need for speed

Why speed has become one of hurling's most important skills

‘It is a very hard thing to stop.’

pjimage (8) Jack O'Connor and Kyle Hayes. Inpho Inpho

IF YOU’RE LUCKY enough to have a ticket for today’s All-Ireland final, you’ll get a close-up view of the raw speed coursing through the Cork and Limerick teams. 

Watching on TV is one thing, but often times, to really appreciate a player’s athleticism, you need to see them in the flesh. 

Ask anyone that was in Semple Stadium to witness Kyle Hayes’ glorious solo goal against Tipperary that started on his own half-back line. Or Cork fans who’ve been treated to some electric bursts of pace by Jack O’Connor this summer. 

Traditionally in hurling, speed was lower down the pecking order in terms of importance when compared with other sports like football, soccer and rugby. The ball travels faster than any player, so aspects like first touch, striking and overall fitness levels seemed more relevant to the small ball code. 

Most likely down to hurling becoming a more possession-based game, pace has become a key requirement for any serious inter-county side. The majority of counties now work the ball through the lines and use support runs off the shoulder to create overlaps. 

Rather than lamping the ball downfield, defenders will get often possession and attempt run the ball out past their man. Aspects of speed such as acceleration, change of direction and agility are key components for any player looking to get through a gap in midfield, or for forwards looking to take on defenders. 

“It’s a huge asset in any on-pitch game,” says John Kiely. “I know a lot is being made of Cork’s speed but I assure you we’re not slouches ourselves.

“Maybe more teams have incorporated it as part of their game, there’s less long delivery of the ball from one end of the ball to the other, and possession is valued more highly. As a result there are more support runners supporting the player in possession.

“It’s all part of the evolution of the game, coaches bring in parts that become more wider aspects of how teams play,” adds the Treaty boss. “That’s what I think we’re seeing.”

Many inter-county squads are now working with dedicated speed coaches. Liam Sheedy brought Phil Healy’s coach Shane McCormack into his Tipperary set-up over the last few years, while Martin Bennett became a key part of Liam Cahill’s backroom team in Waterford.

With the Deise in particular, the benefit speed development has had on the team is obvious.

Strength and conditioning coaches are expected to deliver sprint training in other camps.

One Division 1 football county implemented a speed training programme ahead of the league this year, with 19 out of 34 panellists registering new top speed records, while a further five were milliseconds away from joining them. 

The idea that you’re either born with or without speed has long been dispelled by sports science. Obviously, genetics play a massive role and every athlete has a ceiling of their maximal speed, but it’s a trainable skill.

shane-kingston Cork's Shane Kingston. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Having a lean body mass that’s capable of generating high levels of power with strong core muscles and activated fast-twitch fibres are among the essential requirements for sprint success. 

Like any skill, it can be developed with practice. Simple changes to running mechanics will make any player faster, as will developing extra power and strength in the gym.

The growing culture of S&C pathways in development squads has created faster athletes. For a county like Cork, the appointment of former Munster S&C coach Aidan O’Connell as their head of high performance was crucial in this regard.

The likes of O’Connor, Robbie O’Flynn and Conor Cahalane have emerged from the underage ranks in recent years with pace to burn after working through carefully designed programmes. In a 2019 interview, Bennett said Shane Kingston was the fastest player he’d worked with.

“Everyone knows the speed and pace in the Cork team,” says Limerick full-back Dan Morrissey. But as Kiely noted, the Treaty have plenty of speed merchants in their own ranks. 

Hayes, Cian Lynch, Aaron Gillane, and the rest emerged from the Limerick academy ready to make the step-up to senior level because of the conditioning work they got through as teenagers. 

TvStreet / YouTube

Even a late developer like Gearoid Hegarty managed to add pace and power in his early 20s, summed up by sight of the Hurler of the Year galloping past the fleet-footed Calum Lyons in the semi-final.

From Joe O’Connor to Mikey Kiely, the Limerick manager has placed great trust in his S&C coaches since taking charge. 

“They’re the ones with the expertise,” he says. “Mikey Kiely has a doctorate in S&C so I have to trust his work is correct, and to date he’s gotten it bang on.”

When Covid forced a shutdown of GAA activity in 2020, Mikey Kiely took advantage of the unexpected time to put the squad through an eight-week speed programme.

“Speed isn’t something you generally get to work on because you need time and a lot of recovery,” he explained last year. 

And while last year’s triumph took place in the winter months, the feeling in Limerick was that their powerful athletes would be better suited to hurling in the summer. 

“For our players, we’d think they’re quite powerful and the hard ground will definitely benefit us in that we can produce and get greater returns from a stiffer surface,” Mikey Kiely told The42.  

The reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions have even worked on aspects such as ankle fitness, which helps them explode off the ground quicker. 

Limerick come into this game well aware of the threat Cork pose on the ground.

“It is a very hard thing to stop, as we saw [against Kilkenny],” says coach Donal O’Grady.

“If you get it right, you can be cut open. And playing this Cork side there will be occasions when you are opened up. They are just too good a side not to, and with that pace, it’s not that it is a massive concern: it is a strength of Cork’s.

“And we will look at it closely and try our best to stop it. Obviously there will be an occasion when they do break that line and how we react to that is the main thing for us.”

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