The Kieran Shannon interview: Meet hurling’s number cruncher, Damien Young

Damien Young may not be a recognisable face in the Tipperary management but the performance analyst and sports studies lecturer is playing a crucial role in how Michael Ryan’s team goes about its business in training and on gamedays, writes Kieran Shannon

Damien Young is motivated by a desire to better describe the game. Picture: John D Kelly

Tomorrow he’ll discreetly make his way up to the analysts’ box in Nowlan Park, take out his laptop, and though the numbers he’ll code and crunch will be objective, he’ll view them through a certain and biased prism.

For 10 years now Damien Young has sat in both the backroom and background of Tipperary senior hurling, anonymous to the wider Tipp public not privy to the midweek inner workings of Dr Morris Park and Semple Stadium but a familiar and reassuring face to players and management who’ve passed through those corridors and dressing rooms over that decade.

Sometime next week though he might take a more detached and neutral look back on this league final, even if that review will be informed with the passion and interest of a fanatic.

Before he had a couple of hurling-related research papers published this past month in respected international journals such as the Italian-based Sports Sciences for Health and the US-based Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Young conducted a number of other studies that have been the subject of academic interest and which centred around other national finals involving his native county’s nemesis, Kilkenny.

Eighteen months ago Young, a lecturer in strength and conditioning in Limerick IT’s Thurles campus, presented a conference paper at the World Congress of Performance Analysis in Sport in Alicante in which he’d broken down how often and how long every individual player in the 2015 All-Ireland senior final was in possession of the ball.

“While hurling is one of the oldest team sports in the world, little research has examined its technical or tactical game demands,” they’d pronounce in their abstract. “This study provides a first insight into the decision-making demands placed on elite hurling players.”

Their findings were revelatory and the basis of Young’s brilliant presentation So Many Decisions, So Little Time at the GAA’s annual Coaching Conference earlier in 2016.

The player most frequently on the ball in that Kilkenny-Galway decider was the hurler of that 2015 year, TJ Reid, with 17 possessions.

That’s 17 times he had to make a decision about what to do, when to hit it and where or to whom to hit it to.

For four of those possessions, the nearest opponent was two metres or more away from him. With 10 of those possessions an opponent was just a metre away from him.

And with three of those possessions he released the ball with an opponent within less of a metre off him. So little space, so little time to decide and execute.

Tally all those 17 possessions together and Reid was on the ball for a grand total of 42 seconds.

As Young would point out, that’s less time than it would take Reid to run a length of the field. His average time in possession was just 2.5 seconds. And naturally, some of those possessions were even shorter. The shortest of the lot? His goal. The time it took him to receive a handpass from Walter Walsh and to fire past Colm Callanan was 0.8 of a second.

And yet for Young that wasn’t the study’s biggest wow finding. It was the efficiency of Cillian Buckley. The Kilkenny wing-back was on the ball just eight times in that final. For a total of nine seconds. By the time he’d got it, he’d already got rid of it. Gone in 1.1 seconds.

“What motivated me was to try to better describe the game,” says Young, sipping some bottled water like one of the conscientious athletes he routinely works with inside Semple Stadium.

What is this game about and how can we prepare the players better to play it?

"A line that’s often thrown out is, ‘If you do it in training, you’ll do it in a match.’ But you can reverse that statement: What you do in a match you should be doing in training. But if you don’t know what they do in a match, what are they doing in training?”

To illustrate his point, Young introduced delegates at that 2016 GAA Coaching Conference to a zoo tiger called Zola. Zola lives in the zoo. Every day John the zookeeper brings her breakfast, lunch and an evening meal, even if she’s not hungry.

In the evening time her cage is opened and she’s free to roam, protected from the other animals.

“Everything is laid on for her. Every day is the same. Life is easy. Life is comfortable.”

Then he introduced his audience to Eva. Eva lives in the wild. Every day she has to go out and find her food. If she wants to eat, she has to run and chase down her prey, even though she’ll only be successful every 20th attempt. She’s had to learn how to adapt, feed herself, survive.

Young’s question was this: What would happen if Zola was put into the wild? How long would she survive out there in a world where Eva roams?

Too many hurling coaches are like John, spoon-feeding Zolas when out there stalking for prey is an Eva like TJ Reid and his fellow black-and-amber Cats.

Young would have attended enough training sessions in Nowlan Park with his old college friend and coaching officer Jamie Maher to know that in Cody, Kilkenny had no zookeeper. On Cody’s watch the Nowlan Park environment more resembled a jungle than a zoo. Knowing the Law of the Jungle is this: You survive in the wild for being in the wild. Players learn to survive in the game by playing a game.

“What you’re trying to create is a player who is able to read and react in the game,” Young elaborates. “A while back there as coaches we went drill-crazy and doing everything in isolation and as a result we were limiting the players in their decision-making. ‘Right, you hit the ball over there, and then you, you hit it over there when you get it.’

And we still have it, players being told what to do. Whereas in a match that player is saying to themselves, ‘Jesus, no one is telling me what to do.’ The ball or the opponent is telling them what to do.

“We can see the likes of Tadhg de Burca being able to read the game. We all know players in our own county: ‘God, they’re always in the right place at the right time.’ Because they’re able to read, ‘Okay, the ball is there and judging by the speed and the flight of the ball, it’s going to go over there…’

“So you’ve to replicate situations like that in training. To help players see what’s happening, what signals and cues to identify. It’s like that cartoon book for kids, Where’s Wally? Now if I open the book and you tell me to find Wally, well, if I don’t know what Wally looks like, I’ll never find him.

“In that [2015] All-Ireland final, the ball transferred from one half of the field to the other 73 times, over and back, the majority of the time by long striking.

“In training if we’re always setting up a drill or small-sided game in a small area, then is the ball going up and down enough so our players will have the knowledge and experience of being able to read the ball flight like that? But if we create situations and actions that are likely to occur in a game, then the players will be more likely to recognise them and respond accordingly.”

Cillian Buckley’s efficiency in the 2015 All-Ireland SHC final illustrates the speed of hurling. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Almost a decade earlier, Young had similarly forensically analysed an All-Ireland won by Kilkenny.

Back in 2006, as a final year recreation and leisure management student in Waterford IT, Young chose that year’s final and its two semi-finals as the subject of his thesis.

At the time Young was back-up goalkeeper to Brendan Cummins on the Tipperary senior hurling panel, just as he had been for the 2000 and 2005 seasons, and while he looks back on those years as the experience and privilege of a lifetime, they were also characterised by a certain frustration and bafflement.

Goalkeeping training was “alien, non-existent”. Cummins and himself would always do something position-specific before or after training but it was purely a self-initiated, voluntary exercise; training and running all around Dr Morris Park with the group was compulsory.

“It [his research] all started really with how we were being trained at the time. We might start off with a warm-up, doing 35 minutes of distance running, then go down to the stadium for some hurling for 20 or 30 minutes and then back up to Morris Park for another 30 minutes running — with no ball.

Even in the middle of the summer, we were doing so much running and very little hurling and I couldn’t understand it.

"So I was thinking, ‘Okay, there seems to be a complete misbalance here. What are they basing this conditioning on? What is this game about?’

“So that motivated me to start looking at the physical demands of the game and quantify what the game is about so we could prepare players for it.”

Young’s sense that something was off with Tipp’s approach would have been informed from his training and education, on and off the field, at one of the most progressive sports institutions in the country at the time.

In the summer of 1999 Young had the distinction of playing in and winning both the minor and U21 Munster finals before enrolling that September in Waterford IT where he’d soon won both the freshers and Fitzgibbon Cup.

It was an inspiring place to be, bonding and playing with top players and lads from all around the country like Henry Shefflin, Eamonn Corcoran, and Damien Joyce, and being mentored and guided by lesser-known but equally-impressive and highly-influential figures.

Eugene McKenna — he of Monaghan, not Tyrone, descent — impressed upon them how a GAA club was more than just its senior team. Gerry Fitzpatrick, the standout basketball coach of his generation, lectured them in sports physiology and psychology. Johnny Moroney, the former rugby international, was another engaging lecturer. And coaching the Fitzgibbon team was Dr Tadhg O’Sullivan, best known for being one of the leading sports surgeons in the country, but to that generation of Waterford IT hurlers, one of hurling’s first and leading tactical minds too.

You know how Shefflin and Kilkenny set up for Cork’s puckouts in that 2006 final which Young would later dissect? The full-forward and half-forward units all dropping backing a line, severely disrupting Donal Óg Cusack’s options? O’Sullivan had Shefflin and WIT doing that back in 2000.

“A lot of the tactics used at inter-county later on would have been instigated by Tadhg. WIT was hosting that Fitzgibbon and I remember the week before our semi-final against [a pre-Davy] LIT, we were up in Mount Sion and Tadhg had us running our puckout set-up over and over again.

For a lot of us Tadhg would have been our first experience of team meetings and drawing up tactics. Unbelievable stuff.

Taking the physical training then was Shay Fitzpatrick, a popular coach in Waterford sporting circles at the time. Again, Young found him ahead of his time. “Shay was always preaching short and fast. Short and fast. And repeat.”

Yet with Tipperary the training was long and slow. Who was right? What training was better suited for the demands of the game?

Young and some friends set up six wide-shot cameras all around Croke Park for the last three games of that 2006 season and found there was a reason why Waterford, with Justin McCarthy’s hurling fitness philosophy married to Gerry Fitzpatrick’s more scientific training methods, were regularly contesting All-Ireland semi-finals and winning Munster titles; Cork, with the brilliant PE instructor Seanie McGrath designing their training regime, were contesting a fourth consecutive All-Ireland final; and how Kilkenny, with Mick Dempsey now in their ranks, were about to win four consecutive finals; while Tipp remained spectators, watching on, all that running to stand still.

What the study showed was that hurling is a stop-start, stop-start, stop-start game.

On average an outfield player covered 10km but most of the time they merely walking, inactive but that they changed speeds frequently. They might walk, walk, then jog, break into stride and then into a full-out sprint; a major finding was that every time they got possession of the ball, they accelerated. But within seconds, they could be walking again, the average passage of play being only 21 seconds. Why all those 400m and mile runs at the same pace, in the same direction, when in a game the speed, intensity and direction of their movement was constantly changing?

“In fairness to the people involved at the time, they wouldn’t have known any different because there was so little knowledge out there. I was only thinking of this the other day: Back in the 2000s, what resources did they really have? They had a manager, two or three selectors with one of those selectors as the coach, and that was more or less it, bar maybe a doctor and physio.”

Under Liam Sheedy all that changed. As well as Young, high-performers and high-level thinkers like Eamon O’Shea and Cian O’Neill who were appreciative of research like his were recruited and Tipp would go on to compete with and even beat the Evas Cody was nurturing across the county bounds.

The thirst for knowledge and success was endless, the perfect lab conditions for Young’s experiments.

In 2010 as part of his masters, Tipp were one of the first counties to avail of GPS monitors so he could gauge the various conditioning demands of each line of the field.

His recent research, as part of his PhD through publication, extended on that work and confirms that U21 county players playing in the three middle lines of the field — half-back, half-forward and midfield — likewise all significantly outperform the inside lines of the field in total distance covered and high-speed running.

Interestingly though, it found all lines of the field — in games — do the same volume of sprinting, the same number of sprints and the same length of sprints. Your centre back needs to be as quick off the mark as someone playing in the corner. But is your training designed accordingly?

“First of all, the study has a limitation. It’s only physical; it’s not showing anything about what they’re doing on the ball. But physically they need to be doing the same number of sprints. More volume of work then is required from the three middle [lines]. So there’s all kinds of ways you can act on that, like maybe setting up a drill or game where the middle eight are doing the same skill but they’ve to do it over a longer distance than the [full-back and full-forward] guys and run 20m longer.”

Another paper, which appears in the latest issue of Sports Science for Health, vividly illustrates the varying conditioning capabilities of a senior club player and a senior inter-county one.

Although such a finding might seem quite obvious, Young’s rationale was to help ease the transition for players making that leap.

“If you’re a strength and conditioning coach for a county team and you’re bringing in a club player, what’s he used to? Are they given enough time to transition up? Or are we just spiking them up? Here’s what they’re used to, this is where they have to perform and we’re going to jump them up to this right away.

"It’s important these lads get time to adapt. The same coming off U21 or minor.

The whole idea of this PhD is to prepare these lads to play the game. It takes planning and it takes resources, but if we have knowledge about them, we can get them through that bit easier.

There’s so many more things he’d like to explore, knowing there’s only so much time. He thinks of players not getting game-time in county set-ups. What data have you for them when the starters are inundated with such feedback? Maybe video and code training sessions? How much resources and time would that take, even for a zealot like him?

That’s the sort of thing he does though, out of sheer curiosity and a love of the game; all his work for Tipp is strictly voluntary. Though it was never published, he broke down the 2015 All-Ireland camogie final just as he did the men’s, just as he wrote the level one and level two coaching syllabus for camogie.

From studying all of Tipp’s league and championship games in 2017, he can tell you the average passage of play is now 22 seconds, just one second up from 10 years ago, just as the average length of time the ball is out of play is up by a second to 31.

Scoring has significantly jumped; in 2007 the average championship scoreline was 2-19 to 1-15. Ten years later it was 2-24 to 1-17. The game just consumes him.

He still plays; this will be his 21st year playing senior championship between the posts for Drom-Inch and in the previous 20 he’s played every minute of every game.

In five of the first six years they were in a relegation match; for the past 14 they’ve made the county quarter-final each time, winning it outright in 2011. He coached most of his team-mates up along, trying to imbue them with the same passion his old primary school principal Paudie Butler did with him all those years ago.

And that love of the game also propels much of his professional and academic work. Michael Fennelly sits right next to him on the Limerick IT Thurles campus, and while over the years they’d have talked about anything but the next big game between their respective counties, they share a common desire to increase the knowledge of sport and especially the game of their lives.

The way I see it, all this [research] is out there now to make the game better. In the past I’d be trying to read, read, read. Now it’s about putting some knowledge into the area for someone else to read.

Not for the first time, studying the likes of Kilkenny has made a Tipperary man better — and with it, the game itself.



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