We need to talk about nets….

Are we doing nets soon?

Will we be going in the nets soon? I’m a bit concerned there haven’t been any nets so far. This training seems a bit basic for my son/daughter.

If I was to sum up the parental feedback we typically get over the winter in 10 words, it would be something like this….

Nets, nets, nets, hardball, nets, nets, hardball, nets, nets, nets!

Why is it all about the nets?!!

Battling false impressions

Deep down, we know why. Hard ball, full batting gear, Everything about nets indicates “proper” cricket. 

We are often caught between what is the right thing to do and what will ruffle the least feathers. Between what the players need and what they (and their parents) want.

At some cricket clubs I have worked at, I wrestle internally between the two. Sometimes even the journey to the ground, I still haven’t chosen my path. Do I want another evening (probably a chain of emails the next day too) justifying my methods? Do i have the patience to stand my ground over and over?

To put it simply: is it worth the effort? Can I be bothered to do things my way?

Limitations of nets

  • Difficult to handle mixed standards – potentially dangerous situations
  • Limited balls faced and bowled – soft balls allow for greater intensity and frequency of repetitions

Net “Non-Negotiables”

Of course, net practice can be really useful – or you may have to factor more in than you previously planned. So how can we make them as beneficial as possible – not just at the time, but improvement that will stick long term?

The key is making them so, not assuming they are useful automatically. To be a productive use of your time, nets need….

A purpose

Try not to treat nets as an “end in itself”. Give batters or bowlers carte-blanche to do whatever they want, and your session will meander. There will be peaks and troughs. They will “try new things” – probably once every 2 or 3 balls. Engagement will fluctuate….even more wildly than normal!

Set a scenario – “You are the opening batter. It’s a 30 over match. Set the platform for the rest of the innings”, would be the simplest. But even this gesture will give some direction to the players.

Set a theme – eg/ “today, we are going to learn how to deflect and time the ball. You score a point every time you hit the ball into the ground, before it hits the net”.

Preparation

Don’t even bother turning up unless….

Measured a run-up – Sports halls are inadvertently useful for cricket training. They have lines to run down, and any number of “markers” for your run-up.

However you do it, mark your start point, and test whether you are “hitting the crease”.

Warmed up & stretched….or “engaged” different muscles! – Just trotting up and bowling some half-paced balls does not constitute a warm-up!

Muscles that need “engaging”:

  • Shoulders – arms move freely, but a bowling action is dependent on free-moving shoulders too! I find a “exaggerated swimming” action effective.
  • Hips – Bowling involves picking your knees up. This means the upper leg join needs to be loose. Lean against a wall, and swing each leg back and forward, across. Try to gently extend its range of movement.
  • Core muscles – abs, lats, side and back. There is a lot of twisting and contorting involved with bowling. A strong core is needed help you to fully aim, bowl and complete your action.

Empowered players

There is a little trick to looking like a “good coach” in the nets….just be opinionated! Every ball will present an opportunity to say something new. But effective nets need more consistency and variety – “command-response” coaching might achieve some quick fixes, but isn’t enough to have a lasting effect. 

The answer is blending in lots of “player-led” coaching. Start with assessing your opponents, and deciding on a plan! Some young players talk about their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, as if they’ve never met before in their lives!

You do have to prompt them to analyze each other. And ween them off the classic cliches: “Bowl at the top of off”. “Keep it on the off-side”….all mean next-to-nothing, unless a player understands why they want to aim at these places.

A full grasp of a bowling plan will make them bowl with so much more intent, drive and purpose.

The last 10 minutes

This is the most critical phase of any net session. The closing stages will determine whether any improvements are crystallized, or whether your players jump straight back to “square 1”.

Quite naturally, people’s attention wanders towards the end. This applies to players and coaches. But a pep talk may be in order here, if you notice focus waning. Why spend 95% of your time building a player’s game up, only to undermine all that in the last 2 minutes.

I usually start with a compliment – “you have come so far in this hour” – along with some specific personal gains – “____, “your run-up is so much smoother”; ____’s movement to the ball has improved out of sight”!

Last over! You need 20 to win off 6!

Think. Are your targets realistic? Are you making the players earn their runs? Usually a coach will just award “2 runs” for any old slapped shot into the net.

Think of more imaginative ways to motivate your batters, other than a wildly unrealistic “last over” target.

Some games I use

 

BE BETTER: You are only as good as your last session

When I started out in coaching, I was a completely different person. If I was still that person, I would have been fired long ago!! Expectations change with age and experience. 

Too many coaches stand still. We are always telling young players to work on their weaknesses, while our own are ignored. Why would children be motivated to take these on if their coaches avoid them too?! 

I  still rarely feel as if I have delivered a perfect session. I feel as is I’ve “failed” several times a week. Perhaps this is a good sign. I know I am a reflective coach and want to improve. Doing this requires honesty with yourself….not the easiest thing to do!

I wanted to share some reflections, 10 years on from my first ever session as a professional coach (King Athelstan Primary, Kingston – a real baptism of fire!).

  • How have I improved?
  • What uncomfortable truths did I need to confront?
  • How has this changed be as a person as well as a coach?
  • What do I still need to do

SHYNESS/TIMIDNESS

When I worked alongside other coaches, I’d get out-gunned. Even assertive parents and volunteers would sometimes drown out my voice. 

Working alone helped. In a “sink-or-swim” environment, I began to find my voice. Putting my hand up for the most difficult sessions too. Looking back, some of my proudest achievements as are coach come from these. Not because they went sensationally, but because they went “OK”.  Sometimes, “OK” is a triumph!

I would pre-plan my end-of-session monologues. This is a practice I will use today, to make sure there is a beginning, middle and end (finding a way to wrap it up is vital!). Before long, this made them more natural, and I would dread public speaking less and less. Now, I am completely unfazed in front of 50-100 people.

One of the hardest things….moving away – temporarily – from my lifelong club. Being alongside individuals who had known me since 11, I found it difficult, almost trapped in a personality. The shy boy everyone had known me as for life.

It took an escape from that environment, to come out and express myself. Fortunately, I have now returned, a better, more confident person.

POOR TIME MANAGEMENT

Many of my sessions would overrun….sometimes by tens of minutes! I just couldn’t process activities in time.

In a way this was a good sign – I was always keen to finish on a positive note, or make sure every child had equal batting time. In other ways, it was catastrophic – frustrated, parents queuing up to whisk their girl/boy off to the next club.

Finally, it hit me that my good intentions weren’t enough. I needed to be practical and efficient as well. I began to watch the clock more. Plan out detailed sessions in writing again. Be more realistic with the amount of goes each player could have.

Having a Plan B is important. Many coaches come into sessions with a plan that is simply too rigid. I usually go to each session with a:

  • BEST CASE SCENARIO – if everything goes to plan, i want to achieve a, b, c….
  • AVERAGE CASE SCENARIO – modifying the session plan, if one aspect needs reinforcing
  • WORST CASE SCENARIO – nothing is sticking. This means this skill needs more time and care. I also have a potential different activity (around the same team), with a different learning style.

I have also learnt and developed activities (my own and others’), that engage more players at the same time. I also have the awareness to monitor multiple things at once. Young coaches often fixate on small things. Try and keep an eye on the bigger picture always!

POOR ADMIN

In the early days, I could barely look at my email inbox (some might say little has changed)!

Anxiety (is there going to be a complaint/has something gone wrong??) my problem. I would worry constantly that a complaint was coming my way. This meant a) I missed the good news, and b) of course, any bad news festered and compounded.

I realized that this couldn’t continue. I worked hard on organizing my time better – a block of 1-2 hours, every day, reserved for emails and planning. Using different comunnications – such as mobile phone (although 64 work WhatsApps is a little OTT) – for different subject also helped.

I often agonize over what I write (even trivial messages), so sometimes opt for a combination. A text with an initial outline, followed my more detail written later on.

DEALING WITH PARENTS

For a long time, I was a “yes man”. If a mum or dad inquired about future sessions, I would bend over backwards to appease them. 

As we know, this is not always possible to do. Sometimes I would shy away from uncomfortable truths – “____ has been misbehaving and distracting others”). Or make promises about future sessions.

Now I am far better at not only handling complaints, but pre-empting them. Every session I run, I try to paint a picture of the future to the children and parents.

  • WHAT WILL HAPPEN TODAY – an outline of the session plan. So they aren’t going into each stage wondering what comes next
  • WHAT WE WANT TO ACHIEVE – so immediately, they are clear about targets, and what actions will earn praise
  • WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT WEEK(S) – how does this session fit into the bigger picture. Prove that there IS a bigger picture!!

DISCIPLINE

I would give naughty children too much rope

Even though I would tell children off, I would wait too long to follow through on warnings.

This gets easier with age. When you start out in the job, you want to be liked. The more experience you get, the more you can see what is the “right thing”….even if it involves some arguments and harsh words.

Being stricter doesn’t always just mean shouting more. You can enforce discipline your own way. 

SAYING NO/DELEGATING

At the start of term, going the extra mile seems like a good idea. At the end of term, it feels like a stupid idea. 

Fatigue builds up over a long summer. And in these times I can get more introverted.

Sometimes, I have to remember not to rely on myself for everything. The stress of thinking, “I am responsible for this”, would prevent me from trusting colleagues, or assistants fully.

This is unfair, on myself (too much self-induced pressure), and my colleagues (who often weren’t given a chance to express themselves). Now, if I am in charge, I try to give any colleagues an idea of their role – along with any specific themes I’d like them to mention/observe over others.

 

 

 

 

 

Coaching Dilemmas: “nailing the basics” V “keeping things fresh”

Is it possible to combine the two? Yes! But you need imagination – lots of it!

They need it, but…

….they get distracted quickly! We know this is going to be an issue in 98% of junior sessions. There is no point being in denial! Even though they are the most effective, the “old school” methods may not work.

Even though the era of lining up the entire group to practice “shadow batting” – imaginary shots over and over – may be gone, that doesn’t change the fact that young players need to master basics! So what do we do?

The answer is NOT to give in to short attention spans! All this will achieve is in getting some improvement, but not permanent improvement. You will have to go over the very same topics every week, as they never have enough time to “embed”.

Nor is the answer to plow ahead with a “dry” activity that is doomed to fail. An activity is only effective if players “buy in” to it. it matters not one bit whether you are right in principle!

The secret to junior coaching. Getting your players to do the SAME THING, but making each activity LOOK DIFFERENT. “Frame” the basics in a series of subtlety different ways. A points challenge, a learning-based game, some small group drills.

TRICK THEM into doing what is good for them!! 

Example: grip, stance, backlift

Having a good “set-up” is essential! But as coaches know all too well, very few players get it right every time. Hands apart, feet “closed-off”. Leaning on the bat instead of holding it. All these contribute to mistakes as they play their shot. 

One problem with coaching the set-up, is that it is time consuming. Getting one person’s back-lift right draws attention away from the rest of the (possibly large) group. It can feel like sessions grind to a halt. 

Instead of using the individual terms, I tend to use the term “getting ready”, and base a whole session’s theme around it. Here is how I would try and keep young players motivated and engaged, but essentially thinking about the same thing over and over.

Demonstration – show from all angles what a perfect “ready” position looks like. Ask questions about why the hands go here/feet go there. I talk about the “science” behind getting a clean straight hit….especially the power of gravity to hit the ball a long way. “Was I trying that hard”? “What goes back (bat) must come forwards“.

Pairs batting: “drop feeds” – I enjoy using drop-feeds at first, as they demonstrate the importance of technique over brute force. The coach also has a chance to see from close up, making adjustments to the grip and stance.
Players put a cone down where there PB shot is – or their longest hit. They then aim to beat this distance by getting perfect “efficiency” with their shots.

Points challenge – moving to under-arm feeds.
Each player now has to try and hit the ball as straight and low as possible. 1 point for hitting the ball, 4 points for hitting past the bowler, 20 points for hitting the ball through a small goal behind the feeder.
**In indoor halls, i often award bonus points if the batter hits the skirting board around the bottom of the wall. This is a sign that players have hit through the ball with total control**

The “Ready” Game – this game involves the batters coming in to bat, having to set up properly, and then receiving a ball to hit. Explained in more detail below….

The “ready” game:

Once the children have some knowledge (best way to grip and stand), it’s time to put their independence to the test! Will they remember this in the excitement of a game?

I enjoy this game because players constantly have to go through the process of getting ready.

The “Ready Game” is a version of “Crazy Cricket” – a team-based game, where players aim to hit as straight and as far as possible.

crazy cricket 1
Setting up the game.
  • One batter is at the wicket. The batters are lined up, waiting to hit the ball.
  • The first batter hits the ball (3 attempts), then runs around the cones.
  • The fielding team chases the ball. The batting team get 1 run for every cone they pass BEFORE the bowler gets the ball back.

Each team has 5 wickets to play with. Wickets can be:

  • BOWLED – ball hits stumps
  • CAUGHT – fielder catches ball
  • NOT READY – if they have forgotten to use the correct stance, they are out

Depending on the age/experience/maturity of the players, I am sometimes less harsh at the beginning. Other useful reminders for your players include

  • HOLDING ONTO THE BALL – simply don’t release the ball until the batter has remembered to stand properly. This simple trick can cause them to think a bit harder.
  • “HANDS”/”FEET”/ETC – again, this is a prompt for the player to think. One step short of outright telling them to change their stance.
  • “WHAT HAPPENED THERE – bowl a difficult ball, and ask the player why they struggled to hit it. The reason is: they were never ready in the first place

Cricket Bleep Test

***This is a potentially useful drill, but only if you USE IT PROPERLY***

Here, the player’s goal is to strike the ball into a small target….while under a time pressure! One player hits. Their partner drops a ball for them to hit every 10 seconds!

  • 1st Ball – HIT (partner retrieves ball)
  • 2nd Ball – HIT AND RUN (to other side of hall and back)
  • 3rd Ball – HIT
  • 4th Ball – HIT AND RUN
  • 5th Ball – HIT
  • 6th Ball – HIT AND RUN
  • BATTER AND FEEDER SWAP PLACES (15 seconds to change roles)
  • SEQUENCE REPEATS (6 balls)

The point of this drill is to show the importance of “getting ready” in good time. Giving yourself time to get in the perfect stance, and not “coasting” the running (leaving things to the last minute), is the secret to consistent straight hits.

The players who grasped this managed to achieve many more hits through the goal.