Guide to Sports Medicine Careers (2023)

Careers in sports medicine are active, impactful, and in demand. Sports medicine is a diverse field that ranges from mental fitness to physical therapy to dietary and nutritional science. You don’t need to be a physician to get involved, either; some careers in sports medicine can be started with just a bachelor’s or master’s degree. When people move better, and more often, they feel better, and that’s exactly what careers in sports medicine help people do. 

March is National Athletic Training Month, and this year’s theme is “Providing Healthcare Everywhere.” It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about the important work of athletic trainers and the field of sports medicine as a whole. It’s also a time to revisit the wide selection of professional careers available in the thriving field of sports medicine. To learn more, read on.

Become an Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers prevent, diagnose, and treat muscle and bone injuries and illnesses. Oftentimes, they act as first responders when injuries occur during an athletic contest. Working under the general direction of a licensed physician and alongside other healthcare providers, athletic trainers can provide first aid, apply protective gear, evaluate injuries, and help develop and carry out rehabilitation programs. 

Athletic trainers can work anywhere athletics are practiced, with the biggest employer of athletic trainers being educational institutions. Athletic trainers can work for school sports teams, professional sports teams, fitness and recreational centers, healthcare facilities, or private practices. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the need for athletic trainers to increase 17 percent between 2021 and 2031, a rate that’s three times the national average for all professions (BLS 2022).

Athletic trainers will need at least a bachelor’s degree in order to practice, and master’s degrees have become increasingly common. Degree programs should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). Nearly all states require athletic trainers to be licensed or certified, with specific requirements varying by state, but the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer (BOC) offers the standard certification examination.

Become an Exercise Scientist

Exercise scientists, sometimes also called exercise physiologists, develop fitness and exercise programs that help patients recover from chronic diseases and improve their body’s composition, function, and flexibility. They’ll analyze a patient’s medical history, develop an individualized exercise regimen, perform fitness and stress tests, and monitor key patient health indicators. Many of the patients an exercise scientist sees are suffering from cardiovascular or pulmonary issues.

Most exercise scientists are self-employed, but a significant percentage work in hospitals, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the need for exercise scientists to increase 9 percent by 2031, a rate that’s nearly double the national average for all professions (BLS 2022).

Exercise scientists typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in order to practice, and preferably in a related field such as exercise science, kinesiology, or exercise physiology. Most exercise scientists complete degree programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Currently, Louisiana is the only state to require exercise physiologists to be licensed, but other states have proposed doing the same. Optional professional certifications for exercise scientists are available through the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Become a Nutritionist or Dietitian

Nutritionists and dietitians use their knowledge of food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease. They’ll assess the needs of their clients, counsel them on nutrition and eating habits, develop individualized nutrition plans, and monitor those plans and adjust them as needed. Dietitians and nutritionists will take advantage of academic research, client interviews, laboratory testing, and medical histories in developing and managing client nutrition plans. 

The largest employer of dietitians and nutritionists is hospitals, but they can also work for government agencies, outpatient care centers, nursing and residential care facilities, or themselves. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the need for nutritionists and dietitians to grow 7 percent by 2031, a rate that’s slightly higher than the national average for all professions (BLS 2022). 

Dietitians and nutritionists will need at least a bachelor’s field in nutrition science or a related field in order to practice, and many choose to pursue advanced degrees as well. Several states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed; some require only certification or registration in order to use specific titles; others have no requirements at all. Employers may prefer candidates with professional certifications, such as that of Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS), a designation administered through the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS).

Become a Physical Therapist (PT)

Physical therapists (PTs) help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. They can also assist in preventative care and rehabilitation for patients with chronic conditions. PTs will review their patients’ medical histories, diagnose their patients’ functionality and movement through observation, develop an individualized plan of action, and assist the patient through stretches, exercises, and therapies that alleviate pain and rebuild strength. 

Physical therapists most often work as part of a physical or occupational therapy practice, but they can also work for hospitals, home health services, or residential care facilities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the need for physical therapists to grow 17 percent by 2031, a rate that’s over triple the national average for all professions (BLS 2022). 

Physical therapists will need a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from an institution accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) in order to practice. DPT programs are typically three years in length and require students to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field. All states require PTs to be licensed, a process that includes passing the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some PTs choose to pursue optional board certification as a specialist, which is offered through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

Become a Sports Psychologist

Sports psychologists work with athletes to improve their performance through stress management, objective visualization, motivation, and teamwork. They can also help athletes with mental processes applicable to their on-the-field decision-making and off-the-field relationships. 

Sports psychologists can work for university athletics departments, professional sports teams, e-gaming teams, and in private practice. Some even work in the military, under the title of performance enhancement specialists (PESs), helping soldiers, families, and contractors to build mental strength. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track sports psychologists specifically, but it forecasts the need for psychologists more broadly to increase 6 percent by 2031, a rate that’s roughly the same as the national average for all professions (BLS 2022). 

All sports psychologists will need to complete a doctorate in psychology from an accredited institution: a PhD in psychology prepares sports psychologists for work in research and academia, while a PsyD prepares them for practice-focused clinical work. Clinical sports psychologists will need to be licensed in any state in which they practice, while educational and consultative sports psychologists may or may not. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides each state’s requirements and a directory of state boards. Many employers may prefer sports psychologists who are board certified, a designation offered through the American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP).

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog


Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about trends within the healthcare workforce, with a particular focus on the power of interdisciplinary teams. He’s also covered the crises faced by healthcare professionals working at assisted living and long-term care facilities, both in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demographic shift brought on by the aging of the Baby Boomers. His work has included detailed interviews and consultations with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Nurses Association (ASCA), the American College of Health Care Administrators (ACHCA), and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA).

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