I have just begun the new season of training for National Programmes Activators in metropolitan Essex, so I have been thinking about the challenges of working with younger children (8s & under for All Stars).
There are challenges, but I do believe that there are plenty of available solutions, and opportunities for coaches who work with the youngest children.
Who comes to U8s cricket sessions?
A large proportion (possibly the majority) of the u8s who attend cricket sessions will not be dreaming of playing in front of the pavilion at Lord’s.
Parents & grandparents might, but I suspect that the children will have had little say in where they have been sent!
A smaller proportion of participants might already know the game, might play at home, and want to be at your session because they want to get better at playing the game.
We have to accommodate both groups.
Traditional drills will bore those with no idea of the game or of the skills required, and will frustrate those who really want to get on and play.
Both groups will respond to challenge, but it needs to be differentiated — easier for those not yet hooked on the game, progressively harder for the “believers”.
Kids are kids
Without going into the science (way above my pay grade), children learn by observing, listening, exploring, experimenting and asking questions. And when it comes to movement skills (catching, throwing, striking), the most relevant modes are probably going to be exploring, experimenting and asking questions (challenging themselves and each other).
Going back to Whitehead in 1922, children learn best when they want to learn. And coaching at this age is as much about helping the kids to love the game (Whitehead’s “Romance” stage) so they want to put in a little effort to learn how to play (“Precision”), before getting back into a game to try out the new skills (“Generalisation”).
Session structure & content
Lots of go’s.
Games over drills (although there is a place for “gamified drills” e.g. first team to complete 10 repetitions of a throwing & catching drill).
All children are more likely to thrive if sessions are Purposeful, Engaging, Active (and Safe) — PEAS.
- Clearly related to developing a skill or ability — catching or hitting the ball more often; hitting the ball where the fielders are not; bowling to hit a target.
- Sometimes, the “E” in PEAS is “enjoyable”. But if an activity is Engaging (players “on task”, and challenged to “play” and interact with the activity), it does not need to be “fun”, IMO.
- Different for different players — might be personal challenge, or team performance, or working with others, or something else altogether (one of the challenges, and joys, of coaching kids!). But this generally means finding the same level of challenge that keeps a child glued to a video game.
- Not too much time spent listening to explanations or waiting in line.
- Activities must be quick to set up, easy to explain, and quick to get started.
- Lots of movement within an activity e.g. bowl & retrieve your own ball, hit & run when batting.
- Start simple, and add complexity if the players find it too simple.
I do like (most of) the All Stars activities, although I would probably allow longer for each to play out (3 each week, rather than 4 as per National Programmes schedule).
I would also repeat some of the games more often, especially with the youngest groups — the coaches will have seen the activities many times before, but it could very well be completely new to the children. They’ll not get bored if they play it a couple of times, or more — once to learn the game, once to work out how to win, maybe once more to actually try to win.
What’s in it for the coaches? (How can we sell coaching u8s to more experienced coaches?)
I have learnt a lot about coaching by working with younger children. No, I would not go as far as advocating that all coaches should spend some time with the under 8s, but I do think it is an experience with wider application, certainly in participation and development coaching.
Self development opportunities
- Keep it simple — aim for active & engaging sessions
- Explaining an activity in the simplest terms works with all age groups!
- Keep it simple — skills
- Reducing “skills” to the simplest, core components (essential if you want to tell a 5 year old how to hit a ball to leg, or take a catch) really helps when working with older & better players. Clear, concise communication requires clear & concise understanding of a skill, which supports clear & concise observation and analysis. No jargon!
Revised expectations = Reduced frustration
Coaching younger children is hugely rewarding, but it can also be frustrating. But by having more realistic expectations, a lot of that coach frustration can be avoided.
And if the coach is happier, that will be very apparent to the children, who will enjoy the sessions more, and engage more, and learn more (and (potentially) become better cricketers).
- We can’t hope to drill 24 little cricketers over a dozen one hour sessions. The best we can do is keep them coming back because they want to be with us, and hope the “cricket bug” bites them!
- Focus on PEAS (and especially on Engagement) means we can “win”, even if none of the kids looks like a cricketer-in-the-making by the end of the course.
I deliberately did not say anything about Safety (the S in PEAS) in this post. Participant safety and safeguarding are very important in all sessions. The specific challenges with under 8s might be different, but safeguarding training is generally thorough and effective — I can add nothing new, here.