After two hurling counties last season, Stephen Casey lifts the lid on modern strength and conditioning

Éamonn Murphy talks to the Blackrock and Blarney coach on the modern approach to S&C
After two hurling counties last season, Stephen Casey lifts the lid on modern strength and conditioning

Stephen Casey had two special guests in his house over Christmas, the county titles won by the Blarney and Blackrock hurlers in 2020.

IN MODERN hurling, strength and conditioning is a key component.

Players have never been fitter and leaner, which has increased the speed and intensity of the game. Yet without a strong hurling foundation, all the lockdown S&C work in the world won’t guarantee survival in the heat of championship.

After helping two clubs to county glory last season, within the space of 24 hours no less, Stephen Casey has every right to promote the importance of S&C. However, he firmly believes that being able to cover every blade of grass is futile if you don’t develop your skill, touch and striking.

Casey was involved with Cork underage teams from 2017 to 2019 when Munster titles were secured at minor and U21 and the county reached three successive All-Ireland finals, before the Blackrock and Blarney victories last October. Games-based training is key he explains, where a fitness base can be expanded on, with running drills with the sliotar and hurley.

With Denis Ring as manager and John Dwyer the coach, he weaved the S&C with hurling.

The management team of Denis Ring, manager, Liam Martin, John Dwyer, John Mortell, Fergus Ryan and Stephen Casey with Cork minor hurlers James Keating; Ger Millerick, Liam O'Shea, Ger Collins and Conor Power. Picture Eddie O'Hare
The management team of Denis Ring, manager, Liam Martin, John Dwyer, John Mortell, Fergus Ryan and Stephen Casey with Cork minor hurlers James Keating; Ger Millerick, Liam O'Shea, Ger Collins and Conor Power. Picture Eddie O'Hare

“My approach was that if you have 30 minutes a night purely on conditioning then you’re losing an hour and a half of hurling a week. I worked with Johnny and it might just be a case of running a section of drills with more intensity, pushing cones further apart or so on. Initially, I would have isolated the conditioning work but that’s because I didn’t have the experience. 

If we can do it all with the hurley and the sliotar we will, sprints included. It’s a ridiculously skillful game.

“I’d be against wall-ball work as a training session but it’s the same with cone-to-cone drills. And that’s because of conversations with the likes of Ed Coughlan, in CIT, how often do those scenarios occur in games, passing the sliotar as you’re running straight at your team-mate!

“In saying all that, players love those drills. At the start of 2020, I tried to take out the usual warm-up we’d done with Blarney and Blackrock to a games-only one, but both panels felt they didn’t feel right.

“The basic warm-up is what they’re used to from underage and they get into their flow that way. It’s in the players’ heads. It’s like a cooldown, the players expect to do a stretch after and without it they’d start feeling a bit tight.”

With a game-centric philosophy, you have to careful not to contract the space so much that hand-passing becomes the default setting come matches.

“Raymond Verheijen, who has been touted by Klopp, promotes large-sided, medium-sided and small-sided games. With the Cork U21s we would have done quite a bit of small-sided work but it does tighten up the game a lot.

“Lads end up looking for the quick pass, the outlet ball, a lot of hand-passing when they’ve been training in smaller spaces. You still need them to open out. Strike long. Shane Malone, in Dublin, did a lot of papers on the topic and he has offered some great advice.

“When you coach at club level there’s a huge variety of skill levels and a mix of players with varying ambitions, as opposed to on Cork panels where it’s the best in the county. If you can work on conditioning through games, it caters to everyone.”

Blarney's Mark Coleman shoots from Castlelyons'  Colm O'Neill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Blarney's Mark Coleman shoots from Castlelyons'  Colm O'Neill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Of course, running has to be done at certain stages of the year to build a base. Coming out of lockdown with Blackrock and Blarney, the approach of Rockies’ Fergal Ryan and Blarney’s Paul O’Leary and Brian Hurley was that the mileage was already in the legs.

The city side used heart-rate monitors, over GPS units, to track fatigue levels.

“In backs v forwards, you might cycle out your full-back line and half-back line so it’s not just a few players doing all the running. The same with the midfielders in those games.

“For top-speed work you’d go for races, put players into mini teams, they’re competitive and kids at heart which is why they love that.

“With Cork teams, I found the superstars, for want of a better description, would cover more ground in matches than in fitness sessions. The incentive to run to a cone clearly wasn’t the same!

I’ve seen lads getting freakish scores in fitness tests who still aren’t able to catch the ball under pressure. Where do you want to place the emphasis that will make the players better in matches?

“You have to be careful about reading too much into ‘fitness tests’. What if you haven’t slept well on a Friday night before doing one on a Saturday morning? With heart-rate monitors, you can keep track progress more accurately.

“If you take Stephen Murphy or Alan O’Callaghan with Blackrock and the monitor is showing they are spending too much time in red you can have a chat with them. They might have exams going on or something at work.”

Alan O'Callaghan and Mark O'Keeffe of Blackrock celebrate after beating the Glen. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Alan O'Callaghan and Mark O'Keeffe of Blackrock celebrate after beating the Glen. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

There’s a balance to be found between fitness and freshness.

“Every team ‘trains hard’. Too much value is being put on lads being ‘tired’ after. Blackrock won two games after extra time and it was all about maintenence. There can be a high cost, breaking down with a hamstring injury, if you’re trying to get a player who is already extremely fit up another few percent.

“Sometimes players can look unfit when they move up a level, going from club to inter-county training say, but it’s really that they need more exposure to the speed to the game. You certainly don’t get match-fitness by basic running.

“Hurling is the fastest field sport in the world but you have to possess the hurling too. Is Mark Coleman ferociously fit? No doubt but it’s his reaction, skill, spatial awareness and so on that marks him out.

“I’d often have arguments with coaches on fitness where I’m pushing for them to do more hurling. You can build the speed work into that.

“With the likes of Coley and Darragh Fitzgibbon, they’ve come up through the Rebel Óg underage system, then Cork squads, UCC and so on, as well as their clubs that they’ve been constantly hurling.”

With the nature of his field of expertise, Casey is constantly learning. Alan Dunton, who produced a PhD in skill acquisition, has offered invaluable advice. Using yellow or bright bibs in training isn’t ideal as it’s too easy for players to spot team-mates and doesn’t replicate a match scenario. Adding conditions into training games and moving players out of the comfort zones, especially dominant players at underage, is essential.

For recovery sessions, his teams used their astro facilities, pulled a net across and had fun games where one group had to complete eight passes before sending the sliotar over.

“It’s constant movement, non-contact but appealing to their competitive nature too. If you have access to bikes for recovery sessions that’s great too, but obviously not every club will.”

CULTURE

Both Blackrock and Blarney appeared to be extremely fit in 2020. The Rockies prevailed against UCC and the Glen in gruelling battles that went into extra-time. Blarney roared back from the dead in the quarter-final against Ballincollig, nine points down with seven minutes of normal time to go, before blitzing Carrigaline and Castlelyons, who they’d learned a “harsh lesson” against in the group stages.

Casey explains that psychology and a strong and united panel underpinned both clubs’ efforts more than traditional S&C. Éire Óg’s Barry Corkery, previously involved with the All-Ireland winning Cork minor footballers in 2019, served as performance coach to both.

“The culture is hugely under-rated. You need a squad of lads who understand the intensity that’s needed for a games-based approach to work. If number 28 or 29 on the panel don’t think it’s worth their while being there or appreciate how they can influence the team’s chance of winning it all falls down.

“The lads in both squads valued Barry Corkery very highly. His sessions are run by players, and they do most of the talking. Belief is huge. Psychology is a huge component. From Caroline Currid and Gary Keegan to Barry with Blackrock and Blarney. The team dynamic is a fragile thing.

“When teams pull off huge comebacks, the mental side of the game is more important than the strength and conditioning element. You take Ballincollig and Blarney, did the Ballincollig lads for a minute think the game was over? Suddenly Blarney got a few breaks, Pop Crowley’s goal and what a tournament he had, they were right back in it with all the momentum. That’s not fitness.”

In Blackrock, they measured fitness in terms of how long the players could go at full tilt in backs-versus-forwards. Come championship week it was three 10-minute bursts.

After underperforming in the second group game against Castlelyons, the Blarney players stated they weren’t doing enough running at training.

“While I felt they were fit enough, they needed to know we were listening to them. For the next few weeks, we put in a few more runs, nothing hugely fatiguing, but enough that fitness wasn’t going to be an issue in players’ heads for the next game. Choose your battles.”

When coaching or training a team, “the language you use around players can have a huge impact.”

“Take injuries. If a player has been declared fit you don’t spend the build-up to a game asking how they’re feeling. Five other people could be doing the same.

“Embrace the chaos. This idea that you want to see 20 uncontested handpasses in a row needs to go, but at the same time, we can accept players appreciate the comfort of a warm-up they know.

“In training, you want to expose players to what might happen in a game. You want mistakes.

“A player can value your opinion more than you realise. They can take negativity home with them, especially at underage level.”

BALANCE

For Casey, being aware of the pressure players face away from the pitch is hugely important. His own background has shaped his outlook. He was far keener on soccer and bodybuilding than he was hurling in his youth and early 20s.

He left Douglas Community School and couldn’t settle on a college course, going through three before gym instructing in Stiofán Naofa sparked an interest. Breaking his leg playing soccer, which required three surgeries, only sharpened his focus.

“I moved into a Personal Training course in the Mardyke and I was working there for six years, which led to opportunities with Rebel Óg and UCC teams in soccer, rugby and Olympic lifting.”

Stephen Casey helping powerlifter Abigail Cronin when he worked in the UCC Mardyke Arena. Picture: Larry Cummins
Stephen Casey helping powerlifter Abigail Cronin when he worked in the UCC Mardyke Arena. Picture: Larry Cummins

An opportunity arose to complete a Masters in UL under Dr Mark Lyons. The support of his partner Sarah was critical, in a busy house where they now have three kids under five.

The Masters provided him with a great network, with Tipp hurling legend Tommy Dunne on the course, while Mickey Comerford has since gone on to make his mark with Kilkenny, and others progressed to the Connacht Rugby set-up.

A chat with Aidan O’Connell, then of Munster Rugby and now head of high performance for Cork GAA, led to a call from Cork minor bainisteoir Denis Ring in 2016 and soon after he linked up with Fergal Ryan in Blackrock. Blarney got in touch in 2019.

There were a few bitter disappointments with the Rebel underage sides.

“One of the highlights being involved with Cork was the Tipp minor game in 2017. Attitude carried those players through that, particularly the drawn match up in Thurles that went to extra time until Evan Sheehan hit that penalty.

“We got to All-Ireland finals and we didn’t win them. Disappointing but you’d hope it’ll stand to the players for the rest of their careers, the experience of reaching a final and the pain of losing. I certainly don’t think it will hinder them.

“In terms of preparation, we’d have been happy with the build-up to all the games. Of course, there are factors that cost you on the day but that’s the nature of a sport like hurling.”

“Seeing broken men in a dressing room after losing a big final, for the Cork minors in 2017 and the same with Blackrock after the Imokilly game, you can’t imagine going into another sport. Hurling is special and I say that as someone who doesn’t come from a hurling background. I’ve been ingrained in it.”

Speakers Conor Quinlan, Stephen Casey and Stephen McDonnell with Des Cullinane at a Rebel Óg forum in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: John Tarrant
Speakers Conor Quinlan, Stephen Casey and Stephen McDonnell with Des Cullinane at a Rebel Óg forum in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: John Tarrant

When the latest lockdown is over, he’ll be back on the training ground again with the same enthusiasm and holistic approach.

While there isn’t a template he can offer, and people have been on looking for the structure he used with Blarney and Blackrock but “it doesn’t work like that”, he’ll continue to mesh skill with S&C.

“Look at Barcelona. It’s not about how much ground they cover it’s where is on the pitch. A losing team will often be chasing shadows which puts the GPS stats through the roof.

“In hurling the idea is to play the game so fast the other team can’t keep up. That comes down to the skill levels more than fitness.”

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