Brendan Cummins enjoying passing on the 'madness'
By John Harrington
Tipperary hurling legend Brendan Cummins has made a quick transition from playing to coaching at the highest level.
The two-time All-Ireland winning goalkeeper announced his retirement from inter-county hurling in 2013 after making a record 73 championship appearances for the Premier County, but didn’t stay away from the game for long.
In 2014, he was appointed Kerry’s goalkeeping coach under then manager Eamonn Kelly, and the following year he effectively double-jobbed by also performing the same role for then Laois manager Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett.
He returned to the Kerry set-up last year as a coach when Fintan O’Connor was appointed manager, and will be involved with the Kingdom in 2018 once more.
As a player, Cummins famously took a no-stone-unturned approach to making himself the best goalkeeper he could possibly be, and he’s just as fastidious as a coach.
A speaker at the 2018 GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park next month, his thoughts on hurling, coaching, and what it takes to be a goalkeeper at the highest level are fascinating.
Q: After retiring from inter-county hurling as a player with Tipperary in 2013 you quickly became involved in coaching at the highest level. How did you find that transition?
A: Now that I've seen the management side I think you appreciate the word 'structure'. Especially from a defensive point of view.
My attitude at inter-county level as a player was to say that prevention was better than cure. If I could organise a defence while the ball was at the other end of the pitch to make sure we were ready for the next attack, well then it obviously gave us a better chance.
Getting that across and educating players to that has been probably the biggest challenge I've seen. That game-awareness piece. I think that's where a lot of the new video technology comes in.
And also from a trackers point of view, we're always looking at what you do with the GPS. I'm looking at the GPS on my number five to make sure he's watching his own quadrant of the pitch, rather than be running all over the place.
That is the challenge now for management, for me anyway, to give the players enough information to let them play the game and make winning decisions rather than running around like lemmings going off a cliff.
Q: You’re famously obsessive about your approach to goalkeeping. When you’re coaching, do you sometimes have to stop yourself from jumping between the posts and taking a ‘do what I do’ sort of approach?
A: I watched a programme recently Ronan O'Gara did on Racing and it was really, really interesting. Because he said his temptation was to go out in a pair of boots and start kicking balls over the bar.
Sometimes that is a challenge for me alright. 'Give me the hurl, I'll show you', that kind of way. You just have to take it slowly and set out clear goals. What I try to do is overlay the structure I had, the process I had, onto another goalie. And then suit that process to their ability and eventually they'll get there.
But if you go in thinking...I was very much OCD (Obsessive, Compulsive, Disorder) in the way I went about goalkeeping and not everybody is that crazy. So therefore I do have to rein it in and see how mad the goalie is and then infuse a bit of madness into them and give them an appetite and hunger for it. Then hopefully by the end of year one or year two you'll see results.
Enda Rowland is probably the best example of a goalkeeper that I'm very proud to have worked with. When Enda came in first he was just doing his Leaving Cert, his Dad would drop him off for training, he was slightly overweight.
He had all the raw materials, but he needed to get a bit of a fire inside in him. And through working on a one-to-one basis with him I'd like to think that some of my enthusiasm about goalkeeping rubbed off on him.
Suddenly in year two Enda was starting to become lean and the dog was coming out in him. Now he's a fantastic inter-county goalkeeper and he's getting better and better.
You can see the maturity in the way he strikes the ball, his body posture, the way he's organising his defence. You can hear him on the side of the pitch when you're at the matches.
He's very vocal where he would have been very shy coming in as a minor. All of those things I suppose, if you're looking for job satisfaction, that's really what drives you to take on the next project and help guys fulfil their potential.
Q: You say you were very OCD in your approach to goalkeeping. Considering the demands of the position, is that a good mindset to have?
A: Goalkeeping is a kind of thing where for me if you're not mad into looking for perfection then you're never going to get there. Because you can't get away with mediocrity, it will be shown up straight away.
You're under the microscope in what you're doing and if you're not making good decisions in the 168 hours there are in the week, then you'll be shown up.
Whereas an outfield player, obviously, they can hide around the place. They can turn their back and run away from puck-outs and that sort of thing.
But there's no place you can go as a goalkeeper. If your preparation isn't right for your catching, for example, and the test happens to come when a ball drops under the cross-bar, you can't put the hurley to it, you just have to catch it and that's that.
For me, when I'm talking to goalies, the preparation if it is OCD then it also helps your mental strength. You can tell yourself with complete conviction that I am ready to play because I have all of the work done.
For me the goalkeeper who is nervous or twitchy is the one who knows they haven't done all the preparation to the letter of the law.
That's why I bring it back to the process. And if the process is right, then you go out and express yourself. But if the process isn't right then you'll have demons and the ball will go under your legs and you'll say to yourself, 'I knew that was going to happen'.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy from there. And that's why you do have to have that OCD part to allow you enjoy your game at the weekend. That you've all the work done. Because unless you have that appetite and attention to detail, that's where a lot of goalkeepers fall down, maybe even at the first hurdle of trying to be an inter-county goalie.
Q: The position of goalkeeper has evolved over the years and now an effective puck-out strategy is a vital part of the armoury of any top-level team…
A: Yeah, it is. But while it's okay for managers to talk about puck-out strategies, for me as a goalkeeping coach it's about making sure the goalie can strike the ball correctly, every time. And they have a rhythm, a routine, and a style of hitting the ball.
It's like the best professional golfers. They have a stock swing and this is the way they hit the ball every time no matter what the pressure.
So if a goalkeeper is standing tall with their shoulders nice and relaxed and they hit through the ball, that's great. But a goalkeeper who is crouching down, who is contorting their body to hit the ball and are hitting it in different ways all the time, that leads to being error-prone.
When the pressure comes on you need to have a swing that you go to. That's why I suppose when I hear someone talking about puck-out strategies, all I think of is, 'Does the goalkeeper have a stock swing? Are they consistently hitting the ball at the pace and height you want it to go?'
After you've worked on that for at least six months, then you can talk about a puck-out strategy. Because you have a goalkeeper who can put the ball where he wants to put it. That gives a forward the confidence to run there knowing that it will arrive.
Unless you have that work done behind the scenes, then you simply can't be talking about a puck-out strategy or bringing him into a dark room with lap-tops and telling him where he should be putting the ball.
That's the first thing I think about when I hear about puck-out strategies. And then after that, of course, there's the other work that needs to be done around communicating with the forwards, where you're trying to hit the ball, and what you're trying to achieve, whether it be hitting the ball long or short.
With Tipperary I had a hurley that was an inch shorter than I used with the club because they needed the ball going lower and faster. All of those different things feed into a puck-out strategy.
Q: Is it sometimes harsh on goalkeepers to be criticised for their puck-outs when forwards aren’t bursting a gut to make those runs into space and demanding a certain sort of ball?
A: If the forward has the confidence that it's going to be there when he makes the run, then he'll make the run. I think a lot of forwards, certainly from my own experience, in the initial years of when I played with Tipperary they made no run because they were saying 'Well, Brendan's not going to put it there'.
I suppose their minds weren't opened up to the fact that it could happen. But that's where my experience of working with Eamon O'Shea for three years comes into the equation.
When that man spoke, I barely breathed in case I missed something. Thankfully I learned a huge amount from him and a lot of what I do around the puck-out and forward movement is all based on his strategies and maybe adapting it to stuff that I would have seen work a little bit better.
But the core principles are all based around Eamon's intuition.
Q: You were around a long time as an inter-county hurler before Eamon O’Shea got involved with Tipperary. It can’t have been easy for you at that point in your career to embrace a new way of doing things?
A: The best way of explaining that is the dinosaurs got extinct because they couldn't change. That's as simple as that. I didn't want to become extinct.
And I was always hungry for ways of getting better. Anything I did in goalkeeping, it was perfection that I was looking for.
So I wasn't nearly perfected in this area, but I had nobody really to teach me and show me and have confidence in me to say, 'Look, this is what we want to achieve. I'm going to give you the time to do it, I'm going to critique you harshly, and I'm going to tell you what's right and wrong. And together we'll make it better'.
I never had that sort of structure. That's why the modern goalkeeper is blessed, really. That they do have that kind of structure around them to get better and better.
Even up to my last day inside with Tipperary I never had a goalkeeping coach. I asked Eamon O'Shea to bring in Christy O'Connor and I had been in touch with Christy about coming in, but it never happened. I would have loved, loved, loved to have had a goalkeeping coach.
Because you just get better, it's as simple as that.
Q: Is a growth mindset – that hunger to improve - the most important attribute any top level hurler can have?
A: I think there's two things you need in that equation. Yes, you do need to be willing to accept critical feed-back, but you also need a good mentor.
You need someone who's not going to critique you in a way that's hurtful. That it's always progression you're focused on all the time, and that it's okay to fail.
There's no problem in failing. If you're not willing to make a mistake then you're not trying. And it's easier said than done, because a lot of us don't want to feel vulnerable.
And a goalkeeper especially who is in a competitive situation with another goalie and has to put up his hand and say, 'I don't know', or, 'I can't do this', or 'I need to get better at this'.
As a team or as an individual you're starting to be better then. But that mentor is absolutely vital because you need someone you can trust and be vulnerable around.
Q: Have all of your own experiences as an inter-county player – the manner in which you forced yourself to adapt to greater demands in your position and the frustration with never having a specialist coach to work with – influenced your own approach to coaching?
A: I would think so, yeah. If you read any of the sports books coming out in the last five years from past players, the amount of demons that are running around inside these guys' heads that look invincible from above on top of the Hogan Stand...
I think that separates the winners from the losers, how successfully you can fight those demons. I like to think that's what I can bring when I get into the middle of a group, to try to help them play with a freedom and to relax and just express themselves.
It sounds easy to say it, but if you're solely fixated on the result and the scoreboard, then you get anxious. But if you stick to the process and back yourself and your skills and live every second of the game, as Eamon O'Shea would have always said to us, then you find yourself enjoying the game more.
And then obviously out of that you find yourself winning. It's a constant challenge and everyone gets there at their own pace, that's what I've learned.
You can't be going in all Roy Keane-like screaming at people. You have to pick the tone for your player.
That's why I think for modern managers it's a full-time job. Because you now have to get to know 30-35 players, whereas in the past you might only need to get to know your best 18.
And you'd kind of know them from watching them on the telly before you took over the job. But now the strength in depth of 18 to 30 wins you All-Irelands and wins you League games and matches. Not necessarily the first 18.
It's the pressure they're putting on and the desire they're showing in training to achieve is really what unlocks the potential of the whole collective.
• The GAA Games Development Conference 2018 is being developed in partnership with Sky Sports and will take place on Friday and Saturday, January 12th and 13th 2018, in Croke Park.
Run as a partnership between all of the Gaelic Games Associations, the Conference will offer the 750 delegates attending an opportunity to access talks relating to key coaching issues in Hurling/Camogie, Gaelic football/Ladies Gaelic football, Handball and Rounders which are related to players across the entire player development pathway.
Tickets can be purchased HERE.