The Role of Accreditation in Sport Psychology: Lighthouses in a Storm – Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre

It is fitting that we revisit the issue of professional accreditation just a year on from the passing of Professor Aidan Moran (1957-2020) who has been described as the father of Irish sport psychology. Aidan had been central to the development of a special interest group and subsequently division status in the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). He subsequently chaired the Sport Ireland Institute Professional Accreditation (SIIPA) committee overseeing the recognition of many of the 30 recognised practitioner psychologists on the island. Today, because of the efforts of Aidan allied by fellow committee members including PESS staff, Prof. Drew Harrision, Prof. Giles Warrington (former Chair) the pathway to accreditation is becoming clearer. In this feature, we note the recent hurdles and next strides for the professionalisation of the discipline. We explore these turbulent times through the four C’s.

1. Charlatans

The field of sport psychology has had an interesting dalliance with the media often highlighting the work of those ‘purporting’ to be practitioners rather than those whom are qualified. This is not unusual and had occurred in other jurisdictions and was understandable given the lack of clarity over the career pathways and what constituted an ‘accredited sport psychologist.’ Applied sport psychology is not new on the island with Derry footballers having had the expertise of Prof. Craig Mahoney (now Chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland) on their successful quest for Sam. The Liam McCarthy cup found its way to Wexford with manager Liam Griffin in 1996, defeating Limerick in the final (sorry!!).  Psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick was central to their performance according to the manager and he recently gave some insights into how they decided to take on service provision in this area.  After discussion with the players, the manager put it to a vote and they players voted unanimously to work with the psychologist, highlighting the need for autonomy in consulting practice. The lack of a formal pathway for those consulting left the door open for many to apply the label motivational coach, mind coach and even guru. However, it was at UL that a formal process become enshrined within the high performance scheme, what was termed the ‘carding scheme’ in 1998.

2.  Competencies

The foundation of the National Coaching and Training Centre at UL was a significant milestone in Irish Sport.  Our own Head of Department Prof. Giles Warrington was part of the staff team as an applied physiologist. A panel of recognised providers was developed across the sport science disciplines to ensure quality assurance for the nations top athletes preparing for international competition. A later review, post-Athens led to the Sport Ireland Institute which is now the home to much of elite sport in Ireland and a new form of accreditation based on the UK (BASES) model. Today the Sport Ireland Institute Professional Accreditation (SIIPA) process aims to identify whether the service provider can demonstrate (to the satisfaction of the evaluators) that they have achieved all the competencies necessary within their specialty to apply professional knowledge to bring about a significant positive change in elite performance. The service providers must also demonstrate that they can work as an independent autonomous practitioner, within an ethical framework. The application centres around the submission of a case study augmented by an account of your qualifications, training and experience. Thankfully PESS graduates across the sport sciences have become service providers with Niamh Ni Cheilleacher (AIT) a current committee member with Tom Comyns and I. A half dozen psychology practitioners, graduates of UL have joined the register including Jessie Barr, Clodagh Butler, Mag McCarthy, Cathal Sheridan, Greig Oliver, Katie Kilbane and Maire-Treasa Ni Cheallaigh. This process continues to be the gold standard for practitioners in Ireland with many also working along the pathway to PSI chartered status.


Professional Regulatory and Statutory Bodies are milestones in the development of a profession and career tracks. The 2005 Health and Social Care Professionals Act and subsequent legislation provided a pivot point for many working across the health care sector. Psychology has simply had to wait its turn and this statutory body will bring Irish practitioners in line with their UK counterparts with regulation likely in the coming year. In the UK, the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) over a decade ago required all psychology practitioners to formally apply with high standards required for registration. What is interesting here is that HCPC applies to Northern Ireland so to consult across the 32 counties of Ireland its a requirement to be accredited with them. During the London 2012 Olympiad they offered derogation from this process to enable foreign teams practitioner psychologists to consult with their athletes on site. The implications of CORU for the profession are still uncertain. They will invoke a grandparenting process to enable established practitioners to sign up and are likely to work closely with PSI on the educational requirements. What is unclear is to what extent practitioner experience, supervised or otherwise will be part of the criteria.

4. COVID19

What the global pandemic has taught us is that sport is very much part of the fabric of Irish society and the guidelines developed by a team including PESS lecturer Dr Clodagh Butler and I were among the many resources designed to help competitors map their own recovery pathway. A special issue in the journal Frontiers in Psychology helped articulate this story from a research perspective. From the practitioner viewpoint, athletes reached out to many different sources for support and nobody has a monopoly on expertise about coping with a global pandemic. The voice of PSI has been particularly strong in providing evidence-based guidelines. Furthermore, athlete and player associations have worked with our research team to assess the needs of those in Gaelic Games, Rugby and Olympic/Paralympic sports. MSc student @LaurenGuilfoyle developed a longitudinal survey with the GPA and WGPA as part of her studies supported by Clodagh and myself. Mental health awareness and resilience have emerged as key factors in athletes response to COVID19, and these are likely to be central to athletes adaptation to future challenges including and beyond, for example, Tokyo 2021 Olympics and Paralympics. As Aidan Moran has often stated, sport is played in the body but won in the mind.

Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at Maynooth University, coordinator of GoGreenRoutes H2020 program and adjunct lecturer at PESS.

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