Online Ph.D. in Sports & Exercise Psychology

Students who pursue a doctoral degree in sports and exercise psychology earn the qualifications to be a specialized mental health practitioner while conducting original research. This Ph.D. program examines the psychological complexities that drive the performance of athletes; philosophical, sociological and physiological forces that motivate athletes are explored in detail. Graduates of this Ph.D. program are prepared to perform significant research in this subspecialty and extend detailed knowledge to sports organizations, administrators, coaches, fitness trainers, athletes, and parents.

Why a Ph.D.?

Sports and exercise psychologists perform counseling either individually or in group settings; since all states require a doctoral degree to perform counseling of any kind, Ph.D. graduates are eligible for licensure. Coursework that focuses on human development, sociology, communication and social psychology serve as a foundation for independent research in exercise psychology; applied skills like goal-setting or motivation can be chosen as concentrations. Advanced research methodology and quantitative/qualitative data analysis prepare graduates for careers as researchers and clinicians in this highly specialized subfield of general counseling.

Inside a Sports & Exercise Psychology Doctoral Degree Program

Sports psychology Ph.D. programs are designed to produce highly skilled researchers, and four years are devoted to preparing, conducting, analyzing and writing a doctoral dissertation. All course work, while challenging, is intended to provide its students with the advanced knowledge and research abilities necessary to produce a dissertation. The courses also prepare students for working with a specific patient population of athletes, coaches and sports organizations. Graduates will meet the American Psychological Association’s requirements for licensed clinicians, as well as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology certification requirements.

Some typical classwork in an exercise psychology doctoral program might include:

  • Advanced Sport Psychology: A study of the psychological and social forces that affect an athlete’s performance, relationships, self-perception, motivation and coping skills. This class explores these forces, as well as the physical and psychological impact that exercise has on an individual’s well-being.
  • Motivation in Sports and Exercise: The process of motivated behavior in a sports setting is explored. Special topics of interest include participation, goal-setting, group processing, adherence to routine, self-perception and attribution.
  • Stress and Coping: The mechanisms of stress and emotional coping skills are examined in relation to sports and exercise, both in how athletes respond to stress and in the ways stress can affect individuals. Practical application of these theoretical principles is covered, particularly regarding injury, physical therapy, rehabilitation and emotional well-being.
  • Sport Psychology in Special Populations: Theory, research and practical applications are covered. Students are taught methods for effective counseling of patients who may be impoverished, intellectually disabled, pregnant, obese, cancer survivors or may have neurological disorders. Attention is also given to gender, race, ethnicity and age issues in relation to sports.

In the latter part of an online Ph.D. in sports psychology, candidates develop an original research project that must be approved by a three-person advisory board. Once approved, the research project is conducted under supervision, and the results are statistically analyzed and presented in the form of a book-length dissertation that is suitable for a scholarly journal. Traditionally, the dissertation is then defended orally to the same advisory board that approved the project. Most Ph.D. candidates complete a dissertation within four years, though those who begin with only a bachelor’s degree often take a year or two longer.

What's Next for Sports & Exercise Psychology Doctoral Degree Holders?

Graduates of an online Ph.D. in sports science enjoy the distinction of holding the most advanced degree possible in a highly specialized subset of psychology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job prospects for doctoral-level psychologists are much better than for their peers holding only a master’s degree in sports psychology. Private individual or group practice is a common choice for these graduates. Many choose to teach and continue their research in academia. Others go on to high-level management or consulting positions with large sports organizations, professional teams, or local government.