How much it can mean.

I, the Community Cricket Coach. Busy to exhausting period. Multiple schools per week, trying to keep the value and the intensity and the positive vibe going for the children.

A quick, true story – as always more about that universal fabness than about any ‘ownership’ by Yours F. Truly. I know sports coaches the world over have experiences like this every day; in fact something about the sheer volume of good delivered in this way feeds into my own flow of whatever it is; makes it possible.

Un-nameable school and pupil. Newish, blandish location.  Rain – so indoors. A hall, glossy-floored, with just a wee patch that evidences flattened chips, or the dust-pan-&-brushed ghost thereof. A few ‘Health & Safeties – so (ever the Pro’ 😉)  I park red cones around those dodgy perimeters.

Incoming, an assistant, gratefully received; particularly so as as she is sports-trained and it turns out she’s “been here a few months and know the kids”. I was here last year.

I get a perfectly fair warning about a lively group (whom I’d remembered) and a particular individual.

I have a  clear memory of at least two children with quite powerful issues, at this school. That’s fine and to be expected – I’m never fearful nor intimidated by that situation. I’m confident that our activity (and yes, my personality, because often that’s what it takes) can get us through.

Today’s Chance to Shine/Cricket Wales session will be about #BrilliantBatting, about getting familiar with the bat: experiencing it in the hand, using it to twiddle and control and spirit different balls to different places. I note to myself that a bat can be a weapon – so best be attentive – but then re-focus on making the lesson sharp and shiny and engaging, so that anyone and everyone will be seduced, in the healthiest of ways, into happy, busy engagement.

As always, I have a broad plan and the session is ‘set out’. As always, my antennae will be up and twitching, pre-empting flattish periods by finessing, recalibrating, changing the challenge. As always I am hoping this will be irresistibly good lols for these children and I will look to encourage each and every one of them.

Ok. Ready to go and I’m alone with my thoughts for a moment. I remember (again) thinking just what the hell is this child going through at home? To make them so, so volatile?

Then children in the corridor, bustling. Deep breath and begin the welcome. From near the back of a friendly but fairly anarchic ‘line-up’ I see ‘this child’ is breaking out towards me. He runs to where I am standing (alone, in the middle of the hall) and throws himself around my waist. He says – fascinatingly clearly and with some emotion – “I’ve been waiting for you to come back!”

The Sports Assistant is kindof beaming  through raised eyebrows. Later, I’m choked (now, I’m welling-up!) but in the moment I acknowledged his fabulous greeting before moving on. (We have to take care, with physical contact, yes? I can’t pick the lad up and hug him enthusiastically – or I enter problematic territory if I do).

However the quality of his response was extraordinary – it’s why I’m writing.

I/we get plenty of lovely welcomes, right(?) but this was different-level wonderful. I feel somewhat humbled by it – all that feeling. I am absolutely re-energised by it, but also conscious of the responsibility it projects back onto us coaches…

“Look how much it can mean. Be conscious, always, that it can be that meaningful. Aim that high.

At the risk of de-mystifying this touchy-feelyness, it seems only right and proper to note that though I had of course remembered this child from my half-dozen visits last year, I was not, frankly, aware how much of an impression our sessions had made. And there’s some learning in that – for me, for all of us. God I’m grateful but he surprised me.

The lesson is great. My long-lost pal is utterly with us, throughout, performing the bat-skills with attention and even patience – mostly. Okaay, he drifts here and there but he’s not disruptive of anyone, or anything. Wow. Sport, eh?

 

Game of Throws.

Most of you will know that I’m a Community Coach, for Cricket Wales. This means, amongst other things, that I go into schools – I typically describe myself as “the daft bugger who throws things around, with kids, in schools”.

It’s sometimes challenging but mostly so magbloodynificent I need to ramp the language over the scoreboard to describe it. Today is one of those flowtastically energising days. Sorry.

I’ve been into a Primary School, on our Chance to Shine mission, which is so multi-faceted (in a good way) I’m going to invent some swift bullet-points, to give the sense of covering it all briefly.

Frankly don’t care if this sounds like a salespitch: what happened today was mercifully and definitively beyond mere capitalism, dear friends. Here’s some edited highlights from the err, manifesto.

We Community Coaches, we Chance to Shiners aim to;

  • offer a load of sporty fun.
  • Build co-ordination around cricket-based games.
  • Build confidence through and confidence in movement.
  • Offer new stuff – skills, ‘drills’, ways in to catching, throwing, striking etc.
  • Stimulate listening skills, teamwork &/or individual application to challenges: build numeracy (yes I do mean that!) and communication skills – oracy.
  • Get familiar, or more familiar with a bat, a ball, or different bats, different balls.
  • Specifically follow, more or less, a curriculum which Chance to Shine has assembled, drawing on masses of expertise and research… and stuff.
  • In the abstract we aim (I certainly aim) to make kids laugh a bit, whilst charging round the place with purpose. Structured bursting and giggling and launching and swiping and mostly achieving something, which may or may not be measurable but may well be actually rather profound.

Hence my sickening upbeat-ness. Cos we did all that this morning. Two brilliant sessions with children from Year 2 then Year 3. Brilliant? Them – them! – not me. They lit up the place.

In my post-euphoric foolishness, I’m wondering if there might be some merit in describing what we did. So here goes.

Last week with these children, we followed the Chance to Shine model for batting games, via Striking Star and Super Skills Circuit – you can find these here and I do recommend them.

https://www.chancetoshine.org/teaching-resources

Having done the ‘get familiar with the bats’ thing, it made sense to do something different, today. So out with hoops and spots and balls, for games again developed from that C2S curriculum.

We were inside, in an average-sized school hall. I drew out a Throwing Line, with red cones, then placed three yellow hoops and a spot, about four or five metres out, parallel to the Throwing Line, spaced evenly apart. Three or four metres beyond, two blue hoops and two blue spots, again making a line, across the hall. Finally, the distant targets – four red hoops.

I welcomed the children in, in English and inadequate Welsh, as per. Then, after asking them again how they turned their ears on and warning them in the nicest possible way that the games would change, briefly described (rather than demonstrated) what we would do. We would throw underarm at the yellow targets.

What would we throw? Cricket ball-sized sponge balls and two or three significantly bigger but still unthreatening, lightweight ‘footballs’, plus a softly-spiky pink plastic ball: all of which I said I’d like to see shared around.

The children had a couple of goes before I tried that “Ok people, imagine if I was an alien and I’d just landed on Planet Har’ford; how would you explain how this underarm throw works(?)” routine. “What’s moving?”

I might now be modelling the throw but not saying anything. Instead I ask the ‘coaches’ (kids) to talk me through “pushing my palm, stepping forward, aiming with my hand-that-isn’t-throwing”. It’s a listening event and describing event, for the children; hopefully more than a demonstration.

We move on, as soon as; we want to be throwing, more, further, harder!

I ask how many points we should give ourselves for hitting the nearest (yellow) hoops ”first bounce – on the full?” Somebody confidently shouts “Ten!” Ten it is.

”So how many for the blue?”

(Somebody else). “Thir-teee!”

”And what about the red?!?”

”FIFF-TEEEE!!!”

Suddenly we have a Proper Game. In which “for a bitta fun” we can keep score if we want.

I offer them more choices; they can now throw under or overarm and they can aim at any hoop or spot. (Incidentally, if it felt necessary, I would offer the discussion about whether a blue hoop is worth more or less points than a blue spot – which is smaller. Feels unnecessary, here. Note too, that we haven’t discussed throwing overarm yet; let them launch a few first).

Surprise surprise, everybody lashes it out there in the general direction of the distant red hoops. It’s wonderful, stretchy-wild and energetic. They love it.

Before the next round of throws – just to focus the concentration a tad – I bring in A Rule. “You have to name the colour before you throw”. We go on. It’s still fairly chaotic… but great.

Next up we revisit the scoring. “Which are the easiest targets to hit? Why? So if we really were counting our score, what colour do we think might be the one where we are most likely to get some points? Or… if we are enjoying throwing harder, further (at the red, maybe) what can we do, to give ourselves every chance of hitting?”

It’s gotten tactical. They realise that. There’s that lovely sense of liberation – through the physical act of throwing – and also the whirr of cognition and ‘getting the game’.

”I’m going yellow – no, blue!”

”I’m going red. I’m still going red, because…”

It’s gotten to a point where I think there is some real value in me demonstrating an overarm throw – despite my half-decent grasp of ECBCA initiatives towards Core Principles, as opposed to old-school ‘coaching’. So I offer three suggestions; feet wide apart and in line with the target; ‘pointing’ or aiming with the non-throwing hand; throwing hand waaaaay up and back away from the face.

In my defence, as it were, I do offer this model via a story, with questions.

”Who’s got a dog, friends?

Half the class.

”Okaaay. So have I. Picture the scene, on Newgale (beach). Me and one very waggy dog and a ball. Does my dog want me to do this… (throws with hand at his ear, feebly)… or (collects ball and notably draws elbow and hand high and loooong and back, away from the head) does your dog want you to launch one?” (Launches one, to unsolicited whhooooos and whoooorrs from the kids).

”Your dog wants you to zap it. To enjoy throwing hard and far. Powerfully. Come on, let’s get wide feet, pointy hands and get that ball awaaaay from our faces. Let’s ab-so-lute-ly lash it AT THESE TARGETS!!

Typically I shift one red hoop to the furthest, furthest point and up the ante to 500 points for that one. It’s a blast – slightly wild – but my personal mission to teach the mini-universe to be able to throw, to love throwing has bounded forward… and that’s magic.

I’ve missed some details out but this is the gist of a session that I repeated, this morning. Minimal changes for Years 2 then 3. Biggish groups – 30-odd. I guarantee you that nobody felt inadequate, or left out. The level of engagement was stratospheric.

I finished both sessions with my Moving Target challenge, for a thousand points. It offers a kind of individual moment for everyone; one in which everyone Wins Big.

I walk across in front of the children, holding a hoop up at what feels like a comfortable height for their throws. One by one, they all have to throw through the hoop, as I move. Miraculously (possibly with an occasional strategic twitch from yours truly) everybody nails it! It’s crazily, dizzily, wonderfully satisfying – maybe especially for those who weren’t throwing ‘naturally?’

“A thousand points! What a way to finish!”

About fifty minutes-worth of entertaining, challenging, sometimes mind-bending Chance to Shine/CricketWales fun. With balls. And hoops. In January, in a school hall. Some educational boxes ticked but mainly, mainly a deeply pleasurable experience for all concerned; including me.

 

 

Another Year in the Life of…

Here’s the thing. In Fishguard; just finished the Christmas shopping blitz alarmingly early, by my appalling standards, largely courtesy of the town’s delightful independent bookshop. Feeling tad smug; almost triumphal, even.

(Allow me to get my retaliatory confession in early, here. Abso-lutely cough to being shockingly blokey about adventures in Retail Land. Love the family ecstatically but even this fails to de-glaze the eyes during the *buying things* process. Can only manage it in bursts).

Sometimes, however, the twitchtastic ‘yes, yes, that’s definitely it’ instinct operates on a level that really might be described as inspired. Like today. Like when I bought the flag of the European Union (£1.99) and the monkey-shaped tea strainer (4 quid) and then all those books to erm complement the previous, eye-poppingly eclectic purchases.

The Shopping. All done! And capped off with some deeply groovy dinosaur wrapping paper that will further convince the family that the descent into shambolic eccentricity continues worryingly unabated. Haha – all done!

So what better time than to retreat into the Gourmet Pig (ambient hipstertastic deli but don’t let that put you off) and flick through the diary to rustle up a few highlights? Whilst the dander is more up than Solskjaer’s: when we need some Good News, to counter the divisive disasterfest that is Brexit And All That. Let’s de-politicise the universe for a moment and remind ourselves, shall we, of the power of sport?

January. 2018. Kindof off-season for us Community Coaches but not entirely for my good self, on account of the social media role(s). So two blogs, early doors; one shamelessly backing the All Stars project, the second a weird indulgence around how you can’t own the sportsplace without being Ricky, not Rick, or Rooty, not Joe. (Go figure or go read: 40 posts during the year!)

Also some training, at what was still then the Swalec (I think), now appropriately restored as Sophia Gardens. And what we call a ‘CDO meet’, which means a conflab with my esteemed handlers, to talk about what the year is gonna look like – the actual work and the actual imperatives.

By all means picture us poring over the strategic overview in some intimidatingly businesslike office-block: in fact we met at Morriston’s caff in Carmarthen. I hasten to add that this didn’t stop us thrashing out a pret-ty comprehensive Cunning Plan; something our funders and seniors would have emphatically rubber-stamped – with or without the brown sauce.

Jan 11th and 12th the Community Team underwent further training, in Cardiff. (If this was the Create Development training, it was excellent: challenging, stimulating and a laugh – but authentic. Shout out to their guys; if you have a group of coaches you want to nudge forward or ask good questions of, seek them out).

Saturday the 13th I have a note that Barnet Newman failed twice to get his teacher’s certificate, on the grounds that he couldn’t draw stuff. This relates both to a blog I was writing about governing for culture, sport and health, and also flags up the fact that the universe can be dumb as hell… but you have to keep on, yes? Jan 15th I re-booted the Cricket Wales facebook effort.

29th I started my year of coaching by leading a session for mighty Sport Pembrokeshire; an interesting one as it gathered in children of various ages who had the ‘home educated’ label in common. Enjoyable. Predictably great, lively kids: plus helpful prep for me, as two days later I am in to the day-job with a wallop.

I start in schools ‘proper’ Wednesday Jan 31st. By this I mean in my Cricket Wales Community Coach role, supporting and supported by the fabulous Chance to Shine, bringing a considerable dollop of cricket-based games and curriculum-linked nuggets to bunches of kids over a number of weeks. Meaningful lumps of sporty-but-also-holistically-enriching development, in other words: and yes I do mean that – all of it.

Five sessions in the day, for groups of about 25-30 children, aged 5/6/7. Quite intense, despite the breaks.

Intense but rewarding. Hope this doesn’t feel indiscreet if I whisper behind my hand that this school (Pembroke Dock Community School) is something else, in a good way. Visibly, demonstrably, powerfully connected to both sport and artsy stuff as means to enliven and (that word again) enrich. This school leads the way in many respects, not least because *they* genuinely place the movement of the body and (actually) the spirit slap-bang central to the whole educational experience.

*They, obviously, being the Headmistress, Mrs Thomas and her staff. Bravo!

So what a place to start! In the deep dark winter! Weeks of back-to-back, rip-roaring, darkness-defying games. Remember being medium-shattered but inwardly grinning; school-fit; ready.

February. What we call Views training – Views being the on-line system for recording our work. Genning-up on the hows and whys of inputting data onto the site that tracks and accounts for what we do. Because quite reasonably, people are wanting to know what we’re at; how many hours are coached, who to, when?

Being from the Stiff Little Fingers school of computer (il)literacy, I have to work reasonably hard at this – get my diligent head on. It’s a chore but no complaints: no accounting, no job.

The schools work is coming at me, now. Saundersfoot, Sageston, Stepaside. Southish Pembs. Fascinatingly different but all smallish village schools. Fantastic welcome and support from staff, some of whom I know. Gratifyingly, over time, that essential and confirmatory buy-in from teachers won over by the level of engagement or sometimes sheer joy from the kids. The moments where teachers get it… are important.

Milford Juniors, as one roster of schools rolls into the next. Assemblies where I maybe have to follow the vicar, carefully transitioning from Easter to All Stars messaging, without offending or failing to ‘signpost’ children over to their local clubs.

(It’s true: we do have to execute the salespitch side of this, by presenting something All Starstastic in front of the school/staff/the extended community. On reflection, I followed two gentlemen of the cloth onto the stage during last season. Mercifully, I remain un-struck-down).

Johnston and then ‘Lady Taverners’ – meaning delivery to and supervision of Secondary School girls, who (here in Pembs) are all over the idea of practicing a bit then playing matches against other schools. Been running for years, this, at U13 and U15 level, with great support from our colleagues at Sport Pembrokeshire. It is sociable and often extra-curricular but also competitive – appropriately competitive, I would say.

Gelliswick. A new school and new to me. The Head is a friend (and former Scotland international cricketer!) so feeling good about my first visit. Weather against us and main hall unavailable so we have up to five sessions every Tuesday in a tight space. Sponge balls and multiple, diverse relays and a whole load of adlibbed ‘storytelling’ – for wee children, largely. A healthy challenge for the coach, this one.

Narberth. Suddenly a boomtown, with more galleries and foody cafés than (I dunno) Islington. The Guardianistas may be here but the school feels reassuringly untroubled by the changes all around. Lots of welsh spoken; playgrounds that feel timelessly boisterous, or quiet, or windy, or raw in another, unstable March. There most of the day, so confess did occasionally indulge in the local food emporia. Occasionally.

We’re into what we call Roadshows, now. One-off visits where we may do a session or two but will certainly look to present a snappy and engaging something-or-other before a biggish lump of children in the (All Stars) target group of 5-8 year-olds. So again being more salesperson than coach, in truth. (Prefer the other stuff, to be honest but again no complaints – it’s part of what we do). So do it well and gather some kids for the local clubs.

Have a series of Roadshows plus a final round of new schools to hit, now, as we approach the key period – before the All Stars kick-off in early May. Fenton, Neyland, Cleddau Reach, Lamphey, Penrhyn, Golden Grove. Easter, rather unhelpfully, interveneth.

Then, renewed, the final charge. Croesgoch and Ysgol Bro Dewi for my own pet All Stars project at Llanrhian CC. Soo-perb support from staff and a fair bit of decent weather just when we need it. I follow the sign-ups on the ECB system. 7, 8, 10, more.

We get to 26 All Stars, for Llanrhian. A truly exceptional number given the fabulorural nature of the schools and the club. Unthinkable without tremendous backing in every way from the schools’ staff, who have actively joined in with sessions – despite their own Welsh-language ethos and my poor, poor Welsh – and their consistent support for the notion of activity beyond school. 

Over the proverbial parrot to report that I’m going back in, in 2019, to flush out a new group of All Stars; a thought that amongst others, has kept me going through the floods and the potentially crushing gloom.

We get through to mission end. Then many of us Community Coaches lead All Stars in clubs – meaning eight weekly sessions or more.

At Llanrhian only the very first session had to retreat indoors, to the local leisure centre. Went okaaay but thank god for the glorious weather which followed. We were out on the most absurdly wunnerful Proper Rural Cricket Ground imaginable. For eight more idyllic weeks.

It was crazy, energy-sapping  but also mysteriously, undeniably restorative. It was, at the end, both absolutely necessary and incredibly hard… to stop.

But reel back a bit. Because May and June in the schools means Festival Time. Busy but easy, because the Primary School Festivals we run pretty much run themselves. Because the kids love it and the teachers, the teachers are magnificent.

These are day-long events which nail the sport-and-development-and-social-interaction combo beautifully year after year. (8 a side, batting pairs, two overs each pair; when fielding each player must bowl). Things move along – so if you get beat you’re onto the next one before you go dwelling on all that ‘negative stuff’. Actually, for me – honestly – there is no negative stuff.

Outstanding, well-structured game-days which build in brilliant, shared activity. Such a privilege to host. We ran about a dozen of these, in Pembrokeshire this year; almost all in bewitching, Australian weather.

And then it’s summer. Which is not the end of the year… but does mark a slowdown in the number of hours coaching. Autumn and winter,  I’m doing the year-round (social) media stuff, with occasional CDO meets and admin, and more Views training.

Eventually – but spookily swiftly – we’re planning the next mission. All Stars 3, in short. Schools delivery to Years 1-4 (mainly) in support of All Stars activity at local clubs.

In November I started approaching schools for that next round of action: some new, some delightfully, encouragingly familiar. Am booked into nine, so far, will be chasing other schools immediately after the festivities – 18 in total, more than last year.

It may sound glib but I am hugely thankful for the support that schools or individuals offer. The friends, the soul-brothers and sisters – the allies. This comradeship and understanding, unspoken or otherwise, is central to the work.

The work all of us Community Coaches do (and yes I am including our counterparts in other sports in this) really can, really does have a certain power. The movement and the sheer, infectious enjoyment makes children listen: this in itself becomes a profound opportunity – a gateway.

Some schools want me in pronto after Christmas, others will wait for warmer, brighter days. All will get a daft, ‘distinguished’ geezer proud to front up, to lead, to sell the game that I love and push towards that precious culture of daily, ‘natural’ activity.

So, a happy and healthy break to all. Then bring it on; I’m ready again.

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.

 

Cows and buzzards and crows.

It’s hard to judge the impact of things, eh? Because we don’t know what people are thinking and in any case surely market research is heavily flawed, or skewed? Questions too obvious, contexts too directed, intelligence too dubious. Figures – even figures – are arbitrary.

Cricket is being measured and moaned about again: it always was and is and maybe the attention is good – or at least potentially good. The Profile is all. The Argument validates Life Itself.

I love that people care so much about cricket – about anything. They dwell on it, or in it, bawling or beaming or nagging away. The mad-wonderful truth could be, can be that cricket is the matrix within which they express their extraordinary brilliance or passion or flair or psychosis. Measure the massiveness of that.

So, I acknowledge figures more than I trust them. I believe in the truth of the madness. And yet.

We Community Coaches, in Wales and elsewhere have been working mainly recently on the huge All Stars Cricket project. I say huge because from the inside it feels big – and yet I’m not aware of as much hoopla around it this year as last. (Has the level of investment in media-stuff dipped? I don’t know).

In 2017 All Stars felt incontrovertibly a once-in-a-lifetime size commitment, a genuine game-changer’ in terms of investment and impact. 2018 feels maybe less extravagantly present but actually I’m clear it’s acting powerfully and it’s not just the figures that bear this out: it’s the experience.

I’m shockingly biased and shockingly pro-cricket but please hear me out; I’m in there, I know something of this. All Stars is a grower, on me, and in terms of its force.

I led the delivery of the (parallel) Chance to Shine cricket curriculum in Pembrokeshire schools in the winter and early spring, and now act as an Activator (meaning I run the All Stars sessions) at a local village club.

Village? Na, on reflection it’s a magical, seemingly movable speck on the rural landscape (for no-one can find it) nestling against a farm, overlooked only by cows and buzzards and crows. It’s idyllic on heartwarming drugs. It’s Llanrhian. Thursday nights the place is wild.

Wales-wide, there are more than 3,200 children signed up to All Stars, this year. (They tell me this is a thousand more than last year). At Llanrhian we have 26, which between you and me, is almost too many.

This signing-up thing is significant in several respects. Children pay £40, for an 8-week, informal course-with-benefits. They get clobber – bat, ball, t-shirt, etc, etc – but they as a family are kindof invited to commit. Commit the money, the time… and then maybe commit to joining in a little, at the sessions.

The design and the marketing raison-d’etre here speaks of gathering families in – ideally ‘new’, non-cricketing families – to a fun-but-guided sporty, family experience. The aspiration is towards not just providing good healthy fun but also the possibility for really rich shared time.

Some parents will instinctively get this; that this rather profound benefit may be there. Others will be too shy or too deep into the i-phone to notice. Fair enough. The All Stars sessions will be frothing over with good energy into which the parents can dip, or contribute, if they so choose.

I have some fantastically bright and busy and yes ‘boisterous’ kids in my group. The quality of listening is mixed, so I’ve already press-ganged in some support. It’s also – two sessions in – feeling part of the process that some parents (maybe surprised at the drift amongst some of their children?) are starting to wander in to games, to join in, in a way that they sense is helpful.

Hope this doesn’t sound like I’m either abrogating my responsibilities as coach, or endangering relationships, here: I remain aware of the issues around both safeguarding and control. It’s just that careful encouragment of positive interactive activity (which turns into family or truly social activity) really might be the icing on this Starry cake. I’m certainly hoping so… and working towards that. Watchfully.

Look, if, despite the cost and investment in time, a thousand more children have been signed up this year in Wales, and if what they tell me is true regarding 71% of All Stars children last year coming from new, uncricketing families, then I think we can put big ticks in the plus column. The data is positive – and there’s plenty more where that came from.

But we need more than that. We need recounted experiences, facts about feelings.

One example. I can tell you, I have seen that many children were, until All Stars or Chance to Shine lessons in schools, relatively or entirely unfamiliar with the feeling of bat in hand. Patently and understandably, this, in my experience, is the case. That’s changing or changed, because All Stars/Chance to Shine interventions have been huge. More children are getting to know the game.

Secondly, the glee factor – remember that? Kids are going ballistic in a wonderfully liberated way, at our All Stars sessions. It’s noisy and daft and over-the-top because the Stars are absolutely loving it. We’re setting them loose more than we’re directing them. I had one lad last week turn up with his broken arm in plaster: Dad said ‘there was no way he was going to miss it!’ Marley grinned and grabbed a ball.

Just this week we (Cricket Wales) Cricket People are trumpeting #4millionNotOut to celebrate that number of children receiving Chance to Shine cricket in some form. A big PR thing has gone off on our patch – da iawn, Milly-May, in Port Talbot! – so we’re full of ourselves, over that one. Doesn’t matter if this figure is less than football or rugby, or more than tennis or netball. Four million cricketing events. Plus the weight of All Stars on top; recently, now, next few weeks, all over – this matters.

The ECB decided that a monster wedge needed to go into junior cricket. Something transformative. A bubble had to be burst, the game had to be shared. Cricket was wonderful but was nearly out of time – or out of its time? Money to Chance to Shine was doubled, to raise the profile in Primary Schools and then something major had to be done to get new families into clubs.

All Stars is no panacea: said before that I know enough folks in cricket admin who fully accept that retention of fourteen/fifteen year-olds and of course the very shape and format of cricket itself are equally acutely important. Of course they are.

But both at the input-of-juniors level and culturally, All Stars is, in it’s gambolling, free-form, radical and hearty-risky way, opening up both the game of cricket and possibilities and understandings for coaching activity itself. This is profound. Slightly crazy, immeasurably good stuff often is, right?