The Brilliance of Games.

It’s not just the prompt that is #MHAW16 that makes me think of the link between sport and wellbeing. At the risk of sounding like some faker or fanatic, I never really divert from that #caseforsport thing.

In my daily life I’m completely in the business of getting kids moving and smiling. My head continually swims with responses to sport – and for those in the London Borough of Brent, nope I’m not necessarily talking competitive sport here. I’m talking activity. I’m talking freedom, movement – the finding of skills, the building of rhythms and confidences. For me the brilliance of games are an obvious and essential way in to both social and academic skills as well as a rich but direct route to joy and achievement.

Let’s put something daft and challenging out there. I believe that we could radically improve the health, wellbeing and academic development of children if we put the much-vaunted Physical Literacy Framework right at the centre of Primary School life. Or more exactly – because I don’t want to get bogged down in This Year’s Ideological Re-structure – if we expanded our understanding of the role of physical education.

Decent coaches and/or teachers know PE can be used broadly (but phenomenally successfully) to gather unwilling or disaffected or ‘non-academic’ children in to the curriculum, as well as boosting levels of engagement and achievement in bright kids. It provides a way in – even with those who initially lack co-ordination.

Good coaches re-calibrate the challenge of the game and feed encouragement into the faces of children. They hear them and guide them and praise them towards some tiny- gargantuan triumph… like making a catch or swatting a ball off a tee crisply, with a deeply satisfying clump. In these moments lives can (honestly) be changed.

If I tell you I know that during every session I run something pret-ty damn profound happens that isn’t about me. It’s about the fact of that transformation through the game. A boy or girl *getting it*.

Maybe that getting it is the execution of a single (or probably more likely) a compound skill; or maybe it’s the moment when a lifetime of healthy activity kickstarts, because the child felt something magic… and they were seen… and they were heard; their skill or value was noted in the handbook of the world; their mark – maybe so often ignored, erased or simply un-made – was made, recognised, appreciated.

These are revelatory  moments and they can and should herald wonderful leaps forward.

Children can and often are welcomed in to curriculum work, to academic development via progress in games. (And yes, I am placing the games before the Proper School Work here. If we worked this way round more often rather than bundled on into SATS or some other ‘measurement’ then we might develop more confident, capable and sophisticated young thinkers. And that’s what we want, right?)

Through games children can learn co-operation, awareness, that sense of place – both in terms of belonging and in terms of hierarchy. Whilst the former tends to be powerfully helpful, the latter may turn out a real-world scramble that often needs supporting but must be negotiated.

Beyond the ‘obvious’ skill development comes the progress re- a child’s ability to make intelligent (tactical) decisions. Sport implies and needs the hot-wiring of judgements – often adrenalin-fuelled, often exhilirating. Such moments are surely growth spurts for the mind?

All this over and above the mere movement; the mere propping up of the universe and the NHS *because we got fittish kids*. PE dictates an increasingly alarmingly sedentary generation move something other than their texting or snapchatting fingers.

So mentally and physically we win and we win. I say we celebrate that and prioritise that by making it genuinely central to Primary Education (as opposed to merely re-branding it Physical Literacy and continuing that tendency to significantly underachieve.)

I hear the arguments from those who had a ‘bad experience’ of PE at school and who fear that insensitive blokes with scary beards or gruff manners might revisit all that in the playgrounds of their own children. But coaches or PE Teachers are way better than this now. Things are simply waaay more sophisticated and child-centred.

Coaches bring new levels of understanding and yes sensitivity to games these days. The kids who ‘would never get picked’ are involved now – they share in the activity. Far from being by-passed or damaged, children are more often found/released/directed.

Personally, after a couple of sessions I frequently invite children to build their own game – having prepared the ground with questions about fairness, structure, the sharing of the bat. It’s massively challenging.

There’s no hiding from deepish, philosophical issues because we’ve established that abstracted groundrule that ‘we’re looking for a way to make this work’. We’ve dug into the difficulties about the primeval urge to be the batter; we’ve asked ourselves what a good number might be for the bowler to bowl and those two(!) batters to bat. We’ve considered the shape of things; grappled with social, existential, practical stuff – stuff about time and number and patience and feeling and nerve. We’ve put the Education into the Physical.

Then we go play. And the children choose and negotiate and muscle through that barrier towards sharing.

I don’t think I’m overplaying the levels of mental/academic consideration we’re looking towards here. This is meant to support engagement on a zillion levels but it may (on a purely intellectual stratum) be a separate phenomenon to wellbeing. So let’s briefly look at that.

Young humans generally love to move – despite the aforementioned epidemic in sedentary behaviour – I maintain they/we are stimulated by and enjoy movement. Not because some coach or teacher tells us that games are good or important or healthy but because (when we are guided or supported well) something positive floods through our bodies.

That may be a profoundly individual sensation or it may be something communally-felt. There may be a process that folks in labs could unpick for us: it may be adrenalin/endorphins or some other biological/chemical surge that frankly I am hugely underinformed about. I’m not that interested in the mechanics – that’s not real to me.

What is real is the smiling and the running and the delight. The development. The newness and achievement and growth. Children (in this case) freed and uplifted or unshackled because someone got them moving. That’s real – even if it may not be measured.

#MHAW16 may have pointed some of us towards greater awareness of issues. I applaud that. I also get that my subject matter here typically rests in the non-acute area of interventions into wellbeing. However, as a positive bloke I’m happy to bundle through the politesse around all this and daub a simple, positive message: about sport being a way in.

I have seen Physical Education or Activity support those feeling or struggling with isolation, non-engagement, misunderstanding, chronic lack of confidence, furious anger. I have watched as ‘difficult kids’ are seduced into the struggle or the joyful search; as their minds flash with genius and pain and learning. I have seen teeny, gargantuan worlds light up – often.

 

 

Beautiful Game.

My ‘One a the Boys’ rating has always been somewhere between questionable and variable and what follows may do little to re-affirm my status as a fella you could comfortably share a pint and a kosher backslap with. Because I’m dealing in whimsy here; poetry of a sort; and the ‘b’ word comes out.

Let’s cut through that frisson sharply now and tell the story.

You know I’m a cricket coach and I go into schools and clubs to enthuse kids and generally lark about. You know I’m up for it to the point of (that word again) embarrassment – being foamaciously enthusiastic and committed as a whirlwind.

I’ve just been into schools in Fishguard and Goodwick– or as the demonstrably, audibly lovelier welsh words would have it – Abergwaun ac Wdig. Abergwaun, in February, doing cricket. It’s been fabulous.

We found an island of spectacular weather with that unsurpassably stunning winter light zapping from glorious sky to sea to river Gwaun, to asphalt or tarmac pitch. Literally brilliant – but coldish. All the more reason, then, for a certain Cricket Wales missionary to stir the enthusiasm rather than curb it. I went at it, in friendly-comedian and hopefully man-worth-listening-to mode.

Somehow, over three days, delivering sessions that were about multi-skills as much as cricket (movement between cones/hopping/catching/bouncing/listening because things change, right?) a happy and successful and invigorating and enjoyable mood was sustained. The weather was reflected. Children were challenged and entertained – they were distracted into listening.

The means for them to coach me how to throw was found, or built, from stories of disillusioned dogs (epic fail – more like a shot putt!) and ecstatic pooches chasing missiles hurled from a High Elbow and Long, Long Arm. A rare outbreak this, of Technical Stuff, in a matrix of buzz, movement, sharing bats, booming balls. The kids were in there, they were on it, they were up for it; I think maybe I barely gave them a choice.

In one school I ran three sessions in the morning. In the last of these I was joined by a (woman) teacher of some standing in the school whom I know not well, but well enough to respect as somebody who gets sport can offer. She was accompanied by another specialist teacher supporting a young boy with a particular challenge. In the sparkling sunshine, on a playground pitched quite alarmingly down from right to left as I cheerfully ‘prepped’ the session, we went to work.

First up I did do that thing where you invite the group to listen so they don’t miss any of the fun. I made it all a giggle and a deal. Then on we charged.

Through coloured ‘gates’ we had to shift – forward or back, jogging or hopping. Through four or ten or how many? Thirty?!? Then basketball/catching/clapping; always offering a calibrated challenge so that fliers could fly and fumblers find a happy way through. Then that throwing round the garden thing, with a partner and a target on the floor and (actually) the space and attention and confidence in the bank to talk technical, for just a mo’. Another step on my mission to teach half the western world (well, Pembs) that dog-launching life-skill.

Round the garden I went, with a dose of encouragement for everyone. Not just spooned to the wind blandly, but proffered into every face.

These or’nary kids really got it. They really listened, really threw with their feet, really tried to hit that target. It all flowed; my positive energy, their smiley determination. The teachers sat back contentedly, or joined in.

Timing-wise and ambience-wise a clumping of balls from tees to finish seemed absolutely appropriate. Fifteen minutes then, of building a way of sharing the bat – dumb questions from the coach finding a ‘taking it in turns’ protocol agreeable to all. It may have been the sunshine but this group shared magnificently, irresistibly proficient fielders passing the ball over to their less dynamic compadres for their turn to ‘give it some wallop.’

Not the most original way to end a session, it’s true. But in terms of learning arguably quite profound lessons on what makes games (or life?) work and combining that with a pure, liberating, hitting experience it stands as valid and valuable. And the kids loved it. Broadly, it felt great, obviously, undeniably great to all of us – one of the best I can remember – in all sorts of ways.

I closed the session by saying thankyou and asking one or two more dumb questions about what we’d accidentally found; catching-wise, throwing-wise, making games work-wise. I told the children I was dee-lighted to report that I’d be back for more… and they seemed genuinely pleased. Finally I asked them if they’d be so good as to go quietly back into school with their teachers.

At that point the senior teacher spoke. She asked the children if there was something they thought they should say to me and they responded in Welsh (largely) – diolch yn fawr iawn, Rick! Predictably enough. But the teacher went on to say that she thought the children should note how ‘beautifully’ I had spoken to them and how this had been a special – she used the word again – beautiful lesson that they should remember for a long time.

You weren’t there so I’ll just add that she was in no way either showboating or being glib. She was, to her credit, visibly touched by something and was trying to a) thank me, generously and sincerely but also b) mark that there had been something profound and lovely as well as merely successfully sporty going on. There had.

There had but I’m not after the credit: I’m after making that case for sport again. I’m touched by the boldness and generosity of the language used – specifically, of course by the use of that precious ‘b’ word, which most folks would’ve surely swerved and which I’ve never heard before in this context.

On reflection, by the way, I’m clear that what was beautiful was the children’s level of engagement. I may also contend (dangerously, because it interests me!) that the teacher’s sex may have played an important role in the discourse – Big Boys generally being too dumbed by machismo to speak so fearlessly and naturally of loveliness. But this is another subject.

I was gladdened and sure, made proud by the implications around all this. Chiefly I was clear that for whatever reason, a moment had been marked; we’d heard – the universe had heard – that encouragement, movement, co-ordination can be beautiful.

Dawning; typical of me but I think I’ve just realised why I wrote this. Could be because I do wonder if us blokes are generally so unable to say ‘b’ words (or similar) that perhaps we don’t let ourselves recognise the transforming poetry in moments like this.  Or if we do we don’t say it.  And if we don’t say it maybe it’s not evidenced in the way it might be.  And if it’s not evidenced then less kids (maybe) get fit, or open themselves up to the game. Any game.

Converting.

I’ve always been a sportsman not a salesman. But now I have to factor in stuff from outside of that previously ‘natural’ territory where I just run/ran around innocently clouting or throwing or hoofing things. Things like ‘delivery’, things like ‘migration’ now muscle into my consciousness in a way that’s both a challenge and maybe sometimes a concern.

This is because I now work (as well as volunteer) in sport – as Community Cricket Coach for Pembrokeshire. Get the sick-bowl ready people because I’m gonna have to tell you that I’m absolutely all over this work; I love what I’m doing and I’m kindof defiantly proud of the nature and the impact of what us Cricket Wales Peeps are doing at the lily-white coal-face of the game.

I know, for example, that our/your Community Cricket Coaches are right now lighting up the lives of children – today, now. They are organising/running and fronting festivals wherein children play what we call kwik or festival cricket in the most fabulous and intelligently competitive way. In my own region we’ve clicked over from delivering sensaaaaayshunnal and bright and profoundly educational sessions in schools into this, the Festival Season, where most of my ludicrously freeform Good Energy pours into Big Days Out.

Recently we had 19 schools attending the Girls’ Finals Day. Except that they weren’t attending; they were gallivanting, they were giggling, they were smashing and sprinting and munching sandwiches too fast too early before springing up to bat/bowl/field. Each one batting in every single game; each one bowling in every single game – so sharing the experience, the opportunity in a way that utterly confounds the difficulties around How This Game Works for Everybody. Playing four or five games per Big Day Out.

Likewise at the Pembroke Cluster of Schools Festival, held at Pembroke Dock Cricket Club on an immaculately bright sunny day on their immaculately sunny ground, prepared as if for a visit from royalty or from Sky Sports.

Maurice and John and Andrew having plumped the cushions to offer unknown and unseen children a wonderful, cricketacious day, perhaps in the hope that some might return and fix themselves into the fabric of the club, perhaps simply because they’re good blokes who love the idea of kids doing sporty stuff, who understand the world this way. Eight schools here, including Orielton, a tiny ‘country’ primary punching mind-bogglingly above their weight in terms of achievement on the park.

Imagine. Stackpole and Cosheston and (in huge contrast) Pembroke Dock Community School; St Marys and Golden Grove; schools so extraordinarily diverse the gathering in-ness of the occasion was an essential part of the holistic magic. On twitter later one school reported its pride at the behaviour of their team, on a day when a zillion skills including attention, focus and thoughtfulness were called for just as much as rip-roaring expression with bat or ball. It was triumphant in its insidious charm; they always are.

At Haverfordwest CC – where the level to which the club ‘accommodates’ our Festivals is such that we should run out of knighthoods, never mind superlatives – the H’west Cluster gathered yesterday. In cool, cool sun. Fifteen schools, about 150 children, for more Mixed But Actually Simply Your Best Team-style action. (About 30 girls, I’m guessing.)

I, in welcoming the expectant throng, ban stress for five hours and ask the children how many batters/balls/overs/smiles is going to make this thing work? They emphatically assist with any concerns I may have and together we dart into the fizz and doink of the matches. We’re generous re wides and no-balls. Teachers score whilst The Coach wanders and monitors and encourages, mainly. Three groups of five teams at this one with top two proceeding to the County Finals. Lots of real cricket breaking out, with Hook Primary School notably prominent. Brilliantly so, in fact.

A taster for and of now. The summer mission to run successful days. Maybe to convert a teacher or Headteacher or two – nurdle them towards getting it. How could they not, in the presence of all this lifeskill-rich, learning-supportive activity? All evidenced (actually) by the total engagement of allegedly disaffected or disengaged children, or by the maturity and flawlessness of Bethan’s bowling action – learned at sessions in the school. Physical Literacy not so much embodied but ecstatically performed.

I make no apology for implying (or, okaaay ladling on) the notion that Festival Days are special. I have no doubt they leave a huge and almost uniformly wonderful imprint on hundreds of children… and that’s just in Pembrokeshire. Sporty children are stretched but supported by the appropriate scope and structure of the game. Competition is pitched just right. I really do pretty much outlaw stress – enforcing with targeted bantz or panfuls of encouragement.

Less confident or developing players get ‘a go’, an equal, significant go. It may be less impactful in terms of the score but nevertheless it registers on that Physical Literacy ladder and perhaps more meaningfully – within the thing that defies measurement – the confidence of the child.

Around and before these halcyon days I go into schools and deliver. I’ve written elsewhere about the essences of that work and remain clear of the value of that contact. Cricket in Wales benefits because many hundreds of children are exposed to a game they may not, in the age of Sky Sports, be familiar with and children get to play and learn with a spookily well-trained sportsgeezer. Me.

There is this year a further area of work for the Pembrokeshire exponent of the Art of Conversion. Under the outstanding and insightful guidance of Cricket Development Officer Matt Freeman I’ve linked schools sessions to setting up Cricket Hubs in three of our local Leisure Centres. So post the work in schools, children have been invited to continue cricket games with myself and colleague Ceri Brace at a facility down the road. We may be the only region adopting this pathway so let me briefly explain.

There is evidence that Yrs 3 and 4 at primary level are under-supported in terms of sports provision; often Yrs 5 and 6 (the top two years in primary, for those still thinking in old money) collar most attention and therefore funding. Given this, and the fact that we found most Pembrokeshire Cricket Clubs are at capacity, we decided to approach Leisure Centres to host winter/spring sessions for children aged around six to nine.

If some of these children subsequently wanted to migrate into a local club come summer, then hap-pee days. If not the sessions themselves would have an intrinsic value. Children do however get ‘signposted’ to clubs to enable the ideal, long-term, lifetime-in-the-sport scenario.

This pilot scheme has been successful on several levels. In Milford Haven 15-20 boys and girls have been attending weekly cricket sessions. At least one of them (I have no doubt there are more but await confirmation from other clubs) has come across to my own club where he’s developed into a keen and enthusiastic member. Intriguingly and encouragingly, this fella is not an obvious candidate; he’s grappled bravely rather than coasted towards cricketdom.

Down in Pembroke there are two lovely and contrasting stories. Two girls, one of whom I’d worked with school and the other who’s bowling was a thing of beauty (aged 8) at a recent festival. They both now attend the Leisure Centre where their apparently divergent learning curves are now soaring together towards the vertical. And they’re smiling; whilst exploring, really exploring and then de-constructing/re-constructing the possible. The word development barely does it justice.

Meanwhile Crymych CC posted a thank-you on twitter last night to some geezer calling himself @cricketmanwales following fifteen Under 11’s bouncing in to their junior practice. – good numbers for a deeply rural club.

This follows work from yours truly in Eglwyswrw and Y Frenni schools in the winter and sessions at Crymych Leisure Centre during the spring. I initiated those but Rhodri from Crymych CC took over, built numbers up, and Pied Piper-ed his posse over to the club he loves. Superb and successful model. Bringing me back to the festivals.

Tomorrow it’s Crymych. Eight Welsh-medium schools on an idyllic village ground at Glandy Cross. Weather set fine; red kites likely.

A new season, a new challenge for @cricketmanwales.

Pembrokeshire’s very own Community Cricket Coach is known to hundreds of primary school children as The Cricket Man! (And yes, there generally is an exclamation mark in that greeting.)

Also known as Rick Walton, this particular coach has been bouncing into schools and clubs with a level of energy and enthusiasm that’s won him friends and supporters around the county.

Rick is both trained and genetically programmed to perform and/or coach sport, coming as he does from a distinguished sporting family. In a loose moment Rick might confess to a passion for both rugby and football but he is proud of and dedicated to his work for Cricket Wales. But what does he actually do?

For three years Rick (a.k.a. @cricketmanwales on twitter!) has delivered what he would like to think are dynamic and often challenging sessions of fun, cricket-based games into schools. Generally, he has worked in the primary sector but he has also been involved – for example offering Girl’s cricket sessions leading into the now widely enjoyed Lady Taverners competition – in all the secondary schools in the county.

The work has several aims, some of which may sound rather ambitious. Let’s start with the obvious;
• to enthuse children for the game – for healthy activity
• to offer a link between schools and local cricket clubs – and therefore sustain and enrich that activity.

Nobody would doubt that any sports coach is in the business of facilitating those two ideals but Rick is clear that the scope of his work – his responsibilities as well as his intentions – goes way beyond these fairly narrow sporting targets. So what about these, then, for aspirations?

• to stimulate children to think and listen and work together
• to capture their attention and make them better learners
• to support literacy and numeracy as well as ‘development’ in terms of the physical literacy framework
• to offer opportunities to devise games – and therefore develop understandings about sharing and about what works for everybody, not just ‘me’
• to light up individuals, some of whom may find academic work beyond them
• to provide both a kind of release and a way in to class work for children who have difficulty engaging.

Ask @cricketmanwales about all of the above and he would say simply that ‘daft games of cricket’ can and often manifestly do achieve all that.

Most recently Rick has been working in schools in Milford and in North Pembrokeshire. At Y Frenni in Crymych he not only led sessions indoor and out but hosted a genuine and delightful discussion about what a good game of cricket might look like. Children were asked to help sort out a hypothetical game – drawn out on a whiteboard – in order to discuss what a successful playground game might look and feel like. Their response was fabulous – intelligent, thoughtful, generous.

At Ysgol Gynradd Eglwyswrw, the Headteacher Mr Tim Davies shook Rick warmly by the hand after watching some of his first session.
“Brilliant” he said. “And I can’t believe how it was so much more than cricket!” Another teacher, on thanking Rick after he left the final session, described the impact of his work as “wonderful”.

Now because these things aren’t entirely thrown together, Rick had been signposting the children in the North of the county to Monday night ‘Cricket Hub’ activity at Crymych Leisure Centre (5-6pm, children Years 3,4,5 and 6 most welcome! Call 01437 776690.) Now established, it is hoped that these sessions will be ongoing.

Down in Milford, a similar approach was in place. Rick delivered three or four weekly sessions into Hakin, Hubberston and Milford Junior schools with a view to continuing the cricket at The Meads Leisure Centre. Subsequently 23 boys and girls aged 8-11 turned up to the first Cricket Hub night – making it a remarkable success. (Cricket Hub activity is on a Friday in Milford, from 5-6pm. Please contact The Meads – Milford Haven Leisure Centre 01437 775959 – for details or to book your child in.)

Rick’s work in Milford again demonstrated that cricket games can be hugely engaging and inspiring for children. He made a whole lot of new friends and received outstanding support from the respective Headteachers and the staff who assisted. And children really did wave excitedly every week as The Cricket Man arrived. Imagine how Rick feels when he sees that?

He tells me he feels blessed to be sharing his game. He tells me he is more convinced than ever that what his sponsors call the #powerofcricket is a very real, positive force. Now, word is he might be down Pembroke way next – there’s a potential Cricket Hub down there, alright.

So, will @cricketmanwales be visiting your school soon, I wonder?