#FollowYourPassion - Lauren Guilfoyle's Journey in Physiotherapy and Sports Science from Sidelines to PhD
“From a media perspective, you’re very much telling someone else’s story. From a physio perspective, you’re involved in the story."
Physiotherapist Lauren Guilfoyle's childhood spent on the sidelines of GAA matches fueled her passion for sport which she was determined to make into her career.
Growing up in the East Clare village of Feakle, she says she was 'reared on a GAA pitch' inspired by her brother and her father, Tommy, who was a senior county player and later coach for the Clare hurling team.
"When I look back at where my love of sport came from, it’s those early years. Anyone that I ever met was at a match.
"It’s the meeting people that you only meet at matches. It’s the banter with the opposition fans. That’s where my passion for sport came from," she said.
Lauren followed her passion for sport to become a top physiotherapist playing a key role in the success and high performance of athletes and teams.
“It’s a privilege to be able to do it for a living. I honestly don’t feel like I work. It’s a bit of a cliché. But I’m very privileged,” she said.
Tommy Guilfoyle on the sidelines. Credit: The Clare Champion.
Finding Her Passion
A county career of her own was an early wish for Lauren. Not coming to fruition, she still knew that a career in sport in some capacity was what she desired. It was a passion that she discovered quite early too.
“I actually remember the first day that I said, ‘God I’d love to be a physio’.
“I’m pretty sure I was in either sixth class or first year of secondary school. Way back,” she said.
It was a combination of early trips to a physio for her own back pain and a love for biology in secondary school that nailed down physiotherapy as the route she planned to take.
The University of Limerick was the destination she had in her sights. Of course, she listed a few backup plans on the CAO. Like many students wanting to go down the physiotherapy route, Lauren was wary of the steep points required to get into the course.
"Throughout secondary school I loved biology. It was by far my strongest subject. I had an excellent teacher. Coming around to the Leaving Cert, I didn’t have to study biology. I viewed my scripts afterwards. I got 96% in my Leaving Cert Biology exam. I loved it. It was so interesting.
Combining her deep interest in the human body with sport was where her passion lay and she was determined to go after it.
"I was worried about getting enough points because they were huge. I did have some backup plans. Sports science, athletic therapy, and whatnot. But I eventually got to where I wanted to be," she explained.
Living Her Passion
After four years, she graduated with honours in 2016, and initially joined the workforce in private practice, as most newly qualified physios do. However, Lauren had her eyes set on becoming a team physio, getting back to the sports background she grew up and loved.
She got her first taste of being a team physio with the Tipperary senior camogie team in 2017.
Then, a short few months after finishing with them, Tipp GAA came calling again, asking her to come on board as physio for their minor hurling and senior football teams.
It was a role that took Lauren all the way to the hallowed turf of Croke Park, home of GAA headquarters and the pinnacle of any player, manager or backroom staff.
Lauren in action with the Tipp Minors. Credit: Lauren Guilfoyle
She then left the Tipp GAA set up at the end of 2020, as she began another role, this time as Lead Physiotherapist for rugby club, Cork Constitution, her venture as a team physio outside of the GAA.
She was also able to serve spells for Na Piarsaigh GAA in Cork and the Irish senior women’s basketball team in their preparation for international qualifiers. But Cork Con is the main gig for Lauren now and she’s loving it.
When you have a number of years working in one particular sport, there can be particular challenges in jumping across to another. Something that Lauren, having gone from GAA to rugby, explains.
“From a GAA perspective, the demands on the body are very similar between a corner back and a midfielder. We might be looking a bit more in-depth at running capacity and running load. But the core movements are very similar.
“Then I moved into rugby and suddenly, someone in the front row is doing something very to someone in the back three. I’m still building all the time.
“Even just knowing the subtle but significant differences between a tighthead prop and a loosehead prop. It’s massively significant.
“An injury had occurred when someone swapped from one position to the other and his body hadn’t adapted. It’s that knowledge of the particular demands of the position of the player that you’re working with.
“I’m watching rugby on the TV now and that is study for me because I am picking out and analysing different movements,” she said.
Following Her Passion
Lauren might be a bit of a unique case in the physio community as alongside her work as a practitioner, she has also developed a strong media presence over the years.
She has worked closely with the GAA Youth Council, has done a lot of social media work within the GAA and has even been a stand-in producer for the popular The 2 Johnnies podcast.
But for Lauren, she knows where her real passion lies.
Lauren and comedy duo, The 2 Johnnies. Credit: RTÉ.
“I had a bit of an epiphany after the last lockdown.
“I got to go to a Cork soccer match in a media capacity. It kind of hit me. Would I prefer to be up here or down there as a physio? And I thought I’d love to be down there as physio.
“The physio work never really feels like work. It’s definitely stressful. Let’s not take that away from it. But I’ve never had a time where I didn’t want to go training, didn’t want to go to a meeting, didn’t want to go to a match.
“When we have a match on, my whole week is building up to it,” she said.
Media work has been kind to Lauren, she admits and has been great for making connections across the country.
But for her, the glitz and glam of the media are far outweighed by the feeling she has being on the sideline of a match.
“From a media perspective, you’re very much telling someone else’s story. From a physio perspective, you’re involved in the story.
“Last week, we had a do or die match with Cork Con and going onto the pitch afterwards and embracing the players, knowing what they’ve gone through to get there and knowing that you’ve been a part of that, you’ve helped them get there, the two feelings just don’t compare.
“I’ve been on some incredible media work trips to New York, Boston. But the feeling coming off of Tom Clifford Park in Limerick last week just doesn’t compare,” she said.
Fulfiling Her Potential
After four years of working as a practitioner, in 2020, Lauren decided it was time to go back to education.
She didn’t go for a master’s in physiotherapy as you might think she would. Instead, she opted for a master’s in sports psychology, for some interesting reasons.
“In the very same match, you could have two players get the same injury, same grade, same severity. It’ll take Tom two weeks. It’ll take Conor four weeks.
“I’ve come to the realisation that we don’t treat injuries; we treat people who have injuries. I don’t treat a hamstring, I treat Tom, who has a hamstring injury.
“There’s a huge psychological component to that. The injury experience itself can be quite isolating and negative.
“I wanted to equip myself with the soft skills to help players through that experience.
“I had done my four years of learning how to assess, learning how to diagnose, how to rehab. But you could be the best technical clinician in the world, but if you can’t empathise with a player, you can’t converse with them, you can’t help them cope, you might as well not show up. That relationship is so important,” she said.
Lauren also sites a deep-seated interest in performance as another key reason for undertaking the masters.
“I’m just fascinated by what makes an elite athlete. Why are you or I not playing in the Six Nations? Why is Peter O’Mahony? What’s different about him?
“Give me anything to do with high-performance sport and I’m absolutely fascinated by it.
“That was another reason. I thought it would be massively interesting and it really was. I got some incredible opportunities out of it,” she said.
Peter O'Mahony. Credit: Irish Independent
Reaching the second-highest level of education in Ireland still wasn’t quite enough for Lauren though. Maybe it’s a manifestation of her fascination with pushing performance to the absolute limit, but at the start of 2022, she embarked on what will be a four-year journey which, all going well, will result in her with a PhD and the Irish education system complete.
The PhD itself is with her beloved UL and in conjunction with the IRFU. Funnily enough, Lauren applied for the same position in 2016 and she says that she didn’t even get an email back.
“Try and try again, fail better, isn’t that what they say.”
Building on her experience in rugby so far, Lauren will be continuing the surveillance of injuries in school rugby.
It wasn’t a decision that she took lightly and initially she had ideas of covering topics in GAA for her PhD.
“I did a lot of research around it before I even applied. Just to see what I’d be getting myself in for. I chatted to as many people as possible. I wanted to know would it be doable alongside my sports physio work because I wasn’t prepared to give that up. It seemed like it was possible, but still a difficult task.
“I spoke to one of the supervisors and he made it clear that these funded sports medicine opportunities don’t come around that often.
“It did definitely give me some thinking time about my career ideas. At that point, I had been in talks with some professional clubs over in the UK from a physio perspective. So, I was kind of thinking I’d have to put that on the backburner if I want to do this.
“But I did my interview, and they offered it to me that afternoon. At that point, I burst into tears. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this. It was a weird moment. Such a massive life decision. But I took it, started two and a half months ago, and I absolutely love it.
“I have a lot of imposter syndrome.
“They’re asking me to set up calls with professors in the UK and South Africa. I’m thinking ‘Why would they want to talk to me?’ and they’re like ‘You’re a PhD researcher now Lauren’.
“No idea what I’ll do after it. I don’t really care to be honest. I’m just loving the process!” she said.
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