Will the Real Sport Psychologist Please Stand Up? Professionalisation versus Pseudo-psychologists

Will the Real Sport Psychologist Please Stand Up? Professionalisation versus Pseudo-psychologists
Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre

On a given Sunday each September, two teams compete for the Sam Maguire trophy, arguably the pinnacle of the Irish sporting calendar. The winning Captains speech provides an opportunity to express gratitude to the back-room team, often including personnel given the responsibility to help players optimise their mental game. Journalists, analysts, pundits, fans and taxi drivers dissect the game afterwards with terms like mental toughness, grit, and resilience typically attributed to the winning team. As the award-winning journalist Simon Barnes has said “mental toughness” is used as a default explanation for achieving a championship win. Sport psychology undoubtedly plays a role within the amateur games of the GAA. However, the increasing professionalisation of the training and competitive calendar and dual-career demands raises the question of whether the focus should be on performance enhancement or preventative mental health interventions. The challenge is who should conduct such interventions and what qualifications are necessary to perform such interventions safely and ethically. This issue was the subject of a short interview on national radio (RTE Radio 1 This Week). The story emanated from an incident in Australian sport in which an accredited sport psychologist Jeff Bond criticised an AFL team for using unaccredited consultants.. Here, I provide perspective on the accreditation issues in Ireland, highlight the challenges of pseudo-psychologists and provide an update on the forthcoming changes in statutory regulation which will level the playing field.

Groundhog Day and the Global Game

At this years All-Ireland final the 25th jubilee winners from 1993 were recognised in a ceremony with MEP Sean Kelly, former President of the GAA and a strong advocate for mental health in sport. When Joe Brolly was kicking points to help the Ulster team to their epic win they had among their backroom team sport psychologist Craig Mahoney ,formerly working at QUB and now principal officer of the University of the West of Scotland. Teams across the different codes of Gaelic Games have flirted with sport psychology but haven’t taken the profession seriously with no requirements on teams to employ accredited personnel so self-appointed gurus can be easily equated with highly trained accredited practitioners. Twenty years ago, Craig, Aidan Moran and I published a data driven article on psychological skills among Irish athletes which indicated that there were deficiencies in the psychological skills profiles of our athletes compared to international samples. This wasn’t surprising given the amount of pseudo-psychologists in the game who has self-help books for guidance with little understanding of how to develop what are in reality meta-cognitive skills of emotional regulation. What is of real concern is how little has changed in practice despite the attempts to professionalise the discipline, and while this is a global issue as Jeff Bonds criticisms suggest (see also Schinke et al., 2018), we in Ireland are in a uniquely risk environment with regard to mental health and well-being. If there is a gold medal for negative attitudes towards mental health and help seeking behaviour in sport, then the evidence suggests that we in Ireland would at least make the podium.

What is the Current State of Play?

Psych society of ireland logoThree major initiatives have occurred in the professionalisation of the discipline in recent years. Firstly, over a decade ago the Sport Ireland Institute created a professional register of consultants across the sport science disciplines for quality assurance purposes. Currently, there are 19 recognised professionals on their list of psychologists. NGB’s within sport and coaches and athletes can turn to this register to find practitioners with the minimum requirements (e.g. MSc. Level with 200 days post Masters level experience) encompassing those who have had prior education in the sport and exercise sciences, not merely psychology. The Division of Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology (DSEPP) within the Psychological Society of Ireland, founded in 2011, offers a pathway for membership based on academic qualifications without the necessity for supervised experience. Thirdly, MSc courses, including our course at UL, have been developed to align with these pathways and DSEPP has recently published guidelines for the accreditation of postgraduate training in this field.

CORU is the Irish body with the authority to provide statutory registration of Health and Social Care Professionals which will soon include practitioner psychologists. This body was enacted by a 2005 act and while the can has been kicked down the road the time for ‘psychologist’ being a protected title may be as soon as 2019. The prior initiatives in the field will provide a firm foundation for the training and recognition of service providers. In all likelihood CORU will provide a short timeline for grandparenting of existing practitioners whose qualifications don’t align precisely with PSI.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that neither NGB’s nor the sporting public are familiar with merits of accredited and qualified personnel. The risk to individual athletes is high, for example, if the unaccredited service provider has no understanding of referral pathways (i.e. to a mental health professional) and they attempt to treat a mental health problem themselves or even worse ignore the symptoms of psychological distress leaving an athlete more vulnerable.

The End Game

Mind gurus  appear in many guises despite the emerging knowledge on the risks to the mental health of athletes, with research at UL by IRC Scholar Jessie Barr, specifically on mental health stigma, by PESS Scholar Hannah McCormack on practitioner self-care and by Chris Bryan and Clodagh Butler on resilience. An evidence-based approach is required to understand the risks posed by pseudo-psychologists in high performance sport. To this end, we are currently surveying service providers internationally to explore the knowledge gaps among practitioners with different levels of training and we will share these findings on World Mental Health Day in October. Infographics and online tools will be developed to help the public choose an accredited psychologist that can support mental health, well-being and positively influence performance. It’s the least the players deserve.

Further info: Sport Ireland Institute and PSI

Feature image: Prof. Craig Mahoney, Principal Officer of the University of the West of Scotland


Dr Tadhg MacIntyre is a lecturer in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences (PESS) at Tadhg roundthe University of Limerick.   Dr MacIntyre’s research interest applies the strength-based approach to investigating key questions in cognitive psychology and performance psychology.  Dr MacIntyre leads the GO GREEN EX initiative at PESS and the Health Research Institute, University of Limerick.  GO GREEN EX is a transdiciplinary research group engaged in research on human-nature interaction with respect to well-being, physical activity, well-being and mental health and the environment.   The team includes PESS staff Prof Alan Donnelly, HoD Dr Giles Warrington, Dr Ciaran MacDonncha and Dr Matt Herring, researchers from more than a dozen institutions and stakeholders organizations including Mental Health Ireland, Psychological Society of Ireland, Clarisford Park, Clare and Limerick Local Sport Partnerships, Sport Ireland, WaterWays Ireland and the European Network of Outdoor Sports.     You can contact Dr MacIntyre by email tadhg.macintyre@ul.ie or follow him on Twitter  Researchgate


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