Dempsey's AA power play has Cats on another level
THEY may be two letters that have unhealthy connotations in a different context but, for Kilkenny hurling, the initials 'AA' stand for something that sets them apart from all of their rivals -- in a good way. That's A for aerial and A for ability.
Anyone with serious aspirations to beat hurling's four-in-a-row defending champions must at least match them in the air, yet most struggle to do so.
So how do this current Kilkenny team manage to consistently catch balls over opponents' heads and then retain and deliver it so accurately, no matter how much heft is thrown at them?
Even allowing for their bench strength, they never seem to tire in big games and their unfailing endurance and strength, particularly in their upper bodies, has been the hallmark of this Brian Cody side.
So does this power come from months of heavy mileage and pumping iron and intensive training camps? Quite the opposite, says their trainer/selector Michael Dempsey, the former Laois footballer and manager who initially worked with Kilkenny's All-Ireland-winning U-21s in 2003-04 and then brought physical trainer Noel Richardson into the senior set-up with him.
"Noel and I worked together with O'Hanrahan's (club) in Carlow first and we've followed the same formula for the last five years," he explains.
"We do a lot of work in training on strength and power, but we try to replicate the power work in training while we're hurling, especially once we're into the championship season."
Yes, they lift weights, particularly before and in the early stages of the season and Dempsey admits that their vast experience means Kilkenny's players now have a base and expertise in strength training that helps make it easier to maintain from year to year.
Strength is the amount of force your muscles can produce and power is the ability to use strength quickly and he emphasises that it is power that is really critical for hurlers.
Once the season begins Kilkenny build their power work -- "squat jumps, lunges, hurdle jumps, fighting for the ball" -- into their training sessions which remain particularly hurling-centric.
Richardson, a former international athlete, is a lecturer in exercise physiology in Carlow's Institute of Technology.
He was an Irish champion at 5,000m and 10,000m in the early 1990s, when he also captained Ireland at the World Cross Country Championships, but long-distance running certainly doesn't figure in Kilkenny's preparations.
"The longest single run we'd do in training is about 60m," Dempsey reveals.
"Earlier in the season we'd extend that out a bit further but you reduce it to replicate exactly what's going on in a game, and we'd definitely never do 100m.
"What you're doing is shorter distances, with varying breaks in between, because you're trying to replicate what happens in the heat of a match.
"Training has long since gone away from the notion of running laps. It's now all about speed repeatability, speed endurance and power.
"And it's about keeping your players healthy and injury free," he continues. "Recovery and rest are now playing a huge part of it, especially for hurlers because getting injured is an occupational hazard for them."
In the past two decades this notion of tailoring your training to match the specific demands of a sport has taken hold worldwide. And while Dempsey believes there are some similarities between the demands of hurling and Gaelic football, it is the difference he identifies between the two codes that is particularly telling.
"You could argue that footballers cover more ground, but at the end of the day all of the important aspects of hurling and football require speed and being able to do things over and over again with short recoveries," he says.
"But so much about hurling is about first-step quickness, being first to the mark and being able to execute skill while doing it."
Dempsey actually believes there is a greater physicality in hurling than football, and therefore power is even more important in the small-ball game.
"In football, when you pick up a break, the ball can often be given off quickly but, generally speaking, in hurling you've got to break the initial tackle and retain possession," Dempsey notes.
"That means that the ability to execute skill and move very fast at the same time is hugely particular to the game of hurling."
So are Kilkenny doing something on the training pitch that makes them particularly good at that, on the ground and in the air?
Nothing special, Dempsey says, they are probably just blessed with players who have such naturally high skill levels.
"All other counties are now doing a similar type of training to ours," he says. "If you lose your advantage in terms of power and strength, you're going to pay a price because all teams are after getting stronger physically.
"The philosophy in Kilkenny is that players go back to their clubs, so the longest block of training we'd have in a year is four to six weeks and, in the summer, three to four weeks.
"It is high intensity with us and players could get sick of it but going back to their clubs helps keep them fresh."
And there's one thing Kilkenny's fitness trainers can't take credit for, Dempsey insists.
"We didn't teach Tommy Walsh and these fellas to catch a ball. That's just a brilliant skill that a lot of hurlers have themselves."