Last weekend in the Munster final, Kerry scored five goals inside the opening 45 minutes. Each of a clinical nature. Four different goal scorers. Immediately before each of the first four goals were put away, the last skill performed by a Kerry player was a bounce. Specifically, a bounce at an angle to buy time and space.
The modern-day player is capable of performing all skills of the game at full speed, often without looking. Some are appropriate for different types of moments. Am I close to someone? What am I looking to do? Is it a fast or slow play?
A solo, for example, can bring a little more risk. The ball may not come exactly back to hand as effectively as you’d like, especially around contact. A bounce is quicker to execute, as a player’s hand is often closer to the ground. Like a basket baller in the NBA finals, it’s easier to flick the wrist at the last moment and change the angle of the bounce to where you want the ball to go.
Crucially too, your head can firmly remain up throughout a bounce, whereas you have to take a little more care with a solo. When your head is up, you can scan, you can be aware of both opportunity and impending danger, you can communicate with a team-mate. In each of Kerry’s first four goals, the bounce afforded the shooter an additional bit of space and time.
Extra time to compose yourself in a big moment is rare. But highly sought. The further the summer goes, the less time you get. Conversely, the later you go in the championship, the sharper your speed of thought becomes. Those of us watching from the sideline probably take for granted the work that goes into acquiring that extra time and space. But it doesn’t happen by accident.
If you look at those first four Kerry goals, each bounce slightly misled either a defending player or the goalkeeper. Players are proficient in those close skills and dummies now to a greater degree and use them more frequently than in times past. Skills were always high but tendencies were a little more predictable. The development is a testament to the quality of players and their willingness to try new things.
This got me thinking. I fell fully down a hole an inch wide but a mile deep, considering the difference of practising versus playing. Infinite games are all around us. Think about playing a guitar – there’s an endless number of melodies that can be played. That’s infinite potential sound from a single instrument.
Naturally, consistent play results in constant progression of new sounds. It brings a level of mastery, autonomy and empowerment over time for a performer. We know getting the best out of yourself is a meticulous process for players in the coming weeks. A routine of repetition.
Executing the basics on and off the pitch. Attaining the right balance of when to push hard and when to rest. Ultimately backing their high level of excellence. Through deliberate practice, players are able to reach their goals and get that dopamine hit as a reward.
What complements this is deliberate play. Moments arise where you perform an action that feels right. Maybe an angled bounce, a dummy solo or losing your marker through a deception of your hip angle. Play is never perfect but it allows a performer to get lost in a practice. On autopilot. Seeing and trying things they don’t do just in a routine practice.
With deliberate practice, there is one correct answer: I performed the skill I did before a little better. With deliberate play, there is only one wrong answer: I did the skill I did before. Everything else is the right answer. It’s fun and sporadic – almost off the cuff. Exciting to watch. Crucially, hard to defend against.
Lots of examples of this type of play were evident in the Connacht and Munster finals. I noticed 18 specifically. Quickly, let me describe three more to demonstrate play in action. Jason Foley is a current All Star. A player of rich quality. On two occasions Keelan Sexton bought himself a millisecond to score. That is all a player needs.
The first occasion in the 23rd minute. Sexton wins the ball going away from goal, turns to face Foley and slightly fakes as if he was going to attack Foley’s right shoulder towards goal. Respecting this danger, a slight hesitation appears from the defender. The time bought allows Sexton to hook the ball over an attempted block.
The same two players faced off in the 49th minute. A loop shot opportunity and a dangerous back door were the two options for Sexton. As the ball carrier for Clare ran towards them both on the left outside of the D, Sexton gave Foley a slight impression he would take the back door option by shuffling his feet to turn his hips to goal momentarily. Once again, that bought time to allow Sexton to take the loop shot instead, kicking a great score off his right foot. Once again, he narrowly beat the diving block attempt.
In Galway’s victory, Ian Burke scored a point off his right foot in the 32nd minute. He initially shaped up to kick off his stronger left foot from the right of the D. His shape looked exactly like what it would for a shot, causing Sligo’s Darragh Cummins to commit. As he did so, all in the same second, Burke dragged the ball back across his body with a dummy bounce and on to his right foot. An extra bit of space and time bought. A score curled inside the left-hand post.
Of course, these moments are seen across all areas of the game – not just on offensive plays. Across each example you notice, your reaction suggests that you wouldn’t have thought to do it that way yourself. And that’s the infinite game in full swing.
Where will he bounce the ball next? Does he really want to take me on? Will he go to this back door or a loop run? Although the brain is lightning quick, the ball is already where the opposition player wants it to be before you realise you’re slightly off where you need to be.
Players love patterns. When they don’t see patterns it forces the conscious mind to switch on. You think, you’re dead.