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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Why isn’t hurling in the olympics?

As the glow of the 2012 London Olympics fades, some hurling fans might be wondering “Will there ever be a game of hurling at the Olympics?”

While the answer for the immediate future is “no,” the sport could make it to the Olympics some time in the decades to come.

THE MAIN REASON

First off, one has to understand the main reason why hurling isn’t in the Olympics: Not enough countries play significant amounts of hurling to justify an Olympic tournament.

GOLD MEDALS: Hurling is a sport that was created in Ireland, and with a lot of work it could develop into an international game. Once it hits that level, it could be considered for a future Olympics.

If it happened today, or even 10 years from now, any international contest in hurling would be dominated by a team from Ireland, the sport’s home country. Irish hurlers would, quite simply, devastate their opponents from other countries. It would be like having kindergarteners playing high-schoolers in a game of basketball.

Take a look at American Football. It suffers the same problem: lack of competitiveness. A U.S.  “dream team” would completely destroy any assembled by another country.

So right off the bat is there’s no hurling in the Olympics because there’s no quality competition available to Ireland.

And that is the simple answer — the simple answer to the simplest version of the “Hurling at the Olympics” question. No one can touch the Irish at hurling, so there’s no point in creating an international competition.

But that leads us to a better question:  “How could hurling become an Olympic sport?” That is, what is needed to insure quality games of hurling on an Olympic stage?

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

First off, let’s tack off a few things that the hurling community is doing right.

1. Governing body: According to the basic IOC rules, every Olympic sport must have an international governing body.

Citing American football again, you’ll note that there’s no such organization for American Football. Well, in truth, there is such an organization — the International Federation of American Football — based in France, but it offers no oversight to the way Americans (or even Canadians) play the game. Can you imagine some organization in France handing down sanctions against the the San Diego Chargers, for example? Or an organization telling the Canada’s CFL to remove the two-point conversion  from the rulebooks? No, that just isn’t going to happen.
Unlike the NFL and the CFL, the world of hurling is actually dominated by one organization, Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association. While the GAA is essentially an Irish organization, it has a world-wide reach and has made decent efforts to push the sport past its national boundaries, so it can technically qualify as an international governing body.
2. Gender equality: Olympic sports also need to include both genders, and for that hurling  gets bonus points again. The GAA actively promotes camogie, the game of hurling for women.  Just like many sports, there aren’t a lot of camogie players out there, but there’s certainly enough to build up to an Olympic level.

With those minor hurdles cleared, we come back to the getting into the Olympics in general.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

It appears that there’s a hard way and an easy way for a sport to graduate to become an Olympic sport.  Let’s look at both:

The Hard Way: The GAA would spend roughly the next 20 to 30 years aggressively building and promoting the sport of hurling in additional countries. It would certainly help its case if it managed to push the game to every continent and through multiple cultures.

In Europe and North America, it has a decent enough showing. Over in Australia and New Zealand, they wouldn’t have too hard of a time to build up some organizations either. Just a little more investment of time and money in those zones would create some real competitors.

Believe it or not, Argentina once had a thriving hurling scene, but that was dampened by World Wars I and II. Still, reviving it might be possible. Once it had a foothold again in South America, it could easily spread through the rest of the continent.

Asia and Africa would obviously prove to be the most difficult sells. China certainly has the money and people power to give a hurling team a try. Dangle the possibility of more Olympic gold in front of them and they would very likely take on the challenge. The GAA just needs to supply some coaching. The Japanese might appreciate the game too, given their interest in baseball. The starting point in Africa would logically be South Africa, but beyond that it might not gain much more ground. (Although check the video below!)

Over every continent, the GAA should “sell” the game to countries that are already fielding strong teams in sports such as field hockey, lacrosse and baseball. These sports share many of the same skills as hurling, and countries that show strength in those could pick up hurling in just a few generations of players.

Once the GAA gets those foreign clubs started and sufficiently competitive, it’s just a petition away from playing for Olympic gold.

But like I said, that would take forever. Decades of work. Hundreds of millions in investments.

The Easy Way: There’s another route to the Olympics for sports such as hurling. All that needs to happen is for Ireland to become a Summer Games host country and run hurling as a demonstration sport.

You see in the past, the IOC allowed host countries to include non-medaling sports on the Olympic schedule. The problem is that demonstration sports have been gone since 1992,  but that could easily change in the next few years with simple ruling from the IOC. (And it’s an option that many sporting organizations and fans want back.)

The key to “The Easy Way,” of course, is earning the right to host the Olympics — a massive undertaking in its own right that takes — you guessed it — decades of work. Hundreds of millions in investments.

So yes, hurling could be an Olympic sport … given lots of time, effort and money.

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Simple handpass drill for hurling

Here’s a simple handpass drill for hurling training.

The handpass is an important skill to learn as it allows players to shuttle the ball to one another from a short distance.

In this drill, divide the team up into three or more stations, with an equal number of players at each station.

In the diagram, the stations are marked A, B and C.

At the start of the drill, Player 1 takes three running steps from Station A toward Station B.

As Player 1 runs, Player 2 leaves Station B and calls to Player 1 for a pass. Player 1 executes a handpass to Player 2.

Player 2 catches the ball as Player 1 runs to the end of the line at Station B.

Player 3 leaves Station C and calls for a pass from Player 2. As this happens, Player 2 takes his running three steps and then executes a handpass to Player 3.

Player 3 catches the ball as Player 2 runs to the end of the line at Station C.

Player 4 leaves Station A and calls for a pass from Player 3. As this happens, Player 3 takes his running three steps and then executes a handpass to Player 4.

Continue this cycle for about five to 10 minutes so that each player gets at least five tries.

NOTES

  • Once in possession of the sliotar, the player can take only three steps.
  • Players should call to each other by name for the pass as this helps them become familiar with one another.
  • Stress the importance of handpasses over a strike as a tool to move the ball forward a short distance  with greater control and less exposure to be picked off.
  • Slowly widen the circle so that players are required to run further and pass farther.
  • Players should not stop to catch the ball or to pass it. The should keep moving.
  • Players should use their hurley in a protective fashion while catching and return to the ready position after the pass.
  • Speed the drill up by adding multiple balls into it.
  • That’s an awesome graphic I created, isn’t it?

Handpass basics: http://youtu.be/iNPboZYjdM0

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Teaching hurling to kids

A few weeks ago, I purchased a kid-sized hurley, the stick used in hurling, off of eBay for my daughter. Since St. Patrick’s Day, she’s been talking about how cool it is to be Irish, and I figured I ought to foster that zeal while I could.

PICK A STICK: Children's hurleys are undestandably smaller than adults. Be sure you pick one with a good grain and it made out of ash.

The hurley that arrived was a bit of a disappointment (always remember you want a hurling stick made out of ash, not pine), but I wasn’t deterred. Later that day, we were out in the backyard learning some of the very basics of the sport.

She started out with a Wiffle ball, but quickly demolished it.

With no easy-to-hit tennis balls on hand, I switched her straight up to a Size 5 sliotar, the ball used in men’s games of hurling. Generally, women use a size 4 ball, which is smaller to accomodate smaller hands.

Kids are initially trained on “Go Games” balls, which have a bit more bounce and a bit oversized to help with hitting them.

(Over time, young players work with other Go Games balls that transition them to regular-sized sliotars.)

We practiced some basic things: How to hold the stick. How to place your feet. And some simple rules of the game.

GET A GRIP: Go Games balls help kids learn the fundamentals of hurling.

Her reaction was mild interest at best, but I’ll keep prompting her to try it some more. I certainly don’t expect her to be a regular player or anything — there’s no kids league within hundreds of miles of us — but I do love the idea of spending some one-on-one time with her outside and away from the TV and video games.

With that in mind, I did some research (here and other articles) on how to get kids interested in sports.

Here are some key points I came away with:

  • See it. To get a kid (or anyone) interested in a sport, you have to let them see it being played. That makes sense, and explains why its so hard for new sports to gain a foothold in a culture.
  • Don’t get too bossy with them early on. Provide some guidelines on what to do, but avoid “you’re doing it wrong” statements. Let them see it done right by you and let them ask for help.
  • Teach skills through playful activities. Kids don’t practice running, they run while they’re having fun. You have to do the same when you’re introducing a sport. In hurling, you could try a contest to see who can hit or kick the ball into a bucket a few yards away. You’ll never need to kick a ball into a bucket in hurling, but you might need to kick it to a teammate.
  • Expect and embrace distractions. Don’t be surprised if a bug crawling on the field will suddenly pique some interest. Rather than shooing it away, take some time out and just go with flow. Being a taskmaster will just be a turn off.
  • Group activity. Try teaching more than one kid at a time. When one goes off task, pour the compliments on the ones that are still focused on learning. That should make stragglers want resume their focus on the group goal.
  • Don’t expect too much. Many sports require a variety of fine-tuned skills that children don’t have yet. Pressuring them to get everything right is get things going wrong.
  • Let them pick. Don’t expect a kid to play the sport YOU want them to play. Give school-age kids a season per sport to decide if they like it. My daughter, by the way, has tried and dismissed Aikido and gymnastics. Now she’s talking about soccer.
  • Celebrate the game. Once they’ve made a pick of a game (still holding out for hurling/camogie), immerse yourself in it so you can talk up the sport. Look up YouTube videos. Find a website. Take them to games. Look for fiction based on the sport. Pick a favorite team to follow. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.

Now sure, my dream of making America a hurling nation is probably a crazy idea for my generation, but maybe not so crazy for my daughter’s generation.

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A hurling season in peril

Although spring is just around the corner, my opportunities to participate in hurling seems to be dwindling.

The biggest threat to my game is a simple matter of economics. Here in the United States, gasoline prices are expected to go up through the spring and summer. Economists, or whoever it is that does this, are saying prices could hit $5 a gallon at some point this year.

THE GOLD & BLACK: Baltimore GAA Club founders Lucy and Tadgh Prendeville are featured in the March 2011 issue of Baltimore Magazine. Click on this image to activate a PDF and read that article.

THE GOLD & BLACK: Baltimore GAA Club founders Lucy and Tadgh Prendeville are featured in the March 2011 issue of Baltimore Magazine. Click on this image to activate a PDF and read that article.

I’m like a lot of people who participate in niche sports: To play or train, I have to travel. If the Baltimore Bohemians schedule continues this year like it did last year, then there will be practice once a week, and a game twice a month.

My round trip to Baltimore and back is 130 miles. My vehicle, which is admittedly a gas guzzler, gets a dreadful 15 miles to the gallon. That means at the low end, it costs $35 per session to train. On the high end, it would be about $44 for each session. That’s $210 bucks a month just to learn the game at four practices and play it twice. That adds up fast over the spring and summer when you’re on a tight budget, and something I can’t really afford, especially when you look at “Reason No. 2″ for my troubled season.

Reason No. 2 that my season is in jeopardy is actually a blessing. My lovely wife, Laura, is pregnant with our second child. The new kid is due on April 16, just about when the hurling season would begin. If everything works out fine, the wife will be taking off a significant amount of baby-bonding time. This of course means we will be running the Simcoe household on a tight budget, and traveling for hurling is almost assuredly the first to go. Along with that, my actual time to participate in the game will be cut down — Babies need time with their dads, too.

There’s also a third reason why hurling might be out of the question this year. Last year, the men’s hurling team at Baltimore mostly  limped along. The number of players showing up for each week’s practice hovered around five, and was never more than 10.  That kind of attendance is never good for building a quality team.

Now word is that last year’s coach won’t be coaching this year, so that’s another blow to our effort because at some point, you kind of have to ask, “Why bother?”

And don’t for a second think that the Baltimore GAA isn’t a good organization. They have great male and female gaelic football teams. They also are getting great turnouts for their camogie team, and I would happily train with them if that was my only option. (Camogie, by the way, is the women’s version of hurling.)

WHAT A PAIN: Maybe I have a bone spur on my foot as shown here, which can happen if you have over-tight calf muscles or suddenly increase your physical activity. I'm probably guilty of both of those since I have big calves and was a lazy bum prior to taking up hurling.

To add more pooper to my hurling party, I’m nursing a nagging injury that persisted through all of last year. My left achilles tendon just doesn’t like it when I run around on the field. While playing, it feels fine, but after a night’s rest it goes from “barely fine” to a full-blown limp that lasts two or three days. The limp is actually so bad that walking down stairs is difficult.

After talking to my doctor about the problem, she referred me to a local foot-and-ankle specialist. I have been a bad patient and haven’t sought out the treatment yet, deciding to try to give it time to heal up. Months later, the agitation remains, especially when running. You want me to ride an elliptical trainer for a half-hour? Sure, no pain at all, but running for 30 seconds brings on the pain twelve hours later.

Of course, all is not lost in my effort to learn and understand this great game. I love practicing the skills. I’d readily join a more-local team (Harrisburg, York or Lancaster hurlers out there?). I’m still interested in the game, and will eagerly play whenever and wherever I can.

But this year, it just might not happen when I look at all the factors in play.

 

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