Awards Season.

Awards Season. Meaning mixed feelings, right? Because most of us know that should we actually win something, there are always so-o many people who are worthier/better/better qualified in every way. And sometimes (let’s be honest) people get ‘recognised’ when actually they are sheisters or monsters or simply there and have somehow endured over time.

But c’mon, fortunately, it’s often the reverse. People get fleetingly recognised when they should be hugged and hoisted and fed with booze or chocs or given everlasting Gunn and Moore or Gray Nicholls contracts; they get waaay less than they deserve – under-recognised. I know loads of these people. People whose goodness and commitment is real.

Some of these people have won awards; some are up for awards this winter. I personally may even see some of them pick up some trophy – hope I do.

Some of you will know I bang on a fair bit about the importance of sport, of activity. I’m fully aware how cornball all this can sound, particularly in the context of the endless schmatzfest/tritefest/pompfest that is social media, which I contribute so readily-heavily to. But the thing is we really do have to gear up and get real around this: society must have a strategy, a compulsion, an irresistible way-in and lifelong relationship with movement… like the guys and gals at the sports awards.

Doesn’t, of course, have to be sport. Doesn’t have to be competitive. But movement, activity, the sense that doing stuff is the essential and natural way to be, simply has to be built-in to all of us. Not most – all.

This becomes massive in the sense that it means national and local governments must address it as urgently as we, as individuals, must. If the first job of government is to keep citizens safe then maybe this notion might include the responsibility to steer citizens away from the self-harm that (for example) indolence or dietary ignorance engender. (Yup *can of worms* provocatively opened).

If that responsibility feels a tad mushy for Rule One then okay let’s stick it into Rule Two: ‘Government must provide direction and support around Wellness’.

For me that’s a reasonably agreeable purpose, in every sense, for Politics.

It may even be that the next phase for where we’re at demands that urgent consideration be given to what the necessary levels of opportunity and provision look like – and possibly how, if at all, this strategy is braced with compulsion/coercion. (I get that we’d all prefer inspiration to compulsion but… how to make the resolutely non-doers doers?)

I need to divert into politics here – forgive me. My own view is that our current government is disgracefully adrift and indeed indifferent of the issues here in much the same way as it is re Climate Change. Being arguably amoral and unarguably in thrall to shockingly narrow,  mindlessly pro-capitalist views, they lack both the understanding and the vision to change things. So we drift towards calamity: there’s an emergency but no response.

Of course many of us do the same, as individuals – drift, I mean. It’s easier. Plus things conspire (food/agriculture industry, Right Now This Instant culture, political expediency, lobbyists) towards a depressingly rudderless status quo.

Weird mind, that whilst in terms that the Honourable Leadership might understand, we clearly cannot afford to be a fat, sedentary nation, there is still no determined grasping of that thorny issue of ownership of said inactivity. Unforgivable, or understandable, given the political dangers?

Rule 3 might be ‘Governments must lead’. Transformations can and must begin in early years, maybe somehow at home as well as in schools, with a radical re-positioning of activity close to the centre of everything ‘educational’. This, obviously, is government-level stuff,  it has to be that way – has to be led.

However, if there is a ‘we’, the people, then we have to accept some responsibility alongside The Few (who can actually legislate). That bit is tough – especially the desire/compulsion towards wellness amongst those of us who lack familiarity or confidence around sport. Understand that. We do, all of us though, need to acknowlege that the conversation around obesity, diabetes, etc bloody-well has to happen. And then we need that to lead somewhere.

The difficulty (or the question) appears to be that if there is such a thing as society then does that society has every right to expect

a) the chance to be well?

b) Individuals to commit towards wellness?

These can be worryingly divergent aspirations. Fully accept that (as with capitalism) some people are much better equipped to ‘succeed’ and that therefore extra support must be in place to bear those who are struggling towards a better place. But we do need them to get on that journey – to get active on that. Fair enough?

Sports Awards; this is where we came in, remember? People being recognised for coaching, playing, enabling activity. People who are kinda wonderfully and disproportionately positively tipping the balance, god bless’em. People actually reclaiming words like value and inspiration from sheisters who glibly stick them into adverts or company policy, or blogs.

Sounds feeble to say we need these folks more than ever but there is some truth in that, given the chronic – and it is chronic – state we’re in. How can there be anything ahead of general and individual wellbeing, in the queue of priorities? How do us sportyfolks lobby harder?

Most of those slipping shyly onto stages before humbly acknowledging those acknowledging them won’t be dwelling especially on the philosophical import of what they do: or the societal impact, or even the physical good. They’ll be there because they love sport and can’t stop, or even contemplate stopping. Why would they?

Let’s raise a cheer, or a (yaknow) sensible glass, to those who are leading the movement.

All Stars.

Pleased to see there’s been a reasonable lump of coverage for the All Stars Project over recent weeks; it really is significant, I think. Certainly in terms of bringing the precious ‘new families’ that we’ve heard so much about, into the game. Whatever we may think of, or read into that apparently central plank of the ECB strategy, All Stars has delivered strong numbers, for our sport: in Wales, 3,505 sign-ups over 118 centres.

A twitter-friend of mine and cricket-writer (Rob Johnston) wondered whether the project might indeed be more important than The Hundred? Interesting thought.

Whether you load that thought up with political/philosophical vitriol around the depth or quality of experience and the implications for Everything Else… is up to you. I want to keep this simple – or rather to leave you with a restoratively uncluttered message – that All Stars has been, will be, is really, really good. It’s All Stars I want to talk about, in the end.

You may know that much of the thinking behind All Stars came from a) large, hairy and fearless market research b) Australia. A particular bloke name of Dwyer was drafted in to brutally challenge the status quo and deliver a new vision. (Actually the first bit of that is untrue: he did brutally challenge but that was not necessarily the brief. Interestingly, possibly fascinatingly for those suspicious of the current direction of travel, Dwyer left – I believe before his contract was up).

It’s important, at the outset, in the wider context of so much controversy and opinion, that All Stars is recognised as merely a part of the whole re-invention of the Cricket Offer: part of Cricket Unleashed, part of the warp-factor-ten departure into the unknown. Theoretically and I think in reality, AS does have stand-alone qualities – the specific age-group, the immediacy, the impact of kitted-out kids – but it would surely be unwise to imagine it travelling radically solo. It’s not.

All Stars exists in and because of the context of more opportunities for girls and women. In the context of ‘community’ activity and retention projects for those teens drifting from the game. In the context of City Cricket/The Hundred.

I’m not wading in to the relative value, wisdom or centrality of any of these other things now: most of us have lived off those arguments for the last year. Instead I’m going to try to say why All Stars is pretty ace: in a bullet-point or two.

  • The prequel. Noting that All Stars has been generally supported by 4-6 weeks cricket-based activity in local Primary Schools, aimed at enthusing kids for the game (via the outstanding Chance to Shine curriculum) before offering that link to AS in clubs. Part of the generally impressive #joinedupthinking. But back to the activity proper…
  • It’s ace value. Despite blokes like me fearing that £40 was going to feel too much for most parents down our way, AS is undeniably good value – and parents forked out. The kids get kit worth about £20 and eight typically well-run, skilfully-themed sessions (which tend to be an absolute blast, for kids and coach alike). Those people still weirdly imagining this is an earner for the ECB need to get a grip, to be honest: it’s a massive investment in change and development, not at all – certainly in the short term – an ‘earner’. Costs have been set at a minimum, I imagine: of course there are some families who will regrettably be put off by the £40… but very few… and some clubs will underwrite that, if necessary.
  • The actual sessions are ver-ry cute – in a really good way. This has not been flung together. The target age-group (5-8, boys and girls) is guided through an hour or more (generally more) of movement, games and skills; the time fizzes and charges as much as the children do. It’s infectious and purposeful and liberating in a way that the three letters F.U.N. cannot do justice to: and yet it is precisely that – naive, anarchic, noisy, edgy fun. Brilliantly so, in my experience.
  • The quality of enjoyment thing. I may be repeating myself but what I saw, as an Activator and coach, was ace to the point of affecting – and I am clear most parents felt that too.
  • The family thing – 1. Okay, so if one of the key aspirations for the whole ECB cricket-makeover is to ‘burst the bubble’ in which cricket sits, vis-a-vis who knows, plays and gets the game, then obviously All Stars sits comfortably within that. The target group is children still finding stuff. Plainly, the ECB would be grateful if some of these children – perhaps the majority – emerge from non-cricketing families. That’s happening. Because of skilful marketing, smart imagery, the ‘non-threatening’, non-technical nature of the offer. Headline figures for AS in Wales last year suggested 71% coming from a non-cricketing background… which is not far short of phenomenal. I’m hearing also – also significantly – that around 35% of our Wales 2018 All Stars are girls.
  • The family thing – 2. Activators (i.e. those who led the AS sessions) were trained to encourage parents to take part. In fact a key part of the marketing whole was this idea that families might reclaim a special hour of family time through participating (at a level they were comfortable with). This interaction with non-qualified agents – hah! Mums, dads!! – was rightly to be gently monitored by the Activator, but opened up a new dimension to the proceedings. Our sessions started with family members ‘warming up’ their All Star; often mums or dads or siblings stayed involved, offering practical help and encouragement. This cuts right across the traditional practice of Level 2 Coaches ‘running things’. I am not remotely looking to undermine that practice or the quality thereof when I say that in my experience the active support of family members was not only essential in practical terms but absolutely key to the feel and the enjoyment of our sessions. I soon gathered five or six sub-Activators who were lovely, intelligent, generous, capable people and I hope and expect that they may support the project – and what is now their club! – next year. This ‘loosening-up’ was done by design, in the knowledge that it might/should work at this age-group; it did.
  • The gentle prod thing. Did you know you can pre-register for AS 2019? You can.

 

Finally, something minor-league weird. I am still wearing a rather faded rubber bangle – the kind we were giving out in schools during the Chance to Shine sessions which preceded our signposting of kids over to All Stars Cricket. I am still wearing it… since April, maybe?

This may mean something worrying about absence of a life in my life, but maybe only if we overthink stuff, eh? I’m not wistfully stroking it or anything. It’s just still there. It says ALL STARS CRICKET and ALLSTARSCRICKET.CO.UK.

I think of our sessions at Llanrhian CC and how crazy-but-happy the kids were… and how wonderful the families were… and how blessed we all were, with that sun. So I guess that’s the explanation? If we need one?

 

 

 

Great week.

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.

 

The Boy Who ‘Couldn’t Catch’.

Now I have to be discreet about the following, for reasons that will become pretty swiftly clear.

Recently, I was coaching in a local Primary School – first session. As a ‘way in’ – that is to get the children moving, giggling, but listening and used to my voice – I often give them all a ball and set them off on ‘journeys’ around the space. (Mostly, the space is a playground and the journeys are a number of lengths or widths, or maybe circuits).

The ball may be different from player to player; often I encourage them to swap so as to experience a different size, shape, feeling.

I think I may have started this particular group off by asking them to make a particular number of catches, over two journeys. Before the off, I asked the children how high we should throw the ball, before launching one forty feet up.

That high? (Giggles).

Why not? Exactly! Because it would be chaos! Because we’d kill every passing seagull or hit Sara, Fred and Tomos on the head and we don’t want that, do we? (Giggles and inevitable contradictions…)

Okaaaay. Maybe we do that seagull stuff later. But first, how many catches? 

After having agreed to throw them about three metres up (max), the children set off, choosing their own kind of catch, as instructed. There are 30 children, which is a few more than the ideal number. I mingle / get in the way, because this too, can be fun and because this way I can check on things and get some encouragement into nearly everyone’s face, immediately.

There’s a boy in tears. I see him early but go past so as not to draw too much attention and then watch a little as I interact with other children – most of whom are unaware of the issue.

Ok. It’s clear the boy is tearful because he ‘can’t catch’ – because he’s frustrated but mainly because of the shame. He’s probably eight. He’s not the only one struggling but he’s the only one who can’t bear the weight of his own ‘inadequacy’. It’s actually the most heartbreaking thing I’ve seen for years, in a school situation.

(Later, whilst considering writing this, I think about how this boy might be described. Obviously I’m not going to detail anything about his appearance in a way that might identify him but there are other difficulties here. Privately, I might (we might?) describe him as ‘looking like a rather sensitive sort’. He was paleish, thinnish. Thirty years ago I/we might have said he was ‘a bit weedy-looking’).

These feel like grossly pejorative terms, now, to the extent that I may yet cut them.  If I persist it’s because I think the feeling I had after the event that this boy should never have been allowed to get to his age without being comfortable with a ball in his hands was a) kinda legitimate and b) as complicated by my own worldview as his alleged lack was (and is) by where he finds himself.

He is in a place that has denied him that particular physical experience – or the few words of encouragement or guidance that might transform that awful fear-fest into an easy, pleasurable life-skill. I think it’s fair – whilst in no way searching for scapegoats – to note the possibility that  the world has failed him.

In the here and now, though, I have to help. As discreetly as possible, right?

I could have found a bigger ball… but this didn’t feel discreet enough, given the level of sensitivity, given the ongoing tears and the boy’s pitiful explanation that he ‘just can’t do it’.

I am in emergency mode here, in a way. I cannot halt the session to offer this boy a one-to-one… and yet I must. I’m simply not having this level of hurt, over something so do-able.

So I flit to and from the individual, whilst dolloping out the encouragement to all. We have to move on and forward. The challenges actually should get incrementally  more sharp – more fun – as we proceed but clearly now I have to offer choices.

Whilst the class in general are more-or-less coping with adding claps into their catches, or bounces, or inventions of their own, I’m looking to grab a few seconds here or there with The Boy Who Can’t Catch. I do. The others are loving it, they are in their own world of adventure.

Firstly, I encourage and I sound friendly. Second, I really get him to listen. Thirdly, I put in there the idea that maybe the ball becomes the only thing in the whole wide universe for one minute… and that we just have to watch it ALL THE WAY IN.

And then I’m gone, to bawl

Wadda catch, Sara! 

or

No waaay did you just get EIGHT claps in there, dude?!? That’s unREAL!

A few discreet returns and one or two repeats later… and we have a Boy Who Can Catch. Maybe not every time – but most, or many.

I move through a zillion swift catching challenges, every time repeating to all that we can choose to stay with our own practice if that feels good to us. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice of that offer but one individual; the rest are finding other, theoretically more ambitious avenues – getting comfortable with that next diversion.

Later in the session we are throwing. The boy has partnered-up with a girl as they throw underarm at a hoop on the floor, opposite each other, stepping back one pace if either one of them hits that target. They do hit. It is evident, in a lovely, quiet way, that both of them are enjoying this.

The Federal Activity Project.

In 1936, the fella Roosevelt instigated the Works Progress Administration, to revitalise an America ravaged by the Great Depression. Rather wonderfully, this included the Federal Art Project, designed to support and rejuvenate the creative soul of the nation, by bunging artists a few quid to stir and create and colo(u)r up the gaff. (Sir, I doff my cap).

Over the next handful of years, a who’s who of the Thrillingly Important Americans of the period a) survived financially and b) poured their paints and their energies into a kind of communal creativity kitty, from which a brighter, prouder, dreamier world might emerge. Pollock, Rothko, Gorky and others found a rare degree of security in the government wedge, plus the opportunity to beautifully and spectacularly indulge and develop their craft.

Whatever the pretext or the motives, there is a powerful sense that this was a rare and civilised moment: one where government actually, ambitiously enacted economic policy based on cultural good. It was stimulating; it was faithful. The fact that within ten years the world was brilliantly ablaze with American genius is at least in part attributable to Roosevelt’s inspired gift.

Historically, stuff like this never seems to happen, though, eh? – governments being typically peopled by the soulless, the myopic, the cynical. Real love of art rarely finds a way through the committees or the careering. The Federal Art Project was the diamond in the dungheap, a uniquely generous response to the national emergency and a hearty punt on the value of the search for meaning in a dark, dark world.

I call out for thinking like this. Not only in response to challenges to our capacity for creativity and spirit but also because of the threat to our physical wellbeing. We’ve too many of us gotten lazy. Fat; inactive; unwilling or unable or unskilled at moving.

We all know this. The information is out there, is shared. In our Primary Schools, in our halls and meeting places and leisure centres and doctors’ surgeries. Online, on the back of the bus, on the telly – fair warnings. We still get worse.

I have strong views on this (UK) government but let’s keep party politics out of this. The point I want to make goes waaay past that. In brief I say we need a Federal Activity Project, a massive, revolutionary, all-encompassing, irresistible national surge towards activity.

Of course I say this partly because this sporty/educational zone is My Territory. (I work as a Community Coach for Cricket Wales). I’m in the business of lighting up people – very often youngish children – for a game, for movement, for development-through-action.

I don’t want to be a sports bore and I get that our project needs to factor-in the allegedly non-sporty, the ‘difficult to reach’. In fact, they may need to be its focus. However, much of this is about scale – about levels of ambition. I say again, this project must happen and it must be MASSIVE.

I know we’re in (yawn) austere times. I know the purse-strings are allegedly tight. But masses of subsidised or free delivery of fabulous multitudes of activity would transform, over time, the physical and mental health of the nation. There is nothing that we need that is more important than this transformation.

I’m bawling here rather than making a case but I would argue that the NHS can only be made viable, in an era of ageing citizenry, through enormous cultural changes in the population. In brutal terms, we can’t afford folks to be obese, to have asthma, to have diabetes; we need them fitter.

In a way, kids are easy. If you give me zillions of coaches, I will transform them – make them livelier in every sense. They will be better listeners, better behaved, more creative, better citizens as well as infinitely more mobile. Good coaching does this.

However I absolutely acknowledge the ethical and the practical issues around persuading/compelling unwilling or unconvinced adults that society needs them to get moving. At some stage I may get into arguments over what ‘reasonable expectations’, what ‘buy-in’ might look like… but not here. Feels more urgent to strike out for healthy revolution than concede to practicalities before we’ve begun. This is a roar for change not a negotiation – not yet.

Ideally, I’d like an unthinkably humungous Federal Art Project as well as a Federal Activity Project. We clearly need to open our hearts and our senses to art and culture every bit as much as we need to run three times round the block. (And by the way, I know we ain’t a Federation but gimme some slack on that. This is about free ideas, imaginative nay truly wonderfully radical shifts in intellectual and physical norms or possibilities). But I’m calling out for sport to start with, for activity; for a spectacular charge towards health.

There will be more on this but meantimes chew on the soundbite. We must transform, we must get moving. We need somebody to fearlessly chuck paint around – to search. We need inspired government.

 

The Brilliance of Games.

It’s not just the prompt that is #MHAW16 that makes me think of the link between sport and wellbeing. At the risk of sounding like some faker or fanatic, I never really divert from that #caseforsport thing.

In my daily life I’m completely in the business of getting kids moving and smiling. My head continually swims with responses to sport – and for those in the London Borough of Brent, nope I’m not necessarily talking competitive sport here. I’m talking activity. I’m talking freedom, movement – the finding of skills, the building of rhythms and confidences. For me the brilliance of games are an obvious and essential way in to both social and academic skills as well as a rich but direct route to joy and achievement.

Let’s put something daft and challenging out there. I believe that we could radically improve the health, wellbeing and academic development of children if we put the much-vaunted Physical Literacy Framework right at the centre of Primary School life. Or more exactly – because I don’t want to get bogged down in This Year’s Ideological Re-structure – if we expanded our understanding of the role of physical education.

Decent coaches and/or teachers know PE can be used broadly (but phenomenally successfully) to gather unwilling or disaffected or ‘non-academic’ children in to the curriculum, as well as boosting levels of engagement and achievement in bright kids. It provides a way in – even with those who initially lack co-ordination.

Good coaches re-calibrate the challenge of the game and feed encouragement into the faces of children. They hear them and guide them and praise them towards some tiny- gargantuan triumph… like making a catch or swatting a ball off a tee crisply, with a deeply satisfying clump. In these moments lives can (honestly) be changed.

If I tell you I know that during every session I run something pret-ty damn profound happens that isn’t about me. It’s about the fact of that transformation through the game. A boy or girl *getting it*.

Maybe that getting it is the execution of a single (or probably more likely) a compound skill; or maybe it’s the moment when a lifetime of healthy activity kickstarts, because the child felt something magic… and they were seen… and they were heard; their skill or value was noted in the handbook of the world; their mark – maybe so often ignored, erased or simply un-made – was made, recognised, appreciated.

These are revelatory  moments and they can and should herald wonderful leaps forward.

Children can and often are welcomed in to curriculum work, to academic development via progress in games. (And yes, I am placing the games before the Proper School Work here. If we worked this way round more often rather than bundled on into SATS or some other ‘measurement’ then we might develop more confident, capable and sophisticated young thinkers. And that’s what we want, right?)

Through games children can learn co-operation, awareness, that sense of place – both in terms of belonging and in terms of hierarchy. Whilst the former tends to be powerfully helpful, the latter may turn out a real-world scramble that often needs supporting but must be negotiated.

Beyond the ‘obvious’ skill development comes the progress re- a child’s ability to make intelligent (tactical) decisions. Sport implies and needs the hot-wiring of judgements – often adrenalin-fuelled, often exhilirating. Such moments are surely growth spurts for the mind?

All this over and above the mere movement; the mere propping up of the universe and the NHS *because we got fittish kids*. PE dictates an increasingly alarmingly sedentary generation move something other than their texting or snapchatting fingers.

So mentally and physically we win and we win. I say we celebrate that and prioritise that by making it genuinely central to Primary Education (as opposed to merely re-branding it Physical Literacy and continuing that tendency to significantly underachieve.)

I hear the arguments from those who had a ‘bad experience’ of PE at school and who fear that insensitive blokes with scary beards or gruff manners might revisit all that in the playgrounds of their own children. But coaches or PE Teachers are way better than this now. Things are simply waaay more sophisticated and child-centred.

Coaches bring new levels of understanding and yes sensitivity to games these days. The kids who ‘would never get picked’ are involved now – they share in the activity. Far from being by-passed or damaged, children are more often found/released/directed.

Personally, after a couple of sessions I frequently invite children to build their own game – having prepared the ground with questions about fairness, structure, the sharing of the bat. It’s massively challenging.

There’s no hiding from deepish, philosophical issues because we’ve established that abstracted groundrule that ‘we’re looking for a way to make this work’. We’ve dug into the difficulties about the primeval urge to be the batter; we’ve asked ourselves what a good number might be for the bowler to bowl and those two(!) batters to bat. We’ve considered the shape of things; grappled with social, existential, practical stuff – stuff about time and number and patience and feeling and nerve. We’ve put the Education into the Physical.

Then we go play. And the children choose and negotiate and muscle through that barrier towards sharing.

I don’t think I’m overplaying the levels of mental/academic consideration we’re looking towards here. This is meant to support engagement on a zillion levels but it may (on a purely intellectual stratum) be a separate phenomenon to wellbeing. So let’s briefly look at that.

Young humans generally love to move – despite the aforementioned epidemic in sedentary behaviour – I maintain they/we are stimulated by and enjoy movement. Not because some coach or teacher tells us that games are good or important or healthy but because (when we are guided or supported well) something positive floods through our bodies.

That may be a profoundly individual sensation or it may be something communally-felt. There may be a process that folks in labs could unpick for us: it may be adrenalin/endorphins or some other biological/chemical surge that frankly I am hugely underinformed about. I’m not that interested in the mechanics – that’s not real to me.

What is real is the smiling and the running and the delight. The development. The newness and achievement and growth. Children (in this case) freed and uplifted or unshackled because someone got them moving. That’s real – even if it may not be measured.

#MHAW16 may have pointed some of us towards greater awareness of issues. I applaud that. I also get that my subject matter here typically rests in the non-acute area of interventions into wellbeing. However, as a positive bloke I’m happy to bundle through the politesse around all this and daub a simple, positive message: about sport being a way in.

I have seen Physical Education or Activity support those feeling or struggling with isolation, non-engagement, misunderstanding, chronic lack of confidence, furious anger. I have watched as ‘difficult kids’ are seduced into the struggle or the joyful search; as their minds flash with genius and pain and learning. I have seen teeny, gargantuan worlds light up – often.

 

 

Beautiful Game.

My ‘One a the Boys’ rating has always been somewhere between questionable and variable and what follows may do little to re-affirm my status as a fella you could comfortably share a pint and a kosher backslap with. Because I’m dealing in whimsy here; poetry of a sort; and the ‘b’ word comes out.

Let’s cut through that frisson sharply now and tell the story.

You know I’m a cricket coach and I go into schools and clubs to enthuse kids and generally lark about. You know I’m up for it to the point of (that word again) embarrassment – being foamaciously enthusiastic and committed as a whirlwind.

I’ve just been into schools in Fishguard and Goodwick– or as the demonstrably, audibly lovelier welsh words would have it – Abergwaun ac Wdig. Abergwaun, in February, doing cricket. It’s been fabulous.

We found an island of spectacular weather with that unsurpassably stunning winter light zapping from glorious sky to sea to river Gwaun, to asphalt or tarmac pitch. Literally brilliant – but coldish. All the more reason, then, for a certain Cricket Wales missionary to stir the enthusiasm rather than curb it. I went at it, in friendly-comedian and hopefully man-worth-listening-to mode.

Somehow, over three days, delivering sessions that were about multi-skills as much as cricket (movement between cones/hopping/catching/bouncing/listening because things change, right?) a happy and successful and invigorating and enjoyable mood was sustained. The weather was reflected. Children were challenged and entertained – they were distracted into listening.

The means for them to coach me how to throw was found, or built, from stories of disillusioned dogs (epic fail – more like a shot putt!) and ecstatic pooches chasing missiles hurled from a High Elbow and Long, Long Arm. A rare outbreak this, of Technical Stuff, in a matrix of buzz, movement, sharing bats, booming balls. The kids were in there, they were on it, they were up for it; I think maybe I barely gave them a choice.

In one school I ran three sessions in the morning. In the last of these I was joined by a (woman) teacher of some standing in the school whom I know not well, but well enough to respect as somebody who gets sport can offer. She was accompanied by another specialist teacher supporting a young boy with a particular challenge. In the sparkling sunshine, on a playground pitched quite alarmingly down from right to left as I cheerfully ‘prepped’ the session, we went to work.

First up I did do that thing where you invite the group to listen so they don’t miss any of the fun. I made it all a giggle and a deal. Then on we charged.

Through coloured ‘gates’ we had to shift – forward or back, jogging or hopping. Through four or ten or how many? Thirty?!? Then basketball/catching/clapping; always offering a calibrated challenge so that fliers could fly and fumblers find a happy way through. Then that throwing round the garden thing, with a partner and a target on the floor and (actually) the space and attention and confidence in the bank to talk technical, for just a mo’. Another step on my mission to teach half the western world (well, Pembs) that dog-launching life-skill.

Round the garden I went, with a dose of encouragement for everyone. Not just spooned to the wind blandly, but proffered into every face.

These or’nary kids really got it. They really listened, really threw with their feet, really tried to hit that target. It all flowed; my positive energy, their smiley determination. The teachers sat back contentedly, or joined in.

Timing-wise and ambience-wise a clumping of balls from tees to finish seemed absolutely appropriate. Fifteen minutes then, of building a way of sharing the bat – dumb questions from the coach finding a ‘taking it in turns’ protocol agreeable to all. It may have been the sunshine but this group shared magnificently, irresistibly proficient fielders passing the ball over to their less dynamic compadres for their turn to ‘give it some wallop.’

Not the most original way to end a session, it’s true. But in terms of learning arguably quite profound lessons on what makes games (or life?) work and combining that with a pure, liberating, hitting experience it stands as valid and valuable. And the kids loved it. Broadly, it felt great, obviously, undeniably great to all of us – one of the best I can remember – in all sorts of ways.

I closed the session by saying thankyou and asking one or two more dumb questions about what we’d accidentally found; catching-wise, throwing-wise, making games work-wise. I told the children I was dee-lighted to report that I’d be back for more… and they seemed genuinely pleased. Finally I asked them if they’d be so good as to go quietly back into school with their teachers.

At that point the senior teacher spoke. She asked the children if there was something they thought they should say to me and they responded in Welsh (largely) – diolch yn fawr iawn, Rick! Predictably enough. But the teacher went on to say that she thought the children should note how ‘beautifully’ I had spoken to them and how this had been a special – she used the word again – beautiful lesson that they should remember for a long time.

You weren’t there so I’ll just add that she was in no way either showboating or being glib. She was, to her credit, visibly touched by something and was trying to a) thank me, generously and sincerely but also b) mark that there had been something profound and lovely as well as merely successfully sporty going on. There had.

There had but I’m not after the credit: I’m after making that case for sport again. I’m touched by the boldness and generosity of the language used – specifically, of course by the use of that precious ‘b’ word, which most folks would’ve surely swerved and which I’ve never heard before in this context.

On reflection, by the way, I’m clear that what was beautiful was the children’s level of engagement. I may also contend (dangerously, because it interests me!) that the teacher’s sex may have played an important role in the discourse – Big Boys generally being too dumbed by machismo to speak so fearlessly and naturally of loveliness. But this is another subject.

I was gladdened and sure, made proud by the implications around all this. Chiefly I was clear that for whatever reason, a moment had been marked; we’d heard – the universe had heard – that encouragement, movement, co-ordination can be beautiful.

Dawning; typical of me but I think I’ve just realised why I wrote this. Could be because I do wonder if us blokes are generally so unable to say ‘b’ words (or similar) that perhaps we don’t let ourselves recognise the transforming poetry in moments like this.  Or if we do we don’t say it.  And if we don’t say it maybe it’s not evidenced in the way it might be.  And if it’s not evidenced then less kids (maybe) get fit, or open themselves up to the game. Any game.