The Sideline Cut

Disclaimer: This post will have a very niche audience. Unless you’re into Gaelic Athletics Association games, you’ll likely want to skip this one.

A few years ago, I wrote about my foray into hurling. In the intervening years, I’ve stuck with the sport and with my local hurling club, though I’ve tended to bow out in the hottest months of the summer (so basically in June, which is when tournament play really begins to ramp up here in the southeast). I’ve committed chiefly to practices but not much to outright game play. My dad died in late June of 2019, and that pretty much knocked me out for the year, as I sort of lacked energy or attention for a fairly time-intensive commitment. And I sure didn’t want to travel around to play tournaments while having to figure out how to manage an estate. I also wanted to be around and available a lot for my nuclear family; this was a whole lot more important to me than a game. So 2019 was a bust. And then came 2020. We usually start doing some light practice sometime in February or March, but with COVID-19 beginning to spread, we held off. Instead of practicing, team members took on some skill and physical challenges remote from one another and shared our results in our WhatsApp group. It was neat and got me to do a lot more skill work until we began holding cautious, socially distanced practices late in 2020 or early in 2021 (I forget which).

I worked on a few skills solo at a nearby middle school — striking the ball decently from my weak side, taking what’re called “free pucks” (lift the ball from the ground with the stick and strike it from that lift), and sideline cuts. The sideline cut is a pretty tough skill to pick up. You use it when the ball goes out over the sideline in a game. The team opposing the team who last touched the ball before it went over the sideline is awarded a sideline cut. The mechanics of it are pretty simple in theory: Place the ball on the ground and strike it from where you placed it. You can go for shorter strikes that stay close to the ground, but the holy grail for me was learning to strike the ball high and long. The very best high-level players can score points from 45 and even 65 yards out from the sideline, which means striking it a net distance of about 77 yards (for the one 65 yards out).

Easy, right? Just wail on the ball really hard and it’ll fly. It turns out, it’s a little harder to do than that.

I practiced hundreds and hundreds of sideline cuts during the pandemic. Initially, I was lucky to get the ball to arc and land 10 or 15 yards in front of me . And I was very inconsistent. I just couldn’t figure out all the mechanics you had to line up together in order to get a good strike. And I never really found a good “how-to” reference. Over time, I picked up a few tricks that have improved my cuts a lot; when all the pieces are coming together, I can get 40 – 45 yards on a cut with some height on it. I’m still pretty inconsistent and I still can’t strike the ball nearly as well as high-level players. But on a good day, I can strike it a fair bit better than many of the people playing at my level. Since I’m forgetful, I wanted to document what I’ve found to contribute to my best sideline cuts (bear in mind that I’m playing Junior C or D — I forget which, but it’s miles and miles away from the highest level play).

I suppose this is a sort of recipe, and now that I’ve made you wade through a dumb narrative, I’ll share the actual recipe. Here are the techniques that’ve tended to add up to my best cuts:

  1. Rotate your stick. If you’ve played tennis with a one-handed back-hand, you likely rotate the racket an eighth- or quarter-turn backward to angle the face upward a little so that you can get a good slice on the ball. The principle here is the same. I’m cutting from my right-hand side (as if I’m a right-handed baseball batter), and so I rotate the stick backward a little. If I were to hold my arm straight out in front of me while rotating the stick, I’d rotate it clockwise by a few degrees, so that as I swipe the stick below the ball when swinging, the stick is at a fairly acute angle (maybe 15 – 20 degrees?) relative to the ground.
  2. Take a knee. You don’t really have to take a knee, but a teammate of mine who is one of our better folks at sideline cuts will sometimes strike it from his knee. What’s important is not whether the knee is on the ground or not but that you be low enough that you can get the stick under the ball and take advantage of that acute angle your stick rotation made. You’re basically making sort of a wedge to swing under the ball to give it some loft.
  3. Don’t swing for the fences. It’s tempting to want to swing really hard. The harder the swing, the longer the distance, right? Do not fall into this trap. Swinging hard can make your swing jerky and cause you to strike the ball uncleanly. My very best cuts come from fluid swings in which I swing the wedge of my stick under the ball smoothly and find sort of a sweet spot. I don’t actually know what the sweet spot is, but my impression is that it’s an inch or two in from the butt of the bas (the flat face of the stick). Too close to the end and you’ll slice the ball to the right (if you’re swinging right-handed). Too far down toward the handle and you’ll just club the ball along the ground at a bad angle off to the left.
  4. Get wristy. This seems to apply in a lot of hurling skills. Striking from the air or from a free puck, the best players don’t take a Herculean swing but sort of flick the stick through the ball. Wrist-action can help you move the stick through the ball more quickly (I guess), and this fast movement (minus the jerk of a hard swing) gets good acceleration on the ball. Sometimes I think of this stroke as sort of throwing the stick through the ball, cocking my wrists back a little before making contact and then rotating them forward in a flicking motion that maintains the wedge shape that rotating my stick made. When I manage to put all the pieces above together with some wrist motion as I make contact, I make a better cut.
  5. Follow through. This may seem axiomatic, but I think you may have to find the right follow-through. Go all the way around to your opposite shoulder and you’ll throw your back out. Stop once you hit the ball and you’ll lose any benefit of the wrist flick. I think a fairly low-trajectory follow-through may be the best. Else you risk rolling the wrists too much and rotating the wedge toward the perpendicular, which will cause you to skate the ball along the ground rather than lofting it into the air.

I think those are the main pieces. I still have a lot of trouble putting them all together reliably, but now that I’ve articulated the main things that lead to good strokes for me, I can work on consistency by cutting toward a wall and trying to get the ball above a certain height (for distance) and within lateral boundaries as well (for accuracy).

If you happen to be a hurler and made your way through all of this, I’d be grateful for your tips.

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