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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Denise McGrath


 UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

Movement is Medicine - Maximising Wellbeing Across the Lifespan

Dr Denise Mc Graths' applied health-related research focuses on maximizing quality of life and well-being across the lifespan. She has accrued valuable experience working at the interface of healthcare, industry, academia and community groups in the creation of clinically valid, effective,'Connected Health' based solutions.

Her research in the sporting domain leverages her understanding of innovative technologies and analyses techniques applied to investigate movement in humans and horses, with the ultimate goal of enhancing sports performance.

Dr. McGrath and her team are demonstrating in real-world scenarios how they are evolving and enhancing performance analysis. Their work in this area aims to drive sports performance and improve collaborations and relations between individuals comprising the team, from the management structure and volunteers through to the players themselves.

Sports Performance Analysis

Performance analysis can be described as the provision of reliable and valid information on performance to coaches and athletes to improve future performance (O'Donoghue, 2015).

Sports performance analysis is a relatively new sub-discipline of sports science which is regularly shown in the media yet quite complex behind the scenes. Dr McGrath is working with both the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in this area.

With the IRFU project, the researchers are looking at player development. They conducted a study on the Irish Under 20s who won the 6 Nations in 2018, examining how performance analysis was used to enhance performance. The first phase of the research employed a questionnaire before the 6 Nations, based around player learning styles.

Traditional information provision methods use statistics or video. The researchers found that players learned better when information sessions were short and the information was provided in different ways rather than the traditional methods. The players also had preference for mixed player and coach interactions where information is shared.

The performance analysts and coaching team subsequently made changes such as making the information available online. This was designed to create an environment where information is accessible to the player at any time. The coaches and analysts created a collaborative learning environment where the questions were driven by the players. This drove player learning and self-reflection.

Dr McGrath says the information that has been obtained aligns with the theory around complex learning environments where "people can self-organise to learn information effectively."

Performance analysis has become integral to the preparation of intercounty GAA teams. With little research on the coaching practice of GAA coaches, Dr McGrath and colleagues explored coaches’ engagement with performance analysis to examine its use, integration and value.

A sample of 12,500, minimum level 1 Coaching Ireland qualified coaches were selected to complete an online survey with 538 respondents across 37 sports. As the highest responders, data for the 144 GAA coaches were isolated for further analysis.

Results found that performance analysis was used by 49% of GAA coaches. These coaches were more likely to have 10+ years coaching experience, be qualified beyond GAA Award 1, and coach at intercounty level.

81% of Coaches using performance analysis had access primarily to match statistics but only 49% had access to match video. This lack of video has the potential to hamper the interpretation of information by a coach thus impacting their subsequent coaching interventions.

In GAA coach education, more emphasis could be placed on the importance of contextualising statistics with video and the potential of video feedback to players. Coaches should be encouraged to question the reliability of match statistics and equipped with appropriate strategies to minimise errors in data collection.

Another piece of research by Dr McGrath and colleagues analysed the data from all 538 respondents. A Level 2 coaching qualification was the key distinguisher between coaches using and not using performance analysis.

Coaches with analyst-support are more likely to have regular access to video, spend more time analysing, regularly use performance analysis to inform training and use computerised analysis software.

Dr McGrath and Ph.D. student Ms Denise Martin are examining how to create a community of practice of analysts to learn and share knowledge which will enhance and elevate the profession.

Current participant feedback is that this through this project there has been greater sharing of match footage which Dr McGrath says "means that everybody has the same information, which democratises that information."

The researchers have also discovered that there is much volunteerism in the profession and performance analysis is very time-consuming.

"People will volunteer in these roles for a few years but will have other commitments so there is a sustainability issue that needs to be addressed in the GAA."

Dr Denise McGrath, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

Dr McGrath's research highlights the importance of performance analysis within the GAA. It also highlights the need for coach education to focus on video analysis as 88% of coaches using PA felt it was important to their practice but cited resources and knowledge as key barriers to progressing their use.

This research can underpin future developments in coach and analyst education that will optimise the systematic use of performance analysis across all levels of sports performance.

Move 4 Parkinsons

Dr McGrath has also researched community-based exercise for Parkinsons Disease which she feels strongly about. She says:

"Parkinsons Disease is a cause close to my heart."

Dr McGrath is the Director of the Move 4 Parkinsons charity based in Dublin. In 2017 she lead a feasibility study on a Healthy Parkinsons Disease Class at UCD to ascertain if community exercise classes could be successfully provided in the University setting.

Parkinsons Disease patients are encouraged to keep up physical activity, however they are not necessarily always directed to specific exercise types. Move 4 Parkinsons charity had previously commenced physical activity in the form of dance classes and Dr McGrath wanted to try some other options.

With the UCD Parkinsons disease study, the researchers tried some unconventional exercises in the form of spin cycling, TaiChi and circuit training.

23 participants attended 36 exercise sessions in UCD over 12 weeks, along with receiving health coaching provided by a psychotherapist. 90% of people attended every session and participant feedback was very positive.

Participants expressed that their movement improved and their sense of confidence, community and belonging strongly increased. The spin cycling, in particular, was very popular, as participants felt they could really push themselves in a safe environment.

Patient progress results were given in an understandable way that worked with their particular learning style such as in graph format. This meant that participants then had something they could go to their neurologist with to talk about their condition.

Unfortunately, UCD could not continue with the programme. Dr McGrath says:

"When the programme concluded the participants were bereft."

This was a learning curve for Dr McGrath and she reflects: "I think researchers cannot just provide a potentially beneficial intervention and then remove it with nothing else in place." However the study participants did feel empowered. They subsequently started up a Pilates class and a circuit training class which Dr McGrath feels was a very positive result of the research.

Dr McGrath has also lead a group of BSc Health and Performance Science students in an evaluation of the Move 4 Parkinsons charity. This was an important collaboration for both sides. The charity did not have evaluation resources and the students had an opportunity to view human performance from a different perspective.

Performance scientists are research-based and become very skilled in research methods and data analysis. Dr McGrath believes being able to use these skills in a different context is important.

Technology and User Centred Design 

Dr McGrath is also the chair of education and public engagement in the Insight Centre which is Irelands major centre for Data Analytics. This role is essentially trying to engage the public in the research.

The Insight team aim for the user to be at the centre of their exercise programme design. Although the research happens in the university, the aim is for the translation of the research to reach the people it is intended for.

Along with Sonya Egan PhD researcher, and veterinarians, scientists, engineers and statisticians, another project Dr McGrath is involved with has begun using wearable technology on horses. The team are using these technologies to capture behaviours from horses in subtle levels of pain.

Dr McGrath's research question centres around the idea that there may be value on remotely monitoring equine behaviour. However she says that "harvesting the data in a meaningful way is the challenge."

As part of this project, the research team interviewed equine industry stakeholders for their opinion on the use of technology for analysis of equine behaviours.

There is an awareness among stakeholders of technologies, however, Dr McGrath says that stakeholders are sceptical of the value.

"The stakeholder feedback has been a resounding “technology is fine, but will it get me a winner?"

One of the key barriers to technology adoption is the economic value of the horse and the cost of implementing technology herd-wide.

Dr McGrath and colleagues’ findings highlight the need for user-centred design in this domain, which requires greater consultation and learning between technology developers and equine stakeholders to develop fit-for-purpose analysis and monitoring tools.

Dr. McGrath is also involved in research around exercise engagement for breast cancer survivors. Breast cancer survivors are advised to engage in physical activity post-surgery but the uptake of post-cancer exercise engagement is low.

The UCD research team have interviewed breast cancer survivors to ascertain is there something that researchers and policymakers need to address. They want to develop user-driven exercise programmes. Increasing uptake and adherence to exercise can both improve physical and psychological health in breast cancer survivors.

Dr McGrath is very much a proponent of interdisciplinary research and appreciates the input various types of researchers can have to a project. She has trained as a quantitative scientist which means she works with figures and data. She has also worked alongside people from the social sciences who work through a different approach.

"I appreciate this kind of approach where you get the qualitative and quantitative information together and come up with something relevant to the person."

Dr Denise McGrath, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

Dr McGrath's research also illustrates the value not only of user-centred design but how qualitative and quantitative scientists can work together to come up with innovative solutions to inform science and technology.

This can be exemplary for researchers working in similar fields who are looking for examples of how multidisciplinary research can be effective and impactful for the end user - the consumer.


Dr Denise McGrath adopts a 'systems thinking' approach to her role as an academic. She believes that the integration of diverse backgrounds and perspectives is the only way to truly understand societal challenges and to realise solutions. She, therefore, embraces interdisciplinarity in both education and research as a conduit for creative thinking and innovation.

Dr McGrath is Programme Coordinator of the Health and Performance Science undergraduate degree programme at the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. She joined the UCD faculty in 2014, having worked as a Lecturer in Biomechanics at the University of Ulster (2012-2014).

During and post-doctorate, she spent almost three years working in full-time research positions, both at home and in the United States, focusing on novel analyses of gait and posture in older adults. Dr McGrath spent time at Harvard University as a visiting researcher under the Fulbright Scholarship programme (2015-2016). She also holds the position of Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Biomechanics, University of Nebraska, United States.

She undertook her doctoral studies in UCD in Human Movement (2010), her M.Sc. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Limerick (2003), and her B.Sc. in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Limerick (2000). She has also pursued additional qualifications in University Teaching and Learning, Project Management, Strength and Conditioning and has worked professionally in healthcare and sports settings.

Associated References

Doheny, E.P., McGrath, D., Greene, B.R., Walsh, L., McKeown, D., Cunningham, C., Crosby, L., Kenny, R.A. and Caulfield, B., 2012, August. (opens in a new window)Displacement of the centre of mass during quiet standing assessed using accelerometry in older fallers and non-fallers. In 2012 Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (pp. 3300-3303). IEEE. 

Egan, S., Brama, P. and McGrath, D., 2019. (opens in a new window)Irish Equine Industry Stakeholder Perspectives of Objective Technology for Biomechanical Analyses in the Field. Animals, 9(8), p.539. 

Egan S, Pieter B, McGrath D (2019)(opens in a new window) Equine behaviour analysis in a bilateral lameness model as a precursor to automated detection.

Hammond V, Barton A, Coyne M, Earls J, Walsh A, Okigbo C, McGrath D (2019) Delivery of performance analysis in elite, underage rugby union: how to optimise player development? 8th International Performance Analysis Workshop & Conference.

Hunt, N., McGrath, D. and Stergiou, N., 2014.(opens in a new window) The influence of auditory-motor coupling on fractal dynamics in human gait. Scientific reports, 4, p.5879. 

Martin, D., Swanton, A., McGrath, D. and Bradley, J., (2017) (opens in a new window)The use, integration and value of performance analysis to GAA coaches. 

Martin, D., Swanton, A., Bradley, J. and McGrath, D. (2018) (opens in a new window)The use, integration and perceived value of performance analysis to professional and amateur Irish coaches. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 13(4), pp.520-532. 

McGrath, D., Greene, B.R., Doheny, E.P., McKeown, D.J., De Vito, G. and Caulfield, B., 2011, September. (opens in a new window)Reliability of quantitative TUG measures of mobility for use in falls risk assessment. In 2011 Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (pp. 466-469). IEE.

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UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 7777 | E: public.health@ucd.ie