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Discussion forum

Sport Psychology


Over the last couple of years we have seen a significant increase in media reports and professional sports teams referring to services of ‘Sport Psychologists’. The interesting thing is that at present there is no such registration category at the Health Professions Council of South Africa (i.e., our regulatory body for all medical and mental health practitioners). Even more confusing is the fact that despite the apparent lack of an accredited registration category many universities persists to offer Sport Psychology courses as well as tenure for researchers and professors within the Sport Psychology field. So two questions:

  1. Who is entitled to call themselves a ‘Sport Psychologist’, and (depending on your position)
  2. Who should be allowed/or are entitled to register as members for the South African Society of Sport and Exercise Psychology?

In response to the questions asked…

The international perspective on sport psychology might provide some guidance on how to answer the first question regarding who is entitled to call themselves a ‘sport psychologist’.

From a brief review of the situation in both the United States and the United Kingdom (where sport psychology is significantly more established than in South Africa) these are the official titles resembling ‘sport psychologist’:

  1. Sport Psychology Consultant (USA – Association for Applied Sport Psychology AASP). This title is bestowed on practitioners who are certified with the AASP and have met stringent requirements regarding formal education (Masters or Doctoral degree in field of sport and exercise science) and mentored practical hours of 400 to 700 hours.
  2. Psychologist with Proficiency in Sport Psychology(USA – American Psychological Association APA). This is not a certification and is not bestowed on individuals, but rather outlines the skills and knowledge, procedures and scope of practice for a psychologist wishing to practice within this area. Unlike the AASP certification, practicing in this area would require being a licenced psychologist.
  3. Sport and Exercise Psychologist (UK – Health Professions Council HPC & British Psychological Society BPS). This is probably the most traditional of titles, as it is reserved for registered psychologists who have undergone the training and education specified by the BPS (a minimum of an MSc in an accredited programme on Sport and Exercise Psychology and 2 years supervised practice)
  4. Sport and Exercise Scientist(UK – BASES). The BASES accreditation is for practitioners primarily working in research and education in the field of sport and exercise science (with an MSc and 2 to 6 years of supervised practice), but who are unlikely to provide the kind of consulting services that most laypeople would imagine of a ‘sport psychologist’.

The first three titles describe areas of practice that most people would associate with the term sport psychologist. The main distinction between the APA and BPS’ titles and that of the Sport Psychology Consultant is that the latter does not require the practitioner to be a registered psychologist. In practical terms this means that the Sport Psychology Consultant would not conduct assessments make diagnoses or provide treatment for anything that falls in the realm of clinical or counselling psychology. These examples of procedures taken from the APA Division 47 for Exercise and Sport Psychology website would fall outside the scope of an AASP Sport Psychology Consultant : Eating disorders and weight management interventions for athletes; Substance abuse interventions for athletes; Grief, depression, loss and suicide counselling for athletes; Sexual identity issues in sport counselling; Aggression and violence counselling in sports.)


Unfortunately in reality the boundary between providing services purely for performance enhancement and addressing issues that may require clinical or counselling expertise is very often unclear. In this vein the challenges faced in defining a scope of practice for sport psychology are very similar to those faced in the current debates around scope of practices for counselling psychology, clinical psychology and registered counsellors.


One of the core components of the first question is this more specific question: when it comes to the practice of sport psychology, does the practitioner need to be a ‘psychologist’? As it stands the training and experience required to be a registered psychologist (whether that be clinical, counselling, neuropsychological, organisational, research, etc.) is not adequate preparation for the practice of sport psychology. I believe that certain skills and knowledge of counselling, psychotherapy and assessment are vital and necessary but not sufficient to practice effectively as a sport psychologist. There is significant knowledge and experience required over and above that provided by traditional psychology training programmes and internships (even those that include sport psychology modules).


The criteria for classification of a sport psychologist should not be pre-existing training, education, or registration in another field of psychology, but rather whether the practitioner has the key skills, knowledge and experience relevant specifically to the area of sport psychology. Skills, knowledge and experience which currently can only be partially met through established routes of training to be a psychologist. While the title of psychologist is protected by law in South Africa I am not certain as to the legal entitlement of someone (or perhaps more frequently the media or a uniformed public) calling themselves a sport psychologist. If at the end of the day this debate is settled by the legal status of the term, the onus is on those of us working in the field to ensure that the best interests of both the public and practitioners are reflected in that law, and if not, to amend it.


With regard to the second question, until the criteria for sport psychology in South Africa is clearly and coherently established, membership for an organisation like SASSEP that seeks to define (and regulate) the field should come from as broad a population as possible. Solely using ‘psychologist’ as the inclusion criteria will exclude numerous practitioners who may be more qualified in the field of sport psychology based on knowledge, skills and experience that are relevant to working in the field itself.


In order to comprehensively answer the two initial questions, primary objectives for an organisation such as SASSEP need to be:

  • Clearly define Sport Psychology (for South Africa)
  • Clearly define the scope of practice of a sport psychologist (in South Africa)
  • Clearly define the qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience required in order to effectively practice in this field.

If potential sport psychologists (as well as the media and general public) have clear guidance in these three areas it will prevent misunderstandings and allow practitioners to meet a standardised set of requirements that will, in all practicality, entitle them to be called sport psychologists.


“You can’t call yourself a sport psychologist just because you’re a licensed psychologist who reads Sports Illustrated,” says Jennifer E. Carter, PhD, past-president of APA’s Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport) taken from -http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/sport-proficiency.aspx


Primary Information gathered from these sources:

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