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(p. 749) Developing a Sport Psychology Practice 

(p. 749) Developing a Sport Psychology Practice
(p. 749) Developing a Sport Psychology Practice

Kate F. Hays

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Subscriber: null; date: 20 September 2017

I am licensed as a psychologist in Ontario, Canada, as well as in New Hampshire (currently on inactive status). Following traditional clinical psychology training, I engaged in institutional, group, and solo practice in New Hampshire. During much of that time, I developed expertise in working with people with eating disorders, adults with traumatic histories, consultation to systems and organizations (primarily schools), and program evaluation. Although I developed an interest and training in sport psychology while in New Hampshire, it wasn’t until moving to Toronto in 1998 that I was able to establish a practice in which I am primarily known for my work in sport (and performance) psychology.

I became interested in sport psychology about 10 years after receiving my doctorate. This was unanticipated and inadvertent: I began running and, much to my surprise, fell in love with it. I was especially intrigued by the ways in which I thought “differently” during or shortly after running. This in turn led to learning everything that I could about the interaction of running—or exercise—and the mind. Learning about this constructive aspect of the mind–body relationship subsequently opened me up to the academic and practice field of sport psychology, working with athletes to assist them in optimal performance. Further, as an avocational musician, I became interested in exploring the elements of performance excellence that are generic to a variety of domains.

My practice, “The Performing Edge,” is primarily geared toward work with athletes (and other performers) of all ages as well as varying levels of skill and accomplishment. In addition, I serve as a sport and clinical psychology consultant to a sports medicine clinic.

(p. 750) The Niche Practice Activity

At any one time, most of my clients are performers, typically athletes or performing artists (musicians, dancers, actors). Examples include a 10-year-old gymnast who has “forgotten” how to do one of her newer moves due to performance pressure; a high-performance athlete needing to make a certain qualifying time in order to enter an international competition; a professional musician preparing for an important audition; or a dancer coping with recovery from a potentially career-ending injury while dealing with eating and weight-related issues.

For a variety of reasons having to do with professional skills and preference, clientele, and convenience, I tend to work with clients in my downtown, easily accessible office or at the sports medicine clinic. At times it is important, useful, or preferable to work at the client’s locale, whether with the client directly, a team, or team personnel.

Developing an Interest and Training in this Niche Activity

My own experience of stumbling into sport psychology is both dissimilar and similar to the experiences of many others. Most people who engage in sport psychology practice have had an interest in (competitive) sports over a period of time. On the other hand, many of those receiving primary training in a mental health field are not even aware that there is an academic field known as sport psychology. Undergraduate and graduate courses and degrees in sport psychology are typically housed within academic departments of health, physical education, or kinesiology (Burke, Sachs, & Schweighardt, 2011).

Applied sport psychology is a hybrid field, a combination of knowledge of sport sciences and counseling or psychotherapy. Competence in such practice involves knowledge of both counseling and aspects of sports. Among the latter, the most important for practitioners new to the field are aspects of motor learning, systemic issues, the culture of sport, and the particular concerns that people involved in sport performance deal with at a cognitive and emotional level.

In actuality, there are various routes to competent practice. Currently, ideal professional training would include some combination of graduate or postgraduate academic training in both sport psychology and the mental health field. Some graduate programs offer such combined training and opportunity for licensure (Burke et al., 2011). These are still few in number, however; most mental health practitioners develop expertise through postgraduate formal or informal training and mentored practice.

Mental health practitioners who like the idea of working with athletes and assume that their knowledge of mental skills can be applied to this population without any further training or supervised or mentored experience do themselves and the field a disservice. The hubris of appending the adjective “sport” to psychology misses the rich academic, research, and practice literature developed in an entire field of study; the practitioner may have little to go on other than his or her own experience, with its potential limitations of generalizability. One arrogant practitioner can (p. 751) damage future constructive connections for any number of athletes, organizations, and competent practitioners.

Recognition of competence by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology occurs as a result of a document review process including coursework and mentored practice (Association for Applied Sport Psychology, n.d.). In defining the practice of sport psychology as a subset of psychology practice more broadly, the American Psychological Association (APA) has developed a Proficiency in Sport Psychology (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Guidelines for practice in sport psychology are under development by the Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance, APA’s Division 47.

Joys and Challenges Related to this Niche Activity

Practicing sport psychology is intriguing and satisfying for a number of reasons. Clients are typically interested in growth and change, they are goal-directed, and they are used to practicing particular skills in order to improve.

Potential clients are likely to search out such services. Whether for mental health issues or performance enhancement, media attention has increased the awareness of the general public to professional athletes’ use of sport psychologists. This public awareness of sport psychology has served to destigmatize such services much faster and to a larger degree than other areas of mental health. For example, teenagers not infrequently encourage their parents to find a sport psychologist for them to work with (Hays & Lesyk, 2014). Further, nonathletes who are interested in performance improvement through mental skills may seek out sport psychologists. They have already made the conceptual leap regarding the potential transfer of knowledge to their particular domain of performance.

Another positive aspect of this niche practice is the impact on the self of the practitioner. Working with people who are physically active and take care of themselves, and assisting them concerning their well-being, can be a motivator or reinforcer for the practitioner’s own self-care through appropriate physical activity, nutrition, recovery, and sleep.

Knowledge and skill in sport psychology can lead to additional areas of interest and expertise. For me, this involved developing knowledge about the mental benefits of physical activity. I was then able to assist my nonactive clients to develop exercise programs for themselves as a scientific, nonpharmacological method for decreasing depression or anxiety (Hays, 2015). As mentioned, I have developed expertise in working with other types of performers, based on my sport psychology knowledge but with application to their particular performance domain. At the same time, it has been especially important to remain mindful of the differences as well as the similarities between working with athletes and working with other performers (Hays, 2012; Murphy, 2012).

An additional area that has been both satisfying and complex has been the provision of counseling or psychotherapy to this population. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity to use the full range of one’s skills. On the other, however, mental health practitioners need to be cognizant of the complexities regarding boundaries and confidentiality; multiple role relationships; determination (p. 752) of treatment focus; systemic issues; and third-party factors such as contractual obligations, adjunctive collaboration, expectations, and financial recompense (Herzog & Hays, 2012).

Even when practice is straightforward, focused only on performance enhancement, there can be challenges. Particular issues that need to be considered include the following:

  • Boundary crossings (Gutheil & Gabbard, 1998) of various kinds may be more likely in this type of practice. For example, one may work outside of a traditional office setting; the professional relationship is more likely to include third parties (parents, coaches, teams) where norms around confidentiality are different and may need to be negotiated; appropriate clothing and attire for both the client and professional may be different than in a traditional clinical setting. Practitioners need to be aware of these potential hazards and have appropriate rationale, disclaimers, and consultative supports available (Stapleton, Hankes, Hays, & Parham, 2010).

  • Location: For myself, practicing this niche in rural New Hampshire was financially unsustainable. In a large urban area with many people, universities, and sports teams, it is much more likely that such a practice can be successful.

  • Interjurisdictional practice: At present, this is a complicated and unresolved issue. Sport psychology practice at times may involve traveling with a team or working with a client at a distance. Maintaining awareness of the current regulatory provisions for practitioners, and joining with other consultants who are working on appropriate interjurisdictional practice, is critical.

  • Some practitioners not bound by the strictures of licensed practice may advertise and operate without some of the limits imposed by licensure. In the competitive market, it can be tempting (but unwise) to emulate some of their disregard for ethical practice.

Business Aspects of this Niche Activity

Referrals for sport psychology services may come from a variety of sources. Referrals depend in part on one’s wishes concerning the focus of practice. A web presence that includes information about one’s practice and competence is essential. Referrals may come from physicians, coaches, colleagues, organizations or groups involved in a particular type of sport, word of mouth, or one’s social media visibility. Contractual relationships with sports, medical, or educational organizations or institutions can be developed. These contracted relationships can offer predictable income. In the fickle world of sports and other performance, though, where “you’re only as good as your last success,” contracted services can also end quite abruptly.

Practice in sport psychology—that is, working with athletes regarding the mental aspects of competent performance—is not technically a healthcare activity; it is much more of an educational or consulting relationship. The good news is that the practitioner does not need to stick a diagnostic label of psychopathology on a client. A consulting or coaching model for fee-setting and payment is more appropriate in this regard.

(p. 753) Billing depends on who has hired the practitioner for what. It may be the athlete himself or herself, or a parent. It might be a professional organization, an institution such as a high school or university, or a sports team. Services may be billed on an hourly basis or may be arranged contractually, for a particular service.

Developing this Niche Activity into a Practice Strategy

Graduate students have the greatest flexibility in learning or incorporating sport psychology coursework, practica, mentoring, supervision, theoretical or research papers, or even internship sites into their graduate training (Burke et al., 2011). For those who have completed a terminal degree in a mental health profession, new or other opportunities for learning will be most appropriate.

Understanding the gaps in one’s knowledge is the first step toward developing competence. The certification criteria developed by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) or APA’s Proficiency in Sport Psychology can be used as a guide. Opportunities for knowledge development can include self-directed learning, online or traditional coursework, attendance at relevant conferences and workshops, and active mentoring (Fletcher & Maher, 2014).

Active engagement with sport psychology organizations is an important aspect for developing and maintaining one’s knowledge and skills. Involvement with AASP or Division 47 is an excellent method for understanding the field, recognizing one’s own learning needs and addressing them, becoming acculturated, developing connections with like-minded individuals and potential mentors, learning from the leaders in the field, becoming engaged in a fairly “young” niche practice, and helping to strengthen this field for the next generation.

For More Information

Information concerning graduate programs in sport psychology (albeit primarily in sport sciences rather than psychology or another mental health field) is available through the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology (Burke et al., 2011). Updated every few years, this directory contains program descriptions, provides a current functional guide to the field, and offers detailed information regarding career options, licensure and certification, as well as relevant readings.

There are two relevant North American professional organizations in sport psychology. The first is the Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, Division 47 of the American Psychological Association ( Along with a newsletter, a journal, and presentations within the annual APA Convention, Division 47 is connected with the larger organization of psychologists through APA. The second is AASP (p. 754) ( This freestanding organization includes sport scientists as well as psychologists, with a strong graduate student contingent as well. Membership includes a newsletter, a journal, and an annual conference focused exclusively in this field. Information found on the websites of each of these organizations is invaluable. Each organization also has an active and open email list (i.e., one need not be a member to be part of the email list).

Journals with a particular focus on practitioner issues in sport psychology are The Sport Psychologist: Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology (a member benefit of Division 47) and Journal of Applied Sport Psychology (a member benefit of AASP).

Resources and References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Sport psychology.

Andersen, M. B. (Ed.) (2000). Doing sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Find this resource:

    Anderson, M. B., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.). (2010). Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

      Association for Applied Sport Psychology. (n.d.). Become a certified consultant.

      Burke, K. L., Sachs, M. L., & Schweighardt, S. L. (2011). Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (10th ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.Find this resource:

        Etzel, E. F., & Watson, J. C. (Eds.). (2014). Ethical issues in sport, exercise, and performance psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.Find this resource:

          Fletcher, D., & Maher, J. (2014). Professional competence in sport psychology: Clarifying some misunderstandings and making future progress. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 5, 170–185.Find this resource:

          Gutheil, T. G., & Gabbard, G. O. (1998). Misuses and misunderstandings of boundary theory in clinical and regulatory settings. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155(3), 409–414.Find this resource:

          Hays, K. F. (2012). The psychology of performance in sport and other domains. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 24–45). New York: Oxford.Find this resource:

            Hays, K. F. (2015). Let’s run with that: Exercise, depression, and anxiety. In M. B. Andersen & S. J. Hanrahan (Eds.), Doing exercise psychology (pp. 217–230). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Find this resource:

              Hays, K. F., & Lesyk, J. J. (2014). Incorporating sport and exercise psychology into clinical practice. In J. L. Van Raalte & B. W. Brewer (Eds.), Exploring sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed., pp. 485–504). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

                Herzog, T., & Hays, K. F. (2012). Therapist or mental skills coach? How to decide. The Sport Psychologist, 26, 486–499.Find this resource:

                Murphy, S. M. (Ed.). (1995). Sport psychology interventions. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Find this resource:

                  Murphy, S. M. (Ed.). (2012). Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology. New York: Oxford.Find this resource:

                    Stapleton, A. B., Hankes, D. M., Hays, K. F., & Parham, W. D. (2010). Ethical dilemmas in sport psychology: A dialogue on the unique aspects impacting practice. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41, 143–152. (p. 755) Find this resource:

                    Van Raalte, J. L., & Brewer, B.W. (Eds.) (2014). Exploring sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

                      Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2010). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Find this resource:

                        Williams, J. M. & Krane, V. (Eds.). (2014). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.Find this resource: