Dr Ed Coughlan: Hurling maxes out the skill factor

To claim to be the most skilful sport in the world is the boldest of bold statements. With so many contenders across so many domains with an incalculable number of contributing variables, is it possible to crown any sport with such a title? Of course it is, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

There are three basic levels to defining a skill. The first and most critical of them all is the skill of movement. The complexity of movement cannot be overstated. The ability to stop, start, turn, land and take-off are the fundamentals of movement skill.

The skill of movement underpins the likelihood of success in all sport. Unfortunately, too many coaches and athletes take these skills for granted and ignore the fact that they need close attention and huge amounts of practice to be able to execute all possible movements effectively and efficiently off both sides.

It is worth noting that a sport can only be considered as the world’s most skilful, based on how it compares to others when executed at the highest level of competition in that sport.

Though movement is paramount across all sports; where movement is your sport, the skills required to be the best take on even greater importance. Many sports qualify for consideration in this most straightforward of category, such as swimming, climbing and dance. However, track and field is probably the best example to illustrate this point.

The skill required to run fast is indeed captivating to watch. There is no doubting the impact of certain inherited physiological or physical traits such as muscle fibre type and limb length, but beyond that, the fastest athletes are the most skilful.

Staying on the track; add in hurdles to overcome and the complexity of the sport increases exponentially. Move to the in-field where the athlete’s skill is to jump as far or as high as possible and again the most skilful athlete will prevail.

However, no matter how complex and skilful these sports are, they will never be crowned the most skilful sport in the world because the parameters of control that define them are in their simplest form. Get from A to B as fast as you can.

Even within the sport of athletics; consider how much more skill is required to execute a world-class pole vault, hammer, discus, shot put, or javelin. Now the athlete has to control an object in addition to the movement that will underpin the skill execution. Further exponential gains in skill difficulty have now been added. But again, the predetermined movements within such confined and regulated spaces as the shot put circle limit the sports skill profile.

And so these sports will not even make the shortlist.

Clearly, control is the main determining factor in deciding the world’s most skilful sport, and with that in mind, the control of a ball is the most common and obvious place to continue our search.

Accepting that the skill of movement underpins all skill execution, the introduction of an object to control in addition to being able to move efficiently, takes the complexity of a skill up several notches.

The number of sports that qualify for consideration in this category are vast. The obvious ones are soccer, basketball, netball, volleyball, Gaelic football, Australian Rules football and both codes of rugby. All players engaged in these sports are required to control the ball skilfully.

There is no doubting the skill required to move well and attend to a ball, either to pass or receive, simultaneously. In fact, the more limbs involved in executing the skills of a sport, the more complex the sport. On this reckoning basketball, netball, volleyball, rugby and even soccer, all fall out of consideration.

Perhaps there’s a need for sub-categories to recognise the skills required by players in specialist positions, such as American football, which did not even qualify for this latest category, because of the high number of athletes who can almost go their entire careers without touching the ball, such are the position-specific requirements in their sport.

So save a thought for the wide receivers whose movement is sublime and catching is out of this world. Or the quarterbacks whose throwing prowess is among the most skilful acts in world sport. Or the wide ranging skills of an out-half in rugby who has to be able to catch, pass and kick under the most extreme pressure; the possibility of being obliterated in the tackle of an oncoming human train.

However, when all is said and done, Gaelic football and Australian rules football come out on top of these ball sports as a result of the array of skills required by most, if not all, competing players to survive at the highest level.

But not even those sports have the criteria to qualify for consideration as the world’s most skilful sport. That category is reserved for those sports that not only require the efficiency of movement, coupled with the complexity of controlling a ball, but have to control that ball with another object, like a racquet, stick, bat, club or hurl.

Obvious contenders in this deciding category are golf, tennis, cricket, hockey (ice and field), polo, badminton, squash, table-tennis, lacrosse, hurling (including camogie and shinty), baseball; the list is endless. But quickly a shortlist emerges when you consider the added complexity of executing your skills with the pressure of a tackle from an opponent. Not to mention the ever-present cognitive skills of spatial awareness and decision-making which often prove to be the deciding factor when the best of the best compete for silverware.

And so a shortlist of three survive for final consideration. Lacrosse, hurling and hockey.

Each have complex movement and motor skills that determine an athlete’s ability to make it at the elite level. Each are almost impossible to pick up during adolescence with any likelihood of elite adult success emerging. Each have elements of unbridled bravery that only those who have played these sports as a child will discard rational thought when considering the risks of a direct hit from a hard ball moving at incredible speed, or the clatter of a stick across the body.

Lacrosse is the first to fall because of the netted stick which cradles the ball for a catch and solo run. Hockey soon follows as there is no catch at all.

But when all is said and done and with as much objectivity as possible, hurling stands alone to be considered the most skilful sport in the world. The movements required in tight spaces even on a pitch 145m long and 88m wide are sharp and concise. The fielding of a ball moving 100mph with a single touch of the hurl or hand and moved on for a pass or a score in the blink of an eye is unrivalled in any other sport.

But don’t take my word for it. Compare and contrast your sport with hurling and if it beats it for the simultaneous combination of movement, coordination, timing, combativeness and skill execution, then I will stand corrected.

This Sunday marks the 130th All-Ireland hurling final. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing at 3.30pm, whether you find yourself in Croke Park, or in front of a television or online, be sure to catch the best of the best going toe-to-toe in the world’s most skilful sport.

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