Paul Kinnerk and the quest to make hurling coaching better

Limerick coach questions traditional methods – tactics and skills should be developed in parallel

Paul Kinnerk with Limerick manager John Kiely: “John is a proper leader, has the X-factor in his ability to read situations and then control it in such a way.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy

Everything you think you know about hurling coaching is wrong. Paul Kinnerk doesn’t exactly go that far, but if he isn’t disputing some of the more traditional coaching methods then he’s certainly questioning them.

Not without good cause and effect either. Trace the trail of the last two properly novel All-Ireland hurling victories – Clare in 2013, and Limerick this year – and Kinnerk’s name lies behind both. Given he actually comes from a football background there must be a lesson in there somewhere.

“It’s just the way things happened,” says Kinnerk, still only 32 and whose own football career with Limerick (and Monaleen) ended around 2014, no thanks to repeated injury. “I first went into hurling coaching with Sixmilebridge, and from there went on to the Clare minors, the Clare 21s and the Clare seniors. So it wasn’t the case that I decided I wanted to be a hurling coach.

“I suppose my passion would be in coaching full stop. I would have come through a physical education and mathematics degree in UL so there would have been a definite interest there anyway. It was just a case that I found myself in hurling, and once I was on that train we were very fortunate to experience success, and so it was very hard to get off it.”


Coaching reputation

Indeed success came thick and fast: Kinnerk coached the Clare minors to the 2010 Munster title, helped the same generation of players to three under-21 All-Irelands in a row from 2012 to 2014, while he was also part of Davy Fitzgerald’s management team for Clare’s 2013 senior success. By then his coaching reputation was soaring, and after one more year with Clare, in 2016, the chance to return to his native Limerick was perfectly timed.

New manager John Kiely -  “a fantastic organiser” says Kinnerk - was looking to designate a coaching role, and found his man. “The opportunity arrived with Limerick through John, and it was a case of this is a guy that has all the qualities that I would look for in a manager.

“John is a proper leader, has the X-factor in his ability to read situations and then control it in such a way. Then he’s very in tune with the way hurling is being played from a tactical standpoint at the moment. The biggest thing is that John is a person that is able to inspire those around him and the players all want to play for him and there’s full buy-in there.”

Which means buying into Kinnerk’s coaching train of thought, now his full-time interest: he’s taken a career break from St Caimin’s secondary school in Shannon to complete a PhD in the University of Limerick in the area of pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) in sport, currently completing a study with 12 senior inter-county football managers (if only to ensure no conflict of interest), and their approach to coaching.

The biggest thing is that John is a person that is able to inspire those around him and the players all want to play for him and there's full buy-in there

“There shouldn’t be a separation between the tactical side and the skills side,” he says, by way of a brief summary. “For me, a skilful player is the ability to perform a skill in context and under pressure. So in order for that to take place, tactics need to be involved, and players need to be posed with tactical problems. So there’s definitely a merge there, where tactics and skill are developed in parallel.”

Tactically fluid

Simple repetitive drills, in other words, are largely a waste of time: “Call it game-sense, if you like, players who are tactically fluid or tactically agile. Especially with the current hurling format, you’re faced now week on week with a team that is going to be posing some different tactical problem with you within a game, and that changes from time to time with how formations set up.

“So you have to have a player that’s able to react to what they see in front of them and that they have an understanding of that number one, that they’ve experienced that on the training pitch and spoken about it. That’s what you hope to achieve anyway.”

It’s also what his PhD hopes to prove or measure. Whether hurling or football, it’s easy to see how the most successful teams also happen to be the most adaptable.

“I think the day we stop learning as coaches is probably the day you’re finished. You’re always looking at different things; Australian Rules, basketball, soccer, just their approach to . . . it could be maybe training or their philosophy of play, that’s very interesting to consider as well.

“Football as well, I definitely take an interest in watching it from a tactical standpoint. Dublin’s dominance obviously;  seeing how tactically fluid they are in their approach, and how they’re able to combat different systems.”