From Physiotherapy to Injury Epidemiology: a Rugby Sports Medicine PhD with IRIS – Prof ian kenny.

I took 30 minutes to talk to new Irish Rugby Injury Surveillance (IRIS) PhD researcher Lauren Guilfoyle about her recent change from physiotherapy duties to join us in UL…..

Where is home originally?

Home is Feakle in County Clare. An area devout to GAA – so it was on the hurling pitches of East Clare I was reared. I’ve spent quite some time living in Limerick for both my undergrad and then some time working, but I also did a short stint in Dublin upon graduation.

You are a practising physiotherapist, but you also gained a postgraduate degree recently in the area of psychology! Tells us about your different qualifications and how they came about.

From 2012 to 2016 I studied physiotherapy at the University of Limerick. People speak about vocations for jobs – and I really feel like this was the case with me. Sport has been central in my life for its’ entirety, so to be able to combine that passion with my interest in the human body resulted in physiotherapy being the chosen career path. I loved biology in secondary school so I knew I wanted to delve deeper into anatomy and physiology – but then to work towards a professional degree that allowed me to work with athletes was the perfect combination. After graduation I began working in GAA, initially with the Tipperary Senior Camogie team, but I then spent 3 seasons as lead physio with the Tipperary Minor Hurlers and assisted the Tipp Senior Football physio. Over these 3 years it became blatantly obvious to me how we as physios are in place to help people with injuries, not simply there to treat knees and ankles. I felt that the personal context of the player had such a massive bearing on how they perceive and engage with rehab and sport in general, that I am missing a trick if I stuck only in the principles of mechanics, anatomy and diagnosis. I felt I had the skills to continue learning in those areas (which are important too) but that I needed structured guidance in delving into the psychological element – so I chose to study the MSc in Sport Psychology at PESS in UL. I couldn’t have picked a better time to do it too – 2020 saw all my sports work pretty disrupted so I had acres of time to explore a lot of avenues within the domain of sport psychology. I also had the opportunity to partner with the Gaelic Players Association to investigate how inter county GAA players experienced the pandemic – supervised by Dr Tadhg MacIntyre and Dr Clodagh Butler.

Has the psychology helped with your rapport in dealing with injured players?

Absolutely. I feel I have greater understanding of the experience of the player at that vulnerable, confusing and often frustrating time – while also having an arsenal of tools to help ease the transition out of the group environment and shifting their short-term goals. A greater understanding of motor cognition and skill acquisition has asked questions of my rehab pathways – which has been an exciting new take for me.

What do you think are some of the key player welfare areas of the rugby game that we should be addressing as researchers?

I think it is vital that we address the research to implementation gap that exists, especially in the area of injury reduction. A large bulk of research in injury reduction has examined the efficacy of these programmes in controlled environments, but we can see that coaches are having difficulty implementing these as intended within their own team and club environments. Upskilling coaches who have front line responsibility with their players is vital to have a broad impact.

Have you had involvement in rugby before coming to IRIS to research the game?

Yes – I was thrilled to join top AIL side Cork Constitution as lead physiotherapist in the summer of 2020. It’s a club steeped in history – many current and former Irish Internationals have been through the system at Con, as well as a coaching ticket that have all had experience at the top level with Munster.

Why the change in direction now to study for a PhD?

Having graduated from my MSc I spent some time reflecting on my academic career to date and wasn’t satisfied that I was fulfilled. I thoroughly enjoyed the research process for my dissertation, and the idea of four more years sounded like an interesting challenge rather than an arduous task. The opportunity to see real change happen, thanks to our collaboration with the IRFU, is a constant motivational factor.

How was it leaving your more regular work in January this year to start the PhD?

I was well warned that the early days of a PhD are a bit all over the place and it was exactly that. Finding routine and setting tasks for myself is a skill I’ve had to hone! At times I struggle with the mental and emotional toll that comes with a therapeutic role – especially in the high pressure cooker of sport – so the change in pace and difference in responsibility has been nice.

Are you settling into PhD life ok? Any tips?

I’ve taken to it like a duck to water. I think. Maybe my supervisors would be better able to answer! Setting out tasks to achieve for the week is a top tip. Defending a dissertation in four year’s time is a very long time away so finding the feeling of success in achieving targets weekly really helps me to switch off actually. I can enjoy my time away from the desk with no guilt knowing I had put in a good shift that week.

Tell me a bit about your PhD topic.

Overall, the IRIS project monitors the incidence, type, nature and severity of both match and training injuries occurring across the amateur and schools game in Ireland. Having started in 2016, IRIS is now designing injury prevention interventions with its funders, the Irish Rugby Football Union. My own PhD will focus on the effective implementation of ‘Engage’, a neuromuscular training programme developed by IRIS, within the schools’ game where resources at the disposal of coaches vary greatly. Specifically, I will look at how we upskill these coaches to have the necessary knowledge, confidence and self-efficacy to delivery these programmes regardless of their coaching background. Alongside all of this one of my PhD roles is to help coordinate the ongoing injury surveillance at Senior and Junior cup schools’ level which we have plans in progress to expand across Munster, Leinster and Connacht for the 22/23 season.

Professor Ian Kenny is an Associate Professor in Biomechanics in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Ian is co-Principal Investigator for IRIS. Ian’s research interests include the biomechanics of sports injury and sports medicine, effects of equipment parameters on the golf swing, and musculoskeletal modelling and computer simulation of movement.   You can contact Ian Kenny via email at   @IanCKenny or view his research profile on Researchgate 

Ian Kenny Round

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