Alumni Spotlight - Fiona McHale
Fiona McHale, a recent UL graduate with a PhD in Philosophy, delves into adolescent physical activity.
Wednesday, 27 March 2024

In the next instalment of our Alumni Spotlight series, we caught up with Fiona McHale, who graduated earlier this year with a PhD focusing on physical activity in adolescents.

Discover Fiona's passion for physical activity promotion, her thoughts on balancing academics and sports, and her contributions to gender equality in sports. Read about her role as a course coordinator and teacher in Further Education and Training, and her aspirations for the future in education and research.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Fiona McHale and I’m from Ballintubber, County Mayo. I am a qualified PE and Biology teacher and I graduated from UL this year with a Doctorate in Philosophy which investigated physical activity behaviours in adolescents. I currently teach Sport and Recreation in Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board's College of Further Education and Training.  I also play for the Mayo Ladies Football team. I have represented Mayo at senior level since 2004. captaining the team in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, winning a Division 1 National League in 2007 and an All-Star in 2016. I play my club football with Carnacon and am proud to have been involved in 6 All-Ireland club titles.

What drew you to undertake a PhD at UL?

I have always had a keen interest in the topic of physical activity promotion and exercise psychology and was always drawn to modules with this focus on my undergrad course led by Catherine Woods in DCU. After working for five years, I started to think about furthering my knowledge and study in these areas and I kept an eye out for research opportunities in UL.

Tell us about your area of study

My area of study was focused on the Active School Flag Programme (ASF), a Department of Education initiative to provide schools with a framework to promote and achieve a physically active school community. Throughout my PhD studies, the focus has been on improving the implementation of this programme in schools through seeking the opinions of stakeholders involved in its implementation i.e. TY student leader class, school management, the coordinator and staff committee. In the second stage of my PhD, I delved deeper into the peer-led aspect of the programme and adapted a shared leadership programme previously used in sports teams and businesses to assist the ASF student leader class with programme implementation. I ran the 5Rs Shared Leadership Programme in six schools that were undertaking the Active School Flag programme to establish its feasibility overall.

Why did you choose to study at UL?

I started working in Limerick in 2012 and I had been involved with the Ladies Football O’Connor Cup teams, so I was always in and around the campus and its world-class facilities and so it was a place where I always felt at home. They have always had a really strong PE programme and the addition of Catherine Woods into the PESS department brought new research opportunities in the area of physical activity.

What stands out as your most memorable experience?

Going to conferences abroad was always a memorable and enjoyable part of undertaking a PhD. I always enjoyed meeting new people on these trips and travelling with our research group.

The comradery developed among the Postgrad students within the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences will also always be the best part about doing a PhD in UL. We developed such close friendships, had amazing craic and celebrated each other’s wins along the way. The support network that is created by the students themselves is incredible and this legacy continues over the years as new cohorts move through its doors.

Are there any professors, mentors, or broadly people in UL or your life that have played a pivotal role in your academic and personal development?

I had an amazing supervisory team in UL, with Prof Catherine Woods and Dr Catherine Norton. These two women have been extremely influential in my overall research journey. I have been forced out of my comfort zone on many occasions and have learned so much as a result.

Were you a member of any clubs or societies? If so, tell us a bit about your experience.

I played with the UL ladies football team for three years while undertaking my studies. We were privileged to win an O’Connor Cup in 2019, and having the opportunity that year to play with so many talented players is a brilliant memory from my time there. 

Are there any campus locations that hold special significance to you? 

Often postgrads would use their lunch breaks to head for a run on the path that runs around the campus. We were also so lucky to have access to the gym in the PESS building and often trained together. The ease of access to these facilities was amazing and was so important for our health and well-being.

How did you balance your course commitments, sport and your personal life?

This was challenging but it all became just a way of life. The key to managing it was being as prepared as possible for the day and week ahead so to alleviate stress. By planning my week out in advance, I was able to prioritise different areas of life on different days. Playing sports and also undertaking a PhD at times really took away from my personal life and spending time with the important people in my life such as my close friends, family and partner. I was lucky that they were all extremely understanding. I owe them so much for all the support they gave me.

Beyond taking part on the pitch, tell us about your other involvement in ladies football?

Along with playing the sport, I have a keen interest in coaching science and have coached UL ladies to two O’Connor Cup titles. My most recent coaching exploits were with the Claremorris Senior men’s team in the 2018/2019 season. I’m a coach educator with the LGFA on the Gaelic 4 Teens programme where I am a programme ambassador.

 In January 2019, I completed the Women on Air training programme with RTÉ. This was a fantastic opportunity and experience that provided me with a platform and confidence to participate in shows such as Game On, Sunday Sport and Off the Ball.

Off the field, I am a proud advocate for the advancement of gender equality in sports and was part of a group that set up the Women’s Gaelic Player’s Association in 2015 undertaking the role of secretary for 4 years.

What advice would you give to students starting their journey at UL who hope to excel in their chosen fields?

Keep up to date with lectures and try to start your work on time to alleviate unnecessary pressure and stress. Enjoy the downtime and college experience and ensure to have balance in all that you do. Celebrate the small wins but don’t get complacent. Seek out the lecturers who teach the subjects you are passionate about, ask questions and get involved in their research for your FYP.

Could you tell us about your current role? 

I am a course coordinator and teacher on the QQI Level 5 Sports, Recreation and Exercise course in the College of Further Education and Training. I teach various modules like exercise and fitness, nutrition, sports coaching, anatomy and physiology. I also teach research and study skills in the applied psychology course.

Where are things currently with the Mayo Ladies Football team and hopes for the 2024 season?

We have a new management team this year led by Liam McHale and the group is really enjoying working with him and his team. We hope to build up a strong panel for the championship and give it a good rattle come the Summer. We won the Connacht final for the first time last year since 2016 so we are aiming to achieve a back-to-back win in that and then build on that for the All-Ireland Series.

What are your own hopes and plans for the future?

I am extremely lucky to work in the College of FET, working with young people every day of the week. We are building a strong sports department at Kilmallock Road Campus with the recent addition of a state-of-the-art gym and the development of new pathways into third level and employment. It’s an exciting time for the department and I want to continue to be part of that over the coming years. 

My hopes are to stay involved in research and I am currently involved in some exciting projects that I am extremely passionate about.