Behind the spike in hurling's penalty conversion rates

Most strikers now know they are being studied, which is why the best penalty takers often account for the detail in front of them, especially in how a keeper holds the hurley, writes Christy O'Connor.

Behind the spike in hurling's penalty conversion rates

The Art of War, the Chinese military treatise written by Sun Tzu in the sixth century BC has long had an influence on business and managerial strategies but it’s become an increasingly popular reference point in the culture of modern sport.

One of its most famous aphorisms incorporated into elite preparation is taken from the last verse in the third chapter, which has been more tersely interpreted and condensed into the modern proverb: “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”

Knowing your enemy is a theory applied at every level of sport now. The principle has also been repeatedly applied to sports studies.

The ability to anticipate ball direction has been studied in a range of sports, but most of that research manipulated movement amplitude, not shot speed, so, the relationship between speed and unpredictability was unclear.

Two years ago, a study on soccer penalties by Hunter, Murphy, Angilletta, and Wilson tried to quantify the trade-off between speed and unpredictability by analysing the interaction between the keeper’s strategy (leave-time) and the shooter’s strategy (technique, speed).

Much of their analysis focused on body orientation of the kicker, and how the goalkeeper could read those cues.

Studying movements of the torso, hip, kicking and non-kicking legs, and angle of approach to the ball can all be used by keepers to try and indicate shot direction.

The study believed its findings could have implications across a variety of sports, but, at the elite level in any sport, coaches and players should always be looking for an edge.

In hurling, studying penalty takers’ styles and consistency in striking action can give goalkeepers a greater idea of what the striker is likely to do.

Studying the detail of something as basic as the number of steps back a striker takes before making a connection could prove decisive because some address the run-up differently if they are going to a particular side.

Most strikers now know they are being studied, which is why the best penalty takers often account for the detail in front of them, especially in how a keeper holds the hurley.

Keepers still try and account for those margins through their angle of set-up, but, unlike soccer, where tracing individual penalty shooting trends and body orientation often hold the key to winning shootouts, power married with accuracy overrides much of that detail in hurling.

“When you stick it right in the corner there is no getting to them,” said Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe in 2016.

“It comes down to the penalty-takers on the big days holding their nerve because we do them in training and, as a goalkeeper, you can’t read which side it is going to go. You can’t react quickly enough if you stick it into the corner.”

When one-on-one penalties were introduced for the first time in 2015, goalkeepers seemed to have worked out the strikers, and what they were likely to do.

Instead of guessing, they stood up and trusted their reactions.

Yet there was also a sense that the strikers were also still working their way through the process.

Power was often being diluted for placement, but strikers now seem to have perfectly married the two.

The green flags have been steadily rising each season. The conversion rate in the 2015 championship was just 43%.

The average conversion rate in the 2016 and 2017 championships was just above 50% but it shot up to 71% in 2018. In the 2019 championship, the conversion rate went as high as 78%.

When the Hurling 2020 committee, who first proposed the one-on-one rule change, staged a trial on the new penalty in Thurles in October 2014, the conversion rate that day was 62%.

However, the committee expected the conversion rate to come up to around 80% once the rule bedded in. Initially, it went the other way.

At the outset of the 2015 championship, then Waterford manager Derek McGrath predicted that goalkeepers “would save 60% of penalties” that summer. He wasn’t far wrong.

All the pressure is still clearly on the striker but, in those early days, the keepers were winning the mind games.

In big games,goalkeepers often felt that strikers wouldn’t risk going for placement just inside the post.

When strikers often did, they reduced the risk of missing with reduced power in the shot.

Penalty takers have become more cold-blooded and lethal now, but, along with power and accuracy, unpredictability has been a key reason for the spike in conversion rates.

The most natural strike for any player is to hit across their body because that is how they generate maximum power.

In the initial two years of the new rule, in 2015 and 2016, around 80% of hurling penalty strikes were consistent with that style.

That made it easier for keepers to read but the takers have become far less predictable now.

They have also become more confident. The best penalty takers have such an assassin mindset now, too, that, after rising the ball and before making contact with the sliotar, they can take a quick glance to see if the keeper is moving one way.

If the goalkeeper is, the penalty taker will whip their wrists around quickly and bury the ball in the other corner.

Some keepers still try and guess. Others continue to trust their reactions, but saving hurling penalties is still a unique time and motion equation, especially when a millisecond is now an age; on average, the striking speed of penalties is between 140km/h to 150km/h, which affords the goalkeepers a reaction time of around 500 milliseconds.

How fast is that? The blink of a human eye takes between 200-400 milliseconds.

The reflexes and reactions of modern goalkeepers are outstanding but accuracy married with power has taken penalty-taking to a whole new level.

And Patrick Horgan and Brian Hogan showed again last Saturday evening that hurling penalty takers have, in more than just a literal sense, taken the power back off the goalkeepers.

For now at least.

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