What coaching is, and what is is not. Thoughts on the ECB’s “Unleashing Potential”, and why we need to be careful what we wish for.

We all know we are “coaches”, but what are we actually doing when we coach? Is what we do working? What is “good” coaching?

Questions we all might have asked ourselves, at some point during our coaching careers.

Idealistically, I’d look to help a player be the best version of him- or herself rather than achieving “best fit” to an “ideal” model, only changing something if it was likely to cause serious inconsistency or lead to potential injury.

But realistically, I wonder if that might limit a young player’s access to development pathways, if they fail the “eye test” by not “looking right”?

There certainly used to be tales of Test prospects having their bowling actions remodelled by well-meaning coaches, and subsequently being barely able to bowl at all. You don’t hear these stories any more…I wonder if a bowler with a non-standard action would survive the pathway with their idiosyncrasies intact (if they could even get taken into the system in the first place, that is).

And this thought has been further challenged with the publication of a pair of documents by ECB Coach Development — Unleashing Potential, Men’s & Women’s Pathway. Talent and development frameworks for “pathway leaders and coaches” (so not for the likes of me, then…).

Challenging, and informative of the thinking of “better” coaches, perhaps.

But Unleashing Potential poses more questions than it answers.

Unleashing Potential — Men

The Men’s pathway document is described as “…an ECB talent development framework designed for pathway leaders and coaches…” that “…outlines the characteristics of future England players, and the key markers along the journey…” and “…will be utilised in the planning of pathway programmes, and competition structures, as well as the delivery of player identification and coach development.”

Quite definitive, for a document that has been compressed to a 25 page PDF file.

The men’s pathway doc essentially lists the skills (and some other attributes) that will be required from future internationals.

I have to admit that I find some of the outcomes lacking in ambition. Surely, it’s a given that a pace bowler will bowl at pace, and a spinner will spin the ball? Where is the mystery, the love for the game, the ambition for ongoing (self) improvement, that defines truly great players?

And I do wonder why the coaches get little mention in the men’s pathway document. And the absence of guidance is apparent.

Coach Development looks very functional. Lots on how to deliver “ideal” sessions. But not much on understanding the player’s motivations and learning behaviours — the more interesting, more important (and, perhaps, much harder) coaching skills. Little or nothing on the pedagogical foundations of how to coach.

So coaches are making up the “how” as they go along.

Some going “back to basics” with Direct Instruction and formal (quasi-academic) learning practices, and drilling, drilling, drilling; others going free-style with constraints & affordances and environment design.

Others still abdicating responsibility for developing players in favour of “letting the players find their own way”. This is not coaching! (Although, to be fair, this description seems to be a straw man created to discredit ecological dynamics and CLA.)

I do believe that coaching (good coaching) can play a vital role in player development. But where is the plan to unleash the potential of the coaches?

Unleashing Potential — Women

The women’s pathway version of Unleashing Potential (UP-W), on the other hand, is “…a framework of development, written to underpin our vision and mission and deliver success both on and off the field.”

The document for the women’s pathway is much more interesting (and has twice as many pages…), and actually seeks to outline some of the steps towards developing the next generations of players, whether that be through the Principles of Player Development or the (quite explicit) expectations of coach behaviours at each level.

But defining players by their stats, as UP-W does? Is there not a danger that, by coaching to averages, we produce average players? Would you not select a bowler who went at 10 an over, but also took a wicket every 6 balls?

What is wrong with players today? And what could be done? A personal manifesto.

It’s not “too little technical coaching”. Rather, it is too much! (In my not so humble opinion…)

Too much structured coaching, too young.

Not saying “it was better in my day” (in many, many ways, it wasn’t), but we played “Terriers” to U13 — Pairs, if you’re out you lose runs but stay at the crease — so more actual play, (much) less formal coaching.

Curiously, the ECB’s National Programmes — All Stars and Dynamos Cricket — has more to say about learning to play (by playing “games” to learn; repetition without repetition) and player behaviours (the multi-ability model, developed in collaboration with Create Development) than the mainstream coaching programmes.

An early focus on core skills (full face of the bat; energy towards target — non-negotiables), tested and refined by playing the game, over more “technical” coaching, IMFFHO, might be the more profitable approach!

I know which route I favour.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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