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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Get the hurling season started

With the approach of spring, hurling clubs around the nation are starting to get their teams ready for the new season. The warm weather that spring brings is a natural time to pick the sport back up again, but it’s also an important recruiting time thanks to the St. Patrick’s day holiday, which is a little less than a month away.

Over in California, college teams have already engaged in their first games of the season, as seen here in a video from hurling fanatic and YouTube content creator Eamonn Gormley (EamonnCA1). In the action, Cal State takes on the Stanford team.

What’s great about this video is that EamonnCA1 doesn’t just give us the action, but he takes time to talk with some of the spectators about the sport.

Over here on the East Coast, a rally is going out to players in the Baltimore area is planning its Gaelic Sports Clinic on March 25, where newcomers can learn a little more about Hurling and Gaelic Football.

Teams up north, like the Fox River Hurling Club in Wisconsin, are still battling the cold their own way: By playing hurling indoors. Still, it won’t be long until they hit the pitch for some outdoor games. (Of course, it’s worth noting that the Baltimore club is currently playing indoor hurling too! Check out the video.)

The Allentown, Pa., team, like many other clubs, has its announcement up on its website: It’s looking for players and ready to train you. If you’re interested in the sport, now’s the time to get involved, and any local club can help you by loaning you equipment to mess around with before your first practice.

The Orlando Hurling Club, like many others, is planning on marching in its local St. Partick’s Parade. Hurling participants in that parade, set for March 4, are to assemble and depart from Fiddler’s Green Pub 12:30pm.

  • What’s your club doing to drum up new players and kick start spring training? Let me know in the comments!
  • Looking for a team near you? Check out my list of U.S. Clubs!
  • Do you participate in a club that’s not listed? E-mail me the information!
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Hurling should be fun first

Here in America, when hurling enthusiasts get together, we talk about how great the sport is and how we can make it grow. We want to show everyone we meet how great the game is. We want them on the field and having some fun.

CLASH OF THE ASH: Hurling is a field sport a lot like lacrosse and was developed in Ireland. If you're interested in playing the game, do a web search of the word hurley or camogie and your nearest big city or university. (Art by John Simcoe)

But over in Ireland, the country where hurling was born, there’s a different sort of talk. The Sports Desk Blog of the Irish Examiner does a good job in summing it up the constant drumbeat of angst:

The fact is hurling is elitist. There should be no shame in that. It’s an art-form, something that can only be performed by a minority because it takes years upon years of mastering. That’s why it’s such a treasure.

It’s a fanciful thought to believe every boy and girl in the country is going to puck a ball. It should be that way but hurling can’t and will never be that game simply because it’s so difficult to play. Not enough people have the patience to pass on or absorb the skills.

Such talk continues on to complain that hurling is a sport that will be continually dominated by just a few regions because no one else can even consider catching up — Kilkenny and Tipperary counties are just too good to even bother stepping on the pitch when they’re your opponent.

That dominance, they say, is what’s killing the sport. People aren’t interested in watching the game, and they certainly aren’t interested in learning the almost-cryptic skills needed to play. These issues are draining the life right out of the game, they say.

Hogwash, I say.

Here in America, we are just playing hurling for the fun of it. Someday, we might have clubs to rival the greats. But until then, we just play because it’s an incredible way to spend an afternoon.

We may not have even a sliver of the skills of the Kilkenny Cats or Tip’s Blue and Gold squad, but as long as we’re having a good time, we’re gonna keep having a go at it.

I would suggest the Irish naysayers do the same. Just get out there. Get better at the game and keep the sport alive.

You don’t need to win a championship to play a sport.

You just need to be willing to walk out on the field.

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Signs of hurling after a long winter

As the cold of winter still grips the playing fields here in the Northeast U.S., hurling action has been going on for months now in other parts of the country.
Down south, teams in Florida and Georgia have been practicing for weeks. And thanks to several teams’ presence on Facebook, I know that larger clubs in the midwest aren’t letting the winter deter them. They’re big enough to be able to rent indoor fields for their practices and events.CATCH IT: Hurling is the ancient field sport created in Ireland. It's often described as a mix of lacrosse and rugby. (John Simcoe)
You can check out the activities of your nearest hurling team by consulting my U.S. Clubs list. (And if you’re a member of a U.S. club not on my list, let me know and I’ll add your squad to it.)
Across the pond: While the U.S. clubs are just gearing up, Ireland’s county teams are about to begin the 2011 National Hurling League. This competition is a spring league that helps the squads ready themselves for the 2011 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, a competition that begins right after the National Hurling League wraps up its championship game in late May.
Just to be clear: The results of the competitions don’t have any bearing on one another. The best way I can describe it is that its similar to the way NASCAR handles its two primary racing series: The Sprint Cup (the really important races) and the Nationwide Series (a series of races that feature a bunch of drivers from the Sprint Cup and some lesser known drivers).
In the case of hurling in Ireland, the All-Ireland Senior is the big game everyone wants to win. Sure, it’s nice to win the NHL championship, but doing well there usually means very little when the All-Ireland gets going.
What’s intriguing about the two competitions is that they are played by the same teams, the same coaches and in front of the same crowds. But somehow, the NHL just doesn’t matter as much.
Maybe it’s best to just describe the NHL as spring training for the All-Ireland.
Of course finding a broadcast of any GAA action (gaelic football) included is going to be tough again this year. The MhZ Worldview will broadcast some Gaelic Athletic Association games, but none will be live and only some larger U.S. cities get the channel.

Until then, check out the weekend wrap-ups of the game in the Sunday Sport and League Sunday section of the RTE television station video player.

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Converting America (Part 3): Tap the Catholics

Welcome to Part 3 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

In Ireland, hurling and gaelic football are largely, though not exclusively, played by Catholics, and as the Gaelic Athletic Association works to expand in the United States, it needs to use this tie to its advantage, rather than play it down as it does in Ireland.

First off, it’s important to understand how the GAA was created. Way back in 1884, the organization was founded to preserve Irish sports and Irish culture. The (essential) reason that both came under threat was that the English rulers of Ireland were actively promoting English culture and, at its worst, actually outlawing various aspects of Irish culture. This attitude prevailed throughout much of the next century.

As the anti-English sentiment transformed into violence in the form of the Irish Republican Army, the GAA as an organization was even outlawed for a time. To further dampen interest in the sports, occupying British forces were banned by their own government from playing gaelic games. The animosity between the Irish and English was quite intense and resulted in riots, beatings, ambushes and vandalism, some of which were directed at GAA players, coaches or spectators. There’s several instances, for example, of vandals pouring broken glass on GAA playing fields to limit their use.

During this turbulent time, some actually considered the GAA a terrorist organization, or, at the very least, a front for a terrorist organization. Whether that is true is a case for historians to sort out, of course, but the English certainly saw strong connections.

Fast forward to modern times, and the GAA rightly and exclusively promotes itself as a cultural organization (which it has always been) and not a religious one (which it has never been). That’s a perfect position to maintain in Ireland, where the wounds of the era are still strong, but at the same time the GAA shouldn’t ignore the massive 68 million Catholic base in America, many of whom are struggling to find their cultural and ethnic identity.

Of those 68 million U.S. Catholics, a  substantial percentage can trace their heritage to Ireland, and those are the people that the GAA needs to reach out to and say: “Look at what your grandparents did back in the home country. This is a sport they played to build up their community, and you should play it too so you can be part of something too.”

Back to school: In particular, the GAA should create an educational program that highlights the organization’s history, the history of its sports and their historical (though not direct) association with the Catholicism. In Ireland, they already have youth outreach progams, so it’s not too big of an effort to brush it up for Americans.

But here’s the key: Once they have an Americanized program ready, the GAA should market it to America’s Catholic schools.  As of this writing, there are more than 7,000 private Catholic schools in the United States, and every one of them is going to eagerly embrace a game that was often used to champion the Catholic cause, even if their school isn’t entirely Irish Catholic.

Just consider this as a sample course of study, which could stretch over the years American kids spend in their local Catholic schools:

  • Athletics: Starting in the earliest grades, the GAA should provide equipment and instruction material to American Catholic schools. Hurling, in particular, is a game that takes many years to master, and teaching kindergarten and first-grade students is going to eventually build some excellent American players.
  • History: Starting with the gaelic games origins hundreds of years ago, following through to the founding of the GAA and its evolution into its modern form is actually fascinating reading. Layer that with the fact that the games’ players are professional in skill, but totally unpaid, is an amazing story of its own in a modern world where people are paid tens of millions of dollars because they can throw and catch a ball.
  • Politics & Geography: Along with the story of the Irish political situation that resulted in the creation of the GAA, there’s also another set of politics that comes into play on the field. Players for gaelic sports aren’t traded or lent out. They can only play for their home team. This results in heated rivalries between neighboring towns and counties, and a good lesson in geography for those interested.

Right now, Catholics in America are vehemently proud of their heritage. They celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with abandon. They flock to Irish festivals.  They have essentially claimed Columbus Day as their day.

Why not give America’s Catholics their own sport as well?

And once you do, the GAA might spark interest from America’s non-Catholics and non-Irish population.

When and if that happens, the gaelic games will truly go global.

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