Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Mind The Gap

A new batsman comes to the wicket. He surveys the field, making a careful note of the fielders’ positions. After blocking a few deliveries, he starts to play some more expansive shots, and hits them, unerringly, straight to the fielders.

From a ruck, the ball is passed to the first receiver who runs forward a couple of steps before being driven back in the tackle by two defenders.

A succession of crosses and corners fail to beat the first defender. When the winger does finally manage to locate his centre forward, the latter isn’t able to generate enough power in his header to trouble the goalkeeper.

What’s going on? The answer is that each player is telling his subconscious brain to pay attention to the position of the opposing players (or his own player in the last example). The brain is then told what skill to execute. The task is then carried out using those visual cues as targets.

Even if you told your brain something like “Don’t hit the ball to the fielder”, the subconscious brain, which doesn’t understand spoken language very well, just hears “hit – ball – fielder”.

The answer, if you’re a coach, is not to tell your players to look for where the fielders/defenders are, but to look for where the gaps are. So a new batsman would survey the field looking for those gaps, and maybe start visualising hitting the ball into those gaps. In net practice, you can put markers on the net to indicate fielding positions. But if the batsman doesn’t seem good at avoiding them, you might want to highlight the gaps between them using coloured markers.

You might also want to remind your players that cricket, rugby and football pitches are pretty large compared to the size of even adults. If they were a bird flying over the ground they would see lots of gaps. So in cricket, if there are few gaps in a ring of close fielders, they need to think about how they could safely hit the ball over them into those gaps. Imagining they were high above the ground looking down might help them.

In sports such as football and rugby, the task for coaches is to get their players to think of themselves as “space invaders”.

David Donner

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Problem With Cricket Nets

A few years ago I was umpiring a junior cricket match when a young man came out to bat when his side was in trouble, having lost early wickets for not many runs. He scored a rapid 50, which at least put his side back in with a chance of winning.

You might think I’d be impressed by this innings, yet I felt it encapsulated what is wrong with a lot of traditional coaching. Because whilst there were a lot of impressive strokes to the boundary, there were also a lot of horrendous misses and streaky edges (as well as a couple of dropped dolly catches).
It seemed to me as if nearly all his shots were pre-meditated, and I just had the impression that this was someone who spent a lot of time practising in nets, especially against a bowling machine. He clearly had a good eye, but had no idea how to build an innings, and wasn’t using all the available visual cues that are required for good decision making.

The great players in the past have generally learned their cricket by playing games in the street, park or beach. This meant that they could spend many hours developing their technique by self discovery, rather than learning to play in the way that a coach thought they should. But also, by playing games these players were able to develop the mental side of the game, as well as the ability to deal with unexpected challenges.

One cricket academy that tried to introduce a more game-centred approach was the Cricket Australia Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. They reduced the field of play to a 30-metre circle, marked by a low net. This meant that they could play games in which everybody was involved, but it also meant that they could put in a variety of conditions to challenge the players and develop their skills. For instance, the batsmen would have to hit the ball into specific zones in order to score runs. They could alter the sizes of bats and the types of balls, and make any number of changes to the rules of the game.

This type of approach can be used in most if not all sports. Although the method of learning is self discovery, the coach still has a crucial role to play, not least in setting up the game conditions, but also in using techniques such as questioning and feedback to aid that process of skill development.

More on feedback in cricket next time.

David Donner