#3millionstories

I’ve been a sportsman all my life – a sportsman, not a salesman. So it doesn’t come naturally for me to Big Up what I do for a living, which is coach cricket (to children, mainly, for Cricket Wales). But I’m about to make an exception.

And this is not about me. It’s about the thing we do, which is simply offering a game.
In Wales there are about a dozen of us Community Coaches going into Primary Schools to deliver cricket sessions. In our case we’re sponsored by Cricket Wales, Sport Wales and @Chance2Shine – the cricket charity. We’re trained to go in and put a smile on children’s faces, show them the game, get them moving. But there’s more.

Would you believe we’re also hoping to make children better listeners, to stimulate numeracy and develop social skills? And guess what? We think about lighting up every single child with a few words of encouragement – we get right in there amongst those bobbing and weaving faces and aim to make them feel listened to – heard.

Does it sound a bit pretentious if I say that we try to offer both a kind of release and a way in to academic work for children that we coach? That in offering opportunities to devise games we’re looking to delve into really quite complex issues around
‘What works for everybody… and maybe not just me?’

We’re trying to do all that. We’re trying to inquire into levels of understanding and generosity and difficulty. Get this: I often think half of what I do is about coaching the sharing of the bat; because everybody wants to bat, right?

This all sounds a bit ‘dry’ maybe. Like we coaches are obsessing a bit about Physical Literacy Frameworks or some or other ‘target’. We’re not. I’m pret-ty confident the kids in our sessions are too busy running or hitting or catching or building something to feel like they’re in some academic exercise. They’re not.

Instead, they’re expressing their talents. They’re having a laugh – they’re thinking. In the end, they’re unfurling their stories – some a little clunkily, some with that magical, uncomplicated joy that sport can unleash. We’re just there to help.

So because I see this stuff – these revelations – every day, I can do the sales pitch thing. I can look you or anyone in the eye and say ‘Yup, I’m happy to be making the case for cricket. Because I know people – young and older – are being transformed by it, every day.’

@Chance2Shine are Bigging Up the fact that three million children have now been through sessions with their coaches – with me and my mates. @Chance2Shine know that with every child there’s been impact; something learned or shared or maybe some giant leap forward made. Opportunities to build games, build confidence or take wickets/hit runs! They know that there really are wonderful stories here so they’ve adopted the #3millionstories hashtag, to share all this around.

I’m happy and proud to share it too.

#3millionstories.

Just one experience.

Disclaimer; certain things have been changed here so that (I believe) no-one could be undermined by the following story. I’d like to think that wider interests – much wider than me or mine or Cricket Wales’s – might, can and arguably should be served by recounting what follows. It’s healthy, it’s heart-warming and it really happened.

Right now we’re test-driving a project that (rather than gathering children and ‘migrating’ them into local cricket clubs) is offering them an indoor knockabout. The kids get @cricketmanwales, his partner in crime, C****, a hall, some kit and then we play stuff. Once a week, for a few weeks; out of school hours.

I don’t want to get bogged down with the whys and tactical wotnots but (because two of you may be interested) we’re doing this for the following reasons, amongst others;

• The Leisure Centres are available to us now.
• Local cricket clubs don’t have the capacity for us Cricket Wales peeps to drive yet another clutch of budding Under Nines or Elevens into their hands – or at least they’re telling us they can’t accommodate a new team – fair enough.
• Some kids just don’t or won’t feel comfortable in the club environment – maybe they aren’t ‘good enough’ (or don’t think they are) to make anybody’s team? Maybe they’re a wee bit scared that they’ll have to face a Proper Hard Cricket Ball? Maybe Mum or Dad says it’ll cost too much?
• Simply, we wanted to offer a different opportunity and, without actually targeting any particular group, without remotely abandoning the idea that clubs are rightly at the centre of what cricket is, see what a mildly alternative space and proposal might offer.

This may have the sound of a fringe project, an experiment and there’s some truth in that view of it. A little. But though I confess to indulging in occasional meetings about all this strategic stuff, rest assured, dear friends that I/we are about the cricket – the act, the action that happens when a daft bugger like me is let loose with a bunch of kids. These weeny earthlings don’t feel part of any project. They’re too busy moving, catching, stopping, starting.

We’ve called the sessions ‘cricket hubs’. We didn’t, on the poster that ultimately my daughter cobbled together, specify ‘beginners’ or anything else other than ‘Boys and Girls, 6-11’. I then did some sessions in local schools and Bigged the Thing Up in an assembly or two and then off we went… we knew not where.

At the Leisure Centres, as a familiar face to the arriving children, I ‘lead’; which is a posh way of saying it’s me that does most of the shouting. Given these young ‘uns do turn out to be anywhere from six to eleven years old and do have a fairly alarming but fascinating range of abilities, the sessions have to live off my sense of what they can do – what they can have fun with – and maybe what’s possible to learn.

At one particular centre a boy I’m not going to describe or name joined us. When I say joined us, he slid in with what felt like an unremarkable degree of reticence. After a welcome to all I ran a warm-up game. Amongst the giggly anarchy I saw that maybe we needed to place a few balls – asitappens, we were using anything from teddies to beach balls to foam rugby balls – into his hands rather than either let or expect fellow players to lob things at him. He was involved on the periphery, neither happy nor unhappy but with his hands unconvincingly outstretched, at risk of either failing to acquit himself or being bypassed by ‘better players’.

Don’t panic. This post isn’t going to be about the quality of my coaching. It’s about the quality of this wee lad’s experience. Sure I’ll take a modicum of credit for getting fairly early on that he wasn’t, in the dangerously contentious phrase, a ‘natural’; that the games were going to have to come to meet him. I reckon I probably also intuited something about the appropriate level of fuss he’d most effectively ‘respond to’ and just quietly kindof revisited him now and then, to show tiddly things, without focussing on this fella as the Possible Struggler in the group.

Interestingly – and unusually – the boy’s dozen compadres were mostly children who clearly found catching and co-ordinating movements generally a challenge. Maybe this helped. We played simple games – yup, including that ole chestnut hitting from tees! – which everyone could do and I hiked the technical info with certain individuals when they needed to extend. It went okay.

This went on once a week for four weeks. The boy attended every week and to my knowledge did not speak a single word to either myself or one of the other children – even when asking for a pass, a catch. He simply got marginally more proficient, more convincing at the body language, the shape of the movements, in proffering those arms. In time he tried throwing, bowling, all of it; they all did. Skills, in between or in and around what we might call small-sided games. He managed, found a way through, without either busting the proverbial gut, or getting frustrated, or making spectacular leaps forward. He was it seemed in that undemonstrative middle-ground.

The fifth week comes and the boy arrives a tad late. His mum (whom I‘ve seen, watching discreetly but never met or spoken to) does that ‘would you mind if I had a quiet word’ gesture and we step out of the hall momentarily. She says something very close to this;

Look I just wanted to thank you, really. I don’t know if you know but my son has really significant confidence issues – really significant.

I say I had an inkling but…

No they’re really debilitating. And I just wanted to thank you because he’s NEVER EVER done anything like this. He just can’t. So he never does anything.

I say something crass like ‘that’s genuinely lovely to hear, thankyou.’

No, thank YOU. It’s remarkable – are you going to be able to keep on going with this? He got up this morning and asked what day it was and when I said xxxxday he said ‘Oh great – cricket tonight! Believe me he NEVER says anything like that!! So thank you.

People, I was more than a bit choked. I managed to blurt out something about the cricket going on again after Christmas and then went back in to join C**** and the kids.

On the How Rewarding Was All That?-o-meter this ranks pretty high. Maybe because it felt both literally (eek!) awesome and a little mysterious. How could this lad’s seemingly non-animated engagement with our cricket-thing turn out so… profoundly? I’m delighted but also shocked, almost, that he’s found it so enjoyable – frankly it didn’t really seem like he was having that much fun. Whatever that unknowable process, we find ourselves reflecting on a stunning example of the fab-you-luss-ness of … what? Games? Movement? Interaction? Those few encouraging words?

Good to reflect, for one minute. Because I’m thinking this is evidence of the power of sport. This young boy has now bounded more than slid – albeit in his own, magical, ghostly-silent way – into a new, expanding universe. He is both denying six years of absence and disengagement and bulleting towards possibilities previously unthinkable. Why? Because he enjoyed the movement, the encouragement, the sporting challenge. It acted as a trigger.

We may never understand quite why this worked. It may not matter. But the fact of it matters. The quality of this boy’s experience was such that things were transformed.

This I suppose is anecdotal evidence. We can’t ‘map’ it or prove it so as to legitimise ourselves in the eyes of local authorities or funders. It’s pretty much non-measurable. But know what? To me it feels like a really great bit of work.

Sport Transcending.

 

Minor aside. I was going to write about football for bowlingatvincent.com but couldn’t summon the mood. There are subjects out there – the Chelsea Void, the ongoing van Gaal splutter-which-might-somehow-incredibly-lead-to-a-title, the wonderful Vardy nonsense – but something about the context, the deflating averageness of the Premier League undermines my conviction to really plunge into the stories. Temporary this, I hope.

Then I thought on the obvious; the Buttler Transformation. Magic but na.
Instead I’m going to recount stuff that I hope might just strike a deeper (sorry, pretentious gitdom alert), more inspirational chord with some of you. As I sit looking out over Swansea Bay in sharp sunshine it just seems right to blaze away on Bigger Themes rather than pootle around with transparently forced hypotheses around elite-level footie. And Buttler, Buttler’s been covered.
In any case, sharing something of the small fabulousness of grassy, grassrooty sport feels worthier and more pressing; so that’s where I’m going.

Friday I got up at 6.50a.m. as per and did usual the family stuff. (Dunno about you but this generally involves maybe 20 minutes of washing up whilst cobbling together medium-decent brekkie for t’other three, plus a swift jaunt to ‘look at the sea’ with pooch.)

Critically for me it also meant both trying to picture where a particular school is… and then rehearsing ideas for a first session of cricketstuff for (probably) two groups of kids (probably) aged seven to eleven. Hilarious but true it could even be that I’m visualising ‘capturing’ kids whilst stirring the porridge. In fact I’m pretty certain I am.

I’d not been into this school before. I’d spoken to the Head – whom I’d never met – and he had sounded right up for my pitch re delivering a couple of taster sessions with a view to inviting kids up to further cricket action at the local leisure centre. He’d also skilfully gently inferred that because of the ‘nature’ of his posse, it might be a challenge to actually achieve the transfer of children from (free) school knockabout to a leisure centre charging a not unreasonable £2.50 for the hour. I remember rating his honesty and generosity around this but was clear that there is real value in showing the game(s) at his place irrespective of any targets. I told him that and think this made us mates.

We’re a one-motor family so it was a scramble to get people to various terminals of departure before I could boot down towards the school. I arrived, very nearly a tad late, carrying big, unhelpfully decrepit bags of clobber in coolish drizzle, to be told I ‘needed to be round the corner at the Junior School’.

Given that I’m kindof Old School about being timely and gathered and stuff, this was not good. However, arriving at the destination proper turned out to be one of those rather lovely, confirmatory moments which denied any residual fluster.

The Gaffer met me and was friendly: there was clearly no rush. Within seconds two different people had offered me a brew and a ‘hand with ‘anything.’ The ambience spoke of proper welcome and the environment was visibly (whatever this means – we know what it means!) encouraging. Minor note; I’m a fella with very few prejudices but I’d walked in there wondering, just a little, about baggage in the ether – ‘reputations’.

Because of the tiddly specks outside and the availability of a spanking new and perfectly adequate hall, I bundled my kit inside. Another teacher came to say hello and offer help. Whilst we chatted it became apparent that the weather was breaking for the better and that though it might remain marginal we could go for it outside, on a new, tarmacked space. Outside is better; we engaged Plan B sharpish and I re-gathered to think about first outdoor introductory sessions for feisty kids. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s okaaaay, actually but best get these guys at it.

So, movement and maybe teamwork and a few giggles. The setting out of a friendly, challenging-in-a-good-way matrix through which we can gambol. Pressing that ‘earthlings you’re gonna have to listen because the games are gonna change’ button. Making even these instructions engaging/dynamic/part of some irrepressible bundle. Do all that pal.

First group comes out. Mix of Year 5 and 6. I launch likeably enthusiastic geezer mode, with a deal based around F.U.N. for ‘top, top listening’.

I think they get me and we shake hands excitedly-metaphorically on a guaranteed smiles-for-listening agreement then off we go. Twenty-five boys and girls passing teddies, beach balls, (spongy) rugby balls and other assorted unthreatening globes to each other as they jog across the space and back, Emily having set the tempo by demonstrating a treble-fabulous and stylish jog immediately before the happy stampede.

It’s chaos but manageably so; it’s undeniably smiley. They do get me. Of course Jonni and Marc are hogging the rugby ball and the expressed aspiration to get everyone in the game is missed, first time out (so reinforce that). But this is great.

‘Earthlings, looking spookily good. But I told you my favourite word is TEEEEEAAAMMM so we have to get the guys who didn’t catch a ball or a teddy in the game. Let’s go again and this time we must pass within three seconds. Go!’

Some thinking going on and some great, energetic movement. Still some daft overthrows but blanket engagement and strikingly good catching – really good catching!

I’m weaving in and out to get those words of encouragement into their faces. ‘WODDA CATCH!’ ‘Ooooff –how’s your nose?!?’ ‘Great hands!’ ‘Blimey, that’s pass of the century!!’

They’re fizzing, almost uniformly – what was that cobblers about ‘challenging kids’? Somebody film this quick; show the Governors, show The Government, show our funders, show EVERYONE!! You watch this develop, now!

‘OK. Next up we can’t go cuddling that teddy; remember how many seconds before we have to pass? Three! And this time we can’t throw to the same partner all the time. This Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie thing is now… a no-no. How many seconds before we pass? OK. Go!!’

We shift forwards through a one second interval; in other words catch and pass immeeeeediately. ‘How can we make that baby work, people? What can I do if I don’t have the ball? YES! Communicate! What might I do with my hands? Yes, show them! Because I’m joining in with the team.’

Enough on that warming up, switching on thing. Ball each. ‘Show me some basketball – show me some control as you go. There/back. Tell me what works, how you get some control’.

Then catches and bounces of a zillion kinds, whilst moving – must be moving to crack the cold, to crack the smiles.

I’m in the mix of strikingly co-ordinated ease and refreshingly willing flap, constantly, cos I’m charged with bringing the personality here. The game is everything but I am Agent of Boogie, encouraging fringe-players to break through into the song ’n dance of it – defying them all not to enjoy this daft, doable thing. We’re all lost in the swirl of it and it’s magbloodynificent.

Fifty minutes-worth and done. Revert to pitch about *also* coming out to play at the leisure centre, Tuesday nights. Reassure them Yes! I am here next week. ‘Course I am. They’ve been wonderful.

A break and another, similarly zaptastic group. Teacher asks if some kids from ‘the unit’ can join in – meaning children with issues I may need to consider – and I emphatically assent. Without singling them out I scatter some further encouragement as the group flies around, engaged. It’s magbloodynificent; they are.

It finishes (or actually I call it) after some booming hitting from tees. All of them brimming with their own enormous or enormously minor triumphs. They shared, they clouted, they caught, they couldn’t believe they connected. Take the me thing out of this, here was an absolute model, a goddam advert for the case for sport transcending.

Forget the Premier League. It’s been simply overrun, overshadowed, shrunk – if only for a moment. The world got better here, because these kids accepted my (Cricket Wales, asitappens) offer. They invested in it; they threw it forward and then they caught it. They listened, they were thoughtful and busy and strategic and inventive and there was barely any drift. As they go back in, a teacher is beaming back at them.

The case for sport – the case for cricket.

Anything to declare? Yes…

I work as a Community Cricket Coach for Cricket Wales. I get sport and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I’m not impartial and I’m not tolerant, particularly, of the idea that sport is somehow narrow and only relevant to those who can run/jump/throw/catch. Neither am I going to define sport – other than to say that clearly it does not need to be competitive. It’s often most brilliant and transformative when acting upon young children and sometimes we barely recognise this.

I want to say something about this need to recognise/appreciate/understand what sport can achieve. How it can work upon the lives of young people; this is my area of ‘specialism’.

Forgive me but I’m going to get either my retaliation or my apology in first, dear reader, by saying that I have earned the right to campaign on this through a lifetime playing, coaching and sharing sporting experiences and by training, reading, observing. So whilst I am neither going to write nor argue in the manner of an academic and whilst I am easily de-flowered in terms of any scholarly authenticity, I’m expecting you to listen. Okay?

Imagine then, a bloke like me, charged with going into a Primary School to deliver four or six sessions of cricket. What might that look like? If classes are mid-twenties, some children may not ever have seen cricket and (let’s say) certain individuals may not actually be attending but for sporty activities provided by the school.

Yup – that’s right. There are children at this school (and, by extension, at plenty of others around the country/world, right?) who would likely truant if (let’s say) Mikey wasn’t doing his Free Running in the hall from 8 a.m to 9 o’clockish. Please note that in the Evidence for Sports Provision column. Fact – they queue (early!) for sport and this is what gets them in the building.

The essential tools in my kitbag – as well as bats balls and teddies, obviously – are;

1. My alarmingly irresistible good energy
2. A gert big heart
3. All that training around progression/physical literacy/the links to numeracy, to adding educational value to the game(s)
4. A stack of ideas (some planned, some responsive to how the group feels) around which a series of lessons are built
5. (In all innocence) a love of children. And the ability to communicate with them – make them laugh and listen
6. Information about what happens next. Which club or leisure centre children can go on to.

Some of that may need explaining. The unsound stuff about energy and heart I stand by completely. I want these kids to like me and latch on to the buzz that I can generate.

If that sounds like a cross between ego-mania and stand-up comedy then I can live with that. This work is certainly about performance, and/or projection, and/or role-modelling. But I am trained to think about getting a positive message, a dollop of praise into every individual young life. So I flit around whilst children are bouncing and catching and giggling, pointing at Sarah or Jack with a “Wadda Catch!!” or a “sen-SAAAY-shunnell dribbling!” I make them feel special because I am trained and built to know that’s important (that’s how I understand life, right?)… and because they are. Who knows, maybe next week they will want to attend because Cricket Man is in today?

There’s a continual flow between big ideas and micro-management, aspirations being both monumental and tiddly. Can I get these guys to communicate? Can I get that fella to hold a bat the right way round?

A bit more on the ‘hows’. I try to do the coaching whilst offering just a few questions rather than zillions of ‘snippets’ of quasi-technical advice. If I demonstrate catching I will say watch me and then tell me the things that worked. “You coach me”.

How did I stand? Did I have my ‘game face’ on? Hands? Did any of it work?

Then (almost as though it was planned) we find ourselves doing quite a complicated series of shuttles requiring memory/calculation/teamwork/co-ordination and (oh yeh) catching skills. And we make it a laugh – or a race if we want. (On that one, you try stopping some of them.)

So we construct games or activity which is cricket-based but projects positively and often powerfully into life-skills such as sharing, consideration, managing disappointment, even.

Not unimportant fact(oid); twenty something percent of what I do is around prompting ways to share the bat.  Think about that. Then maybe 50 percent is about capturing attention in a way that is designed to make the players better learners. Over time, children are challenged to devise or organise their own games; to develop understandings about what works for everybody and maybe not just me.

This is pretty grown up and philosophical stuff, right? But I am talking about Year 3 through to Year 6; sixish to eleven year-olds. Of course the challenges are re-calibrated according to the group but I am clear that as well as offering great healthy physical activity it is achievable (and right) to aim to;

• stimulate children to think and work together
• support literacy, numeracy and communications skills – oracy
• light up individuals re- their love of the/a game
• light up or foster a willingness to attend (in every sense) and to learn.

I’m thinking these are not only ambitious but generous and deeply (ohoh deadly dangerous word alert) civilised targets. Hand over ticker I can say that I am proud of the level to which we the Cricket Wales posse actively and practically endorse these values by coaching to develop the child at least as much as the game.

I’m reading lots of stuff just now that reinforces the argument that this (ohoh over-used word alert) holistic approach not only works for some immeasurable greater good but also, interestingly, for the individual performance. It seems that England and Wales Cricket Board mission statements towards making better people as well as better players are not just altruistically maaarvellous but predicated on the idea that well-rounded people often make great players.

So however unforgivably pompous or contradictory it may sound, it’s official. I am in the playfully daft-serious business of melding personal growth with clouting and running. Happy to be freeing the spirit, improving the learning of children and increasingly aware of the evidence legitimising what I do.

Meanwhile the cricket-specific objective of enthusing kids for the game and perhaps offering or (let’s hope) inspiring them towards playing more, more, more at the local leisure centre or club is symbiotically twinkling.

Post the Cricket Wales in-schools extravaganza, we always signpost children to cricket activity outside of school, led by ourselves. Rates of transfer from school to club vary but it may be that that greater figure, the number who start to get this sport thing, whom we are gathering in to a life-long love of activity – as opposed to those who will choose cricket specifically – is the one that delivers widest, most significant benefits. We naturally hope for both fascinatingly diverse but inevitably related boxes to get ticked.

I am inviolably optimistic – on this and everything else. But if you happen to be either doubtful or undecided, or if you happen to be making tough choices about what gives at your school, please consider what’s been said here.

Consider how fabulous is that very real possibility that a game or two with @cricketmanwales might yet be influential in turning Joe or Alexis or Sam towards a life in sport? And how big and necessary is that, for him/them/society/the NHS?

When their capacity to be a fit, happy and engaged child who enjoys (never mind attends) school really may be contingent upon the provision of Intelligent Games why not then support those games?

Frankly I don’t care much if this sounds like a sales pitch. Why wouldn’t I champion the case for sport? When I myself see daily the ‘anecdotal’ evidence that is children made vital, comfortable and engaged with learning via or in the form of sport. When I hear or read the clear evidence from academic or other, experiential sources.

With (for example) increasing obesity and despite challenges around school funding I absolutely and defiantly make the case for sport at the core of efficient learning. But there is evidence to back up these cries from the heart.

Good sports coaching develops what some academics are calling Personal Assets in the player, the pupil. Throwing a ball around may be a more enriching experience than you think.