Kieran Shannon: How Christy Ring pioneered ‘The Process’ to perfect the art of hurling

Ring became the master of ‘The Process’ by being a zealous student of it, writes Kieran Shannon
Kieran Shannon: How Christy Ring pioneered ‘The Process’ to perfect the art of hurling

Christy Ring shouldered high after Cork's 1953 All-Ireland win over Galway in Croke Park. The photo from the Irish Photo Archive has been colourised by Fiona Forde at irishfamilydetective.ie

“Seventy-five percent of everything is in the mind. It’s mind that counts.”

— Christy Ring

He was so far ahead of his time. Long before the scientists and coaches came up with terms like ‘growth mindset’ and ‘The Process’, ‘designed deliberate practice’ and ‘the pillars’ of ‘high performance’, Christy Ring embodied and championed such things.

When profiling a 38-year-old Ring in 1958, a Des Powell writing for the Gaelic Sport magazine wondered, “How does he do it, this man who can outhurl, outwit and at times outpace rivals scarcely more than half his age? It is impossible to tell. Perhaps even Christy himself cannot explain it, for the impetus of genius is indefinable. But who wants to probe the mysteries of a legend? Who wants to analyse the magic?”

Des was mistaken. This writer for one, like anyone interested in the study of sports performance, would want to analyse the magic and probe the mystery of Ring. Because contrary to what Des claimed, it wasn’t impossible to tell and Christy himself could explain it in that wonderful crisp speech of his.

The man himself would have baulked at how words like ‘genius’ and ‘natural’ and ‘talented’ were so liberally applied to him.

Ring’s genius was not heaven-born. His genius was in his thinking, his outlook, his curiosity. He would have subscribed to Thierry Henry’s school of thinking: “Amateurs call it genius. Masters call it practice.”

Ring’s friend, Hugh O’Flaherty, the former Supreme Court judge, has spoken about how while Ring would play hurling with his son on the beach in Ballinskelligs, Ring would speak fervently about how hurling was not indigenous, that it was something that was learned.

And the beauty of it for him was that process was endless. Like another master or ‘genius’, Michelangelo, once put it when he was well into his 70s, he was ‘Ancora Imparo: I’m still learning’.

Ring loved to win, he loved to compete, but contrary to how he was portrayed in Over The Bar by Brendan Ó hEithir who described Ring’s competitiveness as “repellent”, winning was not Ring’s primary motivation.

In sport psychology terms, he was far more process-oriented than outcome-oriented, an inclination which researchers find leads to greater longevity and success.

Possibly no one in sport has ever articulated The Process mindset more eloquently than Ring himself did when saying, “Hurling has always been a way of life with me. It was never my ambition to play the game for the sake of winning All-Ireland medals or breaking records but to perfect the art as well as possible.”

He was still hurling for Cork seven years after his last All- Ireland final appearance and there were times during that barren spell where it was apparent he wouldn’t get back to September again; as his biographer and Glen Rovers teammate Val Dorgan would observe, he “battled on with increasingly weaker teams, sustained, one can only imagine, by his love of hurling”.

A couple of weeks after one particularly comprehensive defeat to Tipperary in which Ring, in particular, had been subject to considerable physical attention and punishment, a priest asked him in Dorgan’s company, “When will you ever think of giving it up?”

Ring said the answer to that was “very simple” — “When I think I know all about it.”

That Ancora Imparo mindset explains his remarkable longevity. If there’s one thing more impressive than his medal count of eight All-Irelands and 14 Cork county championships and 18 Railway Cups, it’s another set of figures: 24 and 46. For 24 years he played senior inter-county hurling for Cork, and at 46, he was still playing in county championship quarter-finals for the Glen.

His last game happened to be Ray Cummins’ first senior championship game: a 1967 county quarter-final between the Glen and UCC.

Cummins has spoken regretfully about how he tried to distract Ring taking a sideline ball by suddenly taking a fit of coughing only for Ring to cut it over the bar and turn around to a red-faced Cummins, “That’s how it’s done, son!”

Ring would score another 1-1 that day but when Johnny Clifford called over to his house the next day to bring him to the semi-final, Ring declined; the body and mind had each had enough.

Someone else might have hung in for another few weeks to win another championship — as the Glen would do — but again, it wasn’t the medals that propelled Ring. It was a love and a curiosity for his game. By that night against UCC, he had probably and finally learned everything there was to know about it.

By then, he had learned so much because all through his career he felt he still had so much to learn. What made Ring was his self-awareness; his capacity to engage in what the experts now call ‘reflective practise’ or as he so eloquently and distinctively called it himself, ‘honest thinking’.

At 19, though, he was making the Cork team, he was no David Clifford or DJ Carey.

“When I started off, I was only nine and a half stone and I had nothing to recommend me,” he’d once say. “I knew my limitations and I knew I was way back.”

Every pillar of high performance he targeted and tackled. Such as developing his strength.

For most of his career, his fighting weight was 13 stone. Even in the latter stage of his career, he maintained a strict physical regimen.

Hugh O’Callaghan, the son of the Olympic champion Dr Pat and himself the most successful American university athletics coach in his day, revealed that an aging Ring would seek him out and request and follow a programme which O’Callaghan wrote out for him. Who back then in Irish sport other than them talked in terms of “programmes”?

The mental game was something Ring also attacked and developed. Ages before Carol Dweck coined the term the growth mindset, Ring exemplified it. He joined The Glen not because they were coming off a seventh consecutive county title but because they were the club “which had the most to teach me”.

When he first joined the Cork team, he always sat in the same car as the Glen’s John Quirke who’d testify: “He never stopped putting questions to me.”

That was Ring’s outlook.

If you want to be good at anything, you have to be a good listener, a good pupil.”

He wasn’t always a big-game player. He wasn’t always able to mix it.

“The [1940] Munster final taught me a lesson I never forgot: that hurling needs courage, heart and a firm belief in one’s ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best,” he’d once reflect.

Walter McGrath of the old Cork Examiner would recall travelling with Ring to a league game to Kilkenny by car and Ring confiding to him that he disliked mixing it; as he once said to Dorgan: “Why should I hit anyone when I can outhurl him?”

But after the 1945 Munster final loss to Tipp, he’d learn and practise the wisdom of Dr Jim Young: “Give it to them as hard as they give it to you.”

Defeats didn’t deflate Ring as much as they informed him. John Doyle of Tipperary would observe: “Believe me, Ring could take defeats like a man. He would be the first to congratulate you in victory even if Cork were unlucky to lose on the day.”

Win or lose, The Process continued, the learning went on. Opponents were his teachers.

Dorgan, in his fantastic biography, would note how that after one game at centre-forward against Tipperary, Ring would realise that Pat Stakelum was timing his jump better than him and taking the ball at his highest point; prior to then, Ring would just try to double on the ball as early as possible. Ring duly went away and practised like Stakelum for months. As Ring would confide to Louis Marcus, the filmmaker he collaborated with, “No man ever beat me with the same trick twice.”

So strong was Ring’s mindset, it wasn’t just a case of Win or Learn. Dorgan recounts after one county final victory, Ring pulled him up in the dressing room for a stray ball he hit. Didn’t matter that the Glen had won their last game of the season; with Ring there was always another game, The Process always continued. 

But then on the other hand after The Glen were knocked out of the championship early one season by Carrigtwohill, Ring, restricted on the day by a diarrhoea condition, came over to Dorgan and complimented him on a fine point he’d scored; lest the fog of defeat would obscure a deposit of confidence for Dorgan, Ring reminded him that “You did alright, boy!”

Long before any sport psychologist recommended that an athlete should identify three or four things they did well and a couple of things they could have done better, regardless of how well they played, Ring was practising and preaching the same.

Ring’s in- game Process mindset was also exemplary; long before the 2006 Cork hurlers seeking a third All-Ireland in a row would coin the trigger ‘Every Single Ball’, Ring personified it.

For him, it was all about the next ball. He understood hurling was a game of excellence, not perfection. His breakthrough performance in the 1946 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny actually started out poorly enough; he’d recall that after the game a friend would say to him: “You played well but how in God’s holy name did you miss those two early frees?”

But for Ring, any misstep or setback, was something he’d simply park.

If I played, I played for 60 minutes [70 minutes only came in after he retired] and I decided I could score a goal in the last three minutes of a match as well as I could score one in the first three minutes. That was something I always had in my mind. When the whistle went, I could say, ‘Well, I can score them the next day.’”

He prided himself on never getting depressed or fed up during a game or after one because there was always either a next ball or a next game.

As much as he loved Munster finals and Croke Park, the opponent and occasion never dictated his application of effort.

“Every game had an importance for me and I looked forward to every outing, whether it was challenge or championship,” he’d say. “There was no such thing as an unimportant match.”

Another time he advised, “Go out and play your own game… I often played on the worst man and he was the most troublesome. Often I played on the best man and he was the easy one… Never play on another man’s name.”

And that’s how he made his. Always competing. Always learning.

The master of the Process by being a student of it.

- You can purchase the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication to mark the centenary of Christy Ring's birth with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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