Playing Coach.

Man how we love to play coach. Pick the team, bawl at the profligacy of the centre-forward or the wastefulness of the ‘base of the diamond’. We love all that. We love being the bloke in charge – particularly when the bloke in charge ain’t making it happen.

It’s maybe an unattractive impulse. Expressing our pret-ty hypothetical superiority over the guy getting paid an enormous wedge to take all that pressure and guide all those juvenile show-pony people. Being brash and noisy about stuff we feel we know intimately but actually aren’t within a light year of; being The Boss at a mega-club.

Currently Manchester United FC (have you noticed?) are in what feels like a mess. Most extraordinarily, the manager – despite being an undoubtedly powerful personality and a legitimately major league coach – seems to have no control. Seems to have…

But hang on now. If you pause, take a deep breath and then consider the amount of media coverage and bar or living room banter about MU – say, last night and today – then maybe you/we might stifle our furies. Maybe we’ll reflect more maturely on a ‘hugely complicated situation’, with ‘untold numbers of mitigating factors conspiring against progress’. For four seconds. Then we’ll get frothing again and the ‘I CAN’T BE-LIEVE’S’ and the ‘IT’S JUST COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLES’ will start flooding violently out. Because that’s just what us fans do.

And that’s great. It’s (weirdly, perhaps?) one of the essential joys of the game. This idea that WE GET IT and sometimes those mega-folk, those plastic icons don’t. We know better than them and we could do better than them because we know what player X can do because it’s OBVIOUS, right? Obviously Jones shouldn’t be taking corners; obviously we should have bought more central defenders; obviously (now) Ferguson himself was worth 20 points a season – himself! All that stuff is the beery lifeblood of the game.

But back to now. MU are in the Top Four but seem unlikely to remain there, given that they are currently, in the round, pound-for-pound, behind Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in terms of that phenomenon we might just call ‘playing standards.’

Swansea fans might reasonably argue that they have played more joined up footie than United this season but Stoke – nah – can’t. So maybe we could put United 7th in the table of righteousness. If we did isolate the defensive unit – why not? Everybody else has! – then we might concur with Stan Collymore that MUFC have about the 8th or 9th best defence in the league, even when at full strength. In short van Gaal has work to do.

Van Gaal does have work to do but what kind of work? Is it tinkering or is it still tectonic bloody shifting? Is this lumpen, faintly amateurish fug actually a way towards something? Is the mist gonna clear and HOW SOON? Will the advent of yet more players deliver us something kosher – something fabulous?

All these questions seem valid simply because the shapelessness of the present does imply lack of belief… generally.

Hard to intuit anything else but a fear that whatever van Gaal is selling to his players too many of them are either too poor, too dumb or too over-awed by the responsibilities of the shirt to buy in. Either that or the manager himself lacks the personal skills or the authority to shape the project. It’s both fascinating and deeply concerning for the fans.

Can van Gaal – a serial winner and seemingly impervious to chronic pressure – be falling short in terms of bundling or bullying or cuddling or managing his players towards a clear objective? (And by that I mean playing elite-level football, not the specific target of Champions League. A composed, confident and consistent side would walk into that category.) Whatever ‘state’ the club was in when he took over – and let’s face it there were problems but it was hardly Coventry City – shouldn’t things be better than this by now?

Of course they should. The manager like almost every player has underachieved. He’s put himself in a position where fans/pundits/commentators are entitled to ask whether he’s up to it. Is he up to transforming or re-energising individuals and/or galvanising the side – the team? It seems absurd that we should be asking such a question of such a gargantuan figure in the game.

But hey currently most would argue that there is little in the way of team shape – or more accurately that the side only plays sporadically in unconvincing flashes or spurts – that things don’t link. This may be combination of lack of understanding of roles – so tactical – but also a clear lack of belief. (Bringing us back to the gaffer, right?)

Belief may not be the same thing as confidence so let’s clarify; belief here might refer to comfort within the system, meaning understanding and ease with your role in the side. This surely then is both supportive of the whole – the team shape – and liberating for the individual. Players who believe can simply play; they’ll play without fear and with that wonderful instinct; they’ll express themselves confidently.

So how many Manchester United players currently are playing with this belief… and is this a reflection of failures in management as well as inadequacies in the player? ‘Course it is.

Good managers and coaches at every level set the tone; they make it oppressive or not, fun or not. I’ve said this many times but it is the role of the coach to facilitate the expression of talent. Not to say too much and complicate things; not to overload players with either information or pressure. To facilitate the expression of talent by knowing the individuals and therefore knowing what needs to be said… and how… to the individual… to the team.

Van Gaal may yet come through. It feels unlikely however that Smalling and Jones and Evans and Valencia and Fellaini… and maybe Falcao and Januzaj and Mata (even) will blossom under him. Because either they seem bereft of belief (and therefore error-prone, or debillitatingly short of composure) or they are out of favour. This is erm… half the team.

I repeat my previous claims that the sense that half the team seems to be wilting under the pressure of playing for their contract suggests chronic, what tend to be known these days as ‘systemic’ issues which do come back to the coach.

Specifically, what is his manner with individual players? Do they respect him? Is he a good bloke to be around and to have ‘on your side’? Or has he cut some of the players adrift – or is he in danger of doing so – or do some of them fear that? Does Mata, who has surely proved himself to be a genuinely top level player, wander on the fringes having become disillusioned? Does van Persie know he too must get fit and get mobile to earn a place? Is Rooney thinking ‘Jee-sus I need to get out of here? (Again.)

If it sounds that I’ve dropped into that negative spiral again I apologise. This is not what I want. I want beautiful, imaginative attacking football; I want Old Trafford to be a place for theatre and for the legitimate despatch of sporting opposition. I want Manchester United please.

Last night a good Arsenal side barely had to play to beat United at Old Trafford. There was little in the way of coherent football from van Gaal’s side again and they threw in errors left right and centre. Plus they brought an unacceptable level of shame on the club. There was a wanton-ness, a poor and cynical side to their play that spoke loudly of desperation and of lack of control. Van Gaal, as custodian of the club, needs to address that pret-ty sharply too.

The Case for Sport – 2.

I have personal experience of the brilliance of sport. By that I mean I’ve both felt and witnessed (and I’ll have you know occasionally been the origin of) daft-but-magic moments arising from running round the place/chucking or hoofing things, very often in the midst of some grinning or, okay, gurning pack of mates.

Now, what you will have to forgive me for calling my life’s work is absolutely centred on all this fizz. I really am privileged to be right in it, this lurv/sport/runrunrun-like-crazy vortex, where (for example!) the most perfect and comradely sharing often spins. So I know the invincibly good and penetrating and healthy and edgy stuff that grows here. (I’m aware too, in passing that bringing the L-word into this is ill-advised at best but do not withdraw it; I’m happy to postulate some dumb theory whereby love of people and of adrenalin becomes intrinsic to a trillion transformations.)

I also know that some are suspicious of (what they think is) sport’s adversarial nature. Some children being exposed or even damaged through failure before their peers – this does happen, this is important – but the failure is of coaching. Good coaches encourage a way through and skilfully re-calibrate what’s offered – how big the challenge might be. They make it appropriate and they lift the child through any difficulty. They splash in extra praise and make the thing (which may have changed) achievable; the ‘non-athlete’ joins the game and things bundle forward, before anybody clocks or judges the ‘fact’ that Johnny or Jess was momentarily lost.

This isn’t idealist nonsense. This is good coaching in Primary Education. Coaches facilitating the expression of talent – young, low or high, clunky or beautifully co-ordinated – coherent. Developing people as well as skills.

Every day I see this and I see children warming to allegedly less able mates as they clatter a ball off a tee; the former clapping and bouncing or high-fiving with proper joy and the latter arms raised in seminal triumph. No matter that the grooved majority can beast a bouncing ball around the park, the elation around Johnny clumping that helpfully immobile sphere with electrifying conviction is, in my experience, generally heart-warmingly shared. Indeed I am positive by nature partly because I see children sharing in somebody else’s triumph every working day. If that pleasure leaches through all manner of things in my life… how great must it feel for the suddenly emerging starlet?

I recently underwent further training on what are known as multiskills and wider skills to enrich and improve the link between my cricket coaching and the broader Junior Curriculum. Interestingly, one of the reasons for this training was because (allegedly) there is a perception amongst Secondary School sports teachers that new intakes of children have relatively poor sports/co-ordination skills. This may or may not be an accurate reflection of how things are – hard to know how meaningful such a general view might be? Hard to know if this is what Secondary School sportsfolks are always likely to say? – but if there is any truth in this notion, it ain’t good… and it ain’t surprising.

I have my own view on both a practical and philosophical level re- the state of sports provision in Primary Schools and maybe sometime I’ll share that. What I want to do here is reiterate my case for how MASSIVE it could be – how elevating, how life-changing.

Children learn to support/learn/calculate/share/plan as well as move, smile and co-ordinate in my sessions – and in thousands of other games lessons every week. We coaches are not solely in the business of cultivating champions or tweaking technical skills, though we hope, of course, for those things too. I am personally motivated at least as much by the aspiration to draw some tiny but also wonderful moment from a child who likely never ‘achieves’ at all in ‘class’ as to get some gifted child to smash the ball mega-miles.

I have a very clear picture in my mind right now of a wee fellah aged eight – sporting the worst home-shorn Mohican I have ever seen – so deep into listening and following a chasing and catching game and so bursting with the effort of breaking through into success that the phrase I occasionally fall back on – outliving himself – springs to mind. He’d simply gone somewhere new and ecstatic, like he’d shed a skin or thrown off some burden. He was living somebody else’s better life, blazing around a playground utterly into the game. Joined, essential to it, loving it, feeling every bit as brilliant as those good guys – the ones who always have their hands up in class.

I see these revelations almost daily and I cherish them. They make me ever more certain that the essence of what I do contains a valuable strategic purpose – to enthuse children towards new cricket teams – on the back of a truly healthy, civilised, populist impulse. What could be more generous or supportive or right than sharing some fun, building some confidence(s) and enabling better, fuller learning? Good sport coaching does all that… which is why I write to defend it… and extoll its virtues.

Okay here comes the deep breath/get real bit, where again, incidentally, despite monumental temptation I hold back from lambasting the suffocating reactionaries that may or may not be responsible for policy on this stuff… because the time will come, right?

I concede nothing is easy and sport is no panacea. And there are choices to be made on what money is spent where.
I do however maintain that substantial and intelligent use of games not only makes sense but is transformative in a way that may be hard to find elsewhere. If children’s ability to listen is central to much of school life – can’t or won’t listen? Fail – then dynamic games, challenging games can (and do) cultivate listening, whilst improving behaviour/attention span/problem solving.

Sport done well is a gift to many who may need to express unseen talents or (know what?) just run and smile a bit. Throw in the undoubted ‘social skills’ – sharing/toleration/patience/camaraderie and you’re getting pretty good value for your money. Maybe that’s something the Honourable Secretary of State might instinctively respond to?

Cricket; Junior Coaching; some thoughts…

I wrote the following to bundle the coaches at my club into a discussion on what we do. Clearly I ran the risk of patronising good people and good coaches but it wasn’t meant to be anything other than a contribution… or maybe a prompt. Because somebody had opened up their cavernous gob – me – we at least had to think about this stuff. Which is good, right?


Coaching Under 9’s.


For starters, make a mental note that this age group may include particularly wide ranges of ability and degrees of experience – later groups should be at relatively similar levels, given their time spent at clubs/schools sessions. So we have to be mindful of this range in the youngsters and of the possibility that some may be intimidated by unfamiliar or overly challenging things. Coaches need to be sensitive and fair about this human stuff as well as smart.

The first priority, however, is to effectively to draw the new players in – to make it fun enough for fears and insecurities to melt away – by getting on with it and letting the game convert those nerves/those uncertainties into smiles/adrenalin/energy. Remember they’re kids; they just want to play; point them to a game or warm-up game, pronto!

ECB Coaching tells us to get them active and surely this is right. Minimise the verbals; when the time is right to add in technical stuff give them one or two things to think about not forty-two. Our role is most definitely NOT to show or tell them (or their watching parents, or watching coaches) how much we know about a given shot, skill, or practice. It’s to get them at it, then maybe demonstrate a couple of things well, then turn that into a game. Ideally a game that instructs – but certainly one that entertains.

We may or may not like the notion that the world’s attention span (never mind our children’s) has been frazzled by immediate thrills and addictive activity but we probably need to acknowledge it. In our coaching I think this does mean we have to keep the energy UP and the work FOCUSED; particularly for the youngest. I also feel that sessions should both sound and feel lively. Most of this will come from the coach, who (whatever his or her nature) has to find a way to drive and encourage the thing forward. So be friendly and maybe even noisy… and circulate that energy around the place.

One of the great joys of coaching is the fact that small children will respond so quickly and so fully to some real encouragement; so do that and the games themselves will light them up. And that’s magic.

Central to half-decent coaching may be that it is about asking good questions of the players. What did I do? How did that work? What were my feet doing? Why was that do you think? Describe it to me. At every age group I try to get the players to coach me – to own and understand the information. It’s better, I think, than me repeatedly spouting stuff from the various ECB manuals.


Every session should start with a welcome; possibly a verbal one and a welcome into a gathering game – particularly if that signing kids in thing is going on elsewhere. This might be simply an all-in catching game on the Krazy Katch (trampoline thing!) or something else that makes the players feel part of something straight away – before the warm-up proper has begun. Have a think about what your group might do that would get you off to a good start rather than one that (already) smacks of drift.

I think CROSS-OVER GRIDS are a good way to warm up. They involve some running as well as requiring players to switch on their concentration and their catching skills. If players make 3 throws/catches and run diagonally then things change. If you BUILD the challenges – maybe from simple two-handed catches working in pairs, through to a flat out race to catch the pair in front – then the concentration as well as the physical readiness should increase. CROSS-OVER GRIDS also really lend themselves to variation – catches /throws/bowls of various sorts. Think about which challenges are appropriate, then increase the pace and intensity.  Always ALWAYS make it fizz – make it a giggle but a challenge. Just differentiate – i.e. change that challenge – where necessary (and with sensitivity) for children who may not achieve those grander goals.

Other warm-up games particularly suitable for this age-group (although not necessarily just this age-group!) include DODGEBALL, GRAND PRIX CARS (where players are given the number of a gear to run in and further directions added), CROSSFIRE, KWIK RUNS/SAFE CATCHES plus there are a billion things you can do involving SHUTTLE RUNS either in pairs or as individuals. I try to feed off what’s happening within these games and change or add in things that seem like fun. Remember if the children are enjoying things and following your directions this means they must be listening!

By the way; if you don’t know what a particular game looks like, ask me, or another coach, or look at HOWZAT, or the ECB Website, or go elsewhere on line. There are hundreds of ideas up there.

We are all familiar with the idea that an evening’s session will generally follow the WARM-UP/GAME/COOL (WARM?)-DOWN format. (In practice, few of us do the cool-down .) Nobody is suggesting that things should be rigid; I have no problem with ‘warm-up games’ developing so well that they become the bulk of the session – or are inseparable from the main practice. If this happens ‘more by accident than design’ so be it – it may be that a particularly dynamic session feels like it happened by instinct and clearly this is possible. However it may be more accurate to say that some preparation and the right amount of structure facilitates, or makes possible that brilliant idea mid-flow, I think. Either way, I reckon, look, listen, go with your instincts.


We are encouraged to move into more or less structured, often ‘small-sided’ games for the bulk of our training sessions and there are reasons for this. Cricket has particular disciplines and they do demand some attention and some patience as well as certain skills. But we can’t expect that every young player will have bundles of patience so we may need to run a number of games in parallel (if coaches are available) so that players stay active and involved. Again, rightly or wrongly, young children may drift away if they don’t get a bat in their hand pretty early… so that opportunity may need to present itself reasonably soon or often.

Think about what is appropriate and then – for this age group – set the game up and let it run without too much interruption. GAMES might be …

Continuous (or Non-stop) Cricket/variations of The Lord’s Game/Cricket Rounders/Pairs Cricket/Bowling Action (Target Bowling)/Hitting from a tee (Front Foot Hitting?)/Diamond Cricket/Catching games (relays? Vary service?) Or take a particularly good ‘warm-up game’ like Cross-fire and use it for a throwing session; coach the technique; then crack on again. All of these games can be found in the ECB SESSION PLANS, so either find a copy, print one out, or ask me.


Let’s be honest, most young children should not suffer (e.g.) muscle injury due to their exertion during these sessions, so the temptation is there not to bother with COOL-DOWNS. There is, however, both an argument that this is good practice (and therefore it helps cement a culture of doing the right thing) AND the more convincing argument that a cool-down provides a calming opportunity to reflect on the session. Maybe simply walk through some shuttles, making simple catches… and ask a further question or two, or suggest something helpful in terms of practice away from the club. Then close the session with a few well-chosen words.


Broadly the aim is going to be to enthuse these children – to get them ‘into’ cricket. Hence the emphasis on ENERGY and ENTERTAINMENT. But think about what proportion of your time you might spend on particular skills over the season. Would a 50% batting / 25% bowling / 25% fielding split seem about right? If so, plan for that. Or is the development of a general understanding of the shape and the requirements of the game more essential than specific skill-sets. You find that balance – or aim for it – remembering that this age group is going to be playing soft-ball, festival cricket, or just playing ‘for fun’.


That soft sphere clasped in her blind ‘basket’

Those four eyes handling.

The adrenalin shaking out its fur.

She goes again.

Through that matrix of fraught failure,

Dry-lipped and unexpressing

This little girl is nearly smiling.


Airborne – she and the tiny earth together

Palmed out towards the radar

Of her own blurred universe.

She grabs; it falls.

By now the room is watching.

Again – a hopeful exhortation

From Dan and Jack and Rhodri bach –


They know this is not rocket science,

They know that it’s not luck

That coaxes or coordinates such things.

But I’m the coach. Not pre-disposed I hope

To seek for epic confirmations, lightning bolts.

A gentle word.

With barely a flicker, she raises hands.

We lend our focus and the ball… lands.