Been involved in two events this last week, with a particular character – or so you might think, when I put the labels on. S.E.N and #Disability, or #insportseries.
Unravel that with me.
S.E.N, as many will know, stands for Special Educational Needs and therefore referred, in our case, to Primary School children who have a range – an extraordinary, fascinating range – of issues or needs. (Written on this before, in particular this idea that somewhere in the cloud of embarrassment, prejudice, guilt(?) and awkwardness around ‘needs’ maybe there’s a rich opportunity for us Normal Folks to challenge our own complacency or sheer ignorance; our awarenesses and comfort around Special Needs being often woefully inadequate).
Having confirmed my own frailties in those terms – I, too am relatively twitchy or clumsy in this environment – I’m going to leave it to experts in the field to unpick the differences, subtle or otherwise, between S.E.N and Disability, because a) despite some really excellent and relevant Coach Education, I am not an expert or specialist in this field and b) in reality, as coaches, we don’t typically know very much about what kinds of issues the individuals attending are going to present: we live off our wits.
Before people start kicking off about dangerously inadequate preparation, I should say that what feels like a responsible and reasonable amount of information-sharing and risk-assessment does take place. We just don’t get much detail. So us coaches do inevitably experience that ‘okaaaay, how do I need to pitch this game to this individual?’ moment as the participants arrive. It’s a brilliant, energising test for us; one that hopefully transfers into sharply-focused but engaging (and seemingly relaxed) sessions.
In absolutely glorious sunshine, at Haverfordwest CC, we Cricket Wales people, in tandem with our colleagues at Sport Pembrokeshire, hosted an event for the S.E.N. Units of the county: Primary.
We were well-staffed. We gathered in good time and set up five or six possible areas with different challenges, games or themes. We talked quite a lot about what was going to feel appropriate, how we might rotate groups through, how big those groups might be or ideally should be. We checked for flexibility within games – for the capacity to recalibrate higher or lower – for both difficulty and to accommodate talent and ambition. Then groups arrived.
I recognised a few children from previous events but generally we were into New Territory – all of us. There was a certain delay as schools arrived separately and (given the epic sunshine) awnings or gazebos and/or similar were set up. There was too much drift so I cut through the formalities, grabbed a group of children and bundled them over to my throwing game. We were off.
I think maybe you set out on days like these, with the fear of making a calamitous and deeply patronising error; or twelve. There is certainly scope for that, right? So what you do (I do) is get the antennae up. Get looking, get listening. Talk the same way, act the same way but get the antennae up for issues of understanding and movement. Get right on all that and offer somebody something different – quietly – if that’s necessary.
We had a laugh. The kids were great; engaged, smiling, contributing to the banter, the shape of the game. ‘Course they were. There were children that could launch an overarm throw, there were those that wandered in and out of the playing area, unable to fulfil the mission but visibly enjoying some activity. Honestly, in the sunshine, they were brilliant – it was brilliant. Periodically, another group came in.
In other ‘zones’ children boomed balls off teas, or caught big balls, small balls, teddies, spiky things, beanbaggy things, foamtastic things. Elsewhere they played nonstop cricket – with or without a helping hand. There were pitstops for drinks and sarnies and more bantz.
It’s going to sound weirdly self-congratulatory if I describe it as something of a triumph but (with apologies) it really was. Not my triumph but everybody’s. Everybody including the sun’s.
My abiding memory is of a fellow coach, who shall remain nameless. This particular bloke is a powerfully experienced cricket bloke and longtime coach and supporter and administrator of the game. He’s been there… but not, as he said, in ‘situations quite like this’. As we packed up and chatted, it was striking that the level of enjoyment – their’s, his – had been something of a revelation to him.
Three days later we were again involved, supporting an event at Pembroke Leisure Centre. This was an #insportseries Disability/Community event, open to all but shared that schools/learning feature in the sense that children with carers or support staff were brought in to take part. Again the weather was spectacular – almost too hot.
My first memory of this occasion was of a single, tall, strongly-built young man appearing early on at my shoulder, being a quiet presence and me not sure, initially, whether he was (as it were) a candidate for action, or not. Fortunately, my instinct to offer a ‘quick game’ (anyway) proved helpful… and off we went, with other children soon joining.
Here’s where things became profoundly different to that Primary School event earlier in the week, in a way I happily admit, I hadn’t, in my medium-crass naivety, foreseen.
Firstly that biggish young man, then others were really good – to the extent that I could, should, did coach them as opposed to simply hosting a game. (Doh… of course they were!)
Specifically, we got into bowling… because they could really bowl. We got into high hands and following through, with me being careful and even apologetic about being boring and coachy but having no choice because the players were driving us thataway, because they were good. There was also that hike in the attention-span in the players and their capacity to make and sustain their own game. I may have underestimated that, too.
I still have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I reckon I did okay because I know these youngsters did enjoy what they/we did. On the other I have to think about where my expectations were at that first moment. I did not, in truth, as I breezed in to that event, expect to be delivering stuff that I might share with an able-bodied county-level player. I was wrong – and how great is that?
This event, like the one in Haverfordwest, was a notable success – funded and supported strongly, visible and diverse. As well as presenting a range of activities, somebody (Angela Miles?) had the nous to invite Rob Evans and Gareth Davies from the current Wales rugby squad, much to the delight of our participants and many of the on-site and suddenly inquisitive Pembroke School children. Both these guys did a fine and generous job of circulating, encouraging and just being nice to anyone in the vicinity. (Chapeau, gentlemen, enjoy Croatia!)
I wandered through to check out the whole festival, from wheelchair rugby to rifle-range. Outstanding. On a personal note it was fabulous to see such an impressive turnout of Sport Pembrokeshire staff; was proud to muck in alongside to make our own, Cricket Wales contribution. It’s been a great week.