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.

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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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Why is Obama holding a hurley stick?

HAIL TO THE CHIEF: U.S. President Barack Obama, left, reacts after he was presented with a hurley stick from Irish Prime Minister and Taoiseach Enda Kenny while in Farmleigh, Dublin Monday May 23, 2011. Obama said Monday that the U.S. and Ireland share a "blood link" that extends beyond strategic interests or foreign policy into the hearts of the millions of Irish Americans who still see a homeland here.(AP Photo, Pool)

I have to admit, I’m writing this post with the exclusive hope that someone is going to ask Google or Yahoo! about the strange stick U.S. President Barack Obama was holding in his hand during his stop in Ireland today.

He’s holding a hurley, the stick used in the Irish national sport of hurling, and it is truly a great game. I want every American to know about it. I want every American to want to play it.

Americans who know of the sport say hurling is what would happen if you mixed lacrosse, baseball and rugby.  The truth is, the game is older than every one of those sports, and some even suspect that lacrosse is a bastardized version of the game.

This very blog, Hurley to Rise, is dedicated to raise the prominence of the sport in the U.S. If you found this blog in a web search, I guess it’s starting to work.

One of the best introductory tools I have ever seen to the sport is this video. Watch it and be amazed:

I will admit that most Americans have never heard of the sport, but it shouldn’t be that way. There actually are lots of hurling players here in the U.S. Just look at the “U.S. Clubs” list I have here, or check with the owner of your local Irish bar.

To learn more about the sport, keep checking out this very blog. I’ve been working the last two years to develop my skills in the game. It’s a hard game to learn, but at the same time it’s glorious.

You won’t believe me, but I can say with all my heart that it beats football. It beats basketball. It beats hockey and any other sport you can name. All you have to do is give it a try and see for yourself.

In fact, with crippling gasoline prices, that’s just what I would like to do for my town. I’m located in the South Central region of Pennsylvania, and I would happily travel to York, Hanover, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Carlisle or Lancaster to begin assembling a local chapter of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the governing body of hurling and its sister sport gaelic football. Right now, I’m a member of the Baltimore GAA, but I’d jump at a chance to start a new division of the GAA here in Pennsylvania.

Just let me know if you’re interested, and I will welcome you a whole new world because a world with hurling is indeed a better place.

And who knows, you might just join an O’Bama on the pitch soon.

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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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