Tips for taking a free in hurling
One of the most satisfying skills to develop in hurling is hitting a “free” — which is basically an uncontested shot toward the goal that’s awarded to a team for a penalty by their opponents during game play or when the ball goes out of bounds.
Assuming they’re shooting the sliotar at a close enough range, most frees result in a single point for your team. Sometimes, a plucky free-taker will go for a 3-point goal, but it’s fairly difficult since the goalkeeper will often have extra players to help him defend the shot.
To “take a free” the ball starts on the ground. Its placement can be partially adjusted by the player. It can’t be moved more than a foot or so and it’s usually only done to find a better tuft of grass. Players also like to adjust the ball so its seams are positioned in a particular way.
Once the sliotar’s placement is settled, the chosen shooter (many teams have a designated free taker) must scoop the sliotar up with the hurley and immediately strike it. The player can’t touch it with his hands.
The most difficult subskill in free-taking is the requirement for an immediate strike. The player needs to:
- Scoop the ball from the grass.
- Momentarily balance it on the end of the hurley.
- Flick it upward so that it falls “in the strike zone.”
- Wind up your swing.
- Swing and strike the ball.
Notice that there’s no, “grab the ball and toss it in the sky” step. The player literally never touches the ball after he adjusts it on the grass.
In this video, Eoin Kelly, a Gaelic Athletic Association star for County Tipperary, explains his method. http://youtu.be/HmYKyVUwrJ4
Here in the United States, it’s hard to go down to the local pitch and practice frees. Typically there’s no such thing!
Some suggestions on how to practice these shots:
- Get a bunch of balls: I would suggest getting about 10 balls. Further, grab a magic marker and number them 1 through 10. Hit them in order and see if you get better toward the end of the cycle. Numbering the balls will also help you figure out where they all landed, since they’re expensive to replace.
- Find a goal: A hurling goal is about 20 feet wide. At least for practice, you can adopt a local football field’s goal posts, which are anywhere from 18 to 23 feet wide.That’s good enough to practice. If you can’t find that, go to your local park and look for a few trees near an open field. If they’re about that close, that’s good enough. You’ll even benefit from having a “goalie” in the form of all those leaves and branches.
- Go the sideline: Since many of a teams’ frees will be awarded when the ball goes out of bounds, it’s important to be able to shoot from just inside the sideline — and it’s a long hit to make. A hurling pitch is 90 meters wide. That’s about 300 feet. You need to be standing at the sideline when you hit the ball, so go about 150 feet to the side of your makeshift goal zone — that’s almost twice the width (yes, width!) of a high school football field. Once you’ve found that spot, move away in a line perpendicular from the goal with each shot or each set of shots.
- Fire from the middle too: Since not all frees are awarded from the sideline, you need to work on shots from the playing area the pitch as well. Try different places on the field, and those selections shouldn’t be always in the center of the field either. When a free is awarded during play, it can be on any spot of the field so you need to be accurate from a variety of zones.
- Take your time: It takes a lot of work to learn the pick-up-and-hit skill, so be prepared to just spend time learning that motion. Once it decently delivers the ball to you, remember to swing smoothly and evenly in your strike. Swinging the hurley faster doesn’t make the ball go further. You want a clean strike on the ball in the hurley’s “sweet spot.” That will make the ball fly far and accurate.
- Take Aim: Once you have a clean hit pattern established, work on your aim. For me, where the ball goes is all based on the placement of my shoulders in relation to the target area.
- Switch sides: Don’t forget to hit from both sides of the field. Hitting from you non-typical side of the field is a little tougher.
- Run up or Stand: There are two ways people take frees. Sometimes players will run up to the ball for the scoop, lift and hit motion. They do this because it’s said to improve distance. Others simply stand over the ball for the scoop, lift and hit. That is said to improve accuracy. Try both. Learn both. They both have merits.
Of course these are just some basic ideas. If you ask a dozen players, they’ll each have a dozen tips for taking a free, so be sure to do so! Eventually, you’ll develop your own style and have a dozen different tips for the next player.