A Career Helping Athletes On and Off the Field

Athlete defeated in competition.

Are you a student thinking about a career in psychology? Not sure where to start? Or are you exploring options?

Psych Learning Curve is always working to help answer these questions. So we created a series of posts exploring interesting psychology fields.

We started by looking at the data on master’s and doctoral degrees awarded by broad field and subfield. Then, we researched the more popular searches and traffic to APA’s website. Finally, we reached out to leaders in some of APA’s 54 Divisions.

masters and doctoral degrees chart 2004-2013

So far we’ve explored Forensic Psychology and Industrial Organizational (I-O) Psychology.

Sport Psychology

Earlier this month, we interviewed with Dr. Jamie Shapiro in the post, “What Students Should Know About Sport Psychology From A Specialist In The Field.” After reading this post, I started thinking about my own past life as an athlete. I played football in high school and through some college. With all the recent attention on concussions, CTE and depression, I’ve become more attentive to stories involving sports, the brain, and mental health.

I ask myself,

“What happens to an athlete with a mental health condition?”

There are many examples: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, NBA legend Jerry West, Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, WNBA player Imani Boyette, NFL player Brandon Marshall, Tennis player Mardy Fish, Former MLB pitcher Rick Ankiel, Basketball player Royce White and Swimmer Allison Schmitt.

It’s even suggested that athletes may be at higher risk for mental illness.

So, is there a difference between treating an athlete and a non-athlete? Are there different kinds of sport psychologists? Are there areas of specialty within the field?

Christine SelbyTo help me learn more, I reached out to Dr. Christine Selby, an expert in helping athletes with eating disorders. Dr. Selby is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Husson University in Bangor, Maine and is a licensed psychologist in part-time private practice. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist with the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (iaedp) and a Certified Consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). She is also listed on the Registry of Sport Psychology Professionals with the United States Olympic Committee.

Dr. Selby is currently a member of the APA and Divisions 2, 17, 42, & 47. She served as President-Elect, President, and Past-President of the Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance (APA Division 47) from 2012-2015. She is also a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders, iaedp, and AASP where she co-founded (2008) and co-chaired (2008-2014) the Eating Disorders Special Interest Group.

Dr. Selby has published in the area of eating disorders in athletes for non-academic audiences. She has also presented locally and nationally on eating disorders and related topics at professional conferences, and to allied professionals who work directly with those dealing with eating disorders and related concerns.

Dr. Selby is the author of the books, “Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation” and “The Body Size and Health Debate” which will be available November 2017.

Hunter: Dr. Selby, what is a sport psychologist?

A sport psychologist is a psychologist who has specialized training in working with athletes, coaches, and other allied personnel. Right now Sport Psychology is recognized by the APA as a proficiency that is acquired through post-doctoral training.

What skills are most valuable for a sport psychologist?

In my opinion, to be an effective sport psychologist one has to have well-developed skills as a counselor. Certainly many athletes want you to simply “fix it” as do many non-athlete clients; however, listening to the athlete to learn about them as well as what may be driving their current concerns is critical. Beyond that, it is imperative to fully understand what it means to be an athlete including things like understanding why they would compete through pain and injury, the pressures they feel from themselves, friends, family, coaches, and fans to perform well, and their willingness to compete regardless of what damage may occur to their mind or body.

What kind of jobs can you do as a sport psychologist?

Someone with education and training in sport psychology can work with athletes in a variety of capacities including clinical or performance enhancement work, helping coaches and other sport associated staff deal with issues related to team management including education and prevention around important issues in sport (e.g., aggression, concussion, eating disorders, depression/anxiety, and so on). Depending on one’s background and training a sport psychologist may work with youth leagues, K-12 schools, gyms/athletic facilities, etc. Some sport psychologists have used their skills to work with exercisers whereas others have established practices working professionals in high-performance professions (e.g., surgeons, CEOs) and the military. Many sport psychologists also work at colleges/universities either as a practitioner or as an educator – sometimes both.

What questions should students interested in sport psychology be asking?

The most important question I think students can ask themselves is: What kind of training do I want? Although in most states only a psychologist can call themselves a sport psychologist, the reality is this is a multidisciplinary field, so it is important for students to learn about what sport psychologists do and what training they have had. That can help students determine what type of degree to pursue.

Another important question to ask is: What population do I want to work with? Although many people considering sport psychology think of working with elite level athletes, the reality is there are very few jobs working with this population so although it is something to strive for it is not something to expect right off the bat. If a student is thinking about going into private practice after graduation, they should consider how much time and effort they are willing to put into learning how to run a small business and how to market their skills effectively. Answers to these questions can also help a student determine what graduate program to select.

What do you do?

I am a licensed psychologist in part-time private practice with specialties in sport psychology and eating disorders. I am also an associate professor of psychology at Husson University in Bangor, Maine.

What were your plans when you first started university?

I did not have any professional plans prior to starting my undergrad degree. I did take a psych course as a high school student and liked it. I eventually declared psychology as my major after taking classes with excellent professors and realizing that I liked what I was learning. When I closed in on graduation, I decided I wanted to go to grad school but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I liked psychology and I knew I liked sports, so I looked for a way to combine the two. I eventually found the only Master’s program at the time at that was housed in a psychology department (Springfield College) rather than physical education. That degree was in Athletic Counseling which led me to realize I loved the counseling part of what I was learning and applied to Ph.D. programs in counseling psych that had faculty interested/working in sport psychology. I selected the University of North Texas as my program.

What training did you need to deal with an athlete with an eating disorder versus a non-athlete?

What differentiates working with an athlete with an eating disorder (ED) a non-athlete with an ED is understanding sports culture. Sometimes it is important to understand the culture of the athlete’s chosen sport specifically, but usually understanding sports culture, in general, is important. This usually involves understanding things like an athlete’s willingness and desire to compete no matter what (and at times the coach’s desire for the athlete to compete no matter what), that leanness and in some sports thinness is expected so it may be difficult to identify when an athlete is struggling with an ED, that you need to be able to establish good working relationships with athletic personnel including coaches, athletic trainers and other sport medicine staff, athletic directors, and so on. Ultimately, however, one needs to sufficient education and training in working with EDs regardless of the patient’s athletic status. Since EDs (particularly Anorexia Nervosa) have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, it is important first to understand and know how to treat an ED. Working with someone with an ED requires an enormous amount of patience and ability to tolerate risk.

Would you do anything differently? What would you tell a student based on that knowledge?

I would not do anything differently. I love the work I do. I love the training I got as a counseling psychologist and as an athletic counselor before that. I thoroughly enjoy working with athletes and non-athletes with eating disorders despite how challenging those disorders are. What I usually tell students is to listen to themselves as they take classes or complete an internship encouraging them to pay attention to what they really like and don’t like about what they’re doing and learning.

Whatever career path they choose it has to be a good fit for them to be effective. Working with athletes, coaches, and other sports personnel may not be a good fit. Fit depends in large part on the reasons why you’ve selected the career path you’re considering. Most of us know when something feels right/good and when something does not – the key is to pay attention to that part of us and not to ignore it.

Where can someone interested in sport psychology get more information? Are there any must read resources? What are they?

Students and practicing professionals can go to the Society for Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology (APA Division 47) website to learn about the APA’s Sport Psychology Proficiency. This page explains what the Proficiency is and what it takes to become proficient as a sport psychologist. For those interested in attending a program that focuses on this type of training, they can get a copy of the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology.

Finally, I’d strongly recommend identifying professionals who are doing what you want to do. Talk with them directly, learn about them through their professional websites, find the articles, books and book chapters they’ve written, and so on. Learning more about what a profession does on a day-to-day basis and what it took for them to get to where they can help someone interested in the field determine if sport psychology is a good fit.

For even more about sport psychology check out these resources from APA:

Pursuing a Career in Sport and Performance Psychology
Sport psychologists help professional and amateur athletes


About the Author

Hunter Clary
Hunter is a communications professional who came of age in the digital revolution, and has witnessed big changes in how we communicate. In his eclectic 20 year career he’s seen vast changes across multiple industries from advertising, B2C, professional services, publishing, and now non-profit. During his time at APA Hunter has watched the growth of in the organization’s web presence; a shift from print to digital media; and the pickup of social channels like the PsychLearningCurve. A tech geek at heart, Hunter is naturally drawn to all things shiny and new especially when it comes to communicating – particularly social media and apps. Hunter seeks to understand the world around him -- add in a penchant for creative design and a reporter’s curiosity and you’ve got Hunter. Through this blog he hopes to help translate quality psychological science into practical uses for educators, students, and parents.