Back in 2014, I started coaching at the MCC Cricket Academy, and was assigned to support a coach delivering a “Little Legends” session for a group of 3-5 year olds.
Not really cricket, I thought – more 45 minutes of childcare, with a cricketing theme, perhaps, but not really cricket coaching.
I found out later that some of my new colleagues had directly requested not to be scheduled to work with the Little Legends, and I could understand why. But as the new coach, I didn’t think I could get away with opting out.
Three years later, I find myself leading the delivery for 5 weekly sessions for 5s and under. And the more I do, the more I appreciate the value of coaching the very young players in the Academy’s Little Legends and Mini Masters programmes.
I remembered one of the first pieces of advice I was given when I first trained as a coach – always coach the player, not the skill. And I also remembered how much I enjoy playing games.
I had no formal training to work with children this young, no idea how to even attempt to engage a group of 3 year olds.
I was very fortunate in my first year to work with a cricket coach whose full-time job was in a nursery school – in addition to a suite of planned activities and games, I have taken a lot from Rohan’s example.
Different groups respond in different ways, and the range of activities and games needs to be adapted to suit – the STEP framework (Space, Task, Equipment, People) helps.
Some general rules and examples of best practice have emerged over the three years.
In no particular order.
- Develop new movement skills before cricket-specific skills – we probably spend 30% or more of the playing time running, moving, stretching and simply pulling new shapes…so that when we want a player to stand side on, or point their toes in a particular direction, they have already been doing just that in the warm ups!
- The “How to Coach FUNdamentals of Movement” workshop, from sportscoachUK (now UK Coaching) is highly recommended.
- Don’t be afraid to repeat entire sessions over several weeks, or even to keep some elements the same every week…yes, the coaches might get bored after the fourth or fifth repeat of the same games, but for the children this might be the only chance they get to throw balls through hoops, or to crawl like a polar bear.
- Equally important, if an activity does not work, don’t force it – drop it and move on; maybe come back to it in a few weeks time, if you still think it could work.
- No more than 3 players in a queue at a time (this won’t always be possible, but the ideal interaction might be 1-on-1 – one batter, one fielder; one thrower, one chaser).
- No activity can run for much more than 10 minutes or so (maybe up to 15 minutes once players have been with you for a year); take a complete break every 15-20 minutes (make sure Mum or Dad are primed – nothing worse than sending a 3 year-old for a quick drink, only to find Dad has gone to grab a quick coffee – tears guaranteed!).
- Sessions have to be as seamless as possible – set up new games during drinks breaks, wherever possible; avoid down-time, when the children watch the coaches laying out cones and balls.
- Try to keep any extraneous kit out of sight – there is nothing more distracting to a 4 year-old playing with a ball than another ball, or a bean bag, or a hoop…
- All coaches and adult assistants need to be engaged, throughout – two coaches having a conversation can distract the attention of the whole group.
- Try never to exclude…but if a player doesn’t want to play, you can’t force them to – if possible, have one member of the coaching team assigned to “rounding up strays”, as there is nothing more disruptive than having to leave one group, which has been “playing nicely”, to find out where the “lost” player has gone.
finally, and very importantly
- It is cricket – for the “technical” or “performance” coach, the challenge is to break down a skill into the simplest possible components, and to explain it as clearly as possible. No jargon, no “blinding them with science”, ‘cos it won’t work.
- Celebrate every little success.
- It is (always) fun with the Legends and Masters!
I have written elsewhere on the importance of helping young players to deal with “failure”, and how every experience can become a coachable moment. I believe the same is true for coaches.
Every one of the examples above has been derived from an activity or other incident in a live session that did not go to plan.
That’s a lot of mistakes, I know. In my defence, I have led more than 300 Little Legends or Mini Masters sessions, so that’s a lot of hours, lots of games, and more than 100 children.
And still learning.