June 24, 2014

In quest of the ideal junior coaching system

More Australian states should look at the model created by NSW and Victoria

The most talented kids will progress fastest when they play against the best in their class © AFP

My recent piece questioning whether inclusivity and excellence were mutually exclusive prompted much correspondence. I received a letter from none other than Peter Smith, father of the current Australian batsman Steven. An eloquent and thoughtful man, his wisdom was not just that of a parent who had nurtured a precociously talented son through the junior system (and beyond) but also gained from being the long-time president of a large junior cricket association in greater Sydney. Speaking to him at length, it came as no surprise to see why Steve is blossoming as a Test batsman of some note and being touted as a future leader. The apple rarely falls far from the tree.

NSW and Victoria have a junior cricket system that is not adopted by some of the other states, much to their detriment methinks. Their best young players are graded and then challenged throughout their junior cricket by playing against the best cricketers of their genre. I suspect many subcontinental junior systems operate similarly.

When I was a child growing up in Colombo, I distinctly remember the cut-throat nature of trying to get in the A's at St Thomas College, Mt Lavinia, a famous cricketing nursery a few decades ago but increasingly less so now, I assume. It's impossible to imagine how players like Sachin Tendulkar, Mushtaq Mohammad, Mohammad Amir, Arjuna Ranatunga and even Shahid Afridi could have succeeded at Test level in their teens if their development was not significantly fast-tracked.

One cannot imagine young players succeeding in international cricket at 17 or 18 in Australia today. It is certainly unlikely in Brisbane, where junior cricket is not graded to any great extent as far as I can glean. Most coaches are often just parents who love the game and are generous with their time, doing their best to give everyone a fair go and ensuring safety - often to the point of ridiculousness.

I've written earlier about the pressure placed on kids to wear helmets even against bowling that barely gets above knee height. The helmets are more useful in case of a swooping magpie, a common threat at the start of the Brisbane season!

My son's team has two boys who are forced to wear helmets but not gloves. Another boy I know was told to bowl slower so it was fairer to the other kids. Talk about the Lowest Common Denominator Principle at play here. How can you possibly nurture excellence in a barren garden like this? Perhaps this is why that fast bowler needs to go up an age level or play in the top grade instead of in a system that asks him to bowl slower to kids whose heads are unbalanced by heavy helmets yet fingers exposed.

In Sweden they have a great system for tennis. For 50% of the time, they place youngsters in a group with players of similar ability. They believe this gives them the opportunity to bring many facets of the game into play, such as attack/defence, and developing mental toughness. It is expected that they get into long matches against players of similar ability, so they learn to grind out games. No surprises that Swedish players won often at Roland Garros.

For 25% of the time they play them at a higher level or age group. This allows players to really challenge themselves and learn defence and survival - but they only do this for 25% of the time because it is believed that any longer than that and the kids lose confidence; they forget how to attack and lose their creativity. You often see this in many sports; the young ones often do well in the first few weeks but then slide backward. Some stay up too long and lose so much confidence that they exit the sport. I've witnessed this first-hand.

The remaining 25% of the time, the kids go down a level or to lower age groups. This is so they learn to dominate a game, blow the opposition away. They are expected to learn to deal with high expectations and go for the jugular. Interestingly, there is anecdotal evidence that super-talented kids who have been playing up age groups come back into their own age group for a game or two only to perform really badly. Complacency perhaps? That is the point the Swedes are making: developing elite talent is about teaching them how to handle many situations. Variety is needed to develop a wide gamut of skills (technical and mental).

I recall playing with Kepler Wessels, who kept coming back to club cricket (after a Test) and grinding out another big hundred. It was a great lesson in how to come down a level and still dominate. (Not that it was a problem I ever had to contend with!)

Of course, in the absence of a highly resourced system (like in Scandinavia) or highly qualified coaches at all levels (unrealistic), the most talented juniors have to rely on a parent who knows what he/she is doing, or a coach who actually understands how to push an elite child, as opposed to merely knowing the technical aspects of the game. For those kids, their techniques are way ahead of their peers, so they need to be challenged to perform (and fail) at a level that prepares them for senior cricket. The mental challenges are often the litmus test.

Peter Smith clearly sounds like the sort of parent who knew just how far to push his son. Listening to his memories of coaching Steve, even in modified backyard games, it was clear that here was a parent who recognised talent but also provided a firm grounding in life lessons. Perhaps it is no surprise that Steve is already distinguishing himself as a leader, even at a relatively young age. Apparently he benefited immensely from opening the batting at age 16 with Phil Jaques.

I look back to my young days in A grade and it's only now that I realise how much I learned about the mental side of the game from team-mates like Wessels, Allan Border, Stuart Law, Peter Anderson (Afghanistan coach), David Rathie (played Test rugby), and a young Matt Hayden. Even when they failed - which they rarely did - it was a teachable moment.

No system is perfect, of course. Logistics alone are often a barrier to the best-intentioned development plans. No junior administrator I have met has anything but the best intentions. Some junior systems, though, need to find ways to push talent upwards without losing sight of their role in the community as providers of healthy participation sport.

The Swedish model has something going for it but it is complicated and time-consuming to administer. The Sri Lankan system I witnessed as a young boy was sound in theory but was characterised by nepotism and closed minds. A boy who made it into the A team at age 11 (often because of pushy parents and favouritism) stayed in the A team for the rest of his school career.

But what of the systems that spawn the Tendulkars of the world? Or was he just a freak of nature who defies any attempt at replication? Is it possible for a Tendulkar or a Virat Kohli to emerge from the junior system in Brisbane, for example? Perhaps that sort of genius has a way of clearing any boundary.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane