It was a bit cold and definitely quite wet Sunday morning when I stepped out of my car and into Baltimore’s Latrobe Park.
There the Baltimore Gaelic Athletic Association was presenting its annual rite of Spring: Gaelic Sports 101, where anyone with an interest in hurling or gaelic football could come out and try the sports for themselves.
The hurling group included total newbies and returning players. The veterans were assigned training buddies and we were split out among three different skills stations.
All of the stations offered basic instruction on the game — how to hold the hurley, basic rules and a look at the philosophies of the sport.
It was a simple practice, but it was meant to be just that. More importantly, it was a great template that other clubs can follow to introduce the sport to locals.
Here’s how it all came together.
A few minutes after the class’ start time, the team coaches and managers call everyone into a circle. After some basic introductions of the key personnel, talk about the game and offer an extremely brief history. Follow that with a quick rundown of key terms (hurley, sliotar, goal, point, solo, handpass) and how scoring works.
With the basic description still floating in their heads, the group was split among three skill stations. New and old players were purposely mixed together.
STATION 1: HANDPASS
SKILLS: You can learn the basics of hurling in just a few minutes.
In this station, players got quick instruction on how to execute a legal handpass. It was stressed that you can’t throw the ball to another player — you swat or scoop it. The group is split into teams of two for the exercise where they handpass to one another. The starting distance was only two or three yards, but gradually the gap widens as they get better.
Important points to stress:
- Practice handpasses with both hands.
- After you pass the ball, return to the ready position.
- Keep your feet moving during the exercise.
- Learn your partner’s name. Talk to them. Get used to talking and playing at the same time.
STATION 2: GROUND HURLING
At this station, players are again separated into groups of two, who then swat the ball on the ground back and forth to one another. Players focus on getting a solid, clean hit on the ball and learning how to stop it.
GIVE IT A WHACK: Learning to "ground hurl" provides a basic lesson on how to hold your stick.
After some time, two groups of two join together to form a longer line of four people. The middle two people focus on speeding up the ball as it goes by them. The end players focus on stopping a quick moving ball and then immediately sending it in the opposite direction.
Some key points to remember here:
- Practice hitting the ball from the right and left side.
- Remember you can stop (but not step on) the ball with your feet. Watch out it could hurt!
- The ideal position to ground strike the ball is to have one foot a few inches to the ball. The foot should be perpendicular to the direction you want to send the ball. This makes the arc of your swing land exactly where the ball is.
- You can stop the ball by making it hit the flat of your hurley and ride up the stick.
STATION 3: STRIKING FROM THE HAND
This is the most fun of the three stations, but it’s also the hardest to master because there are several skills involved. First you need to be able to hit the ball. You also need to be able to control the direction and distance it gets hit. Third, you have to be able to catch the ball one-handed.
Once again, split the players into pairs and have them hit the ball to one another.
Important reminders to go over:
- Don’t throw the ball up as if you were hitting fly balls in baseball. The longer a ball stays in the air next to you, the more likely an opponent can disrupt your swing, or even grab the ball for himself.
- Your strongest hand should be at the bottom of the hurley handle. This is the exact opposite of a baseball grip.
- To make the ball go a shorter distance, choke up on the handle.
- The speed and strength of your strike do not help a ball go farther. It’s all in the follow through and in your ability to make the ball hit the hurley’s “sweet spot.”
- Always try to catch the sliotar in your non-dominant hand.
- If the ball is going over your head, try to stop it by raising your hurley to meet it. Catching it is better because you have instant control, but this is helpful, especially if you are defending.
With a basic skill level now established, bring all the players back together and tell them that now it’s game time!
Give the team a quick idea of how long they will play, explain the boundaries and basic rules about contact with other players. This is a good time to discuss safety issues as well.
Split the teams up on even sides, but then pit veterans and new players against one another when you assign positions. This lets the vets talk about the game and its strategies when the action has moved away from them.
IN THE GAME: A quick, light-hearted game for new players can get them some helpful experience that will make them understand the game better.
Launch into a light-hearted mini-game. Call penalties. Stop the game to explain things. Keep things light. Congratulate people for good plays and scores. Help people up that fall.
This is a time to show your brotherhood.
After the set amount of play time, bring everyone back together and talk about what you want to do this season. Tell the players when the next practice will be. Gather up contact information for those interested. Explain ways that newbies can get equipment of their own.
Then wait and see what happens next time.
Images courtesy of the Baltimore GAA Facebook Page and Bill Hughes.