What Is A Sport Psychologist?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sports can be a fun way to challenge yourself, a team-building activity, or a way of life for many professional athletes and individuals. A clinical sports psychologist might offer support for those serious about sports and improving mental health, showcasing how to get the most from sports-related activity.

Are you looking for ways to improve your game?

Psychology and sports

Sports psychology often focuses on helping athletes achieve optimal performance through mental healthcare.

Like other types of psychology, applied sports psychology is based on theories, research, and clinical experience. Sports psychology may rely on exercise, training, and athletic performance knowledge or focus on competition-related developmental and social issues that athletes may encounter. 

Some clinical sports and performance psychologists and therapists focus on other mental health, mental skills training, and cognitive areas. For example, they might assist athletes in resolving stress or help them cope with mental illness to help them stay focused or teach individual athletes new skills to help them stick to a training routine without pushing themselves too hard. 

Finding a balance between intense training for a sport and self-care can be difficult for athletes to do on their own, which is why it can be helpful for them to work with sports psychologists who can aid them in goal-setting and achieving their objectives. Many coaches, career and Olympic athletes work with a licensed psychologist trained in applied sports psychology. 

Can sports psychologists improve athletic performance?

A sports psychologist often has a doctoral degree in psychology and has studied ways to enhance the performance and well-being of athletes. Sport counselors and therapists, along with clinical psychologists, have a master's degree or higher and are trained to offer support with similar issues. They may also have experience in motor learning or specialize in sports psychology, sports medicine, or physical therapy. To become a psychologist, they must go through board certification and test for a state license. 

Performance psychologists and therapists who specialize in sports may be athletes or former athletes. They may be associated with the American Psychological Association and often have education in the following areas: 

  • Behavioral health in groups 
  • Burnout in sports
  • Developmental or social challenges in sports
  • Training about sports competitions, rules, and organizations
  • Performance enhancement skills 
  • Common mental health challenges for athletes such as self-confidence, performance anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

  • Overcoming psychological factors related to serious injuries

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sports Psychology is a growing field, with a 6% growth rate projected between 2021 to 2031. 


How a sports psychologist can help you

Although a client's goals vary in sport psychology, many sports psychologists help their clients develop positive mental skills to improve their game. For example, they may help clients with the following:  

  • Motivation
  • Attitude
  • Goal setting
  • Commitment to goals
  • Communication
  • Positive self-talk
  • Energy management
  • Mental imagery
  • Focus
  • Processing emotions

Your mental health professional may use various methods to help you build each of these skills. In therapy, you can focus on the areas you believe you need the most improvement to meet your overall goals. 


You may spend time assessing your motivation to determine its source. Your sports psychologist or therapist might focus on helping you develop a sense of self-determination and increasing intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves feeling motivated for enjoyment, pleasure, or excitement without an extrinsic reward like winning or receiving a prize. 


After assessing your attitude towards sports, your psychology sessions might focus on how you feel about competition, winning, losing, learning, sports-life balance, or respect toward teammates. 

Commitment to goals 

Committing to your goals may help you play better, so your sports psychologist or therapist might want to look at how you set and work toward your goals. Then, they might teach you to build skills, set dates, create strategies for success, evaluate your progress, and celebrate your achievements.


Communication might mean the difference between winning and losing if you're playing a team sport. Sports psychology and therapy might help you improve your active listening skills, be more assertive, manage angry reactions, or speak clearly. 

Positive self-talk

How you talk to yourself may make a difference during a game. Through therapy, you may begin to identify unhelpful thoughts and how to change them to maximize your performance.

Energy management

Therapists who practice sports psychology may assess how you manage your energy and help you raise or lower your expenditure. For example, they might teach relaxation techniques for managing anxiety, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or guided visualization. Mindfulness, in particular, has been proven to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, potentially helping athletes in a variety of ways. 

Mental imagery

Using mental imagery in sports might help you improve your game according to performance psychology, so your sports psychologist or therapist may help you learn to do this. They can help you practice creating and focusing on images designed to enhance your effectiveness in the game.


Whether you call it attention, concentration, or staying in the game, focusing can often improve your ability to do well in your sport. Your sports therapist might help you learn to stay engaged with what's happening in the game, teaching you how to control your attention and avoid distractions.

Managing emotions

Many athletes learn to manage pre and in-game performance anxiety or other mental health challenges with a sport psychologist to improve their performance and mental health. In addition, a therapist can use psychological techniques to help clients address their unwanted emotions or reactions to specific sports-related challenges (such as injured athletes having trouble getting back to training due to anxiety related to the injury). A sports psychologist is also trained to treat psychological conditions an psychological issues that can affect athletes.  

Are you looking for ways to improve your game?

Support options 

Each lesson you complete with your sports psychologist or therapist may be designed to help you do your best in each game.

As you learn therapeutic techniques, you may have a better chance of combining these skills and increasing your success as an athlete. You might use these skills to improve your positive attitude after a game loss or change your thought pattern when you make a mistake. You and your psychologist can devise a treatment plan depending on your goals. 

Many athletes can be busy with sports and other commitments, so finding care options can be complex. In-person therapy might seem too costly or out of your schedule. In these cases, online therapy is as effective as face-to-face sessions. You might prefer online sessions, which can be easier to schedule around an athlete's busy training routine. Many online therapists offer the option to schedule outside of standard business hours, and some online platforms, like BetterHelp, offer messaging with your therapist throughout the week. 

Research has demonstrated that online sports psychology and therapy can help athletes improve their motivation and time management. It can also help you feel more supported and confident in your ability to excel with athletic performance. 


A sport psychologist or therapist can't necessarily ensure you'll win your games for you. Still, those who practice sports psychology may be able to assist you in developing emotional skills to improve performance and well-being related to sport participation. If you'd like to seek help from a sport psychologist or therapist, consider your schedule and what form of sessions might work best for you.

For example, you might consider talking to a counselor online. Regardless of your choice, many licensed psychologists can offer sports-related guidance, and you're not alone in your needs.

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