DURING the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, one of the most common trends amongst GAA players was the skills challenges they regularly posted online.
Between showcasing their audacious tricks on social media, challenging others to try the same skill, or trying to guide young kids through the intricacies of the skill execution, the practice underlined the vast levels of expressionism in modern hurling.
For players missing that feeling of togetherness from a shared dressingroom, and the medium of matches, expressing their skills and talents was also another way of connecting with the public. Even better again, many players married their profile with their unique talents to promote good and charitable causes.
Inter-county hurlers were performing circus-tricks at every turn. Memories inevitably fade with time, but when the return of inter-county action last winter made everything more immediate again, Henry Shefflin excavated one of those skills challenges to remind everyone of the messages those players were trying to transmit last spring and the sheer brilliance associated with routinely practising those skills.
Showing a clip on ‘The Sunday Game’ in November from a Twitter post last April, Tony Kelly is seen striking three sliotars consecutively into a wheelie bin about 25 yards away off his left side. When the last shot closes the lid of the bin, Kelly sprints to reopen it, while shouting to the person recording the footage: “Hold it, hold it... don’t forget the second side.” Then Kelly grabs a ball and hits it straight into the bin off his right side.
Shefflin showed the clip to underline the importance of Kelly’s message through his actions in Clare’s qualifier win against Wexford. After hitting an incredible point off his left side, over his right shoulder, on the sideline, Kelly then hit a similar score off his right side on the opposite sideline. Shortly afterwards, Kelly nailed a point off his left side when only a handful of yards from the corner flag.
Kelly is a genius, but audacious shots, sublime tricks and outrageous skills are increasingly on display from players everywhere through hurling’s expanding portfolio of talents. A couple of hours after Kelly’s exhibition against Wexford, Richie Hogan displayed another act of wizardry in the Leinster final against Galway.
Chasing down a loose ball, which Galway goalkeeper Eanna Murphy looked favourite to reach, Hogan managed to flick it up one side of Murphy, dance to the other side to flick it higher again for himself before scooping it backwards over his shoulder into an empty net.
Modern players have become so skillful now that a hurley often appears like a wand in their hands.
Executing those skills in the white heat of battle further underlines a new form of expressionism in hurling.
And modern players are constantly pushing past new frontiers.
When Joe Canning scored four points from four side-line cuts in last November’s Galway-Limerick All-Ireland semi-final, he set a new senior championship record, surpassing the three sidelines scored by Clare’s Mick Moroney of Clare in the 1977 Munster championship against Tipperary, and the three nailed by Wexford’s Martin Storey against Kilkenny in the 1993 drawn Leinster final.
Canning has now scored a remarkable 28 points from sideline cuts in championship hurling. In a Red Bull promotional video a few years back, Canning brilliantly detailed how he takes sideline cuts, which remains the ultimate coaching lesson in the art.
The video shows Canning getting a long stretch into the ball, like an exaggerated genuflection, before Canning then speaks about concentrating on striking just between the ball and the grass. Canning always tries to connect at a ’45-degree angle on the hurley before letting his wrists do the rest of the work, following through on his swing for distance.
“Accuracy for me is all about visualization,” said Canning in that video. “When you go for a score, you have to see the ball hitting the target in your mind. Then it’s all about practicing over and over until you are consistently hitting your target. Create a routine that works for you. Practice makes progress.”
It’s harder now for kids and teenagers (especially those with limited access to space or green areas) to practise a skill like sidelines. GAA pitches being closed adds to the difficulties but there are much wider challenges everywhere during the latest lockdown.
The online videos and skills challenges from inter-county players have effectively dried up because the dynamic is completely different now. Everyone is fed up.
Kids and teenagers are much more engaged with online content, but the effects of homeschooling and home learning have made them much less inclined to engage with, or absorb, coaching material like they did during the first lockdown.
It’s a challenge in itself just to get kids outside and be active anymore so promoting fun, enjoyment and participation has to take immediate precedence over coaching, especially coaching technical detail.
Once kids have a love for their sport, every opportunity to play and train will become another opportunity to engage in some form of practise. And skill levels and technical acumen will naturally develop and grow from such a solid base.
Hurling’s canvass has become so broad now that many of those new individual skills that players individually developed are increasingly adding greater technical nuance and detail to the game.
And many of the new tricks kids and teenagers are regularly performing at home now may, in time, become more new skills added to hurling’s expanding portfolio. The evolution continues.