Becoming a sport psychologist in Canada

Becoming a sport psychologist in Canada

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After wrapping up my sport psychology MSc, I’ve returned to work in Vancouver to continue paying off student loans. That in itself is a different discussion: why does our current system so often leave our brightest, freshest, most enthusiastic and most prepared minds saddled with so much debt? Wouldn’t they be of more benefit to society were they freer to apply all they’ve just learned without living hand-to-mouth the first decade?

… but this post is dedicated to something different: namely, in the shiny new, up-and-coming field that is sport psychology, how exactly does one start doing it Canada? It’s a long one, but it has all the information I wish I knew when I started on this path ten years ago.

I still remember my practicum supervisor — the chief Polish Olympic sport psychologist who, among other things, was both the president of the national sport psych association as well as the VP of the national psychology association — half-jokingly chiding, “What do you guys across the Atlantic know about sport psychology? You only have therapists and PE teachers doing sport psychology, but no real sport psychologists“.

My supervisor at a Polish Olympic Committee meeting in Warsaw with the rest of us, students

At first I was insulted, but then I realized he was very right. I need to underline this was more a casual observation than any harsh criticism, but there really seems to be a divide here between sport scientists doing psychology and psychologists dabbling in sport/performance. Sport psychology seems an orphaned specialization, in Canada at least. Since having moved back home — and especially since trying to find work (not pay, simply work) in this field, I’m constantly running across specialists already working in the field atop a glass ceiling through which I cannot break, and across potential clients for whom sport psychology is easily the best thing they never knew they needed.

And this is not a new problem. When I was nearing the end of my BSc I reached out to a local sport psych specialist, to my old psych prof who recommended his colleague (who was kind enough to take me out to lunch and answer some questions), and even to the sport faculty of one of Canada’s top universities, but no one could give me clear details on how exactly sport psychology was “done”, never mind on how to “get there”. All these meetings and conversations boiled down to advice of the form “work hard, seize opportunities, naturally progress in the direction you want and your field will build around you”. Which is all well and good when we’re talking generalities and dream-chasing, but less so when it comes to direct career planning. That said, I now know there was nothing clearer they could have offered me at the time — that I’m writing this post while still in a state of uncertainty a whole decade later only underlines this. Still, I knew I needed concrete schooling in the field as a first step — continuing working informally in it as a Wikipedia-supplemented coach just wouldn’t do. I especially didn’t want to come at it from as wide an angle as was the case at the time (a massage diploma + a physiology undergrad), but it took a whole lot of time and luck to discover that this was at all possible.

My BSc quickly showed me my future lay in pipetting unless I continued with graduate studies. The only directions pulling me were muscle physiology (an orphan field of its own with clear practical applications for my clinical massage work but something of a dead end otherwise) and sport psychology which, even that early on, was quickly growing into a passion for me. Luckily, after intensive googling I discovered the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology in 2007 or so. This gave me hope, but not much else. This resource was not yet available online so I had to order a physical copy and I remember quite a lot of the information in it being outdated, especially contacts. The most saddening bit about it all though, was that all the programs were far away (USA, UK, Australia) and expensive. Still, it showed me that sport psychology was indeed a thing I could study! And this alone was huge.

With student loan deadlines looming I couldn’t do much else after my undergrad but daydream about someday applying to one of these programs. And then, one fateful day, I remembered a friend I had met at a Polish students’ conference years back who was, at the time, just heading out on her own adventure of a lifetime. She told me of her upcoming master’s studies in a wide EU program made to standardize education and foster conversation among specialists across the continent. I thought, heck, let’s see if they offer anything I’d be interested in. And lo and behold, one of the (many) masters offered was exactly that!

I applied, got in, and then deferred for a year so I could set myself up financially (as an EU national, I qualified for the €7,000 tuition: just enough to not break the bank as compared to basically all the schools listed in the directory). I graduated with top honours in the summer of 2015, returned to Canada and then… silence. The program continued developing but I couldn’t. Working in massage therapy took care of my financial needs, but the career-development ones were left hanging.

Which brings me to now. Finances doing okay, the immediate future also kind of secure, I finally have the space I need to hash all this out. The space I need to breathe, it feels like. I’ve been reading up and reaching out to people a lot, trying to figure out my next moves, and again, seeing lots of this glass ceiling appearing everywhere (my European friends confirm the same is true for many of them across the Atlantic). I submitted an application to join the CSPA but that, as far as I can tell, is hanging in limbo as the organization is only now starting to stand on its feet. The particular speed bump that got me was the supervised experience: I had accumulated around 250h during my master’s internship in Poland, but required 400h for CSPA membership. I emailed asking where I could get the additional hours and answers weren’t very clear on how to check off the “supervised” bit. Again, sport psychology is a very new field and specialists are busy establishing themselves in a career that is still done primarily out of passion, and often supplemented with other income to boot. It’s tough finding a supervisor out there. I did apply to an internship that might have worked, but it ended up not being a good fit due to timing.

So I started reading. Which is how I happened upon a fantastic 2007 interview with two Calgary-based psychologists who work in sport, where one neatly outlined why Canada doesn’t really have any sport psychologists (we’ve been graduating ours more under the “sport science” banner), why people don’t hire sport psychologists (uninformed coaches, incompetent/unqualified specialists ruining it for the rest of us), and the first clear advice I’ve seen anywhere about becoming a sport psychologist in Canada: “Become a psychologist, learn kinesiology. Enjoy sport. Expect to work with coaches as much as with athletes. Respect high performance.” And I’m likely meeting the other in a few weeks just to see how his practice is run (his advice so far: sport psych doesn’t pay well just yet so subsidize your income with other work, get as much education as you can — particularly a PhD in psychology — to increase your credibility and knowledge).

In reaching out I’ve been even busier. I gave what might have just been the first sport psychology high school class ever given in Canada by a qualified sport psychology professional, I started mentoring a friend and current student from my master’s program, and just this past week I got in touch with a local sport institute as well as a local specialist to talk about interning or even working the field. I’m attending a conference in nearby Victoria this week where both the CPA (and I assume their sport division) and the CSPA will be present, where they’ll likely be informally talking of how to move the profession forward. I will try to find out which of the two I should join, if either, and also ask about benefits of joining the APA (especially their sport division) and the AASP. Wanting to be credentialed in Canada at the moment, I don’t plan on spending extra money joining the ISSP or FEPSAC, or even continuing my subscription with ENYSSP right now. And even regarding joining associations in Canada, I agree with our visiting professor who questioned joining anything just for the sake of having it on a CV. If the organization is active and useful, then yes (and the CSPA does seem to be moving in this direction), but I’ve been part of one too many organizations in name only to want to do that again. Bottom line: my primary goal with joining any organization would be to make my services reimbursable through insurance for any potential clients. I understand this probably involves diving into the murkiness that is registration as a psychologist with one of our provincial colleges and that this would likely involve acquiring a PhD plus around 1500h of supervised consulting practice, but this is increasingly looking like a worthwhile goal in the long run. Secondarily, I’d be looking to meet potential mentors or even internship supervisors — though this is increasingly looking like a difficult/unnecessary goal — or to access resources like job postings, articles, toolboxes, fora, etc.

During all this reflection thoughts of the Canadian massage therapy profession keep springing to mind. When I took a break from my BSc to complete my two-year college massage diploma, a lot of people thought my diving into this unknown, fledgling field just wasn’t a good move. And their reasoning was sound. Yet massage has positively ballooned since then, close to ten years ago: four provinces have provincial regulatory colleges and the remainder are well on their way in developing theirs; a national association has developed to ensure education programs are accredited and standardized, and, most importantly, massage is formally entering regular healthcare as an important, extremely effective and now even necessary specialization… bringing insurance coverage with it. This enables therapists to charge $100/hour for a massage and therefore $500/year in association fees, which are then used to further lobby government and big insurance firms and to advertise our services and solidify our brand to the public at large. Looking at another field that is also on a similar path of credentialing and career-solidification, I know personal training/kinesiology is also mounting a similar hill (though a few years behind massage) with CSEP.

Sport psychology, it seems, is in exactly the same position massage was in about 20 years ago, and I’m positive it’ll also blow up big as people realize that, just like massage, it works wonders. Canada already has a handful of schools offering a smattering of courses and even degrees in the field, and I know Europe is moving in the same direction too, only faster. Sport psychology is flirting with all sorts of applications too, the most recent of which are outside elite sport, in topics like health, life skills, and non-sport performance. And I’m just thrilled to have caught this wave just as it’s beginning to swell!

Moving forward, I’m following opening notifications on HigherEdJobs (US) and GlobalSportsJobs (world), I’ve joined the APA’s Div. 47 listserv (what a fantastic resource!), I’m on the CSPA’s mailing list, and there’s a good chance I’ll be in Warsaw this fall for the annual ENYSSP conference that I’ve come to know and love during graduate school. For now though, I’m confident that my MSc is the perfect qualification to get me working in this field. A PhD can wait until later, and may not even be necessary (or possible) depending on how my career (and life) goes these next few years. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue working in massage therapy and might even escalate this into becoming a physiotherapist soon. I’ve gotten into Birmingham for this September already (second best in the UK for physio, and they have some really neat sport psych opportunities… only the $70,000 two years’ tuition is what has me second-guessing this proposition) and am still interviewing for others. This would cost me dearly but would also enable me to simultaneously continue working in both sport psychology and massage therapy, not really putting a halt to either but rather complementing both.

An aside to anyone reading this who seems to be perpetually in school: when family and friends hear I’m off to more school they always chuckle too, asking when I’ll get a “real” job and, I suppose, settle down. I used to always just laugh this off but now I’ve realized that I have entered the workforce. A long time ago. My first step was withdrawing from university and enrolling in that massage course way back when. In the ten years’ since then, I’ve bounced back and forth between school and career, my education taking the form of self-sought formal degrees coupled with travel instead of work-imposed weekend courses. My sister comes close to hitting the nail on the head when she says I am a pracademic, but then, aren’t all sport psychologists? I found this reflection brought me peace in that I was able to explain my lifestyle better to those who perhaps live more traditionally.

Pulling back from all this reflection and into reality, my plan moving forward is simple: find as many opportunities as possible to apply sport psychology in Vancouver this summer. I’ll be following some the advice of ex-AASP president, Jack Lesyk (from a very useful AASP archive), with less of an emphasis on stability and setting myself up, and more focus on continuing gathering experiences and slowly letting sport psychology unfurl in front of me:

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