Changing Rooms.

We end the year with more icons falling. Some mean more or less everything, in the moment, others slip away with minimal trauma. But the thing of The Event surely grows. Celebrity. The pull or dazzle of The Stars.

We all have our theories on this – and our judgements. One such might be that it’s inevitable and bad, that t’internet-led, halogen-quality, dumb-kaleidoscope-in-a-bad-way ‘behaviours’ have somehow infested our consciousness or swamped and smothered it into juvenile mush. We can’t think, can’t judge, can only follow or wallow.

That’s pretty much my view. Or maybe the view (as it were) from my gut.

It’s tempting to describe what we’re up to generally as both massively better-informed and largely stoopider and stoopider, right? Everybody has the capacity to know everything but somehow we got criminally dumber. How did we stumble into this full-on malaise-fest? We’ve gotten clouds when we need lasers.

If we cared to ratchet in one notch we might be forced to contemplate some yet more incriminating failure to not only assimilate readily-available knowledge, but fall utterly for sleazeball grades of prejudice around the simplest of issues; like goodness and badness, for example. Thus things become twisted, as well as or instead of being learned. We maybe got dumber and less moral, then?

This is quite a legacy for the year we’re talking here.

Going no further with this – not here or now. It’s merely the context for my own re-gathering of certainties, or maybe impulses I feel confident about. Confident enough to call them healthy – healthy and true.

Asitappens I work in sport. So the notion that we are subsiding into an entirely brain-dead, sedentary state in which we trawl in the wake of endless Lowest Common Denominators, whilst being familiar to me, is emphatically hoofed or carved or chased to the touchline. Yup there’s worrying dollops of lard-arsed acquiescence out there but there is also brilliance and sharpness and anticipation – refreshing, glorious movement.

And yes there is that twin evil(?) obesity – clearly inextricably linked to shocking diet (and yes, poverty and/or ignorance) plus lack of activity – but there is also invincible energy, around sport, around activity for pleasure.

We know in the case of children they simply don’t play in the way we did – certainly not out of school hours. We might also fear that they don’t charge about enough IN school, with time and place for Physical Education squeezed by the moronic pressures towards ‘targets’. Yet I am here to tell you, dear friends, that it is extremely likely your kids or grandkids will meet somebody inspiring and fit and playful during their time at Primary School.  They will be offered the game.

It’s clearly the business of folks like me to inspire them towards a particular sport – mine being cricket. But over a quiet pint most of us would confess to being more than happy to see children fall for the other tracksuited fella/other woman’s game.   To me there’s no contradiction in trying to be the fabbest, funniest and most inspiring sports coach Kid A will see at his or her school and being deebloodylighted when it turns out they’ve chosen regular rugby over regular cricket. Kids simply must do something.

I can, will and do make the case for team sport in particular because for me the craic and the learning are special. But this doesn’t mean I dismiss climbing, or surfing, or tennis – they’re ace too. However here’s a couple of thoughts, drawn absolutely from the most profound and wonderful experiences of my life, on why team sports.

Before we plough excitedly but sincerely on, a minor warning. Please read the next paragraph without being distracted by admittedly important and current news stories; I’m serious and it ain’t gonna work if you drift.

Dressing Rooms –Changing Rooms! – are places where real magic stirs. Of course, there have often been a zillion stages of learning or skills development before we get to playing matches but Proper Matches are it. The occasion around matches – the psychology, the camaraderie, the deep learning, the growth.

I understand the need for caution around all this Real Sport Is stuff. In fact I seem to spend half my life writing or working against what I tend to call dumb machismo. So this is not going to be some bullish cry for tribal aggression masquerading as ‘liberation’. Read on, reassured, people…

I spend most of my working life committed to non-competitive games or making games about inclusion – literally the sharing of the sport – as well as cricket skills, communication, activity, etc. So I am not some brutalist blokey-donkey equating sport with winning. But there IS another level for sport where powerfully human things get tested. Provided things are in place to make this kind of game work, it is or can be one our species’ great achievements.

In Changing Rooms I learned that the young lads I played cricket/football/rugby with were different but all brilliant. The hooligans were brilliant; the swots and the comedians were brilliant.

Those that knew or feared that they were destined for drudgery expressed their finer wits – fact! – around the game. Sure, they battled but they were also funnier than most comedians: or they were subtle or creative or electrifying on the park. A lad not blessed with academic precision counted exactly the 73 ‘fucks’ in the managers team-talk. Or Owen Roberts sent us out to ‘represent our region and our friends’ ten feet tall.

Through laughter and sometimes through grit and graft, we players came to value each other. Don’t tell me now that brickies or forklift-truck drivers are mugs: in Changing Rooms I learned otherwise. I’m rooted in this.

Though I’m hardly immune to the distractions of the twittersphere or (via my children) the instagram generation, and though I mourn the insidious omnipresence of all that is vacuous or ‘starry’ or sold to me by Keepemdown Multinational Corporation, I know some key stuff. I know sport. I know it’s profound as well as fun.

So when the universe feels overloaded with either junk or fakery; when things seem to conspire against intelligence or truth; when you want a real, genuine laugh – the kind that is undeniable and life-affirming – maybe just go play. Could even be that engaging in sport (because it typically defies prejudice?) is a progressive riposte to political and/or philosophical post-truths? Like that as a thought? Or that freeing up the spirit tends to be, or is facilitative of an act of protest?

Maybe these are my reasons. Maybe I think life is wonderful because even in our dumbness, we change – we run a bit, perhaps? – and we are brilliant.

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.