“It must be rewarding”: “yes, but….”

….not every day! It comes with its stressful moments. 

When people find out my career, “that must be really rewarding” is by far the most common response. The above quote (or something along these lines) is my usual response to it. 

I wonder if I sound ungrateful, to be involved in a job that I genuinely love, one I have no intention of ever leaving. But it’s the honest answer. Like any job, there are bits of it I could easily do without. Sitting at Clapham Junction – platform 15 in mid-December, surely the COLDEST spot on the face of the earth – at 10:45pm….contemplating a 9am start on Saturday, is one example. 

If you are looking to get into coaching, it is worth knowing. This is what you sign up for. Not every day will offer you that “rewarding feeling”. 

Rewarding….in the long term!

If I could change one thing about sports coaching in general, it would be this:

WORLDWIDE BAN ON MOTIVATIONAL MEMES

“When people ask you what you do, answer with: “Whatever it takes”.”

No, please don’t do that. It makes you sound daft. The same goes for unfounded “statistics” on social media….

“Studies have proven that being coached has a positive impact on mental health”

Does it? Says who? Surely only if the coaching is appropriate?

“Sport builds character”

Not automatically. Again, context is key. Only if a young player’s positive and negative experiences are channeled in the right way.

“Being part of a team helps a child’s social skills, and personal development”

Only if the player is nurtured properly, made to feel they belong

It isn’t so much the sentiment (which is laudable) that frustrates me, but the false impression of what our jobs amounts to. Social media is so saturated with this “positive thinking” rhetoric, and of pseudo-scientific statement, on the subject of sport. The big problem with this is:

  1. Coaching is a highly skilled profession – it isn’t simply cheerleading
  2. Coaching can be difficult – and a “positive mindset” is important but FAR FROM all you need to overcome troubling sessions. Fixating on a better mindset can prevent you from addressing some practical solutions. They won’t just happen.
  3. What happens if it goes wrong? – sometimes coaches will talk a good game….while floundering below the surface. Often they brush these bad experiences off, blame conditions/players/situation/etc, or  even worse, internalize their problems (and not seek assistance when it may well be needed)
  4. COACHING ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE REWARDING ALL THE TIME – sometimes the rewards are hard earned. You will have to make sacrifices, and drag yourself out of bed sometimes. Sometimes the instant rewarding feeling is elusive, you’ll have to rely on faith that it is all worth the effort. It will be tempting to feel sorry for yourself during these barren periods.
    If you are walking on sunshine all day, every day you are either i) surrounded by already-talented players, ii) not holding yourself to a high standard, or ii) lying to yourself.

New coaches: how do we avoid “sink or swim” effect

Retention of community cricket coaching is becoming more and more difficult. Young and new coaches often grow disillusioned, when their imagination – of what coaching will be like – clashes with their real life experience.

Despite the high class training, the mentors at your Level 2 course can only cover so much. A coach fresh out of their assessment simply won’t have the tools – or sometimes even be mentally prepared – to cope with the difficulties presented with them:

  • challenging behaviour
  • adapting to sudden changes to the schedule
  • handling incidents (such as injuries), while keeping the rest of the group calm
  • limited space; balancing group goals with sensitivity to individual personalities
  • overbearing and/or critical parents

It can be a real shock, and a sucker punch to your confidence.

To an extent, only time, and sessions under the belt, will allow a new coach to adapt to these challenges. But too often, they are thrown in at the deep end – large, unruly groups on a weekday evening – left to sink or swim. And without proper guidance, the result is usually, “sink”.

Is the “coaching is so rewarding” rhetoric insulating new coaches from harsher aspects of the job….until it is too late. By stating all the benefits of a life in coaching, are we failing to prepare candidates for some difficult truths: that these benefits come after a long struggle, that you won’t necessarily get an emotional high every week.

What goes through every coach’s mind

When i started out as a coach, I remember my being being consumed with various thoughts….not all of them useful!….as I was delivering every session.

Silly stuff like: “that parent looks a bit stern, what is he/she thinking?” That sickening feeling of being under gaze. 90% of the time, this “stern look” is nothing to do with disapproval, or you. Easy to forget when you are inexperienced, and eager to please people. 

When my sessions didn’t go quite to plan, or ended with an argument, I’d feel acutely embarrassed. There was also a strong feeling of loneliness….stemming from a belief that it is just you having trouble. It is only with almost 10 years of experience that i realize this was far from true – that in fact I was in a bracket of 100% of colleagues!

This is where experienced colleagues can be of huge benefit to juniors. We have been through this journey before, and experienced the lows.

If we want to genuinely help new recruits get through this difficult stage in their development. In my opinion, more of this needs to happen:

  • DISCUSSION – be open about the problems you face. Even if you can’t change your situation, somebody will definitely have been in a similar position to you – and this feeling can help you relax and feel less self-conscious. You may also discover new technique, approach or activity to help you fare better next time.
  • HONESTY – only by reflecting on your worst personal experiences, can you learn from them. Despite the difficulties, if you had another chance, would you have gone about this differently? There is nothing worse than the coach who always pushed blame back onto others. Don’t close ranks, and create an “us V them” attitude to parents/groups.
  • HUMILITY – virtue signalling is everywhere in coaching….the way we talk, the industry branding, the posts and memes we share on social media. But you’d be amazed how often coaches conveniently ignoring times they haven’t succeeded. We have all run sessions that have not gone to plan.
  • TEAMWORK – many coaches are unprepared to confess their problems to others. Maybe we see it as a sign of weakness. Perhaps competitiveness among colleagues makes us reluctant to seek help from others. But sometimes we have to remember, we are all in this together. Be prepared to admit that you aren’t perfect.

Some extra materials

One of the most difficult part of coaching is that every situation is different. Despite the best laid plans, you could be forced into a short-notice change.

There is no direct solution to a problem, that will work 100% of the time. With issues such as behavior/discipline, best approach can vary wildly, depending on group dynamic, school norms, even time of year/term/week, etc.

The best way to cope, is equip yourself with as many useful techniques as possible, and apply them when appropriate. These techniques have worked for me in the past.

ROWDY GROUPS: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES – keeping players and parents on-side

COACHING ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS

 

 

Going beyond technique: un-appreciated skills in bowling and fielding

Fielding:

Composure

Many people believe that pace and energy are the most important components of a fielder. But at the moment of catching/stopping, remaining STILL – or at least stable – is crucial!

IMG_1316Moving from full pace to poise and balance….and then back to full pace again….is a real challenge. Many players of all standards struggle with this.

Sometimes fielding is about explosive movements, and sometimes fielding or more about what you don’t do (ie/ when you have moved in position, stay there!).

Be harsh on unnecessary diving, or “over-reactions”.

Tidiness

90% of the time, your throws won’t have to be full pace.

Make a habit of getting the ball safely into the keeper’s hands….seeing this done immaculately has an effect on the opposition. Always remember, deterring the opposition from making singles in the first place is (in many ways) as good as a run out.

Take pride in the smaller things, and emphasize their importance! It is great to practice “advanced fielding” techniques, BUT can you tell between a “champagne moment” and an “over-reaction”?

The champagne moments simply won’t occur, unless players have a strong command of the basics. Make the easy catches look very easy. Make the difficult catches look easy. And the impossible catches look difficult!

Be harsh on unnecessary dives!

“Catch and Tap”

THE MOST UNDERRATED SKILL IN FIELDING.

Rarely coached, never focused on exclusively, most players have to pick up the knack of this in the heat of competition. Which is, unsurprisingly, not very effective!

Practice:

  • a) body position, nice and low to allow players to judge the bounce,
  • b) efficient movements, keeping one foot anchored near the stumps if you are able, and
  • c) finesse – breaking the wickets with a deft flick of the bails is FAR better than crunching down all 3 stumps.

Bowling:

IMG_1218Long term plan

And sticking to them!

Start thinking beyond each ball as it comes. Have an idea for pitching each ball of the over. This means you can clear your mind as you are actually bowling, focusing on the spot.

So many bowlers in club cricket are guilty of poor planning. Frequently, they are bowling just fine, but according to cliches, eg/ “pitch it up”, or “hit the top of off-stump”. All very well….but what if the batter is looking comfortable, or even dominant, against these balls? What if they have changed their game to counteract it? What about the angle of the ball, which makes a huge difference to its “hit-ability”?

Self diagnosing flaws

We all make mistakes during competition, and bowl bad balls. But how do we best move forward, and not linger on the past? The best players can identify their errors, and fix them swiftly!

The lesser players continue to struggle, and claim it “isn’t my day”. As soon as a player begins to resign themselves to this, the session unravels quickly.

In general, after a young players bowls wide, or drags the ball short, they believe they have gotten everything wrong. In fact, it is usually just one very small aspect of their action, that failed them. As a result, their usual response is too drastic. Making large adjustments to the run-up, action or speed of the ball.

Over-compensating in this way is almost bound to fail!

The solution SUBTLE CHANGES! It may just be 6 inches between a “boundary ball” and a “wicket ball”. The same delivery could be twice as effective, if delivered from closer to the wicket.

Encourage players to figure out their own problems. Before, I explained my personal process of introducing this concept to cricketers: “What’s your thing?”.

 

The REAL key to club cricket success: going beyond technique

1. How did we lose to them? They were average

OK, so the specific word, “average”, might be substituted in a disappointed dressing room (this being a family blog!)….

I have found through the years that cricket teams (especially league XI’s) tend to have a consistently low opinion of their opposition. Either they have won, and reel of all the reasons they out-played/out-smarted the other team. Or they sit around, shrugging, baffled that they have succumbed to such a mediocre side.

“They aren’t that special”. To say this is to fail to understand a crucial element of cricket:

  • performing the basics – 100% of the time
  • doing the “boring” skills – ie/ important ones that nobody notices, over champagne moments
  • selfless play – and not having to stand out all the time

2. How did he get all those runs?

3rd team cricket is a PRICELESS learning experience for a young cricketer.

The 3rd team match is where you will witness players who defy lack of age, coordination, fitness and technique….to sculpt innings, rack up great bowling figures, and make contributions for their team….WITHOUT standing out. 

This is an important lesson for young cricketers, where they realise the difference between being a good batter/bowler, and being a run-scorer/wicket-taker. You will learn NEVER to judge a book by its cover. Players will stride out to the wicket, scratch around, stabbing their first few balls off the stumps, giving every appearance of being a “walking wicket”….

This player will finish with 65 match-shaping runs. And you will wonder how in the world that was possible.

The recreation ground is where you hone the qualities that will make you a “proper cricketer”. The council pitch is where lessons are learned that challenge everything you knew up until that point…..or you never learn them, eventually dropping out of cricket altogether!

Too many aspiring young players turn their nose up at this level of cricket. They shouldn’t.

Player independence: 

So how do we coach young players to convert their talent to runs and wickets? It is easier said than done, and may involve setbacks. 

Emphasise the psychological qualities that form the DNA of a good club cricketer. Demonstrate that technique only takes you so far, and that only a good mentality will give you results.

As a coach, give your player consistent messages along these lines. Especially in the matches themselves, you shouldn’t be changing technique on the field. Here are a few themes that I feel are under-rated – sometimes even over-looked – in coaching.

Control

The best batters all have a sense that they are always one step a head of the opposition. It’s as if they already know what’s coming.

A lot of the time, it’s because they do know!

Observing the game and intuition will inform experienced batters of how the opposition are targetting him/her. Combining this knowledge with a determination not to fall into their trap, and a game-plan to take advantage of this line of attack, and you will have a batsmen who is very hard to dismiss.

A player who can assess the opposition for themselves, will progress faster and further than one who waits for instruction all the time.With a limited array of shots, a batter can still work the ball all around the wicket, simply by changing the power and angle of the bat face.

THIS IS COACH-ABLE! Ask your players, “what’s the plan here?”. keep asking this, until they look to themselves for insight. Achieving this is half the battle.

Frequently, a bowler will be bowling technically well, but still being hit for boundaries. Their initial thought is, “I’m bowling badly”, when in fact a simple angle change can be all it takes to get back on top of the batter.

A batter might be playing nice shots, but straight to fielders. Again, tiny adjustments are required, not drastic changes!

What’s the plan?

Approach/method

Knowing your game inside out, can help you to perform in challenging situations. “How should i start, then progress, my innings?” “How do i get going early on?”

In coaching, we spend a lot of time practicing different options, and strokes, that will assist our players with all kinds of delivery – short balls, full balls, straight balls, loopy balls, etc. The key to success, however, is shot selection! Picking the right stroke at the right time.

As coaches, we often tread a tightrope between two needs….how do we provide the insight and the information every player needs, while also giving them the independence to – one day – make this decision without outside advice.

Often players will always look to the coach for the answer. Help them forward, by allowing them judge a situation, and make this call themselves.

Body language

Standing tall, with a look of calmness determination. This positive posture and demeanor has a genuine effect on your movements at the crease….

Good posture improves your balance and makes you more able to move positively in one direction or another. This attribute comes hand-in-hand with the final point in this list….

Tell your players to make themselves look “big and strong at the crease”, and to “stand tall before running in”.

Decision making/conviction –

Virat Kohli, in the recent Test match on a minefield at Johannesburg, provided one of the all-time great examples. As other teammates (and opponents) were flinching, his command of movement onto the front or back foot was remarkable.

A common phrase I use is: “being decisive and wrong, is BETTER THAN being hesitant and right”.

Taking batting – and judging length – as an example, there will be many-a-time where the ball pitches on an “in-between length”. In this instance, moving forwards will allow the batter a chance of keeping the ball down (before it lifts too much), and moving back will afford the batter time to get tall and over the ball. The WORST thing you can do to these balls is remain trapped on the crease.

Playing “half-and-half” shots is also common. With a half-cup, half-drive for instance, you have none of the advantages each shot brings, and all the risks (you could play the ball upwards, expose your stumps, or drag the ball onto them).

Most often, the cause of this is picking a shot TOO EARLY. If a batter is on the move too soon, they will almost certainly move down the wrong line.

The ideal coaching point should be, “watch the line of the ball”. NOT, “elbow here….leg there….”. The problem is NOT TECHNICAL.

 

Coaching for match success: why we must play games, why failure isn’t always bad.

Sometimes the best matches us coaches witness in a season aren’t on the TV. A recent training game with our Academy had all the drama of a World Cup Final! A to-and-fro thriller came down to this equation. 3 runs to win, 1 wicket in hand for the chasers!

IMG_1316The bowler delivers….it’s a decent ball, full and on the pads, that the batter clamps down on. The ball squirts to mid-on.

Without even looking up, the non-striker has already galloped half way down the pitch, leaving the striker with a choice: a) Do the “right thing” in and call “no”, resulting in a certain 22 yard run out. b) Put my head down too, and charge to the other end, with a 99% chance of being run out by 15 yards.

In this event, the batter nobly opts for the latter. No point in being right in principle, but actually out. Sprint as fast as possible, in hope of the 1%! Mid-on collects the ball – which by now has ricocheted off the walls to be intercepted no more than 3 yards from the bowler’s stumps.

It’s a clean gather….surely game over now….he turns….aims….

HE MISSES!

How to fix silly errors under pressure?

Inexplicably, our unfortunate fielder has decided to tumble to the ground, and fling the ball twice as hard as required, with a sling action that send the ball a foot wide! To add insult to injury, his subsequent skid carries him straight into the very stumps he was aiming for.

For a moment, I and the other coaches had become spectators, lost in the excitement of the moment! Countless mistakes had been compiled in that single delivery. To name a few….

BATTERS – batsmen backing up too far (there were 4 balls left!); lack of calling; running with the bat in one hand, “ball-watching” (thus slow running speed)

BOWLER – not returning to the stumps, appealing for no reason (if you coach enough junior cricket, you get used to turning down LBW shouts that hit the middle of the bat!)

FIELDERS – not backing up, not in ready position, throwing too hard, unnecessary diving, panicking, poor communication, shouting instructions at the fielder at the crucial moment

What can be learned from this exciting, chaotic, meltdown moment (apart from, “do all of the above better”)?

LESSON 1. WE MUST PLAY MATCHES IN PRACTICE. 

Take note, parents, who constantly question why there aren’t more drills in training. Games are necessary!

Take note, coaches, who fixate on technique in every net, session, and even in matches. It is ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to work on technique and awareness at once! One requires narrow single-mindedness, the other requires constant adaptation and reaction to change. 

You could practice the under-arm throw 40,000 times, but it can still go wrong in these situations. And without matchplay – and exposure to these adrenaline-fuelled moments, with the result riding on your action – it is almost bound to go wrong.

By not playing matches, you will have missed a crucial element of coaching: executing skills when it really matters.

Of course, with this approach comes inherent risks. For a start, the onlooking parents…..”They don’t seem to be improving this week”. “My girl/boy only got to face 4 balls in this session”.

It is understandable in a way. Anybody who pays for a service, expects a results, and tangible gains. For fee-payers, the sessions are an investment. However, it isn’t best to pander to these demands. You must stick to your guns.

Explain the logic behind matchplay. Emphasise the gains that are impossible to acquire in regimented drills. Assure parents that, over the course of the season, their child will have plenty of opportunities.

Playing a match isn’t just an “easy option” for a coach….

 

2. IT HAPPENS TO THE BEST OF US!!

The 1999 World Cup Semi Final. One of the most vivid cricket memories of my childhood. 

In the last 6 balls of this famous game, close to a dozen basic errors were committed. Among the guilty parties are; the player of the tournament, three of the world’s all-time great bowlers, and a handful of the most dominant ODI team that has ever lived.

I bet it’s happened to you, too! 

My personal “Alan Donald moment” happened when i was 17. Walking in at no.11, Epsom needed 11 to win in 3 overs. Our umpire Dave’s advice amounted to “go for it, get them in boundaries”, and i took heed. My first ball, a looping half-volley. For some reason i found myself – almost involuntarily – plunging to one knee, and slog-sweeping. A shot I NEVER play.

Fortunately, I top-edged my frantic thrash, just over the in-field. Unfortunately, I had assumed the ball was bounding on towards the outfield. Easy two, surely.

I was wrong!

Turning blind, forgetting to call, to my dismay things hadn’t panned out as assumed. The ball had in fact kicked up, straight into the hands of midwicket. It was on its way to my end before I had even bothered to check. The following 2 seconds became one of those slow-motion nightmares….

A small admission….I still think back to that moment at times. Watching others make similar mistakes, even being on the same spot on that field, cause flashbacks. My mind still half-believes i can reverse my fate every time.

Note to coaches. You can never be too harsh on players for these errors. No matter how frustrating. You have likely buckled in the same situation before. Sometimes, even reflecting your personal experience to the players can help.

Everyone is human!

3. THE EXPERIENCE OF FAILURE IS ENOUGH OF A LESSON

When the stakes are high, these things can happen. Perhaps we should be praising players more, who can do seemingly easy things under extreme pressure, than criticizing those whose coordination fails them when it matters most. 

snasy-practice
Drills have a purpose, but used alone, they don’t make successful cricketers.

The latter group have, in fact, done the predictable thing. They are the mortals. The former group have shown exceptional character.

It is easy to forget, but the result of training matches genuinely mean something to young players! Matching up well against peers can be cherished equally to performing successfully for a club.

Conversely, the psychological blow of making a glaring error, surrounded by your friends, is acutely embarrassing. While it is a crushing blow, the pain of being out first ball, or dropping an important catch, can serve as a lesson….incentive for not allowing this to happen next time.

This motivation is essential for self-improvement.

Note to coaches. Get the players looking forwards, not backwards. Most likely, they are already aware of their mistakes, and they don’t need you parroting what they already know. There is no need to be overly critical. There IS a need for a solution. 

Forget the technical errors. Speak of the need for calmness. Clear thinking. Slowing things down, when your body is telling you to speed up.

Use the moment as fuel for the next match. Be ready next time. Focus on your job, and not everybody else’s.