A Golden Opportunity for English Cricket

This article offers a critique of the English game and proposes a 5-part agenda for increasing the return on investment from English player development. It analyses where we may have gone wrong, and how we might put things right.

It is written from the heart, by a passionate England supporter. As this person, I have dedicated my working life (and much of my childhood) to the pursuit of excellence in Cricket. And, I have loved doing so. And, I will continue to do so.

The notion that England’s Cricket team needs re-building ‘going forward’ is beyond doubt. Places in the team are up for grabs in a manner few would have predicted only 20 weeks ago.

The recent Ashes debacle could prove to be a seminal moment in the history of English Cricket’s player development ‘model’. And, if the prospective riches from the newly-brokered ICC deal are invested wisely by developing quality English players from England to be brilliant human beings as well as top-class cricketers, the game will be in rude health for many years to come.

Foundations:
The new foundations being built must be stronger than ever before if sustained success is to be enjoyed. Put simply, our game has been dominated by the influence of cricketers from Southern Africa because our own decision-makers saw them as superior to the quality of the organic growth process offered by English born-and-raised cricketers. And their judgment has been proved right, but I believe it has added to the problem rather than focusing on a long-term solution by developing better English players to play successfully for England.

Plenty of good work has been going for decades, and some very good people are involved in the working process. However, my hypothesis is this: in search of better results, can a better way be found?

The relative strength of our young cricketers was on show in UAE this winter at the ICC Under 19 World Cup. Is a future James Anderson, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, or Graeme Swann about to emerge this summer after mixing it with the most ‘highly-promising’ young cricketers in the world during the off-season? Can promising young under-19 age-group cricketers transition successfully to the adult game, and move towards enjoying the ‘world-class’ status that each of the above have attained at some point during their exceptional careers?

The recent debate around ECB and KP (whilst regrettable for both parties) is an unwelcome sideshow to the real issue emerging from England’s recent humiliation in Australia. England got out-fought, out-witted, and out-skilled in Australia, exposing the shortcomings of the English game. Worryingly, there seemed to be a lack of will as much as a lack of skill at certain points during the tour.

Batting Failures:
England’s failings with the bat have blighted their performances for a long while now, and only this past winter has it reached a point where the team’s results have been affected adversely. On numerous occasions in the past year or so, outstanding individual bowling contributions have overcome shortcomings on the batting front.

Some people may argue the case for Mitchell Johnson being a ‘once in a generation’ bowler, but England have had their problems against spin too. They also found the New Zealand attack a handful last winter, and their handling of the difficult questions posed by South Africa’s quality attack in England during the three match Test series in 2012 revealed a propensity for scoring big in favorable conditions and against ‘regulation’ bowling, but being vulnerable to high pace and quality swing bowling. England’s vulnerability against quality spin bowling, especially in the sub-continent remains a deep-seated problem.

Deep-Thinking Before Action to Achieve World-Class Status:
Big problems require profound thinking to resolve them, and I believe that much thought now needs to go into how best to develop young cricketers (from England) to play for England.

To enable England to reach world-class status, the best cricketers (young and mid-career) must be challenged to attain a higher standard than previous generations, and not just settle for being the best in the current era. That is what progress represents. However, the transition from being ‘highly-promising’ to becoming a successful professional cricketer takes time, hard work, and luck. Earning the status of being ‘world-class’ at cricket is a more difficult and longer journey than most realise, which is why so few make the quantum leap from good to great.

Down the years, English cricketers have proved it is possible to be regarded in the highest class. From today onwards, as a new season dawns, key people need to be deployed if the current crisis is to be embraced as an opportunity for progress.

English Cricket has a reputation for being elitist. There is a widely-held perception that it is run by white, middle-aged, middle-class people who have good intentions, but are not ‘in touch’ with the thinking of young people from culturally diverse backgrounds. Can those in authority develop the road-map needed to integrate every corner of England to play their part in making our country great as a cricketing nation?

We need to create the best conditions for future success. Sustainable programmes which are beyond ‘initiatives’ need to be financed properly, and in greater numbers than before. The game needs to be opened up to embrace the thinking of a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. This is the challenge for the best minds in the game to uncover from 2014 onwards.

The current crisis with the England team, represents a golden opportunity to explore what has worked well in the past, and what could be done better in the future.

Utilising New-Found Wealth Wisely:
The prospective new-found wealth that will be flowing into ECB’s coffers as a consequence of the recently announced ICC deal brokered by ECB Chairman Giles Clarke offers welcome resource. But money on its own isn’t the answer. Indeed, sometimes it complicates the problem. When money is freely available, it is tempting to use it for fear of criticism. If National Governing Bodies aren’t doing everything in their power to fund success they face criticism, but the level of discernment needed to determine what to fund, (and what not to fund) is a critical aspect of successful sports administration. UK Sport has proved that increased funding can increase the medal count, but many nations achieve success on limited resources.

The story of most sporting champions often reveals a life lived in the humblest of surroundings, with very limited facilities, but a spirit of curiosity exists, and a desire to move beyond the present circumstances, and an attitude of ‘being optimistic in the struggle’ towards achievement is present in those who become achievers.

High-achievers also benefit from a peer learning group who fuel the ambition of those with the necessary hunger for success. The best performers tend to be the smartest learners. How one learns, and where the learning is undertaken is irrelevant. In Cricket, what should matter most, is performance ‘in the middle’.

Learning, is different from ‘Being Taught’:
Creative skills tend to be developed in informal environments, where the most curious of individuals can invest time wisely, in playful contexts which allow for the old-fashioned notion of ‘trial and error’. Simultaneously, such people also learn how best to optimise the limited resources available to them. This is a far better characteristic to develop than the ‘cosiness’ associated with ‘the chosen child’ who tends to receive unlimited ‘support’ and is regularly transported to and from a ‘perfect’ training facility for a coaching session led by a qualified coach.

In my opinion, the ‘teach yourself about yourself’ philosophy speaks most loudly to all who aspire to become top performers in sport. I believe that ‘the answers’ are inside each person, and need to be accessed by the individual themselves.

Quality guidance helps to shine the light on ‘the way forward’, and enhances the learning concept of ‘guided discovery’.

Ultimately, the best individuals find their own way to the top (given a level playing-field) and in the process, learn to trust their own way of performing. Developing an intuitive ‘feel’ about their game, and their personality, guides them towards the highest peaks in sport and life. Golf’s Bubba Watson is a great example of this notion, as is Sri Lankan cricketer Lasith Malinga.

Helping people to find their own way is a challenging process. Too much interference and one can corrupt the learning process for a player. Too little observation and too few helpful interventions can be regarded as neglect. It is a difficult balance to strike, but the best coaches and the most successful mentors manage to achieve it more often than not.

In more informal systems, this is more likely to occur. There is a theory that systems are built to protect themselves, and to maintain the status quo. Maybe that is why a nation like Pakistan seem able to develop fast bowlers and spinners who can be match-winners because of the more random approach. In a system such as English sport, where ‘best practice’ is sought and then attempted to be disseminated down a hierarchical system from a ‘Centre of Excellence’ out into the Shires, one can see why there is more uniformity in the approach to developing talent than in places like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where financial resources are less and where facilities are more basic.

In English sport, coaching has become such a fast-growing profession in the last twenty five years. Several very experienced sportspeople I know believe there is a danger that ‘raw talent’ can get lost in a system that is over-regulated. Too much prescription, and too much information, has a tendency to block the natural flow of a sportsperson’s game.

One of my favourite sayings in coaching is :
“Coach the intention, not the action”.
In other words, highlight what you want a person to accomplish, but allow them to figure out ‘the how’ for themselves. Then, ask the player an incisive question which has the power to deepen the curiosity about their own unique learning experience.

One of my favorite sayings about learning, is:
“you always remember what you taught yourself”. When coaching, it is a helpful comment to recall, especially when one is about to intervene unnecessarily, or if there is a temptation to short-circuit someone’s learning because of the time pressure needed to get a result. Some educationalists tell me that a similar thing is happening in schools where students are being ‘coached’ to pass the exam questions rather than exploring the subject they are learning about.

One of the keys to learning is patience. As professional coaches, we need to be patient with young players – allow them to work out how best to succeed for themselves. Sometimes, learning ‘what not to do’ is as important as learning ‘what to do’..

However, I do believe that seminal moments occur in a player’s development, sometimes by complete accident. These tend to occur when the player has ‘a collision’ with ‘a Professor of their subject’. This may be via the media, or in person, but fundamentally it involves a highly credible source confirming to you as a player that they believe in your capability. Imagine the power of Geoffrey Boycott telling you that he thought you had a great technique and an enviable cricket brain.

When I learned from the legendary Martin Crowe (my Somerset room-mate at the time) that he thought I could play, and that I would make at least one century in my debut year of first-class cricket, my confidence soared. Within a fortnight, I posted my maiden first-class century.

I know from previous London County Mentoring workshops that I have hosted, that Gary Kirsten’s career was transformed by Duncan Fletcher when he said Fletcher pulled him out of the pub one evening and told him in no uncertain terms that he could play Test cricket successfully if he knuckled down properly. Similarly, Andy Flower shared with me recently that when he learnt at age 18 (through another person) that Andy Pycroft (one of two leading Zimbabwe cricketers at the time, the other being Dave Houghton) thought Andy could play, and would develop into a top-class batsman, it had a significant impact on his development.


Professional Mentoring Can Transform Potential Into Achievement:

Ensuring that highly-credible people in the game (and not just qualified coaches, parents and enthusiasts) are inter-acting with emerging players is essential. Young cricketers who are fortunate enough to enjoy meaningful relationships with highly-credible cricket people as mentors, are more likely to achieve their potential.

It is interesting to see how many young Yorkshire batsmen have emerged since Martyn Moxon became Yorkshire’s Coach and the likes of Geoffrey Boycott were increasingly available to pass on their hard-earned ‘coalface knowledge’ to young players. A similar story exists in sporting families – the shaping of a top player has its’ roots in the quality of conversations taking place around the home environment from a young age.

The understanding of what ‘good’ really means helps with perspective off the back of successes. Having such high standards of what ‘good’ is, tends to remain in the psyche and ensures early successes are not celebrated prematurely – there is always more work to do. Sport is littered with stories about ‘exciting youngsters’ getting over-excited by promising beginnings to a career, which then moves towards a state of terminal decline.

In football, Frank Lampard’s story reflects this theory. his father, Frank Sr, was a contemporary of the late great Bobby Moore and the lessons learned alongside a legend were instilled in the youngest footballing Lampard, which have kept him grounded (and enabled his success) throughout his career.

Whenever the answers to a big problem are perceived to be found in one person (whoever is is in place to do the latest top job) then the thinking is already limited. The answers lie in every person who wants to turn around the standards of English Cricket. Co-ordinating diverse ideas and embracing diverse approaches is a tough task but the merits of doing so can produce the quantum shift in the way an organisation functions.

English Cricket has a golden opportunity to engage some of the best former players to play their part in the renewal of the game across the board.

Paul Downton as MD England Cricket Is Key:

I hope Paul Downton’s charm and ‘soft-skills’ will enable him to extract the best from everyone around him. I hope he doesn’t get trapped in a suit and an office at Lord’s, and instead gets ‘out and about’ and engages with all sorts of people who can power England’s transformation, especially the Asian communities who are so passionate about the game and have been relatively excluded from the high-level opportunities afforded to other members of the cricketing community.

Maybe the future can be inspired by the likes of Monty Panesar, Moeen Ali and Ravi Bopara alongside former Captains with diverse personalities?

Nasser Hussain could provide some of the edge needed in debate, while the classic English gentleman style leader like Andrew Strauss, and the more metro-sexual Michael Vaughan, could be joined by outstanding ‘earthy’ cricket people like David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd who are wise, passionate, and in touch with the reality of club life, as well as Test cricket.

Good men like Angus Fraser who care deeply about their sport and are wise about what is required to succeed, and Mike Atherton, who possesses one of the sharpest of minds, and is also the parent of a promising young cricketer going through ‘the system’ have plenty to offer. Insight from ‘the grass roots’ from people who understand the top-end of the game also, is needed to inform the big picture.

The many millions of pounds being spent on programmes and initiatives, and administration has contributed towards where we are today. With more millions of pounds available going forward, surely investing in such people to be ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the mix’ would pay a healthy dividend? I believe that some of these folk would prefer to work for English Cricket, rather than work for media companies purely to comment on English Cricket? My hypothesis is informed by a sense that being part of the solution to a problem you care about, adds value to one’s sense of purpose in life.

Such men, and pioneering women like Clare Connor, Claire Taylor, Charlotte Edwards and Isha Guha have so much to offer. They all need to be corralled by the powers that be, into playing a major role in making England great again, and not just as selectors, ambassadors, or administrators, or merely as part of a review document’s authorship.

And, hopefully Paul Downton will ‘tap’ some of his former Ashes-winning playing colleagues to ascertain how they view the evolution of the game from a professional perspective. David Gower and Sir Ian Botham have watched England regularly over the past two decades, and know a great deal about balancing work, and play. Would they say that playing Cricket for England has lost some of its’ appeal recently because it has got ‘too focused’ and ‘too narrow’ an existence for many of its participants?

County Cricket Clubs:
I believe English Cricket is in good hands around the shires, with the prospect of good progress being made with the likes of Martyn Moxon, Alec Stewart, Angus Fraser, Hugh Morris, Geoff Cook, Steve Rhodes, etc, in key positions at the County Cricket Clubs they know so well, and care deeply about. Some highly-credible overseas coaches are also adding value to the high-performance programmes.

But, on a more cautionary note, if too many of the top jobs are taken by foreign coaches, then the pool of future English coaches to become England Coach in the future gets reduced. The job experience is vital if ECB Level 4 Coaches are to make further progress beyond the qualification. And if foreign coaches do not know the players, and fear unemployment, then a short-term approach to signing mid-career players as opposed to nurturing long-term ‘home-grown’ prospects, is more likely.

For example, Somerset (one of the best county clubs) have recruited the South African Johann Myburgh (who was playing League Cricket in London) as their off-season signing. He is 33, likely to bat at number 6, and bowl some occasional off spin for them. He may be a decent player, and a quality man, but surely the money (and playing opportunity) could be better invested in a local English cricketer?

In the past twenty years, some county clubs have not been prepared to invest in their own people. David Ripley at Northamptonshire is an exemplar in regard to what a coach can do when given the scope. Backing people to succeed (over time) in senior coaching roles takes courage from administrators, and supporters alike. Sussex seem to be an outstanding example of selecting their coaches based on potential: Peter Moores, and then Mark Robinson, and have reaped the rewards for the stability provided.

Coaches can’t play, but they can educate and inspire, if the relationship with their players is based in both trust and mutual respect. If there is a lesson for Cricket to learn from football, it is that hiring leaders ‘willy-nilly’ is destabilising.

Each club is unique and requires cricket people who understand a club’s DNA, and have a genuine stake in the outcome of its future success.

Expanding the Minds of Young Cricketers:

I believe that what is needed to inspire the deep transformation in the pipeline of emerging talent to become ‘world-class’ over time, is a process which offers an antidote to any narrowness occurring in the development of young English cricketers. If there is an unhealthy focus on ‘winter training’ and an ‘over-intensity’ at too young an age, the spirit may get dimmed. What is absolutely vital, is that a cricketer has the necessary enthusiasm for the full duration of the life-journey through top-level Cricket.

If players get cynical at too young an age or feel that activity is ‘more of the same’, then the game is up in terms of empowering young people to become brilliant human beings through Cricket. The professional process must be about passion and mastery, rather than employment and survival.

In my experience, the best players, over time, reach the top in any generation. But, if the player lacks enthusiasm for ‘the battle’ because too much has come too soon, or if they lack the ‘all-round’ fitness to shape a match by making things happen that influence the contest, then the investment in their development has diminishing returns.

I think I speak for many, when I say we want players to represent our country at Cricket, with the personality to make a big impact on a match and to inspire others in the way they live their life inside and outside of Cricket. To do so, will require the management of their development to be free from constriction, and free from fear of being oneself in case of expulsion from ‘the system’. At its’ best, a system with a more humanistic approach to developing talent will empower the everyone to become the best they can be. Celebrating diversity, and recognising the uniqueness and vulnerability of each individual, is central to a more humanistic philosophy.

Any sporting programme which develops players who are malleable and simply become part of a team of people who have learnt to ‘work the system’ and achieve ‘ticks in boxes’ from key people who sponsor their ongoing involvement because of their willingness to comply with authority, runs the risk of short-changing the public, and investors in the process. Sport needs diverse characters to add to the richness of any game.

Better Leadership of Self:
Leaders on the field are needed at every juncture. Non-conformists tend to be ‘game-changers’ as their personality lends itself to dissatisfaction with the status quo. For the development programmes to oversee an emergence of great talent, all personality types need to be embraced and accepted into the mix, not just those people who are easy to understand and work with.

The UK’s ethnic diversity must be more reflected in our national sports teams. And for those who come from minority groups in a sport, and those who have a commitment to faith, must not feel it has to be hidden when ‘living’ as a young cricketer. If the environment and cricket culture contributes to people feeling they need to lead something verging on ‘a double life’ to be accepted in the group, then the elite cricketing environment is less healthy than it should be.

I think I speak for every England Cricket supporter when I say we want English players to play with distinction for England. And, we want those very same people to become brilliant human beings and outstanding ambassadors for our game. This must be the goal, surely?

Leadership is key to transforming performance in any team or organisation. Identifying the major issues to resolve, is the starting point for any leader. In my opinion, I think the following issues NEED to be addressed:

The Big Issues in English Player Development:

As I see it, there are three major issues that reflect the sub-optimal ‘player development’ process in English Cricket:
1. The ‘Southern-Africanisation’ of county cricket
2. The lack of British-Asian cricketers playing Test cricket successfully for England over a sustained period of time
3. The drop out of young cricketers from playing the game once they come to think that their dreams of becoming a professional cricketer are unlikely to be fulfilled


The Next England Test Team:

The England team has benefitted from the excellence of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, and if the next outstanding young batsman is Gary Ballance from Zimbabwe, or if Andrew Strauss’s eventual replacement at the top of the batting order is his Middlesex replacement Sam Robson from Sydney, then it begs the question, where are all the outstanding batsmen originating from England?

The most prolific front-line batsmen in Division One of The County Championship last season were Wayne Madsen (from Durban) of Derbyshire, Gary Ballance (from Harare) of Yorkshire, Michael Lumb (from Johannesburg) of Nottinghamshire, Sam Robson (from Sydney) of Middlesex, alongside the likes of Varun Chopra (from Ilford) of Warwickshire, reveals some interesting data about the level of performance among young English batsmen.

Joe Root looks an outstanding prospect and one hopes that his experience of a year of top-level cricket will have given him a deeper wisdom about his game at such a tender age but one wonders if his recent experiences may have a detrimental effect on his long-term development. It would be a great sadness if Joe Root’s career followed a similar path to two outstanding players of my era, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, both of whom promised ‘greatness’ at entry level but ultimately failed to accomplish the (possibly unrealistic?) expectations laid at their feet in Test cricket.

Put starkly, why aren’t more batsmen from England (born and raised) playing with consistent success for England, and in county cricket?

The objective must be to develop mastery over the ball in the way that Grace, Hobbs, Hammond, Hutton and Compton did in previous eras.

Will there ever be a batting line up that reels off quality names like teams of the 1950’s with Graveney, Cowdrey, May, Barrington and Dexter?

Or, will the excellence represented in the 1981 line up, that saw quality players such as ‘the G-Force’ of Gooch, Gower, Gatting a ‘book-ended’ at numbers 1 and 7 by the diverse batting skills of Boycott and Botham, and superbly led by Brearley, ever be repeated?

Towards a Better Way to Develop ‘World Class’ English Cricketers:

I would like to advocate five key themes for serious consideration as we reflect on how to increase the returns for our player development arrangements in England.

1. Keep the Base of the Pyramid Wider for Longer

More young cricketers must be given hope that they are not being excluded from quality opportunity too early in their lives. If players believe there is ‘an unwinnable game’ being played, and by not being part of the best opportunities at a young age they are being excluded from having (in their mind) a fair chance to make progress, then a sense of resentment about the sport can grow, and a reputation of being elitist may grow stronger roots too.

If there is a focus on talent identification at younger and younger ages to ‘predict’ the emerging potential of young cricketers, then the process may be out of step with the natural development of physical and emotional maturity.

And the stress of trying to get on to a development program, or in trying to stay on it, may be a strong limiting factor in young cricketers exploring their cricketing talent at school, and in youth, or County Age Group cricket. An element of ‘the fear of failure’ can be seen as healthy by some, as it prevents complacency, but too much of it and it limits the possibility of a player’s natural gifts coming to the fore. The consequences of a ‘fear-based’ program can be quite far-reaching, and the effects on the wellbeing of young people must not be under-estimated. Encouraging young cricketers to explore their talent and not be fearful of making mistakes is the gift possessed by the best coaches.

Greater opportunity must be created for the majority of less ‘well-off’ people who do not benefit from a privileged start in Cricket via the ‘Prep School’ route, and instead learn the game through a local club having first tried football as their main sport. Late developers must have better quality opportunity in Cricket, and feel there is a genuine prospect of being able to break into the system, whether it be at domestic or international level. Tim Linley and Darren Stevens are outstanding examples of cricketers who broke through to become achievers in Cricket despite not featuring in ‘elite development programs’ as teenagers. And, Australia’s Chris Rogers too, has led the way for the over 35’s in the way that Graham Gooch inspired many players of my era with his improving levels of excellence towards the back-end of his Test career. Gooch is an exemplar of converting reflection into purposeful action. He was always prepared to look at his game, learn deeply, and then apply his new-found wisdom to test himself in competition, and then continue to reflect on the progress of his game throughout his career.

2. More Art, Less Science

A recent posting on espncricinfo.com by a parent of a young cricketer attending a county trial, was both distressing and illuminating. I know of other parents who have shared their frustration with me about the dominant emphasis of ‘physical fitness’ at County Cricket age-group sessions. The influence of Science and Medicine on modern sport is in danger of taking over from the artists of the game.

I often refer to the late Sir Donald Bradman’s book ‘The Art of Cricket’ to inform my work as a coaching practitioner, and the title seems so apt. For me, cricket remains a game of subtlety, skill and strategy.

Physical fitness enhances performance but the term ‘fit for purpose’ is worth understanding, because the purpose of a bowler is to take 5 wickets regularly, and a batsman must score centuries consistently, if he/she is to be of real value to their team. Both accomplishments are only achieved in top-level cricket with a high level of skill. Fitness helps to support the performance process, but is not the determining factor in producing consistent top performance. Superior skill, applied with diligence, is the key ingredient in successful performance, over time.

3. Avoid Over-Specializing at Too Young an Age

Growing up in a different era, I attained my fitness base from playing a range of sports to a good level from a young age. I was fortunate enough not to have been obliged to participate in a ‘structured’ development program that would have precluded me from being ‘a games player’. The benefits I gained from a multi-sport approach to my early life went beyond achieving better physical fitness and greater physical balance allied to better spatial awareness. Different social groups formed in different contexts through playing different sports, added an extra dimension to my life.

Simultaneously, there was a wider movement vocabulary being developed in a variety of other ways too: interacting with a variety of social groups and different peer groups, and having to deal with the different challenges that being ‘a star’ at only one sport would not offer. The gifted school-age player is better off learning to deal with being ‘in the pack’ or ‘an outsider’ in another sporting discipline, because the experience has many benefits to understanding the emotions of others. When leading the way as one of the best players in another sporting discipline, it is likely that greater empathy has been developed if ‘the star player’ hasn’t had it all his/her own way all of the time. Such learning experiences would have been denied me had I been told to specialize in my best sport from a very young age.

4. Re-visit the Role of the Coach, and Pay ‘Youth Coaches’ Exceptionally Well

Cricket coaches are in danger of morphing into football managers. If a team wins, they are seen as a coaching genius, or, if a team loses, they must face the sack. It’s madness! It breeds interference on the part of the coach and the Captain is increasingly in danger of becoming an on-field ‘line manager’ who is ‘remote-controlled’ by off-field influences. Such erosion of one of the key aspects of Cricket is, in my opinion, doing the game, and its’ players a disservice. It is happening at youth level too. Developing more resourceful captains, and a better core of senior players takes longer, and requires skillful, patient practitioners to oversee the transformation from ‘sheep to shepherd’ but it is the solution to the problem of many modern cricket teams. The short-term fix is to employ more people to use the ‘remote-controls’ from the dressing room, but it is akin to ‘feeding the monster’ of the long-term problem.

Any team’s leadership (Captain and Coach) at international level can only do so much for individual players, as they are focused on ‘the here and now’ of winning sessions, matches, and series. Therefore, if the quality of the developmental work is so important, why doesn’t sport reward ‘Youth Coaches’ exceptionally well? If the pay was commensurate with a person’s ability to influence, educate, and inspire, and also reflected an individual’s experience base, then more former players would serve the game through coaching.

Getting the best coaching practitioners really committed to the profession of ‘Quality Coaching’ at Youth level is essential, and would be easy if the remuneration was attractive. It would not require too much travel, or have many of the stresses associated with being in the public eye. Instead, sport loses top people to well-rewarded roles the media, when it needs to have the best minds, and the most interesting personalities, available to inspire the next generation on a week-to-week basis. Inspirational teachers and coaches are the lifeblood of any human system.

5. Make ‘Well- Being’ A Significant Feature

Quite simply, there is now too long a list of cricketers who have suffered from some form of mental health issue. I believe that too much player development seeks to develop ‘toughness’ and competitiveness, without attending sufficiently to the development of the ‘whole person’. Such an approach could enable them to develop a better understanding of themselves and the inner resources needed to reduce stress and learn how to manage it successfully.

Together with my fellow Professional Mentoring colleagues, I have appealed to sporting directors, coaches, and leaders of development programs to attend much more to the development of ‘inner fitness’ alongside ‘athletic fitness’. ‘Inner fitness’ addresses a young person’s purpose in life, their values, the way they think and understand their emotions, and how they acquire the relationship skills needed to achieve a well-rounded life, both inside and outside their sport.

In conclusion, what is really important is that young men and women bring all of themselves to the game. To address ‘all-round fitness’ properly, cricketers must pay more attention to the development of ‘self’ and bring more joy to their game. If they do, I believe it will help us all in dealing with the increasing shadow that is looming large in the lives of young people in sport – mental health problems.

And the significant returns will go way beyond the game of cricket. Striving for excellence should not be defined exclusively by performance on the pitch, track, course, or court, but by the way sportspeople lead their lives.

As a former sportsman, I remain an evangelist for sport, and cricket in particular. The role it can play in developing people to ensure a better future society is invaluable.

Neil Burns
12th April 2014.

Neil Burns was a professional cricketer for Essex, Somerset and Leicestershire (1983-2002). Simultaneously, he coached extensively in South Africa.
Since 2004 has developed WG Grace’s London County Cricket Club as a professional mentoring organization, developing people through cricket.
As Professional Coach @londoncounty, he has helped oversee the transformation of several cricketers’ careers, and created greater opportunity for players ‘outside the system’. His work has included enabling school-age cricketers to play County Age Group and Regional level Cricket through the London County Colts Programme.
As a Professional Mentor @londoncounty, he has provided professional support to elite coaches across a variety of different sports.
He is Managing Director @londoncounty, and serves as a Trustee of the sporting charity www.journeysthroughsport.com

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