One-time Kerry minor sensation Shane Nolan has described the burnout that saw him take a break from hurling.
And the Crotta O’Neill’s man, since back in the Kerry jersey, rues the obsession with gym work that turned him ‘into a robot’ and almost killed his natural skills.
A senior inter-county player when he was still a minor, Nolan was a key part of the Kerry setup that won two Christy Ring Cups in the last decade. But his influence began to fade as he struggled to serve too many masters. And eventually, he stepped away from hurling altogether at the beginning of the 2019 season.
He believes his story carries warnings for lots of gifted young hurlers.
“I know myself I started getting injuries from when I went to college. I was playing full year round and then I was physically drained as well as mentally drained. I could not get up for training. No nerves before matches and everything. It just got stale. Then I took the year out and came back last year and the hunger was back.
“My legs were going, it was too much. Since I’ve been 17, I’ve been hurling all year round. My off-season was shinty, so my off-season was those sorts of things and I was playing football off-season as well so my body got no break.
“Then I went into college hurling. I’d three managers calling me more or less, Kerry, Crotta, and college. I was training twice a day sometimes. My legs were going, my head was gone, and mentally, you’re totally gone, couldn’t get up for training, didn’t want to go training so I said I’d take a year out and just concentrate on the club and got the hunger back and got the legs back.”
Kerry manager Fintan O’Connor gave Nolan space to get his appetite back again.
“To be honest, I was no good to him the way I was, because I’d nothing to offer to the team. I was trying to train, then getting injured, then going back, getting injured again, and coming on, and they thought my legs were gone, more or less. So I told them leave me alone, don’t even ring me, I’ll get myself right, and if you want me back the year after give me a ring.”
Nolan puts much of his struggles down to excessive gym work, for which he takes responsibility.
“I think a lot of it was all this gym stuff. My game in the early days, I was tall, I am still tall, but I actually wasn’t that strong, so agility and quickness in and out of tackles was my thing.
“Then it was all kind of gym work and they were trying to turn you into a robot. My game was changing to strength which wasn’t my game. I put up about a stone of muscle and I couldn’t carry it. Fitness was going and I was trying to change my game to strength, which isn’t my game.
“My game is being a hurler and using your head, using your instincts. I felt that time you were kind of too trained. It’s probably my own fault but it took the instincts out of my game if you get me.
“What I actually regret is that I bought too much into the gym for those few years. I’d do a gym session instead of... say the county final year, 2011, every free evening I had, any free hour I was down on the field shooting and taking points.
“Any free hour I had in those years I was going to the gym trying to do a session, which I think it took my hurling back a bit.
“I say to the young lads now it’s not all about gym work. The gym isn’t going to put the ball over the bar; it’s not going to have your striking good and everything.
“The way I look at using the gym the last few years is just to prevent injuries. I talk to the strength and conditioning coaches and I just do my session once a week, even in the off-season. I just told them my story a lot of hamstring and lower back stuff just to keep injuries away, instead of just putting on muscle.”
The modern inter-county game has changed too, of course.
“My first few years with Kerry it was 15 on 15, throw you in full-forward or corner-forward and you’re one-on-one more or less. Now there are seven backs every game and around the middle is just bunched, so that’s why there’s a lot of lateral passes and short passes, because that’s just the way the game has gone.
“You saw the same with football, the Ulster football, Kerry are more or less playing it as well now, but hurling is going to the same kind of thing. There’s a lot more tactics in the game nowadays.”
Kerry face Down in the first round of the Joe McDonagh Cup on Saturday and the mood in the camp is good, Nolan says.
“Morale is very good. I think if we play as a team we’ll be hard beaten in this competition. If we start playing as individuals we’ll be beaten by ten points by both teams, because when it starts creeping into teams, ‘I’ll get a few scores, get a bit in the paper about me’, that’s the worst possible thing that can happen a team.
“I just think that if we can put our personal achievements aside and just play for the Kerry jersey as a team we won’t be far away at all.”