Get the right angle on your hurley

At practice the other day, I had an opportunity to learn a little more about hitting with the hurley, the stick used in the sport of hurling.

In this image taken from a GAA instructional video, you can see the player has adjusted his strike in a "scooping" obtuse angle to create a high-flying ball.

Beyond the simple physics of swinging the bat-like stick at the ball and making it go away, I found myself working the angles of striking as well.

Early in the practice, I was delivering some ground hits to some players as they simulated ball captures during a ground hurling exercise. But as we practiced, a problem soon surfaced. Our practice field is so rutted and patch that ball was bouncing oddly or stopping too short for the exercise to function well. So instead of actually ground-hurling myself, I hit the ball from my hand to give my fellow players a ball worth chasing.

Later on, I was chastised by my coach for not getting the ball skyward enough. In an exact reverse of how I was helping the other players he wanted me to hit with another angle in mind.

Both instances were the result of changing the angles of my swing to help put the ball where I wanted it. Both are useful for hurling and hurling training.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN ANGLE?

When talking about the angle of the hurley, I’m referring to its position at the point where it hits the ball in the zenith of your swing.

Imagine a the most mechanical swing you can:  In this “perfect” swing, the flat of the hurley is absolutely perpendicular to the ground.

What I want you to do is consider adjusting that angle so it’s no longer perpendicular. Make it a conscious choice of the angle you’re choosing.

ACUTE ANGLES

While you typically won’t want to do this in a game, striking the ball with your hurley at an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) will send your ball to the ground. Depending upon the force of your strike, the ball won’t immediately stop dead. Instead, it will bounce down the field.

This type of hit, which I call a “swat” since it hits at a downward angle, can be useful in games occasionally because it’s unexpected. Camogie players, who often do more ground-based hurling, might do this more regularly than hurling players.

More importantly, this is a good hit to use in training because it gives a good erratic bounce that players can then chase down.

OBTUSE ANGLES

Hitting the sliotar (the ball) at an obtuse angle (more than 90 degrees from the ground) is an important thing to master. The angle of the strike, which we can call a “scoop” hit,  depends on the height of the hit you want. Higher hits are better for scoring points and efforts to shuttle the ball far down field. More level hits, a “smack” if I may continue to label them, are good for quick passes down the field or blistering shots at the goal.

The thing to remember here is the extreme scooping  strike is going to create time for your fellow players. The sheer distance the ball must travel in this high-arcing strike is going to give them time to get under the ball to gain control. Conversely,  lower-arcing ball gives players (especially your opponent)  less time to react.

And please note: The obtuse angle I’m talking about here is only a few degrees greater than the 90 degree angle. Likewise, a slight upwards motion on your hit is also important.

BEWARE THE BACKSPIN

Be careful though. Too much of an obtuse angle can backfire on you. Instead of making a solid strike, you might just graze it. Your limp whack will cause it to backspin and only travel a few feet.

Even worse you could just miss the ball completely.

I’ve done both in practice and in games, and it’s plenty embarrassing.

YouTube video on hitting tips: http://youtu.be/l93DPGnN0Uk

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In hurling, look for the miracle of da feet

In hurling there are a lot of ways to get the ball moving.

WAY ON DOWN: The sliotar, the ball used in hurling, can be shuttled ahead in a variety of ways. Kicking the ball is a largely forgotten option to do so.

Most obvious is to hit the sliotar (the ball) with the hurley (the stick). You can do this by tossing it from the hand, whacking it on the ground or bashing it from the sky.

You can also perform a hand pass. This maneuver looks simple when you see the best players do it, but it’s actually pretty complicated in real life. The hand pass isn’t a throw, it’s more like a swat in the right direction.

Then there is the often forgotten third method of moving the ball: You can kick it.

It seems that experienced players absolutely hate to kick the baseball-sized ball. Maybe it’s because in the middle of a monster scrum for the ball, they want the glory of plucking it from the masses. Maybe its because they figure that “since I’ve been carrying this battle axe with me around the pitch all day, I better use it.”

Or maybe it’s because the players with real experience never let the ball hit the ground for more than a second. (And, yeah, that’s probably the real reason.)

But for the rest of us — the ones just learning the fine sport of hurling, the ones who struggle to pop the ball into our hands, the ones who look like deer caught in headlights when it rolls over to us — for us, kicking the ball is the absolute best thing you can do. Here’s why:

  • Kicking the ball immediately breaks up the scrum. If the scrum lasts too long and it the ball gets pinned, the referee may blow the whistle.  Kicking it keeps the game moving.
  • Kicking the ball confuses your opponents. First off, it doesn’t make a sound so if an opponent didn’t see it getting kicked, he might still be looking for it. Second, it’s such an infrequently used maneuver it’s often surprising.
  • Kicking the ball can serve as a pass to a teammate. And remember, you can kick it on the ground or in the air
  • Kicking the ball directly behind you can be like a pass to yourself. Just turn and  snap it up.
  • Kicking the ball can score. If the goalkeeper isn’t paying attention, an unexpected low-velocity boot can slide right by them.

In the game: At the recent Allentown Hurling Blitz, I had a chance to test my “kick the ball”  theories.

It was late in a game, people were dog-tired and struggling, when a scrum developed right in front of the goal. I was at full forward and saw the group battling it out. The ball barely moved a foot at a time. Seeing my opportunity, I jammed my way into the pack. Instead of pushing my hurley into the forest of sticks on the ground, I edged in a little tighter and gave the ball a hefty kick.

The force of my kick knocked a few hurleys out of the way, and the ball skipped across the ground toward the goal. The goalkeeper dove toward it and whacked it away (unlike hockey goalkeepers, hurling goalkeepers can’t smother the ball). The ball went back out toward one of my teammates, who lifted it and struck it toward the goal. He missed and it went out of bounds.

Still, it was a success in my book.

Later on, I watched another player — a woman who played camogie, but joined the men’s squad for the afternoon — kick the ball over the crossbar for a point. It’s important to note that she was primarily a camogie player because that sport is almost entirely played on the ground here in America thanks to the influence of field hockey. She’s most definitely used to kicking the ball when she needs to, and it netted her a point for doing something that the male players weren’t used to seeing. (Camogie is essentially hurling for women. See the video below for some excellent camogie action!)

Tips: When I’m kicking the ball there’s two ways to do it.

The easiest way is to simply kick it with your toe or to sweep it with the side of your foot. Kicking it with your toe guarantees some amount of velocity. Sweeping it only works if you have enough room to wind up, so you usually don’t get it too far.

GIVE IN TO DA FEET: Your cleats can be the perfect tool for advancing the sliotar or even scoring.

The difficulty in kicking the ball comes from the fact that it’s a solid ball, not air-filled like a football or soccer ball. With no air it has no spring, so it won’t travel far. The most you can expect is three or four yards.

The second way to kick the ball is a little trickier. Instead of actually kicking it, you can scoop it with the tip of your cleat and flick it up. This usually sends the sliotar on a long bell-shaped arc, and it’s perfect for surprising a goalkeeper or as an impromptu pass to a teammate.

Cleats, unlike typical sneakers, are actually perfect for this. Cleats don’t have the bulbous rubber toe protectors that casual sneakers have. Instead, most cleats end at with a sharp curve toward the ground. That curve is perfect for scooping the ball and flicking it up.

So the next time your battling for the ball in a scrum, don’t waste your time slapping hurleys together, get the ball. Get it moving. Just kick it.

Note: Be sure to read the comments for some additional advice!

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Afraid of the ball — Tips for good hurling catches

One of my biggest problems on the pitch last year was catching the ball.

What’s strange is that I started out in early April doing just fine. I caught nearly every sliotar that I was able to reach.

COACHING TIPS: Click on the image for a PDF coaching guide on perfecting the overhead catch. The two-page guide also includes guidelines for several ball-catching drills.

But along the way, something happened. Balls zipped past. Balls landed with a whump at my feet. Balls smashed into my catching hand and fumbled out of my grip.

It seemed that somewhere along the way, I became afraid of the ball.

And yes, I really do mean it.

To understand my dilemma, first you need to understand what hurling players are up against.

  • In hurling you have to catch the baseball-like sliotar with your bare hand.
  • There’s no padded and webbed glove, like the one used in baseball, to help you snatch it out of the air.
  • Just like baseball, you have to catch it with your non-dominant hand, which is usually less coordinated than your writing hand. (Your writing hand, by the way, is busy doing its own thing — holding the hurley, so it can’t even offer you an assist.)
  • Further, you’re often jumping or running when you try to make your catch.
  • You’re often catching a ball that’s been propelled by a hurley. That means the sliotar is coming at you fast and hard.
  • And finally, you’re often under direct pressure from an opposing player who wants the ball just as much as you do.  This isn’t baseball, where you’re just standing around waiting for something to happen.

So, yeah, there’s a lot that goes into catching the sliotar during a game. It’s easy to mess up, too. The problem then is it is an absolutely vital skill to the game. If you can’t catch the ball very well, then you’re not going to contribute much to your team’s effort.

As I said, I did pretty well with this early on, but that all changed after I made a couple of bad catches — ones that left me sore and injured

Most of my bad catches occurred when the ball came whizzing into the cup of my hand and immediately bounced back out. The problem with these “catches” were that they left my hand stinging for hours.

Clearly, I wasn’t doing something right. Not only was I not catching them, but they hurt me too.

The worst of my bad catches happened at an impromptu “puck around” I had with a footballer who also had a hurley. He fired a line-drive at me and I moved to catch it. I missed catching the ball by a hair, and instead of catching it, it jammed straight into the tip of my thumb.

The pain was sharp, immediate and long-lasting. Not only did it hurt for a long time, it left my thumb with limited mobility for the rest of the season.

It also made me very leery of catching the ball from then on.

Now that the season has begun again, I have to back away from my fears and go after that sliotar again.

With that in mind, it’s time to review the guidelines for good catches.

First off, check out this video:

That’s a good basic guide to catching those high-flying balls that are so common in the game.

Some additional hints and reminders:

  • Practice catching the ball with Wall Ball drills, where you hit the sliotar against a wall and immediately catch it. 
  • Run to the ball after its been hit. Get your body in motion so it’s easier to get to the ball’s landing zone.
  • Don’t try to grab the ball out of the air. Let it hit your relaxed hand and let its momentum curl your fingers around it.
  • Move your entire body in the way of the ball. Don’t reach out for it. Get in its way.
  • If you lose the ball in the sky, just stick with your opponent. He may still see it, and that gives you a chance to grab it or block it.
  • Use your hurley to block your opponent from swatting the ball from your grasp.
  • Choke up on your hurley to better control a missed catch. If it bobbles past your hand, it may hit your hurley and you either get another chance to catch it, or you can pin it against your hurley.

For a coaching guide on specifically teaching the overhead catch, check out the Gaelic Athletic Association’s tip sheet and website by going here.

Other “skills” entries that might be of interest:

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