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: more mad ideas around the Movement movement.

I get that some of the following is random, or ill-thought-out. Fair enough. But I’m going to relish the role of agent-provocateur and airer of the daft and unthinkable, if only because we need, surely, to break open the debate around  health? Tinkering with the ageing, sedentary population thing or the obesity issue feels pitifully weedy – insulting, even. We need to think big and broad and radical.

To get started, maybe go read my previous blog; then we can race in to the brainstorming about stuff that might really make a difference. Then join in, go loopy or protest, or write your own manifesto for Wales/the UK/the world and call it Have a Cuppa Tea Good Days Ahead. Or something. I’ll be back here, foaming, writing about sport, or more broadly, ‘Activity’.

Here I propose a list of ‘measures’ (lol) for getting us moving, for inspiring and/or practically enabling the Movement movement. They start here, with politico-philosophical jousting which I insist *is relevant* – indeed it provides the necessary context through which the delivery of the Project becomes possible. So;

  • Elect your government – local, national – around their actual commitment to green issues, to public health, to sport and culture. Insist there is nothing more important.
  • Make your voices heard. Do not accept either economic austerity or austerity of the soul. Vote for people who are open and generous and who (ideally) have Tom Waits or PJ Harvey albums… and ride bikes, run, or go watch the Scarlets. Or paint.
  • Follow and/or support those who would actually consider levering the social/economic debate right open, because they will never accept that The Market is God.
  • Maybe first, foremost and most specifically, demand that money be found to fund a massive Activity Project. (Political choices have and are being made, to make it seem as though there is no money available – and never will be – for indulgences of this sort). Refuse to accept that; this is no fringe agenda; the Movement movement is central to the mental, physical and holistic-economic health of the nation.

Ok relax. That’s the Loony bit done. Now, comrades, let’s all grapple with the radical-possibles: we need to get stormingly brainy here, to stir up the idle, the cynical and the unaware. What can we do, to get everybody moving?

I don’t have answers, but I do have questions – none of which imply any criticism whatsoever of our health professionals. *None of which*.

In a zillion ways, I contend we have to provide masses of opportunities for Activity, whether or not this is in or on schools, parks, mountains, rivers, shopping malls or housing estates. To be clear, these opportunities must be free, or cheap as chips – as the unfortunate saying goes.

Some folks will literally come running but others, for a whole host of reasons – some of which are valid – will not. Clearly the vectors of Not Running-in, Helpfully and Those Likely To Be A Burden (With All Due Respect) To The NHS show a certain common outline. These folks – young, middle-aged or old – we need to engage with: bigtime.

We need great ideas, new and novel adventures and an open, feisty debate about mental and physical health, responsibility and compulsion.

What’s do-able, given the consensus around urgent improvement? I don’t see how we can address this without a profound look at the role of the NHS.

  • Doctors are effectively the front line, when it comes to the ill-health/must change interface. Of course it can be argued that it’s not their job to fight for Activity as well as fight against illness, but…
  • Might we train/authorise/empower/coerce doctors into actively persuading/compelling patients into better diet and more movement?
  • Could we not, in some way – with appropriate training and remuneration – develop the (patient-) transformative side of the NHS, so as to empower/compel/educate staff towards offering great ideas and opportunities for activity, post the surgery/hospital fix? Clearly I know some of this aspiration is in place but I’m talking about a real shift in terms of expectation. Doctors (or somebody at the place of contact) guiding or bundling Patient Z into doing something. I fully understand the complex issues around this but still feel we need to wrestle with them: openly.
  • I guess I’m wondering what more can be done – culturally, practically – through government, through the agency of the NHS, to get unhealthy people not just immediately better, but long-term well and into wellness? Into lifelong healthy habits. Because a) surely more could be done, b) we need more impact on the thinking (or lack of it) from patients, following contact with the NHS. Which sounds like a criticism.

Maybe I’ve gone with this first because it seems most challenging? Maybe I’ve made shocking assumptions about many things. Maybe the shocking obviousness of the need for more coaches, trainers or sporty teachers for schools or youth clubs or community groups or spaces has meant I’m ‘targetting’ other, less obvious things. Whatever, this difficult stuff, where we eyeball issues across public health to civil liberties is unavoidable.

Let’s get back to ideas. Other avenues we might joyously, leaf-hoofingly race down.

  • Play. As well as transforming levels of activity in schools by increasing time for Physical Education, we could (and should) increase the amount of learning through Physical Education.
  • A finer understanding of what Physical Literacy is and what it means, is developing. Primary Schools in particular are getting comfortable with the idea that Activity can assist or lead development in academic terms as well as holistically (and of course physically). Many of us will argue that activity should lead more extensively.
  • Inter-active rooms are a fabulous extension of the notion that children might often experience learning through their senses, through movement, through participatory action rather than just passive ‘listening to teacher’. Sports coaches (believe me) can develop childrens’ social, creative, cognitive, personal skills as well as supporting their physical health and fitness. They don’t just teach sports skills; it’s way more sophisticated than that – it’s a richer experience.
  • It’s about all-round growth: Physical Literacy means building a pathway, understanding and promoting development through considered, appropriate activity.
  • (I’ve just gotten the tee-shirt on this, having spent two days training for Cricket Wales coaching duties with Create Development, who specialise in lubricating those six ‘cogs’ in the young child. I am clearer than ever – and more importantly, it is widely recognised in education – that skilful, guided physical activity in early years can be truly revelatory in broad, broad terms, as opposed to merely good for sports/agility/co-ordination).

But where else, how else do we change the world, other than by flooding schools at all levels with enlightened coaches, teachers, leaders-of-activity? Get thinking.

I’m going to give you a couple of final thoughts, which maybe epitomise my sense of crazy-open dialogue… and urgency.

I’m taken by the idea of re-wilding not just nature but also ourselves. By that I mean getting our hands in the soil, on the trees, in brooks, on frogs. If you’re familiar with recent work from either Robert MacFarlane or George Monbiot or both, you’ll get where I’m coming from. (If not, shame on you – get reading).

MacFarlane has been big into the ideas around spaces to play: how the range of a child now is criminally smaller and less worldly and adventurous than twenty years ago. Why? Because we parents don’t trust society around us. We think it’s stacked with paedophiles and rapists and junkies and thieves.

Cobblers, of course but this perception means we drive Jonny or Sarah the forty yards to cricket or football and they simply don’t go ‘out to play’ like we (middle-agers) did.

It’s cruel, it’s stifling and yet completely normal and responsible parenting. We don’t, in our busy lives, allow ourselves time to think what they’re missing: the bluebell wood, maybe, the stack of hay-bales. MacFarlane mourns this and calls for a debate, for some action to reclaim the possibilities and the words we are losing because of  this appalling shrinkage.

Apart from hugging the man and supporting, wholeheartedly, his campaign(s) I wonder if we can go further. Time for a bulletpoint.

  • Could we reclaim some play-spaces, in and out of built-up areas? Designate them as Play Spaces (or something) and employ DBS-checked, trained Rangers (or something) to a) lead play b) keep out the psycho’s? Let – indeed encourage kids go absolutely (relatively) wild! And, as with the Activity generally, go really big on this?

This is absolutely a conversational hare; a wild one, gamboling away, down the field. As a symbol of the kind of free-range thinking I reckon we need, though, I’ll go with it.

We need a change of mindset; us, the government. We need some inspiration – some great ideas enacted. To start, let’s go with a massive ‘Federal Activity Project’, to develop our selves, our physical and mental fitness, our capacity to wonder and to grow. There is nothing more important.

 

 

 

Resting, before acting.

I’m not much of an actor but I have been resting; between performances, or bundles of performances.

Pretentious? Moi? Well, that’s kindof what our sessions in schools are; more-or-less theatrical projections or expressions of strategy, policy, faith in our sport. And I have been waiting for the next launch, the next tour of our Community Cricket show to begin, so it’s felt like a rather welcome lay-off as well as a time to gather, before going again.

As I guess there must be for the average thesp, so there’s a weirdly seductive tension around my own downtime. Part of this arises from the fever going on in the background, as a discreet fury of discussion over strategy rises or rages to its conclusions. It feels as threatening as it does exciting. It feels big.

I mean of course the ECB/Chance to Shine/All Stars/Player Pathway stuff that has occupied the lives of most Cricket Development people over the last two years or more. The Seminally (Semenally?) Sexy Questions about how cricket needs to be, to be bubble-burstingly present for the next generation.

Hard to imagine? The sweeptastic revolutions on the pitch being mirrored by off-the-fullest-run-imaginable stylee pow-wows for admin staff and cricket people at all levels?

It’s been happening. It’s been spicy – and probably, I’m guessing still is – but given the preciousness of the raw material and the (honestly!) radical nature of some of the ECB proposals, no surprises that opinions might veer towards the antagonistic.

I’m at arms length from most of this, admittedly, being Coach rather than Development Officer. But I’m close enough to know that massive calls are being or have been made on everything from player pathways to All Stars to Coach Education. Big Stuff around the recreational game. Big Stuff around re-inforcing the rationale and execution of All Stars. Big Investments in change; a) because the belief is change is right and b) because the confident expectation is that there will be money. All this llus arguably Even Bigger Stuff in relation to the professional game, which I will all but ignore, here.

Year 2 All Stars is almost upon us. If you’re not clear what this is or means, here’s a view, or review, of some of the whats and whys.

All Stars Cricket is the ECB headline project for young children, begun this year, enacted through clubs. For 5-8 year-olds, very much aimed at boys and girls, very often via their mums, after shedloads of research showed this was the way to attract new families into the cricket universe.

All Stars is bold and welcoming and new: it represents a break away and forward (arguably – your choice) because Matt Dwyer, the Australian guru/driver/leader-in-possession of The Rationale has a) done this successfully before (in Aus) and b) believes only this level of ambition and dynamism can keep pace with or make sense with the kaleidoscope of change around the pro game. All Stars is defiantly in your face: not just an extraordinary investment but also a considered (and therefore philosophical) commitment to breaking out from the narrow heartland of the status quo towards something simply but strikingly more popular.

I have no doubt that there are one or two key words in that last paragraph that put the beejeeebers up some good cricket folks. But there’s no going back on this. All Stars is populist, yet the powers that be (or enough of them to back it, ultimately) plainly view it as essential to delivering new blood, new impetus. Resources are flowing that way again.

However, Roadshows to support the project and answer questions were delayed: I can’t honestly tell you whether this was due to alarm bells ringing or logistical stuff re kit or accessories or what. I can tell you that in a striking departure for us Community Coaches, our work in schools (as of any minute now) will be aimed primarily at a kind of parallel All Stars course, heavily linked to the general Primary curriculum and that we will be coaching the younger age-groups – Years 1 &  2. This is significant.

In previous years, the objective was more about enthusing 7-11 year-olds for the game and ‘signposting’ them into clubs ready to receive and support a new Under 11 side. The switch of focus to All Stars at 5-8 was initially to gather a new audience earlier, compete earlier with other sports and plant the cricket flag more visibly into school playgrounds: Dwyer (not entirely wisely, in my view) openly talks about ‘winning the battle of the playgrounds’.

All Stars has always been more sophisticated than might appear at first glance – probably as a result of the huge lump of research that preceded it. Year 2 will build on this by being ver-ry savvy in relation to what Dwyer & co. have understood to be the aspirations of the broader curriculum. In other words, the crossovers between mere cricket and all manner of learning skills (over and above the obvious developments in physical literacy) are being strongly emphasised.

Cynics might fear this is driven by box-ticking rather than the joy or brilliance or undeniable value of ‘games’ in itself: it certainly appears to cosy up to contemporary notions of what’s good educationally, as opposed to what makes wonderful and enriching sport. The All Stars proponents – and I am largely though not uncritically in this camp – would say that the project can deliver Big on the physical and the educational side.

You may not believe me when I tell you that I/we Community Coaches probably do need a rest between tours: I think we do. I know I’m pouring most of the bestest, truest, most generous-personal energy I can muster into trying to light up kids (mainly) through cricket-based games. Honestly, at the end – not during, not for me anyway – you do find the battery has run a tad flat.

Right now, then, I’m waiting, before doing some re-training or further training specific to the All Stars delivery. Then I’m on it.

In fact I may start with some work with Secondary School Girls, as we’ve run a really successful Lady Taverners competition here in Pembs, for some years. If logistics allow – and there can be issues around travelling for matches or clashes with other sports – all eight of our Secondary Schools try to enter teams. I try to get round the schools to lead some sessions and encourage, as well as attending the matches themselves.

Always sounds a bit corny when some bloke says something like ‘I really do want to make girls feel like they can and should be playing cricket’ but… that’s the way I feel. Indoor, festival-type cricket can be a great way in.

Two new teams were set up last season in the Pembs Ladies League. Having led pre-2017 season training sessions, I was struck by the proper keenness and quality and pride (actually) amongst the cricketing women. I am really hopeful and optimistic that more girls will step up as the opportunities feel more real – and as the role-models become yet more visible. In all the turmoil and change, the profound development of women and girls’ cricket will surely be a constant; undeniable and undeniably good?

Over to you, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver…

 

 

A Ready Position.

Winter nets. Arriving (as coach) in the dark and damp. Lugging those several bags of clobber from the boot to that ubiquitous over-varnished, unforgiving floor. Casting a glance for stray implements. Breathing and considering. Resolving once more to unmake that whole concept of Winter Nets.

Be honest, most nets are garbage – or if not garbage, then significant under-achievements. Folks just bowl, folks just bat. Of course that can be fine for some finding of grooves but more often – because there’s negligible focus – folks are arseing around. Even good bats swing reckless and wild; because they can; because there’s nothing on it; because ‘it’s nets’.

Your leanest, meanest fastest bowler – him with the peroxide flash – bounces and beams the club sec, for a laugh. Then he takes the innocent description ‘ag-ri-cultural’ to obscene depths when he bullies his way into bat. Things develop more as a response to the crass machismo of the universe than to the subtler promptings of the coach… who may simply not be there.

Let the coach be there. Make the coach be there.

A sports hall is a shiny-blank canvas. Could be the first thing you want think about is leaving it that way. That is, de-furl those unfurled corridors – the nets. Often, they are narrowing what you do, blinding the options. If you do use them, decide What The Point Is.

Questions you might think about include;

  • how many batsmen per net? In other words, are they running?
  • what stage of the game we at?
  • where are the fielders?
  • do we mark where the fielders are? How?
  • which bowlers are bowling at which batters. And why?
  • what are the consequences of a poor shot? Of getting out? Of insultingly obvious lapses in concentration because the batman think it’s just nets.
  • would a bowling machine be better or worse for your current exercise than a real-live bowler?
  • are a queue of bowlers waiting whilst one bowls a full over? If so, what are they doing?
  • do you have video… of anything?
  • do you have a flipchart for recording… anything? Observations/challenges/personal checklists for batters/bowlers?
  • is anyone saying anything? Meaning are there discussions on any of the above? Are players engaged with that? If not why not?
  • who’s watching, from the sidelines? Are there parents or coaches (or both) to whom you, as coach have to grandstand? Are you (as coach) telling the universe everything you know about This Particular Technical-Cricket Thing because Dave Oosit is over there and he’s Level 3?

Friendly aside; I nearly always coach with other coaches in attendance – often watching their kids in action. Some of these people almost certainly think I’m medium clueless or hopeless. I do one or two things to make this an utter non-issue.

1. Concentrate on energising and enthusing and asking good questions of my players.

2. Prepare… enough.

Few of us outside of the professional game have time to prepare properly. But I do prepare enough. I rehearse things, mumble things and make notes. If I know I am going to have to speak to a new group of parents (for example, at the outset of County Development Sessions) then I may well write a few important points or phrases down; because a) first impressions b) I want them to trust me and rate me, less out of ego than the practicalities of simply getting on c) this means I have to think about what I’m doing.

I have notebooks for this stuff. Alongside the tees and the multifarious balls and beanbags and cones and clobber.

When I arrive at Winter Nets (or anywhere else where I’m gonna be leading) I have notebooks to ask myself questions and to prompt the way. Sometimes things change – because Jonny or Sarah needs that, but often the skeleton for the session is there.

In the moments of calm before other folks arrive – because we coaches always arrive first, right? – I unpack my notebook and my thoughts. I look around the space, feel its fitness, readiness, scope. I leave the nets, to start with, and resolve not to capitulate to their charms without setting some real, meaningful points of focus. And then I am ready.

 

Ready or not.

I’m both well-placed and dangerously poised on the @Chance2Shine @ECB story. Being a part of the Cricket Wales Community Team – being one of the coaches who actually go do stuff.

My interest is (as Blackadder might say) more vested than a very vested thing. My job as a Community Coach may be more secure as a result of the hike in investment. My hours may go up. But best not say too much, eh? Best not pre-empt anything or count too many chance2shiny eggs?

If you missed it/them, here are some factoids. The ECB, that fascinatingly soft target/that suddenly inspired and dynamic force for good/that bunch of Old Farts (delete according to prejudice or experience) has stumped up a significantly bigger wedge of moolah for schools cricket. More specifically, it has committed to a doubling of the funds invested in Chance2Shine, whose principal mission is to get professional cricket coaches into state schools.

I’m not party to the detail on this; for example I simply do not know, at this point, how much dosh Cricket Wales might get (if any) or how much of that money will go into an increase in coaching. Could be that the CEO of Cricket Wales doesn’t yet know this – partly because this additional money doesn’t come in until October 2017 and partly because (I imagine) high-level discussions around percentages of this and that are still going on. However (and despite acknowledging it’s kindof eeeeeasy and maybe tempting to be cynical about cycles or changing notions of what’s mega, or essential, or how the brand must be) I’m buzzing.

Buzzing because it does feel like there’s a will to really change something. Because (again, accepting that I am neither independent nor proportionate on any of this) I know what we’re offering kids in schools is pret-ty damn good on a zillion levels. It’s loaded with giggles; it’s profoundly developmental; it’s a gateway. All that but maybe more importantly now, it may well be there, for most children.

Cricket in the playground, in the hall, in yer face. Daft, friendly, skilled and yes, often inspiritational people building cricket games, with you, Danny… and Sarah… and everybody! Cricket exposed – #unleashed on all of you – ready or not.

Great and possibly revealing that we may have an Aussie to thank for this, the ECB having poached the bloke who led Cricket Australia’s own transformation. Encouragingly, despite his radical ideas around shamelessly large-ing up the presence, the boomtastic child-relevance of sleepy ole cricket, blow me if the ECB haven’t actually listened to the man. And then they’ve backed him.

Consequently Matt Dwyer, new ECB Director of Participation and Growth finds himself driving something real and weighty and meaningful – and maybe even thrilling- rather than faffing about in some simulator. It appears there is actually a thing, quite possibly a revolutionary thing. Let’s hope.

There are arguments about what cricket needs to do, of course. Whether upping the profile in Primary Schools and supporting and readying clubs for an influx of bouncy kids is really the Golden Bullet. Whether recognition of stars and role-models is gonna happen without free-to-air telly. Whether the ECB should be quadrupling this money to truly transform levels of closeness to the game and its elite protagonists. There are arguments.

But – as with Climate Change – there is a consensus which recognises a need for action. Unlike that other seminal issue for the day, our Powers That Be appear to have processed the understanding that there is a need to act into (yaknow) taking action… which is almost shocking.

Maybe some of the suspicion around the ECB/Chance2Shine plans is a function of deep, existential surprise – or maybe some residual entanglement with the necessary but debilitatingly polarising T20 debate? Could simply be that folks just can’t get their heads around the fact that the ECB may be on an inspirational charge here, boldly re-inventing themselves, as well as our sport. This is not, traditionally, what old white blokes in blazers do.

Apparently one of the game-changers was the revelation, via research, that many more children knew who John Cena was (WWE wrestler, c’mon, catch up!) than knew the Test skipper of England cricket.

I can see this might or arguably should resonate powerfully with those looking to critically assess the state of the game, so will only mention in passing that Alistair Cook’s almost complete absence of charisma might be a factor in this. I accept the view that cricket needs to get brutally frank with itself but tentatively maybe dangle out the concern that research may be flawed, or open to interpretation, or a weirdly self-validating end in itself, on occasion. Whatever, the case for cricket being a minor sport in the minds of young british children, is proven: meaning action.

I hope there is close to a doubling in the number of sessions us coaches get to hold in Primary Schools. I hope this is the crux of it – increased cash, increased cricket. I have no doubt at all that masses of kapow and run in the playground will result in masses of converts to the game.

The target group appears to be five to eight year-old boys and girls, presumably to migrate them, eyes sparkling and hearts a-thrum, to either festival activity or lovely, lively, rewarding action at a local club. The headline intention is (amongst other things) to ‘win the battle of the playgrounds’.

This is bold. This is so bold it’s kinda controversial. Adversarial. The ECB implying (saying?) it’s gunning for other sport’s territory. The ECB frothing rather dangerously and magnificently with belief. The ECB strutting.

I’m nearly too old to be pumped – but I’m pumped for this. The idea that cricket can play a central part in the consciousness of the next generation. That brilliant cricket coaches – of whom I know many – can influence profoundly not just the recreational lives but also (honestly) the levels of engagement and achievement of hundreds of thousands of young people at their place of learning.

Madly ambitious? ‘ Course. But if a further shedload of us are unleashed into schools you better look out.

People, I’m pro-sport rather than tribal-adversarial. I know rugby or football or tennis guys or gals can do important, inspiring work the way that we cricketpeeps can.

Forgive me though, if I’m not hoopla-ing their thing right now. This is cricket’s moment. We deserve it; we’ve been equipping ourselves for years to deliver something liberating, challenging, growing, exciting. It’s outright fabulous that thanks to the ECB – and to Chance2Shine – we might now really get to hit out. Freely.

Remember that?

 

 

There’s a welcome.

Last night I was buzzing. I’m going to bore you with it – the detail of some of it, too, – because (who knows?) it may be either relevant or it might, in an abstract way, ‘cheer you up’. Plus I’m still buzzing.

But what follows, with its adrenalin-fuelled odour of Mission Statement, is not supposed to be some model, some icon of good practice. It’s just another contribution to the debate. If it’s unusually detail-heavy, that’s because I’m imagining other sports-peeps with similar interests or concerns may be perusing.

Now we’re talking cricket but please don’t be put off by that. We’re also talking – really talking – #inclusion, #development, #sport, the human. Big Things; proper Guardian-reading adult hashtags; but in the context of wee humans, mainly, so don’t tell me you’re not interested. It’s for the kids.

Okay so there are Test Matches and Big Bashes and bawling crowds and trampolines and trumpets and y’know – glory. But there is also the tiddly, inconsequential stuff. Let’s call it the grassroots – even if a fair portion of the resultant grassroots action takes place on a Leisure Centre floor, or on what most of us call an ‘astro.’

Last night, in a hall that has the feel almost of an old-school gymnasium, 16 kids turned up to one of our cricket hubs. Hardly earth-shattering, so for that to mean anything I’m going to have to explain some stuff. Let’s take a deep breath together.

In the search for alternative ways to offer up cricket to children aged 6-11, we (Cricket Wales, Pembrokeshire Posse) came up with the cunning plan to deliver in a ‘non-club’ setting and then secured three Leisure Centres. But… why now, why midwinter?

Firstly it felt worthwhile to extend the profile and availability of the game locally – whilst accepting entirely the primacy of clubs. Secondly, as L C’s are often simply unavailable to us in the summer (and weather then theoretically at least supports outdoor cricket!) it made enough sense to crack on in the cold and dark. I should add that this is something of a pilot scheme but also that we believe it’s important – possibly crucial – to broaden our appeal beyond the keen, ball-tracking eyes of the gifted.

That then, is some of the why. The how was less of a novelty for us, in that I then went into local primary schools and delivered some ‘taster’ sessions and/or spoke in assemblies to try to enthuse children towards the activity. Which is kindof what I generally do.
With an unhelpful(?) break over Christmas, we really weren’t sure if we could maintain sufficient numbers to continue into the New Year. The centres have been very supportive but clearly there’s an economic reality of sorts even here, in the joyous, energising land of play.

With children going free if they already have a membership and paying two to three pounds if not, the project is vulnerable should less than about ten or a dozen children attend each one-hour hub. (Naturally we’d prefer more – 15-20 ideally.) Cricket Wales fund me and the Leisure Centres have to pay my partner-in-crime, Craig. Nobody’s making money here; it’s about opening up opportunities – to either play cricket or inhale the culture of physical activity in a particular space – or both.

Pre Santa’s delivery of new Gray Nicholls or Ni-kees, so attendances predictably had begun to dip slightly; hence we were conscious we may need to pull out all the stops to find enough bodies. We got on twitter to promote the hubs again, as well as re-sending posters into schools. My suspicion is, however, that the notices delivered via facebook – for a smallish fee, to all users in a particular post code – may have been key to refreshing and re-booting the return to action. (This was another first, for us, by the way. Forty-odd quid that I expect will make several weeks or possibly months-worth of cricket possible.)

I feared or expected only six children might turn up for the first post-Krimble session. We had sixteen. I appreciate this may not sound like a triumph but I know just how powerfully these sessions can act on children – maybe particularly children who get left behind when the alpha males/females are choosing teams in the playground. Cue the brief appalling digression…

In ‘Just one experience’, I wrote about how impactful (even) very ‘loose’ or profoundly non-technical sessions can be. (https://cricketmanwales.com/2015/12/15/just-one-experience – Go back a coupla posts on this site – you’ll find it.) Lots of people liked it – got it – that sense of a young human lighting up, opening up, through sport. Like most coaches that’s what drives me – and if that is revealing of some intrinsic arrogance then so be it. I love to play a part in that inching or lolloping towards expression and movement. It’s massively inspiring for me to see children blown away or buzzing with what they’ve done; it’s my privilege and responsibility to offer up the game and do it well in the knowledge that this might change something.

Anyways, back to that sixteen – those sixteen kids.

They make a glorious dollop of change and inspiration possible by making this hub viable – and this was the difficult one in terms of numbers. As it happens in the last 24 hours more people have come back to me on twitter and are committing their kids. From the Sports Development Militia point of view, it’s also important that we may have found another way of reaching people.

Weirdly, this latter point – the facebook option – feels like a watershed moment, given one of the intentions was to open this up to children who might find the club environment waaay too challenging to contemplate. There’s something about the part-private, part immaculately ‘populist’ post-code slam-dunk blanket-coverage-wallop that I like and it looks to have worked, or helped.

In this particular centre last night eleven of these boys and girls were ‘new’ – meaning they didn’t attend prior to Christmas, when the project started.

New attendees are clearly the gold dust, the holy grail and the bees knees when it comes to the Key Performance Indicators that S D Militia everywhere cherish. I can see why, but as the front man in much of this, gifted the role of interacting with and hopefully encouraging children towards something I know to be fabulous and growing, I’m probably a whole lot less interested in the numbers than I’m sounding here. Yes I’m chuffed that it was sixteen not six… but I’m more bothered by how these sessions feel to the kids.

So, whilst this blog is about the circumstances around capturing these young cricketers, do not, my friends, get side-tracked into thinking that anything is remotely as important as the quality of experience in that sports hall. Migrations mean nothing if the sessions are dull or inappropriate.

A final thought. It hasn’t escaped our attention that the children who fall(?) into the ‘Na, not a natural’ category may quite possibly still offer up 40 years of wunnerful service as an administrator/scorer/groundsman at a cricket club they patently love. Possibly despite never having represented it on the pitch. This phenomenon clearly becomes more likely if they have a great experience of knockabout or festival cricket games – say using a tennis ball or windball… in a local Leisure Centre.

Broadly, the point I am making is that we cricketpeeps need to offer many things. And we’re looking to do that. The game is sensational but it can seem dauntingly technical or structured or dull, actually, from the outside, or from knee-high to a grasshopper. And we need – we really need – to welcome folks in.

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.