One hurler’s achievement becomes another’s aspiration

It was Declan Hannon who said it, sitting in the victors’ banquet with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in front of him: ‘We’ve all marched behind the band out the back garden when we were four, five, six years of age.’

One hurler’s achievement becomes another’s aspiration

What psychologists call visualisation: It starts very young. Out the back, eighties kids like me pretended to be Nicky and DJ and Jamesie; the Limerick players, most of them born in the nineties, probably imagined themselves into the boots of Henry and Seán Óg and Dan the Man. We all practised our Tá an-áthas orms and imagined landing the crucial clinching score.

We learn by imitation, by imagination. It never really ends.

It’s part of what makes All-Ireland weekend so compelling. We are watching people experience, in surreal real time, moments that they have rehearsed in their minds, that have been the stuff of fantasy all their lives.

You only have to look at John Kiely’s genuine and helpless emotion after the final whistle, so overjoyed he looked almost pained. How do you actually live through something you’ve daydreamed about for years? How does your head and heart survive?

After each episode of The Game, Gerry Nelson’s cinematic three-part hurling documentary, social media pinged with numerous variations on the same sentiment: ‘It makes me want to put on my boots, grab a hurley and run out on the pitch.’

Watching hurling makes people want to go play it, to emulate the players they see onscreen. Sport spreads like a benevolent contagion: one hurler’s achievement becomes another’s aspiration.

Some hurlers make you reassess your whole approach. All week, in the run-up to my own club championship game, I obsess over the Limerick forwards; their work rate, their unending harassment of the Galway backs, their ability to turn over the ball. How many scores did they get as a direct result of intercepting or dispossessing the Galway defenders? 2-3? 2-4?

So laserlike was their focus that even after carrying out the tackle, they knew exactly where the ball had broken and went pouncing after it. Think of Tom Morrissey tapping it away from Gearóid McInerney and then having the wherewithal to weave between three defenders for a goal. Think of substitute Peter Casey in the lead-up to Shane Dowling’s goal, blocking down Adrian Tuohy and then tracking the ball into the danger zone. The tackle itself is only half the battle; winning the break is next level.

And with hurling, there is always a next level. Every now and then an outlier emerges: someone who makes the rest of us realise what’s possible, who redefines the conventions of the game. Joe Canning wasn’t the first man to point a sideline, but before he came along, a converted sideline was a happy fluke, no more. Then Joe started doing it with alarming regularity, and now every team has a sideline specialist

Some scores are literal game-changers, both on a micro and macro level. As a teenager, I was obsessed with Kevin Broderick’s superb 2001 semi-final point against Kilkenny, outrageously lobbed over a backman’s head and struck straight off the hurley.

My friends and I practised relentlessly until we could do it, or at least a version of it; not so different, in a way, to how we learned off dance routines from music videos. In Broderick’s score was the prototype of Peter Duggan’s wonder-point against Galway in the drawn semi-final. Part of me would love to think that Duggan was also inspired as a kid by Broderick’s point, but I suspect he’s too young. (They are all so young. Kyle Hayes wasn’t even born when Limerick saw their lead evaporate to Offaly in 1994; these players have no dark shadows lurking in the back of their minds. Maybe that’s why they held on this time.)

The list of landmark skills goes on. There was the spring of 2014, when we all experimented with batting the ball to the net in the wake of the Shane O’Donnell final. Under-12s up and down the country are practising the bounce-the-ball-off-the-ground move to extend their solo runs. Pretty much every team now has a drill based on Brick flicks, a skill that in time, no doubt, will become as commonplace as a handpass.

We learn hurling by imitation.

In this way, I think, it’s not so different to writing. Your first attempts are always blatant copies. After a while, you start to think you’re hiding your influences well. In the end, you realise you’ll never really develop a unique voice; your work is just a mish-mash of all the work you love, hopefully filtered enough through your own perspective to be made new and interesting again. Maybe that’s all that style is, in art or in sport.

‘How do you describe feelings?’ Ger Loughnane asked in The Game’s first episode, a question so simple and incisive I’m considering displaying it above my desk. How do you face into Croke Park after imagining it since you were the four, five, six-year-old that Declan Hannon described?

How do you stare down the prospect of your most deeply-held ambitions coming true?

Perhaps Limerick never asked themselves these questions; if they had, they’d have been paralysed. A name that was often invoked last weekend was Caroline Currid, Limerick’s resident sports psychologist, whose backroom record also includes Tyrone in 2008, Tipp in 2010 and Dublin in 2011. She’s received immense credit for preparing the young Limerick squad in the last few weeks, for breaking down huge tasks into achievable steps, for quieting the noise and defusing the big dramatic questions that writers love to pose.

I can only hope she’s tempted back to Tipp before long; we could do with emulating Limerick’s mentality in 2019.

Training through the pain barrier

Prominently on our screens last weekend were the Camogie Made Me Ready ads, a gorgeously shot campaign featuring four intercounty camogie players – Mags D’Arcy (Wexford), Collette Dormer (Kilkenny), Michaela Morkan (Offaly) and Gemma O’Connor (Cork). The campaign relates how camogie has affected these women in their professional and personal lives, making them strong, confident and resilient leaders.

The campaign could very easily have turned corny but deftly sidesteps this, thanks to the stunning visuals (Liberty Insurance clearly put a lot of money into the production), the deeply personal nature of the stories told, and the down-to-earth narration by the players themselves.

There’s a lot of training under grey skies, repetitive ball wall sessions and lonely dressing rooms. Collette Dormer heaves a tractor tyre from one end of a yard to the other. Gemma O’Connor runs through Ballyphehane with a huge pack on her back. Michaela Morkan swims into the middle of a dark and chilly-looking lake. For a team sport, the ads portray camogie as a solitary, almost obsessive pursuit.

One that teaches you things about yourself, however. D’Arcy talks about the difficulty of transitioning out of camogie into retirement. Dormer notes that coping with loss, disappointment and uncertainty in camogie made her better able to deal with it in life.

Several of the players discuss their ability to set aside their emotions in order to get the job done, an idea that comes across as almost quaint in this emotive age. But it’s stirring stuff. The campaign is available to view on YouTube; if you have daughters, sit them down in front of it.

Cutting edge style on Sunday Game

The end-of-year Sunday Game wrap-up is always joy: the impressive array of former players and managers, the palpable sense of catharsis that the season is over and a winner has been declared, the incisive analysis and the ribbing between former rivals. In recent years, however, there’s been an additional draw – something I like to call the Sunday Game Style Watch.

Ever since Paul Galvin made it acceptable for GAA players to think about and enjoy clothes, there has been a serious uptick in the Sunday Game style stakes.

It’s not often you see a group of Irishmen so well turned-out. The older gents – your Cyrils, yours Donal O’Gradys – lean more conservative in their suit choices, but they’re still smart and well-fitting. The younger lads go in for waistcoats and snazzy socks. Brendan Cummins and Dalo experiment with pocket squares. Liam Sheedy and Henry Shefflin try to out-floral each other with their tie choices.

Jackie Tyrell flashes a bit of ankle. It’s not just an impressive lineup of hurling legends, but a cutting-edge mood board of men’s style.

Only Donal Óg could pull off the dicky bow, though. Get that man back on the telly.

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