Kids go searching.

I’m no fan of Kevin Pietersen and never have been; I’ve never believed in him. I know plenty of folks think he’s a genius, a rare and special talent who’s simply been mismanaged but in accepting the bulk of that statement I reject him, utterly. If the Steve Harmison story is true about KP flatly refusing to take throw-downs from senior England coaches then let that be my reason. If it’s not, let it be that I think his arrogance and his consistent failure to think of his mates and that team-thing marks him down as an arse.

But hey guess what? Recently I’ve been ploughing through ECB Coaching Workshops and the thought struck me that KP – yes him with the ego – might have done something which may yet turn out to be profoundly positive. Maybe.

Between the Level 2 ECB Coaching Certificate and the new Performance strata there lies a bunch of workshops. These are important in that they set out a good deal of the new ideology around coaching cricket in England and Wales. (Ideology? Oh YEAH, you better believe it.)

In the last eighteen months or so, following an epic lump of research, sports-scientific wotnots and cross-bi-lateral oojamiflips, the ECB has re-emerged from the swamp. Or should that be… the nets? There’s been a fascinating and genuinely radical shift in the thrust of coaching. Personally – and maybe I should be careful with what I say – I reckon you can feel the hand of the Sports Development Militias in it and you can certainly taste the political correctness of the era; neither of which is necessarily bad. But with generic views may come the occlusion of that which is unique to cricket.

The titles alone, of some of these workshops (and the fact that they are known as workshops, eh?) may tell you much of what you need to know. “Creating the Learning Climate for Children”. “Game-based Learning.” “Skill Development for Children”. Cutting through the inevitable (and inevitably transient) verbiage, there’s a powerful move towards ‘player-centred’ coaching, going way beyond tokenism towards the individual. This is big, ideologically-driven stuff aimed at making coaches work more about the player and less about the recall or display of their own cricket knowledge. I think some of this may have been prompted by KP, whose profile has been such that he could, conceivably, be a catalyst here.

Those last two paragraphs may have had too much cynicism lurking so let me immediately contradict. Or at least re-calibrate the tone. The changes are huge, or will feel that way to coaches brought through previous regimes – regimes which have themselves been rotated or cheese-grated through development over the years. But (genuinely) my experience of Cricket Wales/ECB Coach Education (and therefore my sense of the philosophical intent) has been both encouraging and challenging in a good way. Surprisingly perhaps, things feel quite dynamic back there. People seem to be alive to the need to transform; rapidly.

But back to KP. I’m guessing that opinions in the ECB hierarchy are about as divided when it comes to Pietersen as they are in the general population. In a private space 60% would describe him with a brisk four letter word beginning with ‘c’. 38% would say it doesn’t matter what we think of him or his methods – ‘e dun it on the pitch’. The remainder would splutter into their Pimms. What is interesting to me is that having seen/sat through these workshops, the voice of KP –in fact the noise that KP makes- about ‘not coaching talent out of kids’ booms out. Credit the ECB that he is the first face turned to the camera in a key video on skill development.

Predictably, Pietersen goes straight into his ‘Bell plays classically, I don’t: don’t go coaching kids there’s just the one way’ argument. Understandably. Justifiably. But it’s almost as if in their scramble to appease the twin-headed monster at shortish mid-off (Pietersen/the multi-sports-conversant, child-centred modernist and funder?) the ECB have changed everything. Perhaps, being broadsheet-reading, report-assimilating types they fear being called out for old fartdom? Perhaps they are high on that elixir of the coaching industry age, branding – branding in the sense of renaming, re-infusing with sexy new jargon rather than psychotic (aaaaargh!!) market-driven branding.

This is certainly how the swing away from the previously central notion of (accepting the validity of) certain ‘Technical Models’ feels to many coaches who qualified pre, say, 2012. Many are cynical. I am not, despite how this might sound. I view this stuff as a healthy challenge.

If Pietersen has bullied us into reviewing the very essence of coaching that is remarkable. That has happened. The talk is of ‘Core Principles’ now not ‘feet shoulder-width apart and blah-di-blah high elbow’. Skill is successful execution not necessarily a particular movement pattern. Players finding things and coaches asking questions are central. The essence of ECB coaching is bravely empowering… and that’s good.

Now because I don’t like the man I’m reluctant to give KP too much credit in this but the fact is too many coaches did have a very fixed idea of what skill looks like and they bored generations of twitching, net-bound youngsters with those ungenerous notions. They can’t get away with that now. The newer, younger coach on the block will either call them out or intervene, as I do, when somebody is saying too much/presenting 44 ideas not four to a group of nine year-olds.

So KP as crusader, then? Hardly. The man’s a tad more fixated on his image, his contracts and the most efficient route to the limelight for that. But he has stirred it, made his point and rendered this debate necessary. That’s a singular contribution.

It may be that the new, updated ECB risks alienating traditionalists and fails to address finer, technical points; I’ve heard it said that there are gaps in the essential knowledge, that ‘Core Principles’ are all very well but what, precisely do you as a coach fall back on when a particular skill proves beyond a child? Generic answers aren’t always viable.

I’m hoping the ECB have thought of this. But it may just be that they are choosing to let kids go searching.


@bowlingatvinny is proud to work for @cricketwales. These views are his only, right?

One to cherish.

Little champ. Mate. Gutsy and unorthodox. Great.

We all know who we’re talking about. The young Aussie that Justin Langer wrote so beautifully about – the fella his wife fell in love with. The fella who lived with them and who they wanted in to their own. Hughesy.
Hughesy the bloke that most of us have never even seen play, live and have never met… but now know. And we know he is/was a special bloke – we can tell. The reactions tell us.

I want to try to say something about this because I think there is something wonderful and actually profound borne here, amongst this diabolical hurting and the flailing around for an appropriate, legitimate answer.

For one thing, my hope is there’s some real solace for Phillip Hughes’s own loved ones in the scope and quality of the response to his death. (And here I want you to think a little about what I mean by ‘quality’, please.)

It’s not entirely ludicrous to suggest that this cruel event has brought out an invincibly massive, invincibly good response, as people all over have either opened up their hearts or graciously accepted in and supported or respected the grief of close friends and family.

The epic sadness does not, can not deny the essential positivity in the timbre of the rebound – our rebound. There’s been no sense of schmaltziness; no slapped-on deference or faux commiseration. And here I’m not just thinking of Australian skipper Michael Clarke, who has publicly fought with tears to try to express his obvious and criminal loss of a surrogate younger brother. ‘Do your job’ he said to himself when steeling up to make the necessary statement, visibly heartbroken.

Given that the Australian national cricket team has practically (re-)owned world cricket by setting out to be the most macho group of players in the game this may throw up ironies that in another moment we might describe as ‘choice’; no need for such cynicism now. We could all see that Clarke’s utter determination to man up was completely about doing a good job of marking his own and his team’s depth of affection for their buddy. Pathetic to fail to say ‘we loved you mate’ well. So do your job.

There’s obviously been something magic about this bloke Hughes – and I’m not just talking talent, right? (You get that? You get that too?) I’ve seen the vids, read and listened to the columns and the stories. I believe folks loved him and I like that this is recognised; it helps all of us; it helps with everything. Everything that’s left when Hughesy’s gone.

Okay we have to be careful here because on the one hand it does seem like the surge of genuine feeling around this young man is flooding so invigoratingly and influentially around that we may set up some hierarchy of grief around this. (How would it have been if some other, equally high-profile player had been killed? Or some guy in the park? Dare I think of how the reaction might differ? Just don’t let me go there.)

Phillip, we know, inspired such a powerful and consistent regard – bugger it, let’s call it love – that I joined the communal welling up on more than one occasion. For me, waking up to the #putyourbatsout tribute on twitter, seeing the (Adam) Gilchrist family of bats proudly-tragically displayed was enough to set me off. If that’s weirdly sentimental then so be it. In my kitchen in Pembrokeshire at 6.50am, with just the dog for company, I was hardly playing to the crowd.

It felt sad, hugely sad, and I respected the heartfelt nature and sure the ingenuity of that now viral symbol. Am I the only one both fascinated and cheered by the sensation that because I believe the love for Hughsey is real – and this can only mean that in some abstracted way he ‘deserves it(?) – things are better?

Navel-gazing or not, cricketer or not, it’s difficult to avoid the personal here, eh? However prudent that might seem. But I don’t think it’s either the fact that I have bowled quickly and hit people myself or been hit (just once, significantly, from memory) that draws me in to the sentimental. I didn’t recoil from recognition when viewing that bouncer so much as accept it as part of the narrative. Inevitably the fall and then those awful two days of battling or easing away scoured at the innards of all of us, pre-cursing that ultimate, terrible confirmation. Been said a zillion times in the last 72 hours but we can barely compute a fatality – a death – in sport. It shouldn’t, it doesn’t happen.

Fact is, it did and sure whilst the public nature of this tragedy sets it apart, makes it particular and visible and arguably more poignant than (ahem) the average, run-of-the-mill death, I do see stuff that all of us could meaningfully store.

The fact of the striking down of a young man in front of a crowd (including his family) makes this big, makes it shocking; the sense of robbery – that Phillip Hughes had something magnificent he was yet to express, to share with us – appalls; but the local/communal/worldwide outpouring of love for a young man who was clearly a fabulous bloke… we can and should cherish.


Ok so some bloke from Oz tweets appreciation for my post; I thank him. He tells me he’s going to the funeral in Macksville tomorrow. In typically corny Vinny-fashion I tell him though I’m 12,000 miles away… I’ll kinda be there too.  At which point @Damage_87 (for it was he) tells me he’ll be delighted to sign the Book of Remembrance on my behalf.

In this way a) the world got better

                     b) love triumphed (actually) again

                     c) Phillip Hughes was remembered.

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’.

My/your Cricket Club; Junior Coaching – a proposal.

The bigger picture: I’m in the market for slinging ideas around and would be happy if those triggered pretty much any kind of response. This is a friendly challenge – even if you reject it in a patronised huff.

So there is no suggestion here that the My/your club ‘model’ is necessarily broken, merely (like everything else) we can maybe improve it. We can and should challenge ourselves to do better… and before the cries go up, this is not remotely the same as ‘being too serious for our lot’.

One of the things we might do better, for example, is to INCREASE the amount of fun/entertainment we offer. More than anything, perhaps, we should look to avoid DRIFT; preparation and reflection can help us do this.

Our responsibilities as coaches/cricket people are what? Amongst many other things…

  • To develop players towards excellence?
  • To animate and enthuse?
  • To ensure everyone remains healthy and safe.

To achieve these things what do we need? All 3 demand some planning; whether or not this is back of a fag-packet stuff or immaculate tables of options and measurements. Do something that works for you. I know what time pressures are all about!

My general proposal is that we become better focussed and more dynamic by setting out our objectives – perhaps our individual sessions? – significantly more clearly. Far from ‘putting young players off’, I think that we will retain and entertain our young players if we offer them something that leads them somewhere, something other than just a hit, a throw, a bowl. Statistically, we are losing players from the game in the mid-late teens; I think this is partly because coaches let sessions drift. So it’s difficult to avoid this notion that we need to plan things. As an example if we ask ourselves what (broadly) we might need to cover with our young players, we might suggest

  • Core skills
  • The generic game – an understanding of what you do
  • Team needs

Then we need to address how best to offer up these skills. I’m suggesting a flexible coaching plan (weather!) where ideally we set out OBJECTIVES for individual sessions and for the season, with age-appropriate, challenging drills. Think through percentages of time spent on the three chief disciplines; think about how – and how much – technical information you give out. Think about maintaining energy and focus throughout sessions in particular – think about how you can minimise drift. As coaches I’d suggest that an important part of what we do is both an assessment of how players are doing… and how well our sessions have gone… and relationships (the link, if any) between the two things. Plus is there a way that we can support each other on what we do? Should we be having a monthly pow-wow to keep up to speed with player’s progress and our own delivery? Is a sort of hierarchy unhelpful or helpful in all that – who’s ‘judging’ who? I think we come back to that word ‘supporting‘ here, hopefully? Nets. Nets are the obvious example of where most clubs underachieve; we do! Far too often some bloke gets padded up and smashes through the ball for twenty minutes before somebody else does the same. Meanwhile bowlers bowl too much/too casually/without any real commitment. This must change. We need (and I would argue that the young players need)

  • less nets/better nets
  • clear objectives set by the coach – specific shots/specific gaps?
  • a considered and challenging environment which seeks to replicate match conditions
  • in other words, FOCUS
  • better attention to SAFETY ISSUES.

We need cones to mark out where fielders are, we need two batsmen who actually run, we need CHALLENGES and DISCUSSION and LEADERSHIP from the coach. We need reasons to be doing what we’re doing. I think this is a really good cricket club and I’ve always felt privileged to be involved; that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the status quo here is good enough. Whether we like it or not, we are facing all sorts of challenges – financial/competition from other clubs or sports/apathy amongst players and the general population(?) All these are arguments for improvement – for change. With this in mind I am asking those that are comfortable with the idea to firstly consider what their best contribution to the coaching of their allotted age-group might look like, then produce a plan for 4 weeks of coaching. Simple and short as you like – a brief outline for 4 sessions – meaning a paragraph or 2, that we can discuss and maybe share. If you want to go on and offer a longer view for the season – great. I think that would be a real step forward. This is not us getting too boring and serious; it’s us being more dynamic – really adding value to what we do – whilst bumping up the energy, the entertainment.


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.

The Case for Sport.

Encouragingly, this sport thing won’t go away. As both a political argument and a philosophic one it’s stayed present because like some shirt hoisted into a euphorically-stacked crowd, it draws loads of us. Our instincts kick in around it. Essentially, we’ll grab a hold, thank you very much and we’ll pull as hard as we need to establish our part – our ownership maybes.

Young and old, man and woman. Think of those around you, think of the things that animate them, that light them up with either joy or fury or the most hilarious disproportion; probably sport. The lines blurring magically over whom, exactly, is taking part; everything coalescing around some need to play or join or represent.

I know not everyone gets it. (Shame.) At a time when we as a nation have greater need than ever for obesity-reducing running about the place, we can easily side-step fears that competitive sport just doesn’t work for everyone. Fine, so starting in nurseries let’s just tweak the nature of the game(s) and hike the encouragement. Get the ‘non-athletes’ in, immediately if not sooner. In primary years, get children active with sponge-balls and wind balls and things that go WE-EEE but not BANG. We are lost already if we don’t establish a culture of gaminess – running and jumping and catching for fun. Start there. Make it available. Make it fun.

Good coaches and teachers know where and how to find the right kind and level of activity. Whether those coaches or teachers are available to your children may well be a function of government policy or that old lottery around the quality of individuals. In the first case I strongly urge you to engage with the debate around Physical Education in whatever way you feel able. This might mean demanding generous and intelligent sports provision at your local school, or it might mean joining some wider campaign. Poor or tokenistic PE provision in schools is damaging and annoying, particularly if you as a parent can clearly identify individuals responsible… and it goes on. If you have to complain to a Head, or an MP, or just the disaffected dads down the pub, just do it… and give it some wallop.

But why should we bother? What would a good PE culture deliver? What kind of differences might it make? Crucially – is it worth paying for?

Good coaches transform the school experience of many children. They get them smiling but also listening. They get them running but also thinking. They know that whilst some children will get totally stuck in, others will shuffle round the edge shyly. They see it as their job to engineer games – question, question – whereby the children themselves have stumbled towards some democracy of fun; where there is sharing and teamwork and maybe a spark of competition. Or maybe not.

Differentiation is key, as it would be in all other forms of education. Seeing what works or helps; identifying what children can do. Clearly an obese child with poor co-ordination will need and enjoy a different kind of moment to the athlete in the class. Prepare for that, then. Calibrate down or up – judge the level of technical bumpf, splatter the encouragement, welcome them all in. Just don’t forget that one aim should be for that obese child to be fitter and happier, sportier and yes… slimmer in the long term. Meanwhile the athlete continues to be challenged and his/her technical skills developed. Because you can do all that stuff in a single games lesson. All you need is a good teacher and some pretty fundamental resources.

I’m not sure we should need to step beyond the health and wellbeing issue in order to legitimise the case for sport. Quite simply that fit’n well feeling is so central to so many aspects of life that it blows away all counter-arguments – including those of a financial nature. We reduce significantly, through a culture of sport, the numbers of obese/diabetic patients in hospitals at huge benefit to the national purse. I don’t have the figures; I don’t need to. Healthy physical activity, encouraged and developed through schools is an essential part of how we keep both individuals and society buoyant. Sold.

I work for a sports body and a cricket-specific charity. As consequence of the far-sightedness and generosity of certain people, schools get me for nowt. I’m there to support cricket, sure, but have clear objectives in terms of linking in to the academic curriculum, citizenry and wider, touchy-feelier aspirations. I’ve been trained to coach cricket and I’ve been trained to work in school. So, ‘midst the relentless F.U.N. I have children work out how many of them should be at each cone for us to have a fair relay. I ask them what we might do to give the maximum number a bat? (Giving up the bat is a real challenge for some children – there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere, yes?) I suggest this is only going to work if we share.

I get them to think through the structure of the game – how many are we? What time we got? How do we moderate? Quite sophisticated/quite simple. Great idea Sara – let’s have two overs each! Good work, Tom – brilliant running! Let’s go non-stop!!

I can tell you that virtually every session I am conscious of wee hearts being lifted, soaring somewhere – and I don’t just mean the high-fliers, the ‘athletes’ in the group – through the lovely machinations of the game. I know (because the Headteachers tell me) that these children love these lessons and that some of them engage much better with other school activity because… I guess… they feel good about something. Hopefully, themselves?

You may or may not be surprised to hear that if anything I’ve really underplayed my passion for sport here and the part it surely must play in the development of healthy and happy people. I am at pains to stress that though I love competitive sport, I can see examples where it works better to take out some of that bite and replace it with rounder-edged joys. In sport as in life everybody must be valued, encouraged, supported. But that’s then a political matter, yes?

In this wider debate, I support the view that Michael Gove is an embarrassment and a liability. So clearly distanced from the nation’s touchstones that he can hardly be blamed for his crusty isolation. It may be the making of a poor argument that the man barely looks like he’s ever flung a stone into a pond, never mind leapt to claim the ball at a line-out. Still, I find Gove’s educational philosophy weirdly fascinating and invite psychologists to do their worst with such an extraordinary mixture of reactionary sadism and camp Victoriana.

Specifically, however, his obvious lack of understanding for sport transgresses too far into ignorance for me to tolerate too much of it. I know it’s both unhelpful and ungracious to personalise this thing… but in Gove’s case I’m prepared to drop my standards. We as a nation(!) – oh-oh can of worms; exit swiftly before someone says We’re all in this together!- cannot afford, for our children’s sake, to let a fool of that calibre run Education. And we certainly can’t afford to let him spoil our precious games.

There is more of this mixture of pomp and poison in my surprisingly readable ebook – out here

Some top people recommend it.

Floppiness, floppiness, the greatest thing that I possess?

I sometimes wonder if the opportunities available to our children are better chalked up in the negatives column rather than the positive. Not I think because I’ve got that twisted Victorian spite-as-moral-policy thing going on but out of… what, exactly?

I suppose again I’m thinking mainly in sporting terms here but before I’m through no doubt I’ll have meandered like a benign motorway-curious moose into all manner of absurd pseudo-prescient linkages. Kids and health/kids and emotional breadth/kids and valuation; ideas very much to do with some feared drift into floppiness.

What I mean by this is that state of slightly disengaged involvement with things; the result of there being arguably too many things – making it either unnecessary or unattractive or uncool to commit. We have to be careful with arguments like these – careful for one thing who it really is we’re talking about – but I’d be surprised if many of us haven’t had conversations over the ‘issue’ of kids and loyalty or discipline or application. Do we imagine (and fear?) that because kids seem to have everything on a plate that they may not dedicate themselves to any one thing? Do we – especially those of us who coach(?) – have that sneaking feeling children may be less likely to stay with us, in our sport, simply due to the near-unbelievable growth in opportunity and support elsewhere? Is that actually a worry?

It’s a feeling that exists, I’m sure. In my case it’s pretty entirely separated from notions of modern children or youths as some deteriorating, sedentary, Nintendo-clasping sub-species. I hate gadgets broadly and with a passion but despite the obvious worries about and even revulsion for this idea of whey-faced kids electro-masturbating their allegedly sad/geeky lives away in bedrooms up and down the land I deny this view. Without question too many kids are spending far too long playing on screens or gadgets and not long enough running around/climbing trees/scrumping apples from Charlie Webster in an adrenalin-fuelled, co-ordinated night attack. (All of them. Every succulent or wasp-drilled one, in one of the Olympian highlights of my childhood!) But I am happy to report that though this Facebook or Angry Bird-obsessed junior does of course exist – in some volume – he or she has failed to dampen and smother the glorious up and atters, the free-flowing batters, the whipped free-kickers, the spiralling punters. Sport will out.

As kids, we had nowt – relatively. Bike; football; cricket bat; worryingly dense block of wood which we rolled gingerly into place for a wicket. We weren’t taken to football/rugby/swimming/cricket/surfing coaching sessions like, for example my son. We just played/swam; learning along the way, ‘informally’. It was wonderful.

Wonderful but not better than now. In fact clearly less good in the very real and very important sense that sporting skills are now being coached and supported generally better than ever before. (Generally.) This may or may not equate to a rise in ‘standards’ – or even rises in participation – although clearly both are to be encouraged and aspired towards. Clubs – more than schools? – have really gotten their acts together. Yes there is more administrative cobblers, more posing going on from newly qualified and track-suited coaches, but there is also, in my experience substantially more focus and intelligence about the bringing of sport into children’s lives. Critically too, the relevant governing bodies seem to be genuinely aware of their solemn responsibilities to MAKE IT FUN.

Certainly in cricket, the ECB coaching system (which I understand – HA! – is again going to change imminently) is a more than decent model for offering children both entertainment and education in the game. One of the great pleasures of my life and work is to be involved in this lighting up of a child’s enthusiasm for charging about after a shinyredthing; because if you try you might even catch it; or stop it from… reaching… the boundary. Yes!! Come on!! That daft but wonderful love of the challenge; a challenge predicated (actually) on a kind of love for your mates – maybe those new mates you don’t even know because you just joined the flippin’ team… but look how they ran for me/you! That’s great that is!

In the last month or so I have been responsible for leading cricket sessions that were always going to result in the selection of a Regional age-group side. (Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I don’t get too specific?) So I can offer some evidence that is both ludicrously anecdotal but conversely ‘real’ and resulting from careful observations. I’ve coached boys – in this case – who have a very broad range of abilities because in our region, quite rightly, if you take part in even a very basic level of the Dragons Cricket programme, this will probably entitle you to attend Regional Squad sessions. What was outstanding and indeed delightful – again – was the magnificent and inspiring brio, life and
runaroundability of the group. Kids launching smilingly and ballistically at the warm-up; when they’re supposed to be er… gently warming UP. Sprinting gleefully when they’re supposed to be jogging; having waaay too much fun to be really focused. Loving it too much to listen.

And parents quietly chuckling at the state of Dafyd’s or Geraint’s hysterical Sport’s Hall Happiness; happiness not floppiness mind.   And me hopefully reigning it in, prudently, enough; enough to coach something (too.) This, thank god, this daft celebration of liberation and movement and communal fizz and juvenile but philosophically rich expression is defiantly a reality; still; I promise. So whilst YES we may be concerned at this aforementioned tendency towards some inner-ness, some retreat into new-fangled gadget-worship amongst children of this hugely pressured modern generation, all really is not lost. Certainly I can think of a game or two that is not lost.

Let the competition gather – whether or not it be pulsing with the flash and wallop of some war game or merely providing distraction through levels of rewarded but less offensive geekhood. Something tells me that humans need to gather and to celebrate their physicality. Maybe to run before they flop; maybe to run until they drop.

The level of sporting engagement will surely vary – as will its tempo, its type, its attraction. (Interesting in passing to note how certain sports have changed in nature, partly due to changes in society/perception and partly through necessary survival instinct; cricket being a good example. Apart from changes in format to increase appeal – to a new, young audience? – I am clear that the development of athletic prowess at the top of the game has been major. Suddenly and quite rightly it’s a non-negotiable. Good. Kids love nothing more than throwing themselves around; diving! To see Jonty Rhodes and then the likes of our own Paul Collingwood flinging themselves about like maniacs is part of what makes this a good time for cricket.)

But back to the general point. Which is I think that though this floppiness, this dull introversion exists, surely what we need to do… is simply make our games better? Cater well for the undeniable longing amongst so many and create that spark where there is none. The inclination, the faith, The Market is out there in the form of boys and girls and mums and dads who quite possibly instinctively feel there’s something great – tattifelariously, indefinably great even – about sport. So let’s not let them down, eh?