Hurling is such an instinctive and free spirited game it is almost beyond the shackles of coaching, a leading authority in sport has suggested.
Michael Dempsey, the Kilkenny trainer/coach/selector who heads up a BA degree course in Sport and Exercise in Carlow IT, has been part of the senior set-up during six All-Ireland victories and he is of the opinion that coaching could never be a powerful enough force to kill the free flowing spirit that lights up hurling.
“There has always been an element of coaching,” he said when he opened on the theme. “You always have to react to what other teams are doing. But I don’t think coaching can ever take over the game.
“I don’t think you can over coach in hurling because the game is so instinctive, so skilful, so fast it is not possible. Obviously there is some coaching involved. But at the end of the day it is a very simple game, obviously with small changes in terms of the tactical approach.
“You have to look at the demands of the game. If you look at football and the mass defences, that is a change. You could say it has been effective for some teams. If you tried to do the same in hurling it wouldn’t work. You would have to have lads knocking the ball over the bar from 50 or 60 metres.
“We have to accept they are different games. Something like that is a non-runner in hurling. While you can have tactical ploys in hurling, I think the game ultimately dictates to what extent you can have coaching and serious tactics.”
The former star footballer never misses a chance to extol the virtues of the Kilkenny hurlers, and he did so again when one wondered was he surprised that some of the players have remained so competitive at the highest level for so long.
“Knowing the players I am not surprised,” he insisted. “They have an absolutely fantastic attitude in terms of their overall approach to the whole thing. They couldn’t sustain the intensity and the level they have been playing at if they didn’t look after all aspects of their preparations.”
The players, he insisted, look edafter everything - training, rest, nutrition, which was hugely important, strength and conditioning work or resitance training in their own time.
“It is a holistic approach to their life in terms of the need for time out with their friends; the need to have recovery time; the need to have an active approach to recovery in terms of doing the right things and nutrition is hugely important.
“It is a combination of a lot of things coming together, but it is what defines players. I don’t think it is any big deal for players to do all these things. It is their hunger. Enjoyment is a huge part of it as well.
“They are successful, which probably makes it easier. They obviously love what they are doing. There is a great spirit there. That is down to Brian (Cody) also in terms of the passion and leadership he has within the group, and his love for hurling and his love for Kilkenny.
“There is a huge honesty factor within the squad. I don’t think it is any burden for them to do all the work. They enjoy doing it, and they have had great success.
“They are really made of great stuff,” was the expression he used. “The character of the players is huge. Where would you get the likes of J.J. Delaney, who was away on holidays at the beginning of the year and he was working away on his own without anybody asking him to do so. They know what is required. They know if they take a total break from it they will struggle to be part of the panel or team when they come back.”
The togetherness within the squad was another huge factor in Kilkenny’s favour, he felt. The guys love their clubs, and they are hugely competitive for their clubs. But battling against each other on the home front makes no difference.
“The get on exceptionally well,” the trainer assured. “There is absolutely no element of club rivalry or things that happen in club matches being carried forward. Again, that goes back to Brian. He paints the picture of total honesty from everybody.
“And they do get on great. That relates back to the quality of the people involved in the panel. Maybe that standard is being sent by Brian, and was set by former players.”
There was a system there, he said. People outside of the group hear about what goes on, or doesn’t go on, so that when they get into the squad they know what is expected of them.
“We take in young players at the beginning of the year and they fit perfectly into the system,” Michael said. “They take their lead from the older players.
“There is no element of being big headed or walking on air. They quickly realize it is a professional, hard working environment in which they are expected to perform and do everything that is necessary to remain part of the panel.”
How do you mix the fun and hard work, we wondered?
“Fun”, he replied, “in inverted commas. It is enjoyment about hurling. We do a huge amount of hurling in terms of playing games and doing skills or whatever. There is an opinion of Brian being a very hard task master, which he is, but his management style and people skills are also excellent.
“If you have the respect of the people you are working with, and treat them accordingly, there is a huge enjoyment factor and we have it within the group.”
The fact Kilkenny have been winning things made a difference, he admitted. While all were very serious about what they do, they do have their lighter moments.
“There is a sort of informality at times, but there is never any doubt about what is expected of you when you are training or playing matches,” Mr Dempsey revealed. “You need to have that balance.
“Anyone who thinks that a hurling team or any sports team can be run like a prison would be wrong. We are dealing with people who work all day long; who have families; who have a life outside of hurling. You have to treat them as people.
“You have to deal with them as the people who are in front of you, not just hurlers. That is key to it. You have got to be player centred about everything you are doing in terms of your preparation.”
With Mr Demspey and Brian Cody involved directly in the education system, dealing with young people was something they did on a daily basis, so that had to be an advantage.
Again Mr Dempsey spoke about the exceptional people skills of the team manager.
“Without those people skills you would’t enjoy the job yourself, and you wouldn’t be able to get the best out of the players,” he insisted.
One was curious about where hurling has gone to in terms of preparations, and I wondered could players survive in the game today without the gym work and so on that is common place.
“No, I don’t think they could,” was the reply from Michael. “The game has moved to such a level. Kilkenny have been doing this sort of training - resistance, strength training - for years. It is an essential part of the life in terms of keeping players healthy, in terms of maximising their speed, maximising their ability to last the course of the game.
“As players get faster the hits are harder. Being ready for the hits and so on is an essential part of it. There is also a psychological dimension to the whole area. Players feel very good about themselves doing this sort of work.
“I think we have a very sensive approach. We haved to tailor the programme to the players we have.”
He loves it all, the detailed process of taking a squad through the season. Seeing the players perform to a high level was always satisfying. It wasn’t about what he would have done, rather the response to the collective effort and “a strong backroom team.”
“It is seeing the players getting a reward for the work they have put in, and being able to get the performance out of themselves on the day, which is largely psychological,” was the way he put it.
“Obviously all of the other things feed into it, but that gives you great satisfaction to be able to see the players dig into their inner selves. The best motivation comes from within. It is great to see players being able to dig inside to produce the sort of performance they did against Limerick in the semi-final.”
Another All-Ireland final, and another clash with fierce rivals Tipperary. What were his views on that one?
“It is fantastic,” he said with enthusiasm. “We are where we want to be. This season has been very good so far. Tipperary have serious momentum and confidence coming into the final. They have had a string of good matches.
“Their performances have been constantly improving. We know exactly what we are up against. They know us. We know them.
Tipp maybe have had a better run-in in terms of momentum and confidence. But I don’t think we will be lacking in that department.
“It is down to what happens on the day. Luck on the day; a performance you don’t expect can change the course of the game. The one thing you always need is that the team plays to its potential. If you play to your potential, that puts you in a great position.
“That is always the challenge in sport, to be the best you can be on the day. There is nothing more disappointing than not performing to you potential on the big day.
“If you do that, you take what fate throws at you. Absolutely. That is sport. If you get your performance right, it always gives you a great chance of getting the result you are looking for,” he concluded.