What does a sports psychologist do?

Written by Nigel Simpkins

Sports psychology refers to the study of how various psychological factors influence athletic performance, sports, exercise, and physical activity. A sports psychologist is a professional who is responsible for investigating how taking part in sports can improve well-being and health. They will also often work alongside athletes and sports players to help them utilise psychology to improve both their athletic performance and overall mental health and wellness. 

Who Do Sports Psychologists Work With?

Sports psychologists don’t just work with professional or elite athletes. They are professionals who work with just about anybody, including people who are not athletes or professional sports players, to help them learn how to enjoy sports, get mental health and wellness benefits from playing sports, or help them get over mental health problems like anxiety in relation to sports. They will also often work with regular people who exercise to help them stick to an exercise program and get the most from their physical activity. 

Sports Psychology History

Sports psychology is a relatively new psychological discipline, with the first research lab devoted to sports psychology opened in 1925. By the 1970s, sports psychology was being offered as a university course at schools, colleges, and universities throughout America and shortly after in the UK. In the 1980s, sports psychology had become more rigorous and scientific, with researchers spending more time exploring the different ways that exercise can be used to lower stress levels and improve mood, and how psychology can be applied to improve athletic and sports performance. 

How to Become a Sports Psychologist

Becoming a sports psychologist might be an excellent choice for you if you are interested in both psychology and sports and exercise. If you are interested in this career, the first step is to learn about the various educational requirements, salaries, job responsibilities, and anything else that is important for you to know about a career in sports psychology. 

To work as a sports psychologist, you will need to generally start with getting an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject such as a BSc sport psychology. You will then need to move on to postgraduate sports psychology courses such as a masters or sports psychology bachelor degree and a PhD in psychology or sports psychology. You can study at Stirling University to start your journey towards working as a sports psychologist. Named Sports University of the Year in 2020 by the Times and Sunday Times, Stirling University has state-of-the-art sporting faculties along with a strong psychology department to provide you with a solid foundation in this discipline. 

What Do Sports Psychologists Help With?

The modern field of sports psychology is very diverse and there are several different topics that sports psychologists might be interested in. These include:

Mental Toughness

This has become an area of increasing interest in the field of sports psychology and refers to the characteristics that are important for an athlete to possess to reach optimal performance. For example, they could include an ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks, a solid belief in oneself, the ability to positively react to different situations, and the ability to remain calm under high amounts of pressure. 

Attention and Focus

For many athletes, attention and focus is key since they will need to be able to learn how to tune out distractions when playing, especially in front of a crowd. Athletes need to be able to focus on the task at hand no matter what is happening around them. Attentional focus skills involve various strategies including mindfulness, somatic therapies or paying attention to sensations and signals from the body, and deep breathing techniques. 

Goal Setting and Visualisation

Whether a sports psychologist works with professional athletes or the general public, one thing that they are likely to be helping with is visualisation and goal setting. Setting a goal and then being able to visualise each step that they will need to take to eventually reach and achieve the goal can be very helpful in mentally preparing people for the work that they are going to put in. Visualisation refers to the process of creating a mental image of what you intend to happen, such as meeting your fitness goals or winning a sports contest. 

Coping With Anxiety

When working with athletes and professional sportspeople, sports psychologists will often focus on helping their clients better deal with the immense amount of pressure that comes along with taking part in competitions. They will work with athletes to help them combat and avoid burnout, and deal with performance anxiety issues. Getting nervous before a game, competition or performance is not unusual for athletes at all levels. However, this can have an impact on their performance, which is where sports psychologists can come in to help them learn and develop healthy skills for staying calm and collected. 


Some sports psychologists will work closely with sports coaches and athletes to help improve performance by focusing on improving motivation. The study of motivation is a huge topic that you will cover during your studies of sports psychology and involves learning about both intrinsic and external motivators. 


Finally, sports psychologists also play an integral part in helping athletes with recovery and rehabilitation after an injury, making sure that they are mentally prepared to return to their sports. Athletes and sports players who suffer a sports injury are not only affected physically; this can often impact their mental state and lead to feelings of fear, anger, hopelessness, and frustration that might have an impact on their suitability to return to the game and perform to the best of their ability. These feelings can often linger long after an athlete’s physical injury has healed. A sports psychologist is responsible for working with the athlete to help them mentally handle the process of recovery and restore their confidence in themselves and their abilities as they prepare to return to playing their chosen sport. 

If you are interested in what makes sports players, athletes, and the general public tick and want to help people put sports and exercise to use to help their mental health and wellbeing, a career as a sports psychologist might be an ideal choice for you.