Kieran Shannon: Trailblazer Moran showed us all that the mind does matter

He won’t get the kind of send-off we’re used to or that he deserves, writes Kieran Shannon.

Kieran Shannon: Trailblazer Moran showed us all that the mind does matter

HE won’t get the kind of send-off we’re used to or that he deserves.

All those students and now field leaders that he taught, mentored and befriended through the decades won’t get to be by his graveside. Household names like Padraig Harrington, Ken Doherty, Ronan O’Gara and John Maughan won’t be able to ghost into any removal or church to pay their respects and thanks. Even those friends who played five-a-side soccer and tennis with and against him or heard and accompanied him on his wooden flute won’t get to reminisce and laugh and cry together about his competitiveness, generosity and ceaseless curiosity.

As the death notice of Prof Aidan Moran that was posted yesterday evening outlined, “due to the current situation” all funeral arrangements will be private; all flowers will be family only for now, please.

They all still have words though. In this climate, words are the new hugs. And while those that his passing yesterday morning triggered haven’t necessarily been in the form of headlines or even newspaper column inches, there has been such a torrent of them —from social media posts by old clients like O’Gara and multiple academic colleagues and protégés, to the sentiments within the book of condolences opened by UCD — less a workplace for him as a haven – that his wife Angela and son Kevin will know just how widely he was respected, revered and above all, loved.

If sports psychology in Ireland ever had a godfather, then Moran was it; as one of its leading champions and academics, Dr Tadhg MacIntyre posted the other day, he was the North Star.

While he lectured on multiple areas of psychology — serving as the head of the department in UCD for numerous periods — and specialised in cognitive psychology, it was how he married it with his expertise in and passion for sport that made him such a pioneer.

It sometimes could be a lonely pursuit, being the first to plough that furrow. Throughout the ‘80s and into early ‘90s when hardly anyone else bar himself and PJ Smyth in the old Thomond College were lecturing and consulting in the field, there was a deep

suspicion of what they were ‘dabbling’ in. Think of all the sneers and wisecracks he’d have encountered, about voodoo and shrinks and white coats and couches. Ha! I don’t need that! We don’t need that! Sure you either have the head for it or you don’t!

And yet he persisted, wandering out into that harsh, macho world for years when he could have just stayed in his room. He’d continue to conduct his experiments and then take those findings from there and down from his academic ivory towers and convey them in an accessible, digestible way to those open to improve and to learn. About the link between your mental state and your actual physical performance and the importance of preparing for pressure situations.

About concentration and how to set little performance and process goals to keep your attention focused on the task. About the value of having little routines, and the power of imagery because success tended to happen in the mind first before it ever occurred on the field.

Ken Doherty would have been such a curious mind, meeting up with Moran on numerous occasions either side of his 1997 World Championship win. O’Gara would also sit down with him, paving the way for a more frequent collaboration with Smyth closer to his Munster base. Pádraig Harrington would become engrossed in the whole area, sparked by such conversations, while at the start of 2004 Maughan would bring him on board with Mayo as they’d embark on an unlikely journey all the way to an All-Ireland final before they’d cruelly find out the one thing they hadn’t visualised was how to deal with high ball raining in on their fullback line.

By then Moran had more and more believers and more and more disciples but a certain scepticism and resistance remained; that same month that Maughan’s Mayo were disposing of defending All Ireland champions Tyrone, I interviewed Niamh Fitzpatrick, then lead sport psychologist to the Irish Olympic team heading to Athens, and it was striking just how both hugely relieved and delighted she was that she and her field hadn’t been portrayed and dismissed as some kind of Eileen Drewery figure and lark as other media were prone to painting and tainting it.

But now, as Kate Kirby, their successor as Irish Olympic sport psych lead, can testify in her work with the Institute of Irish Sport and beyond, the sneers and the stigma have almost entirely disappeared.

Nobody cares about being seen with her in a café and helping to further attune their mental game and indeed mental health. The doors are now so much more open because ages ago a Moran knocked on them and slipped his foot inside them, even if it meant the odd toe and some pride getting hurt.

But always his own door remained open, just like his mind; if one thing outmatched his stunning intellect, it was his generosity.

Kirby did her undergraduate degree in psychology in Cork, yet when she chose as her final year thesis the subject of mental imagery in sport, she found herself up on the ‘rival’ campus of UCD, having full access to its library and its journals containing the work of its resident expert in the field.

When she’d later complete a masters in sport psychology in Brunel University in London and be advised to head home where the market was less saturated, it was to Moran again that she gravitated; there, under his supervision, she’d conduct a PhD on why athletes chose to dope, Moran having secured the necessary funding from WADA and the Irish Sports Council. Even now, when she travels abroad to international conferences and mentions who her PhD supervisor was, fellow delegates all know the name.

Ah, Dr Aidan Moran! Internationally as well as domestically he was a pioneer.

Over a stunning academic career he’d have over 450 papers published. Indeed, right up to his recent short illness, at 63 he was still writing, researching, contributing; a paper he co-wrote with UCD colleague Dr Helen O’Shea on motor imagery being published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal just two weeks ago.

Where once sport psychology was treated with suspicion even within the academic and scientific community, this country now has three full-time taught masters programmes — in WIT, Jordanstown, and UL— not to mention numerous part-time night courses — many of which are taught and given by protégés of his like MacIntyre, Mark Campbell and Olivia Hurley. In virtually all of those courses, the go-to text is one of his 15 books — Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Critical Introduction.

And yet it’s probably not even his most impactful text. Irish sport psych has spawned some very practical reads such as Brendan Hackett’s terrific Success From Within in 1998, and more recently, Hurley’s Sport Cyberpscychology, but to date there hasn’t been such a magical blend between theory and practice as Moran’s 2007 collaboration with John Kremer, Pure Sport.

Even those who’d have laughed at his ‘voodoo’ in the early years would scramble to it if they knew the contents of its last chapter and how it answers the common concerns of every athlete and dressing room. ‘They drift in and out of games.’

‘If I make a mistake, I can’t get it out of my head.’

‘They’re slow starters.’

‘How can I get my subs to make an impact?’

An impact is something Moran made though. And through his findings, books and protégés, his star still shines.

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