Tips for Undergraduate Students Interested in a Career in Sport and Exercise Psychology
University of Utah
Major Point: Undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in sport and exercise psychology can broaden their understanding of the field by taking courses in psychology and exercise science, assisting with research, volunteer coaching, and communicating with current SEP professionals.
"How do I become a sport psychologist?" Due to the increasing visibility of the field of sport and exercise psychology (SEP), questions such as this from undergraduate students are becoming more common (McCullagh & Noble, 1993). Unfortunately, the field of SEP has not developed to the point where answers to these questions are readily available. Most universities still do not offer graduate programs in SEP, and undergraduate students studying exercise science or psychology may be hard pressed to locate a faculty member in their department that is knowledgeable about graduate training and career options in SEP.
As an undergraduate student with an interest in SEP, I frequently asked questions such as the one above. Luckily I was able to get the answers that I needed to embark on a path toward a career in SEP. Now, as I near the end of my graduate training, I would like to share some tips that I believe will provide you with the direction you need to embark on your own SEP journey.
SEP is a multidisciplinary field of study. That is, sport and exercise psychologists must have a large base of knowledge in both psychology and exercise science/kinesiology (McCullagh & Noble, 1993). Unfortunately, very few universities currently offer an undergraduate program in SEP. The best alternatives to an SEP-specific degree are to either double major in psychology and exercise science, or to major in one discipline, and minor in the other discipline. Important psychology courses to consider include cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, and social psychology. Exercise science courses to consider include motor behavior, exercise physiology, and sport sociology. If possible, take an introductory SEP class (typically offered through the exercise science/kinesiology department). Although SEP graduate programs are usually housed in either psychology or exercise science, having a background in both disciplines will show that you have a genuine interest in both the sport/exercise and the psychology components of the field.
Besides coursework, practical experiences are valuable for introducing you to SEP. Even if you can't work directly in the SEP field, there are options available for you to 'get your feet wet' by assisting with projects at your university and in the community. One way to gain experience is to volunteer to assist a faculty member at your university who is conducting research related to the psychology of sport or exercise. Faculty members are usually more than happy to have an undergraduate research assistant to help with tasks such as data collection and data entry. Although research may not first come to mind when you think of SEP, it is an important part of the field. Knowledge created through research is used by sport and exercise psychologists to improve individuals' sport and physical activity experiences. Having research experience will make you more attractive to graduate programs, and prepare you for graduate-level work. Another way to gain practical experience in SEP is to volunteer as a coach or assistant coach in a local youth league. Although coursework and research are vital activities for learning about the field, there is nothing quite like actually working with athletes in the sport environment.
As previously discussed, it is often difficult to locate individuals at your university with knowledge about SEP. Therefore, one of the most important things you can do as an aspiring SEP professional is to establish contact with current SEP professionals in other geographic locations. Obtain a copy of the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology (Sachs, Burke, & Loughren, 2006), and e-mail or call faculty members who seem interesting based on their profiles. Ask them questions about graduate school, career opportunities, and what they look for in a graduate applicant. An even more effective way to make connections with SEP professionals is to attend a professional conference. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), The North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA), and the American Psychological Association (APA) all hold annual conferences attended by SEP professionals. Not only do conferences expose you to the kind of research done in SEP, but they provide great opportunities to network with other students and SEP professionals from around the world. If possible, search the conference program for SEP professionals who will be attending, and e-mail one or two of them to find out if they would be willing to meet with you for 15-20 minutes at some point during the conference. I was fortunate as an undergraduate to have a meeting with noted sport psychologist Dan Gould at a conference. This was an invaluable experience for me, as I learned more about the field than I ever could have from a book or a website.
Despite the fact that it is a growing field with much to offer physically active individuals, information regarding graduate training and career options in SEP is not yet readily available. Based on my personal experience as an undergraduate student who was interested in SEP, and as a graduate student in SEP, I believe that taking undergraduate coursework in psychology and exercise science, gaining practical experience in the form of research or coaching, and making connections with SEP professionals are three valuable strategies for learning about and gaining entry into the field as an undergraduate student. Although implementing these strategies will require a high level of commitment and dedication on your part, in the end I'm sure you'll find that it was a journey worth taking.
McCullagh, P., & Noble, J. (2003). Education for becoming a sport psychologist. In J. Van Raalte & B. Brewer (Eds.), Exploring sport and exercise psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 439-457). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Sachs, M. L., Burke, K. L., & Loughren, E. A. (2006). Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology (8th ed.). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.