Championship Preview: Getting to grips with Hurling

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Henry Shefflin signs a hurley for seven-year-old Neill Byrne, after the 2014 AIB Leinster Club SHC final between BallyhaleShamrocks and Kilcormac Killoughey, at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise. Picture: David Maher / Sportsfile

BIGGEST hurling story of 2015, thus far? No question there: Henry Shefflin’s retirement.

There was abundant coverage of the announcement, all the way to over-kill. Yet an intriguing snippet slipped unremarked. The player’s father, Henry Sr, said of his son: “I always remember one instance. He was hitting the ball, right hand under. I told him he was holding the hurley wrong. He kept asking me afterwards: ‘is this the right way, Daddy?’ I didn’t have to tell him again. He was no more than three. He was barely able to talk.”

This anecdote lit up a crucial, but neglected aspect of the game: grip. What could be simpler? The father tells the boy that there is a right way and a wrong way of hitting a ball. The boy assents. Thirty-three years later, the grown man departs the intercounty arena with a fair claim to being the greatest of them all.

So, ask the obvious question: was that moment in childhood important for Henry Shefflin Jr’s achievements? Was there an unbroken arc?

Michael Duignan is sure on this topic. His autobiography describes a moment, near the end of the 1998 All Ireland senior final, that varnished victory over Kilkenny. He was ribbed afterwards by teammates, a score struck straight off his left side.

Ribbed, he thought back to John Molloy, a teacher at Garbally College. Duignan stayed grateful: “He noticed how my striking technique was unconventional, in that I would throw the ball up with my left hand and then place that hand at the top of the hurley as I struck it, rather than use my right hand as the pivot, as virtually every right-handed player would do.

“He forced me to change and often had me practising at the back of the class. I eventually mastered it and felt it was hugely significant. It only saved me a split second, but, at the highest level, that’s what makes the difference.

“Some players, like Gary Kirby and Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty, have managed to get away with it. I don’t know how my left-hand side would have developed otherwise, but I probably would have been much more right-sided.”

This thread is part of many significant careers’ weave. The exact same glitch burdened Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, until the perseverance of Brother Collins, at Clonmel High School, fixed the flaw.

Would Keating have been ‘hurler of the year’ in 1971, if that teacher’s eye had been less sharp? The  team below makes a strong statement. This selection is composed of right-handed men who were converted from grip-changing, like Duignan, or from hurling left-hand on top.

Grip-changers, as well as losing speed, invariably have a ragged stroke off their left side. For sake of argument, call these players ‘convertees’.

Championship Preview: Getting to grips with Hurling

Orthodox perspective affirms. Tony Wall won five senior All-Irelands with Tipperary, captaining success in 1958. He was one of the finest ever centre-backs, thoughtful and exact and dominant.

Wall was no less precise with a pen. His study of the most beautiful game, Hurling (1965), remains fresh. There, he wrote: “Hurling is unique among games which require a two-handed grip on a club, in that the hurley should be gripped with the stronger hand further up the handle than the weaker hand, i.e: the right-handed hurler should grip the hurley with the ‘right hand on top’. If a player’s left hand is the stronger, he should grip with the left hand on top.”

There is a considerable difference between a child of three or four and someone in his teens.

Quite a few youngsters are ‘changed’, as the phrase goes, at an early age. Using too long a hurl is frequently the cause of right-handed children holding their stick left hand on top.

You could hang a neat theory on this peg. Are the youngsters who are prepared to do something difficult, something that cuts against the grain of their instinct, likelier to end up as mentally strong competitors down the line?

Easy to think so. The quality of that convertee team is a nice argument in favour. Their team includes teens whose grip needed to be altered. Ger Fennelly, Ken McGrath, Adrian Ronan and Wayne Sherlock are definite cases in point.

Sherlock is a particular arc, since he kicked against the mentoring he received, on this front, at Blackrock, from Pat Moylan.

Henry Shefflin and his arc of progress? The man himself, quizzed a few days ago, is clear.

“I think it was a major thing for me,” he says. “Getting my grip sorted out early on meant that there was no hold back. My skill level wasn’t getting held back at any stage because of my grip. That has to be a big help.”

He said: “I’ve only a vague memory of being told what to do, by the father. But I was conscious that there was something I should be doing a certain way. That’s good for a young lad’s concentration.”

For him, the subject has developed in a natural fashion. Henry Shefflin is now giving a hand-out with training his own club’s U6s and U8s. Is he conscious, in this context, of grip and its implications? Should that age group just receive encouragement?

“I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think it’s both. You encourage them as much as you can. But it’s all about the basics, right from the start. And I’d see grip as one of the basics.

“So you have to look at their grip, once they’re in the field at all. You have to keep encouraging the whole time, but also keeping an eye on how they’re holding the hurl, without forcing the issue too much.”

This balance must count as wisdom on the tangled and thorny question of grip.

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