Laois student Laura Phelan scooped a prestigious prize at this year’s Psychological Society of Ireland All-Ireland Student Congress for her final year project examining GAA athlete’s levels of social support, their mental toughness and whether they had benefitted as a result of their injury.
Laura, from Castletown, was one of two Mary Immaculate College (MIC) Limerick students to take home prizes at this year’s Psychological Society of Ireland All-Ireland Student Congress.
She recently completed her degree in the Bachelor of Education and Psychology programme in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and below Laura outlines her findings from her final year project titled ‘I Get Knocked Down, but I Get Up Again: Exploring Sports Injury-Related Growth in GAA Athletes’.
Like many courses, I was required to complete a final year project (FYP). My poster was a summary of my FYP titled ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again: Exploring Sports Injury-Related Growth in GAA Athletes’.
In 3rd year, our lecturer advised us that as the FYP is so time-consuming, it is helpful to choose something we are interested in. I love everything about GAA – heading to matches on summer evenings, the rivalry, the community spirit and playing a bit of camogie with my local club Naomh Éamann. So naturally I began looking into ways that I could potentially incorporate GAA and psychology!
As I found it hard to find research in an Irish context, I looked at other sports like American Football and Athletics for inspiration. I then stumbled across the relatively new term ‘sports injury related-growth’. The possibility of injury being beneficial really interested me and as most studies did not include females or amateur athletes, there was an opportunity for me to add to the previous research.
GAA is unique in that a professional level of commitment is required in what is an amateur sport. I would definitely reiterate the advice of choosing a topic you are interested in to anyone reading this who may be currently looking at ideas for their own FYP, it will make all the difference!
Recent research in psychology has focused on the positive aspects of stressful experiences. For example, it has looked at illnesses like HIV/AIDS. Obviously, these illnesses will turn your life upside down and can have a profoundly negative impact. But, patients who have overcome such life-changing experiences, reported positive changes in their health behaviours such as exercising more and have re-examined their priorities. Maybe they might be more motivated to travel or to place more value on their relationships with family and friends.
No athlete wants to become injured in a match or training, it can be very costly monetarily and may have significant long-term effects such as depression. Many injured athletes may never return to sport, let alone their pre-injury level of skill or well-being. Fortunately, I have never been severely injured but many of my team-mates have and it does affect the entire team.
Applying the concept of growth following stressful experiences to sport, there can be potential benefits to injury. It might improve your relationship with your friends as you have more spare time, you might become physically stronger from spending extra time in the gym or you might learn to not take things for granted anymore.
My research examined GAA athlete’s levels of social support, their mental toughness and whether they had benefitted as a result of their injury. Mental toughness is a measure of your confidence and commitment, your ability to perform well in challenging circumstances. While, social support includes your network of friends, family and coaches. This was done using surveys which were analysed using a software programme called SPPS.
My supervisor Dr Niamh Higgins was especially knowledgeable on this which was a great help as it can be difficult to get your head around all the numbers and graphs. The findings indicated that being mentally tough can have a significant positive influence on your growth following injury. However, poor social support networks can lead to low levels of growth. Support from your family was found to be the most important.
Rarely a match passes without players looking on from the sidelines, missing out on the action due to an injury sustained through the sport they love. Therefore, sports psychologists may seek to assist GAA athletes in developing and enhancing the skills and attitudes that are present in mental toughness. They may also find it beneficial to work with and support an injured athlete’s relationship with their friends and family in order to maximise the level of growth achieved following injury.
I think the concepts I have outlined above, like social support and mental toughness, could also be relevant to the current Covid-19 pandemic.
At the moment, it is more important than ever to have the support of friends and family and your levels of mental toughness and resilience will definitely be tested in these challenging circumstances. The pandemic has sadly claimed many lives and who knows what will happen in the future recession-wise. Everyone has been affected in some sense, whether it is missing out on your last days in school, job uncertainty, a cancelled wedding or a bereavement. It is easy to say others have it worse but that does not make your problems disappear.
However, in other ways there have been positives to take from the situation. It has made us see things differently and perhaps adjust our priorities in life. People have taken up new hobbies, spent more time with their family, read more books and realised new ways of working. Personally, I have never written as many letters and I have even taken back up golf, which I had taken an early retirement from at age 12! This ‘new normal’ could go on for much longer and I think we need to focus on positives to get through it.
In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity!
Like many people who have recently finished college, I constantly get asked about my future plans. The answer is I don’t know what I’d like to do career wise yet. I enjoy teaching and being in the classroom so that’s the plan for the moment. At some point, I would like to pursue a career in psychology. I know that the road to becoming an educational or clinical psychologist is a long and competitive one. It can also be an expensive road and that’s something I would have to figure out.
I also have a big interest in career guidance and I recently set up an Instagram page (@centreoire) to provide a space to share personal experiences of further education. So, if anyone is unsure of what they might like to study next, especially with the CAO deadline coming up, it might be of some help to you!