to graduate in the spring of 2016. Polenske is a full-time student who works part time in the Human Performance Lab at Idaho State University where he is able to pursue his interests in human anatomy and physiology. In addition to his research with Dr. Karen Appleby, Polenske also is currently working on other research involving youth soccer leagues and collegiate level track and field athletes. After he graduates, Polenske hopes to enter into a doctorate of physical therapy program. In addition to an interest in anatomy, physiology, and sport psychology, Polenske also has a vested interest in cultures around the world and even had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan at Kansai Gaidai University for a year. In his spare time, Polenske trains for and competes in triathlons year round, skis in the winter, and competes on Idaho State University’s Ultimate Frisbee team.

Copyright 2015 (Vol. 19, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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