Emerging field: sports psychiatry

psychiatrist and patient

Athletes aren't exempt from suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Some of these concerns can be caused by the sport itself — for instance, enormous pressure to win could lead to psychological distress or an injury may cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Other issues, such as debilitating depression, might arise outside of the sport but still affect performance. While athletes have long gone to sports psychologists to undergo psychotherapy, now they have another option available to them: sports psychiatry, which combines psychotherapy and medicine to treat mental illness.

Sports psychiatry originated a couple of decades ago and has been advanced by the International Society for Sport Psychiatry. The field of sports psychiatry has been growing and evolving ever since, making it a compelling one to enter.

What does sports psychiatry entail?

Many people, perhaps due to film and TV, imagine psychiatrists sitting around asking a patient to explain their feelings. So when you see the term "sports psychiatrist," you may imagine a sports psychiatrist doing that with an athlete. And while both sports psychologists and sports psychiatrists discuss an athlete's feelings, the role of a sports psychiatrist takes an approach that goes beyond that, according to sports psychiatrist Dr. Antonia Baum in a Psychiatric Times article.

"Sports psychiatry distinguishes itself from the well-established field of sports psychology," Baum wrote. "While our interventions often do affect sports performance positively — and performance problems may in fact be the presenting complaint — our primary goal is not performance enhancement per se, but rather a focus on psychopathology."

Specifically, psychopathology is the study of mental disorders. Sports psychiatrists are not only looking to get your mind clear so you can keep excelling at football. They want to go deeper. They're physicians looking to cure an illness. That includes talking to you but also includes setting up medical exams and prescribing medicine.

Whether it's bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety caused by an abundant pressure to win all the time, sports psychiatrists get to the bottom of it and treat the person.

How to become a sports psychiatrist

Becoming a sports psychiatrist, for many, reflects the same educational path as becoming any other kind of psychiatrist.

The American Psychiatric Association states that becoming a psychiatrist requires completion of college, medical school and a four-year residence in psychiatry. To earn your state license to practice typically requires passing a written and oral exam. After completing residency training, a lot of psychiatrists will take exams given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to become board certified — a certification that must be renewed every 10 years.

Getting into sports psychiatry specifically may stem from a background or immense interest in sports. Or perhaps you just have a passion for helping athletes or an interest in the specific mental issues that athletes sometimes display, such as the pressure to perform, difficult transition into early retirement and separating their identities from their sport. Many times, you get to choose your specialty, and plenty of legitimate motivations exist for choosing this one.

As the field is so new, sports psychiatry remains a niche that many carve out on their own after obtaining the traditional education and experience that's required. In other words: you've got a lot of schooling ahead of you if you take this route.

The future of sports psychiatry

The future of sports psychiatry has not been projected much, since the field continues to evolve. But perhaps it will look like the rest of psychiatry: bright.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of physicians and surgeons (which includes psychiatrists, here) is projected to grow by 18 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the 11 percent average for all occupations. That's a broad category, though, with psychiatrists being only one of many doctors who fit into it. But if it's any indication, then the field of psychiatry (and presumably sports psychiatry) will likely grow in coming years.

Another growth factor may be the spread of education, which could be important to identifying at-risk athletes, according to Dr. Baum in an article for Current Psychiatry. Regardless, plenty of athletes need help and are reaching out already, which may be motivation enough to become a sports psychiatrist.


About Psychiatry: What is a Psychiatrist?, American Psychiatric Association,
http://www.psychiatry.org/about-apa — psychiatry/more-about-psychiatry

"Sport psychiatry: How to keep athletes in the game of life, on or off the field," Antonia Baum, Current Psychiatry, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 2003,

"The Emerging Field of Sports Psychiatry: A New Niche for Psychiatric Practice," Antonia Baum, Psychiatric Times, Oct. 9, 2013,

Job Outlook: Physicians and Surgeons, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,