Five key skills that make a great hurler

MOTION: Hurling isn't a game where you just stand around. You need to be on the move through the entire game. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Red Branch Hurling)

MOTION: Hurling isn’t a game where you just stand around. You need to be on the move through the entire game. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Red Branch Hurling)

In my previous posts responding to the questions from new-hurler Mike, I talked about enhancing game awareness in hurling and some helpful hurling videos for new players.

This time I want to sum up a few things that are key development points for every person playing hurling or its sister sport, camogie.

More importantly, I offer a few suggestions on how you can work on these aspects on your own and away from the your regular practice.
  • STAMINA — Hurling is a sport where you are in constant motion if the sliotar is within half-a-field of you. That means that you’re easily moving 70 percent of the time. As you’re on the field you can’t just stand there, you have to constantly be ducking around other players, avoiding your mark and keeping the ball in sight. All that hustling means that you have to have some some fuel in the tank at all the right times.  Since I’m in my late-late 30s, this is clearly my biggest fault — I just get winded way too quickly. Boosting your stamina comes in two forms — diet and exercise. Diet wise, you need to be eating a high fruit and high veggie diet and keep your hydration levels at their peak. For exercise, it’s all about practicing ahead of time to keep moving. Running is the best exercise for sure to develop stamina, but suicide sprints are even better.
  • FOOT SPEED — While I talk about movement in the section above, a totally separate focus needs to be placed on maximizing your top speed. You can impress your coach two ways: (a) Having a sensational blow-them-out-of-water sprint or (b) Having a high-speed cruising run. Either is fine. Increasing foot speed is a remarkably difficult feat, though. My suggestion is to work on increasing the speed of the “chop” in your run — you know the quickness of your foot hitting the ground. In particular, the best way to do this is speeding through “tire” or ladder drills.  You can do these at home on your own simply by laying a ladder on the ground and running through the openings as fast as possible — making sure not to trip.
  • ONE-TOUCH POSSESSION — Over in Ireland, the one-touch possession is taught at the earliest levels of learning the sport of hurling. The theory of the one-touch is that you need to gain possession of the ball in one attempt. You can’t drop it or bobble it. You need to gain immediate possession. This buys you time on the field because the other players are still reacting from their own attempt to gain control of the sliotar for themselves. Increasing your one-touch performance is best with the assistance of another player, or at least a person willing to throw the ball to you. To practice have the other player throw or hit the ball toward you. Your job is to scramble for the catch or, if you don’t make it, pop it up from the ground and gain immediate possession. Once you do, take three steps and fire it back to your helper.
  • ACCURATE PASSING — One of the key skills of the game, passing helps teams keep control of the ball, which means more scoring opportunities. When you practice passing, you must practice at both short distances and long distances, and while you are in motion. The exercise in the section above transitions into the exercise you can do to improve your passing. Once you have the ball, you must get it within three yards of the your target.  If you haven’t recruited a helper, that’s fine — just fire your passes at a tree trunk or other vertical target. Remember, your passes shouldn’t necessarily be powerhouse hits. A more gentle strike will help your teammate catch the sliotar.
  • ACCURATE STRIKING — This skill is key for everyone, not just midfielders and full forwards. You need to practice hitting the ball into a goal or a goal-like structure. Most of all, practice making points because “racking up points” is the scoring style that can be entirely in your control — the opposing team can rarely take a point from you once it gets over their heads. Scoring goals, on the other hand, requires being close and betting on the fact that the goalkeeper is off his game.  To work on point-scoring, strike from a variety of distances and, most importantly, angles with the intent to hit a high-up zone in the point-scoring area. Don’t have any hurling goals around? Never fear. I’ve substituted batting cages, baseball backstops, football goal posts and even trees for my practice goal.  Further, remember that you need to be making these strikes while on the run. Nobody in hurling will let you stand around and take a shot at the goal.

Visit the Columbia Red Branch Hurling Club in the Portland, Wash., area.

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Game awareness in hurling is a test of skill … and hearing

LEARNING CURVE: Playing hurling is a different from many team sports since it's difficult, if not impossible, to truly set up plays that outwit your opponents.

LEARNING CURVE: Playing hurling is a different from many team sports since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly set up plays that outwit your opponents.

We return to my conversation with Mike, a guy working out with the St. Louis hurling clubs, as he worked to learn more about the national sport of Ireland.

Mike continues on in his letter (which I’ve edited a bit):

This weekend in the rookie’s practice I had a very good run on goal, soloed it with people hacking away at me, juked the heck out of one guy… and then completely messed up at the mouth of the goal … I didn’t even think about looking for teammates or even just attempting the point. On the other hand it was my first legit attempt on goal, and actually the first time I ever possessed the ball in a game-like setting.

Besides working on fundamentals, and working on looking for teammates with a better position, is there any way I can improve my situational awareness? I’m not sure how I got so close to the goal because the only thing I was thinking was “Oh crap you have the ball!” Is this something that comes naturally by just scrimmaging?
Basically I am asking, how do I become a sound offensive (or all around player) and actually be productive with the ball?
Regarding situational awareness, its not surprising a new player is a little green with it, even with prior team-sport experience. Hurling, while it shares a lot in common with Lacrosse and even ice hockey, has a high degree of randomness in it. In fact, it’s almost impossible to truly set up plays other than baiting an opponent away from one of your teammates or simply faking them out.
As with anyone adopting a new game, such awareness it will come, especially as you run through some of the more complex drills available in hurling. These drills don’t teach you to set up plays, but rather they are meant to hone your skills and promote skill usage while on the run.
Names in the game: One clear bit of advice I offer to new players is this: Learn the names and voices of all your teammates, especially those hailing from Ireland. More importantly, learn to listen while you’re on the field, because they will be hollering advice through the entire game — not just when you have possession!  Once you begin to tune those guys in, you’ll soon hear’em even when you’re practicing on your own. Some times it will just be “Jonesy is open!” but eventually you’ll find the more practical advice sticks with you, such as “both hands on the hurley!”
So to sum it all up, my advice to new players is:
  • Practice your basic skills at a decent clip.
  • Learn to listen to your teammates.

Good luck out there, newbies!

Photo by STEVE BURT via Flickr.com

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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!

THE GAA PITCH: The field for hurling is huge. It's almost as wide as a football field is long.

THE GAA PITCH: The field for hurling is huge. It’s almost as wide as a football field is long.

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.

    DIRECTIONS: Assuming you are right-handed, you can bet your ball will follow one of these paths when you hit it.

    DIRECTIONS: Assuming you are right-handed, you can bet your ball will follow one of these paths when you hit it.

  • 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.

 

 

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Robotic goalkeeper could flush humans out of the game

Two Japanese firms that actually share the same name have teamed up to do something unthinkable. They created a robotic goalkeeper.

Well, that isn’t terribly unthinkable, I suppose, but the fact that they made it out of a toilet is a little unfathomable.

The device is actually kind of ingenious. When a player kicks the ball, the SGTK (an acronym for Super Great Toilet Keeper) gauges the speed and distance of the incoming object and then fires its own ball out of the toilet basin. That ball follows an intercept path to deflect the soccer ball away from the goal.

In the video, it’s an impressive set up that’s sure to get a plumber’s heart racing.

Now of course, this is kind of a joke project, something done for fun to have a laugh. The company that made this also created a toilet-styled motorcycle, after all.

And although the limber loo seems unstoppable,  its not hard to spot see some of its football flaws.

  • The ball-launching john has to be reloaded, so it can’t stop follow up shots that have been recovered from a rebound.
  • It appears to be only able to defend when the ball is launched from the white circle on the field. That’s like saying you always have to stand directly in front of the commode when you wee. It’s no fun if you can’t test your accuracy from different angles and distances!
  • The SGTK may not be able to block a shot that flies in extremely close to the device. Although perhaps it would just rotate with its lid up and use that to block.
  • I also wonder how it might handle a ball that’s bouncing. Could it calculate the erratic nature of a ball that’s skipping along and losing velocity?
  • It doesn’t have any ability to recover the soccer ball and pass it to one of its non-commode teammates.

Despite all those issues, I can’t help but wonder how such a device might be useable for hurling or gaelic football.

Just think, it could:

  • Operate as a goalkeeper when none can be found, after all, no one really wants to be a goaltender.
  • Serve during practices and drills to help players develop their goal-scoring shots. They just need to remember to put the seat down when they’re done.
  • Save valuable game time by having a throne right on the field. (No more racing to the Port-A-Potty near the concession stand!)

Of course an SGTK would have to be entirely reconfigured to be used in a hurling setting. Hurling balls are much smaller, of course, but they also move a lot faster than a soccer ball. Maybe the SGTK could fire out a Frisbee-sized disc instead of a ball? Even better, have it fire a urinal cake — it would intercept the sliotar AND leave the field smelling fresh.

And converting the SGTK to gaelic football? No problem since it’s functions wouldn’t be that much different than it is in a soccer setting.

Even the cost is relatively club friendly. You can get one built for 600,000 yen, which is a little less than $8,000.

But then the question lingers — like the funk of Mexican meal on the way out — is $8,000 too much for a goal keeper or would we be flushing our money away?

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Speed makes the difference in hurling

I have long written that my biggest problem to playing the game of hurling well is that I am too big and because of that I am too slow.

FAST LANE: Limerick’s Graeme Mulcahy is noted for his speed on the field.

Time and time again — in practice and in games — I am bested not because these guys have better stick handling skills than me or better game awareness, but because they are just faster than me.

A recent article from the Irish Sun spotlights Graeme Mulcahy, a corner forward for the County Limerick team, and basically says he’s dominating the field for the team simply because he’s so darn fast.

The need for speed is further highlighted in an advice page available from L’Ash Go Leor, a hurley maker in Ireland. (I was recently referred there by some inter-club correspondence between players on the Baltimore Bohemians squad. Thanks, guys!)

The advice offered by the L’Ash folks says the same thing: You need speed.

Having great foot speed offers you two important (and obvious) benefits:

  1. You can catch your opponent
  2. You can get away from your opponent

What happens between catching and getting away is another skill set entirely, but being able to “get in their face” and “run away” when the time is right can make or break your offense and defense in the game of hurling — or practically any sport.

So the question is a simple one “How do I increase my foot speed?”

Advice from Active.com – In this article, the writer makes a few suggestions that can be transferred to hurling.

  • Loose grip – When you’re running with your hurley and/or the ball, don’t hold them in a death grip. Keep things loose and mobile. An opposing player might be more prone to stripping the ball from you, but hopefully you will be out of their reach.
  • Running Stance –  Running on the balls of your feet make you faster, the article says. This is quite different from the typical game run most people have. In hurling you need to do lots of stops, starts and direction changes. But in those instances when you’re trying to catch up to someone else, the long strides you make by running on the balls of your feet might help.

Exercise tips from BodyBuilding.com – For some of us, the speed just isn’t there. This article offers several exercise ideas that should add speed by increasing leg strength and running endurance. I think that exercises five (skipping) and six (hopping mini hurdles) would be especially helpful.

Video from DailyMotion.com – In this video, the training coach says that you shouldn’t even bother with half-speed or even quarter-speed training. He wants you to train at 100 percent speed because it’s that speed that burns itself into your nervous system and muscle memory. He also suggests Googling “Foot Speed drills.”


How to Improve Foot Speed for Hockey and Soccer by yelkaim

Drills from Stack – This article offers some foot speed drills directed toward lacrosse players, probably the sport most like hurling from a physical standpoint. In particular, the writer suggests you get or build a speed ladder, a grid on the ground made of tape or rope. This is kind of like the tire drill you see in movies about military basic training or football practices.

More drills from Corey Crane – This video also offers some lacrosse-based foot speed drills on the ladder.

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You need both your hands in hurling

TWO-FER: Always use two hands when scooping up a grounded sliotar.

When you watch a game of professional basketball you see players do some amazing things and you want to be like them. You want to nail that flying dunk from 10 feet out. You want to spin away from your opponents and sink a solid jumping shot.

But truth be told, not everyone can do that. For the average guy at the local playground court, it’s an impossibility. It’s just not in his wheelhouse.

The same can be said for those of us picking up hurling.

We can watch YouTube videos of top matches with players who dedicate their lives to the game and pick up unrealistic expectations — or even worse, lazy habits.

I was reminded of one of my lazy habits and unrealistic expectations at a recent practice.
“Keep both you hands on the hurley. You aren’t playing for Tipp,” he said, referring to the County Tipperary team, one of the best groups of hurlers in the world.

The frank comparison was referring to my repeated efforts to scoop up a grounded sliotar with my hurley. Instead of keeping one hand at the bas (the hitting end) and one on the handle, I kept on trying to manipulate the hurley with just my “handle hand.”

The top-level players can do one-handed pick-ups in their sleep. They have the muscle memory to do it right. I do not.

Instead, what I need to do — and what nearly every hurling player needs to do — is manipulate the hurley with two hands and not try to show off.

Once they’ve played at Tipp’s levels for a season or two, the coaches will lay off, until then it’s “two hands on the hurley unless one of is holding the ball.”

Some key points to remember:

  • CONTROL THE ACTION: If you don’t have two hands on the hurley, the hurley is naturally harder to control — it can go wild. That means that when you take a one-handed whack at the ball, you’re never sure where it’s going. That same reasoning can be applied to a one-handed ground-ball pick-up: Without that extra control, it might roll off unexpectedly or pop up out away from your ball hand. Keeping both hands on the hurley lets you adjust quicker and maintain control.
  • CLOSE TO THE ACTION: If you don’t have both hands on the hurley, you have to be deadly accurate with your pop-up to your hand. Instead, keep your non-dominant hand on the bas of the hurley when you’re picking up ground balls. This lets you transfer it quickly and smoothly to that hand — the same hand that is now just inches away from the ball and ready to grab it.
  • CUT TO THE ACTION: It’s important to remember that the ball just has to be off the ground to grab it — there’s no exact measure, just “off the ground.” That means that as soon as your hurley is between the ball and the pitch, you can take it into your hand. That’s a perfect reason to do ground ball pick-ups with two hands. You can literally cut out the entire “popping up” action if you’re willing to bend over and grab the ball.

Images from http://champlainabroaddublin.blogspot.com/2010/11/experience-gaelic-games.html and  http://www.hurling.be/info_hr.htm

 

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