University & Degrees

Sport and health psychology explained

4 mins
March 24, 2022
Do you want to know how elite athletes push themselves to the extremes? Or why you reach for certain foods when you’re stressed? Or what stress can do to our bodies? If you want to know the why’s to these questions you may be interested in sport or health psychology; though the two aren’t related, the two branches of psychology do share many similarities. Both look at how the body and mind interact with each other. In this article, we’ll explore the roles of both sports and health psychologists.

What is health psychology?

Health psychology looks at how the mind and body interact. It studies how biology, psychology, behaviour and social factors influence health and illness. Health psychologists look at the behaviours behind illness and also try to understand how people react to, cope with, and recover from illness. Health psychologists aim to promote positive health and prevent physical illness. 

What are psychological factors in health?

Many behavioural and psychological factors impact our overall physical wellbeing. Psychological factors are about the life you lead, they include lifestyle, personality characteristics and stress levels. 

What do health psychologists do?

As a health psychologist, you'll:

  • identify behaviours that damage your patients' health, examples include smoking, physical inactivity and an unbalanced diet
  • learn about your patients' behaviour in relation to their illness to figure out appropriate psychological solutions
  • develop interventions that help your patients and empower them to develop a sense of self-control 
  • encourage positive healthcare behaviours
  • look at the psychological impact of illness on patients, families and carers
  • provide information and advice to a range of organisations involved in public health, like the NHS and local authorities
  • explain to health professionals how they can improve their communication with their patients.

What is sports psychology?

Sports psychology studies how psychological factors influence sports, performance, exercise and physical activity. Not only do sports psychologists investigate how participating in sports can improve health, but they also work with athletes to utilise various psychological approaches that can improve their performance and mental health. But it's not just elite athletes! Sports psychologists work with anyone who wants to learn how sports and fitness can improve their physical and mental health. 

What do sports psychologists do?

As a sports psychologist, you'll:

  • work with coaches, trainers, physical therapists and physicians
  • assess performance and determine which tools can help
  • address psychological issues, such as performance anxiety, substance use or fear of failure
  • use psychological techniques to improve performance
  • provide personal-psychological advice
  • use mind-body practices, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and visualisation
  • counsel athletes on work-life issues and help them prepare for when their athletic career ends
  • work with a team of athletes to help them work better together
  • help athletes overcome personal conflicts or issues

Is sports psychology a good career? 

Mental health and sports are intersecting now more than ever, we saw it in the delayed 2020 Olympics with Simone Biles, the record-breaking medalist withdrawing from events because of her mental health. We’ve seen it in tennis with Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open because she was suffering from depression. Finally, we all saw the toll that missing the penalty took on Bukayo Saka.

Unfortunately, the advent of social media, means the game doesn’t stop once the players walk off the pitch, they have to deal with opinions (often nasty) from fans. So it’s become increasingly important for players to protect themselves and their mental health so they can keep pushing forward in their sports. So short answer? YES, sports psychology is a great career and it’s only going to grow as more and more athletes see the value of putting their mental health first.

Ready for psychology work experience?

If you enjoyed learning more about the roles of sports and health psychologists, then you’ll probably enjoy our psychology virtual work experience programme. We have whole modules dedicated to sports and health psychology and we cover topics like understanding the impact of disease and chronic illness on individuals and groups and popular theories within sports psychology. So what are you waiting for?!

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