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.

The case for sport – the case for cricket.

Anything to declare? Yes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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