Respect restarts and you’ll keep possession more

Hoofing sideline cuts into no-one in particular shows scant regard for keeping the ball, writes Edward Coughlan

POSSESSION is nine-tenths of the law.

Restart plays in sport are the only time you are in total control of the ball and so they should be the best route for teams to retain possession. The opposition has just hit the ball out of play and they should be punished for it.

In Sunday’s Munster Championship opener between Cork and Tipperary, there were a dozen such restarts from the sideline, two of which were a quick tap groundling that resulted in the team retaining possession. Incidentally, one of those retained possessions resulted in an easy score for Tipperary. The remaining restarts were attempts at spectacular full swing cuts that resulted in the ball being hoofed it into the middle of nowhere to let others battle for possession. An 80:20 ball becomes a 50:50 ball in the blink of an eye.

Such a lack of appreciation for how valuable it is to have total control of the ball during what is otherwise a fast, free-flowing, skill-based sport beggars belief. Think about losing possession from a soccer throw-in, or the put-in in a scrum or line-out in rugby, and you’ll soon appreciate how unforgivable a sin it is.

The sanctity of possession and that opportunity to control time during the frenzy of a game is there to be exploited by those who know how. Experts in other sports spend significant practice time on those moments of total control. Take Pete Sampras for instance: his work on his second serve changed the game of tennis as we know it today; it is no longer a distant poor relation of the first serve used to just get the ball in play. It is seen as a chance to move your opponent one way or the other to wrangle early control of the point and ideally finish it shortly thereafter. When you’re in possession, you’re in control and the game is being played on your terms.

So what is needed to create the 80:20 ball situation? For starters, take your time. All too often in these circumstances possession is lost when the task is rushed. Take a beat. Most of the opposition is looking at the player with the ball, which means their attention is not on your team-mates. For the player on the sideline he has two targets; a direct hit to a team-mate or into open space.

If your team-mates are in synch with you, wait for a familiar run to be made and then make sure the execution is timed so that the ball is arriving there as he is. If open space is your target, wait for the moment when your man is better placed to win the foot race to recover possession. The critical aspect of a moving target is the anticipation of the player’s run and when and where space will be exposed.

One final item for consideration when executing a discrete skill like this is to have the final gaze at where you intend the ball to go to be a fraction longer than normal. Lock the destination into the cross-hairs, then pull the trigger. This is known as the ‘Quiet Eye’, a scientifically proven act to enhance the likelihood of achieving success in an aimed task, identified by Joan Vickers.

This apparently simple addition to your routine can have a significant impact on the outcome, as has been shown in golf putting, rugby kicking, and basketball shooting to name a few. However, a poor decision in this moment results in a 50:50 ball where a potential attack by your team can quickly become a scrambling defence.

In addition to target selection, shot selection is next for consideration. Unless the hours have been spent working on the sideline cut, leave it alone. The percentages are far too low to gamble with your team’s possession in the hope of pulling off the spectacular pitching wedge shot from the sideline, a la Joe Canning.

Respect possession enough to maximize the likelihood of the ball staying with your team. That may mean taking the less glamorous route of a quick tap groundling or a low driving pull-back to safety to set the foundation for an attack on the opposition goals. Even those shots require practice so that the intended outcome is reached.

In short, respect the restart. Spend time developing plays and practice the range of shots needed to execute those plays.

The author is a skill acquisition specialist across sport with extensive experience in football and hurling at intercounty level. Twitter: @DrSkillAcq

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