Into thin air? A students journey on the MSc. in Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology – Greig Oliver

How did you find the Masters? I was asked by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre.  My immediate response was “similar to when I climbed Mount Kenya a few years ago!” This was met with a quizzical gaze. What had Mount Kenya, standing at 17,057 feet tall to do with pursuing a Masters degree in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology at the Physical Education and Sport Sciences department in the University of Limerick?  Let’s open our eyes (and our minds) before we make an opinion.

The first few days of lectures were full of trepidation, excitement and wide-eyed individuals, just like when we met our expedition party at our plush hotel right on the equator. Finding our way to lecture theatres scattered across the 133 hectares of greenery was reminiscent of our first few days rambling through the green rainforests of Kenya, taking in every smell, sight and sound with enthusiasm. Having worked with Munster Rugby on the UL campus for over 10 years, I, like many of my fellow students, hadn’t an iota of how big and beautiful UL was in all its greenery.

In our induction to the course, Tadhg encouraged us to mix during our first few weeks of lectures and labs, similar to the Kenya expedition where us two Scotsmen mingled with our fellow mountaineers from Japan, Holland, South Africa and the USA. The language barrier was very quickly crossed between the native Celts on the course with our foreign students from India, Malta, the US and even Leinster! Marc O’Donovan-Dwyer, from the nation’s other capital, Cork, our suave and sophisticated aspiring football manager in the making, who soon had us in stitches with his twang and impressive management speak. This was juxtaposed by the soothing tones of John O’Neill from Galway, who was always going to be our class rep . . . and what a rep he turned out to be, and still is. At the last module presentation during the Summer we gave him a prize and a present for best class rep ever (he was of course our one and only class rep!).

Soon the rain-forest turned into a jungle reminding me of when I led Shruti Gnana-Sampath, Wen Yang, and Jasmin Borg into the wrong building never mind the wrong lecture theatre (we were distracted by Erwin Schrodinger’s lost cat!!!) and we did reconnaissance in search of Jill Pearson’s Work Design and Employee Wellbeing module lecture in the Robert Schuman building! Our well-being soon returned to normal after arriving only two minutes thirty-one seconds late!

Suddenly, we moved out of the jungle into the more sparse and barren land, with the temperature dropping and the body beginning to ache a little, just like our lectures in Qualitative Research Methods and Exercise Psychology, both fascinating subjects but equally exhausting on the mind. At times, I thought I was one of the subjects in a psychological experiment that we had read about (Millgram experiment). Everything became clear with the practicality of the Applied Positive Psychology and Performance Psychology modules, where I especially found my “lived experiences” had served me well. Soon Andree Walkin, Niamh Briggs and I found our “nerdiness” to join Niall Ramsbottom, Aoibhne Warner and Zaire Covarrubias, who had “nerd experience” from psychology undergraduate training.

Now firmly on the mountain and into a rhythm, the banter was brilliant, just like our course characters John, Marc, Michael Clancy and Jordan Baker-Blanc, and more so Aisling Holton and Aoife Dolan, who were so diligent. After hours on the mountain base camps, we would reminisce over tea under the camp fire, it was similar in UL, but a few bags of cans, lightened the load as a few of our ‘over the pond’ students let go, no names mentioned of course. What goes on expedition stays there!

As the mountain became steeper and the weariness became evident, our attention narrowed as we saw the mountain crest become clearer and the air rapidly became thinner. While in Limerick, all our energy (and a few other emotions), were firmly focused on assignments, exams, group presentations and reflections.

As we woke early to embark on our final ascent the anxiety, panic and worry soon turned into ecstasy, joy and relief as we stood on the summit to see one of the wonders of the world . . . Africa from above with a beer with our fellow mountaineers. Down in Limerick, we celebrated our challenging climb a with a homebrew concoction from Malta . . . thanks Jasmin, and more refreshment courtesy of Bridget Connors, who was fast becoming one of the locals.

The altitude sickness kicked in on our first descent down to basecamp just like us the morning after the night before.  Soon we were seeing the fauna on our descent, just like our second semester. Just like the descent down Mount Kenya with a few aching limbs, a few blisters and a body in need of a hot shower but with all the pride in the world from our earlier experience, the Skill Acquisition presentations, Case Studies on Ethical Dilemmas, Transition assignments, Research proposals, statistical assessments, weren’t a breeze but we were all in tune, and refreshment was close with our Summer School classes out in the wonderful greenery of Clarisford Park.

Right from the get-go from our equator hotel we had the most trusting porters and guides from the Kikuyu tribe.  Likewise we had the expertise, passionate and driven UL lecturers in Jill Pearson and Dr Deirdre O’Shea (KBS Staff), Dr Mike Quayle (Psychology Dept.), and Dr. Mark Campbell (Senior Lecturer in Sports Psychology and Course Director for MSc. in Sports Exercise and Performance Psychology), Dr Tadhg MacIntyre (Lecturer in Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology and my supervisor), Dr Matt Herring (Lecturer in Exercise Psychology and Mental Health), contributions from graduate students Eoghan McNeil and Hannah McCormack, recent graduates, Clodagh Butler, Cathal Sheridan and Maire-Treasa Ni Cheallaigh with guest lectures from sport psychologists Dr Alan Ringland (IT Tralee), Phil Moore (Sport Ireland Institute), Prof. David Lavallee (adjunct Professor at UL; Abertay University), Dr Paul McCarthy (Glasgow Caledonian University) and the German contingent comprising clinical psychologists: Dr. Denise Beckmann (Private Practice), Drs. Insa and Raphael Nixdorf (Technical University of Munich).

Particularly memorable input came from Terri Morrisey, the CEO of the Psychological Society of Ireland who challenged us to be the best we can, not just for ourselves, our future career, but for our clients. Our external examiner, principal officer of the University of the West of Scotland, Prof. Craig Mahoney enthused us when he said that we were the best class he had witnessed in the last decade and told us to take on the challenge of sport psychology, support one another and mind ourselves along the way. And finally, Prof. Juergen Beckmann asked us each to reflect on the limits of what we do and shared with us experiences of how to identify our strengths, as this would determine what our clients would perceive most useful.

All that was left to do was print the photos, and this I liken to our dissertation, which was to bring all our experiences into reality.

Just like the mountain climb, the Masters experience at PESS will live long, the friendships lifelong, and the accomplishments will be memorable too.

I stared at the UL Student Results Portal photo for well over a week and in parallel reminisced at photos of my Mount Kenya experience. The screen shot of my final transcript will be stored forever in my “Favourites” album on my iphone.  I look at it and I smile . . . what a wonderful experience with a great bunch of people, and who would have thought it at my age!  No APA style references required this time Tadhg!

About the Author:

Greig Oliver is an IRFU Elite Player Development Officer working primarily with the Munster Academy, born in Hawick and a former Scottish Rugby internationalist, had engaged in extensive CPD as a coach but hadn’t been in formal education for over two decades when he graduated from college in journalism. In January 2018, Greig commenced studying on the MSc in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology programme at the University of Limerick. He will graduate with a distinction and his dissertation (A mixed-methods approach to exploring green exercise) will soon be published in book chapter format in a forthcoming Routledge text on nature and well-being.