Online Master’s in Sports & Exercise Psychology

Sports and exercise psychologists, sometimes called kinesiologists, spend their careers focused on the psychological and behavioral influences that are germane to athletics. The cognitive side to athletics can impact competition just as much as physical readiness; the psychology of motivation, achievement, focus, and leadership also drives individual and team performance in sports. A master's degree in sports psychology provides students with advanced training in the theory and principle behind exercise psychology, preparing graduates for careers in counseling, or for further academic training.

Why a Master's Degree?

Practicing psychologists of any specialty need a master’s degree to practice in the U.S. Generally, candidates for a master’s in sports psychology have an undergraduate degree in general psychology or a similar behavioral science. A master’s degree in sports and exercise psychology is comprised of classes and fieldwork that explore the sociological, physiological, and psychological underpinnings of this subspecialty. Students examine theory and principles of leadership, cooperation, motivational impetus, attribution, aggression, and personality, and how each factor affects athletics.

Depending on ultimate career goals, students may choose a Master of Science (M.S.) or Master of Arts (M.A.) program. An M.S. in Exercise Psychology is designed for students who wish to enhance future career opportunities or gain skills that complement an existing job. This degree program leans more heavily toward the practical application of theory in a counseling environment. Graduates of this program are qualified to work with professional teams, sports organizations or exercise facilities, and may choose to consult individually.

The M.A. in Sports Psychology is designed for students who intend to pursue a Ph.D. in Sports and Exercise Psychology. The master’s program delivers the fundamentals of theory and principle behind sports psychology, and also introduces research methodology. Proper study design and data analysis are stressed during the second year of these programs, preparing its graduates for further research in the field.

Inside a Sports-Exercise Psychology Master's Degree Program

Typically, curriculum delves into fundamental psychosocial theories and their effect on applied sports. Classwork covers normal and abnormal psychology, diversity in sports, cognitive and behavioral development, motor skills development, psychopathology, and group dynamics. For M.A. students who intend to pursue a Ph.D., courses in statistics and research methodology are also required. Both M.S. and M.A. candidates may choose electives that are of special interest. Some electives in a typical sports exercise psychology programs might include:

  • Psychology of Injury and Rehabilitation
  • Motor Development in Adolescents
  • Personality Theory
  • Professional Identities
  • Applied Neuromechanics
  • Ethnicities and Historic Importance
  • Community Sports Development
  • Introduction to Sports Medicine
  • Motivation and Achievement

The fieldwork element of this degree program may or may not include research; generally M.A. candidates are asked to write a thesis, while M.S. candidates are not. Applied fieldwork in an M.S. program allows students to directly observe athletes and teams, assess skills, plan interventions or modifications and implement them. These internships can be conducted in high school or college athletics departments, youth sports organizations such as the YMCA or community groups like park districts. Candidates who are expected to conduct research may perform fieldwork in a sports medicine facility, professional sports organization or private practice.

What's Next for Sports-Exercise Psychology Master's Degree Holders?

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the career outlook for psychologists is bright; all practicing psychologists can expect a 19% growth in jobs through 2024, which is more than double the national average for all fields. Graduates of a master’s degree program in sports psychology are also eligible for certification by the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. AASP-certified consultants may find work as personal trainers, elite sports coaches, sports administration or working with special populations like disabled or injured athletes.

Graduates of an M.A. program in sports psychology may continue their studies with a Ph.D. in Sports Psychology. This advanced degree deeply explores the thought processes that drive athletes. Through a combination of rigorous classwork and original research, graduates of a doctorate degree program are best equipped to help athletes improve individual performance and psychological health.