‘Early Season’.

Extraordinary times. Driving through an apocalyptic hailstorm in LLandewi Velfrey en route to (you guessed it) some cricket coaching stuff in Carmarthen. Cursing the mysterious disappearance of my Cricket Wales bobble hat just when I needed it most: fellow coach Rhys wearing headgear that could only have been stolen from an un-horsed Cossack. Under 12 boys activated, entertained and warmed, over two goolie-shrinking hours.

Or over to Ynystawe, where the Girls’ Pathway coaches still haven’t thawed out from the previous four days of Siberian action. Misdirected by the reassuring local, out front of his house, wheelbarrowing purposefully but plainly confusing clubs. No dramas; soon find myself encouraging and offering throwdowns – because surely we’re all cold? – without wanting to disturb the quiet vibe. Needing now somehow to suppress my own energetic thrum but still remain temperate. And then forty overs umpiring. ‘Early Season’.

I love this early season. The madness, the toeness, the fingersness; the ecstatic, yellow, wintry lightness. Spectacular. Ridiculous. Impossible and re-connecting. Re-grooving. The Return of The Evening. The return of playing and missing and of wild but innocent leg-side wides: dozens of them. Junior flocks – like dumb, frozen seagulls, gathered in the ring. (Hey. Are their feet *actually frozen?*)

On the Bigger Stage it snowed, too. Yorkshire. Glam punching but then snuffed out, more in fact by that wintry quilt than by Big Bro’ Root. The forecast – chez Roots and countrywide – sunny but cold. Soon enough back to Sophia Gardens ‘gainst the Southern Softies from Hove… and what do we have? It’s sunny but cold. The pitch is a road and all is well. Glam 30-odd for 3. Then recover. Then as the shadows lengthen…

Our cricket clubs… our juniors…and how we do this thing better.

The bigger picture: @cricketmanwales is in the market for slinging ideas around and would be over the proverbial parrot if they triggered pretty much any kind of response. This is a friendly challenge – even if you reject it in a patronised huff.  It may mean nothing (not to me!) but @cricketmanwales has just been recognised by the ECB with an award for ‘Outstanding Contribution’ to Coaching.  So listen.

Firstly, housekeeping; there is no suggestion here that my/your/our club ‘model’ is necessarily broken, merely (like everything else) we can improve it. And maybe we need to. Secondly, I am acutely aware of the EM Forster notion that we may plan at the expense of joy – this may feel relevant. On that, two things;

1. I am abso-lutely in the free-spirited expressionist camp. Be witty and spookily in the moment.

2. The planning I’m onnabout here may be the gentle thinking ahead variety rather than any training dogma.  We must not do cricket practice by numbers, eh?

My friends I know how magbloodynificent much of the work that goes on in cricket clubs is and in no way am I looking to undermine that. Fact is though, (I think) despite the superlative efforts of the Essential Posse at every club – you know who you are – it’s proving difficult to retain players right through their teens and into glorious cricketing adulthood. So we need to do something.

Many things which compete or conspire against us cricketpeeps we simply cannot control. The proliferation of opportunities, the alleged decrease in attention span, the lust for instant reward – that’s all anti-cricket, or anti- Traditional Cricket, right? (There’s another argument here, around whether or how or why we might change the nature of cricket itself but let’s scoot right on past that baby, for now.)

The twitchiness and bitchiness of most of our modern interactions clash gaudily against the deep, rich stillness that characterises some forms of cricket. Be honest, that probably works against us? But as much as I’d like to offer oil painting classes and art cinema at Haverfordwest CC only some of this crazy flux is our responsibility. We can’t sort every headless-chicken of a thing. We can, however maximise or tailor the qualities of that defiantly philosophic, world-contrarily brilliant phenomenon we’ve got our hands on – cricket. Cricket in our clubs.

But wadda we need to do, I hear you ask?

People, it’s not like I or anyone else can direct you absolutely on this.  I’m throwing down a few thoughts here but the more I do this the more central the ability to ask good questions becomes.  So go do that.

Ask questions of the nature of what you’re doing as well as about the process of skill development. How are we sounding… to youngsters? Sure, cricket practice  needs those dry, instructive and reflective periods – it demands those, in fact – so steering kids through that is one of our responsibilities. But how do we keep all this jazzy and attractive enough to junior earthlings (too?)

A note here: coaching better doesn’t mean getting ‘too serious about stuff’ – as many seem to fear: it means being on the case and (asitappens) probably having a giggle. It means being sensitive to the mood of an individual and/or a group. It means being prepared as well as responsive – intuitive. And yeh – it’s a big ask.

One of the things we might do better is to increase the amount of fun/entertainment we offer during training. More than anything, perhaps, we should look to avoid drift; drift stifles both enjoyment and learning. (Doesn’t sound very sexy I know but) preparation and reflection can help us keep sessions bright and keep our young players with us.

So let’s have a wee think about stuff. Our responsibilities as coaches/cricket people are what, exactly?

Amongst many other things…
• To develop players towards excellence?
• To animate and enthuse?
• To ensure everyone remains healthy and safe.

To achieve these things what do we need? All three demand some planning; whether or not this is back of a fag-packet stuff or immaculate tables of options. Do something that works for you – I know what time pressures are all about, believe me.

My general proposal is that we become better focussed by setting out our objectives – perhaps our individual sessions? – significantly more clearly. Far from ‘putting young players off’, I think that we will retain and entertain our young players if we offer them something dynamic, something that leads them somewhere –  something other than just a hit, a throw, a bowl. For me, the essence of this has to have good energy; it has to grip these young people.

Let’s go back that one important step. Statistically, we are losing players from the game in the mid-late teens; I think this is partly because coaches let sessions drift or fail to inspire and these are things we can to some meaningful extent address.
If we accept at the very least that we could do things better so it may well follow that we need to plan things enough to make progress possible.

As an example if we ask ourselves what (broadly) we might need to cover with our young players, we might suggest;

• Core skills
• The generic game – an understanding of what you do
• Team needs

Then we need to address how best to offer up these skills. I’m suggesting a flexible coaching plan (Brit weather!) where ideally we set out objectives for individual sessions and for the season, with age-appropriate, challenging practice.  I stress again that your planning is there to free you up, to be the springboard from which you can confidently bound: I am FOR responsive, ingenious, individualised coaching.

We have to surely combine this with cool, longish-term thinking. Think through percentages of time spent on the three chief disciplines; think about how – and how much – technical information you give out. (Give kids four things to think about not forty-four!) Think about maintaining energy and focus throughout sessions in particular – about how you can minimise drift.

As coaches I’d suggest that an important part of what we do is both an assessment of how players are doing… and how well our sessions have gone… and relationships (the link, if any) between the two things.

Plus is there a way that we can support each other on what we do? Should we be having a monthly pow-wow to keep up to speed with player’s progress and our own delivery? Wouldn’t it be great if coaches shared ideas about particular sessions or games? It’s so-o beneficial to pick up a variation on a game – or a completely new drill – that can be both a hoot and a really healthy challenge. I love that.

Clearly there are issues of diplomacy around even the most casual and friendly coach ‘share’ sessions. Not always easy to find the right level of ease – we ain’t all extroverts, are we? But they are typically entertaining and genuinely instructive moments so find a way of holding the occasional coaches gathering where you throw around some cones or balls. Folks tend to be supportive once you get past any reticence.

Nets are for me the obvious example of where most clubs underachieve. Far too often somebody gets padded up and smashes through the ball for twenty minutes before somebody else does the same. Meanwhile bowlers bowl too much/too casually/without any real commitment. This must change. We need (and I would argue that the young players need)
• less nets/better nets
• clear objectives set by the coach – specific shots/specific gaps?
• a considered and challenging environment which seeks to replicate match conditions
• in other words, FOCUS
• plus… importantly, better attention to SAFETY ISSUES. How many close calls from a straight drive have you seen recently?

Maybe in nets we need cones to mark out where fielders are, we need two batsmen who actually run, we need CHALLENGES and DISCUSSION and LEADERSHIP from the coach. We need reasons to be doing what we’re doing.

I repeat that even though I know hard-ball-competent junior player’s first thought is to ‘go have a net’ and that they therefore equate that most immediately with real practice, it often tends to be poor practice. Guys and gals, we need to sort this one out. In a nutshell, reduce and improve your time in the nets.

This feels longish… and yet the strip’s barely been scratched. Enough, for now.

Whether we like it or not, we are facing all sorts of challenges – financial/competition from other clubs or sports/apathy amongst players and the general population(?) All these are arguments for improvement – for change. It’s a big ask. Especially when most of us are simply volunteers. But comrades… I’m asking. How can you/we/I do this thing better?