The art of the academy

Cricketers at all levels need professional guidance, but it isn't always easy to choose from the options available

Members of the Hong Kong Under-19 cricket team practice at HKCC's new Cricket Centre of Excellence prior to their departure to New Zealand to compete at the ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup 2010
Full-time academies will structure individual programmes that focus on all-round development of players Travis Pittman / © HKCA/Travis Pittman
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Players/Officials: Andrew Leipus

Through these columns I have hopefully provided a different insight into cricket, in particular, into health and fitness issues involved in cricketers performing at their best. One thing that should have become clear is the difficulty in reaching (or staying at) the highest level without some type of professional guidance. Even elite cricketers need help at times, from specialist coaching to strength and conditioning, nutrition, psychology, sports medical and other allied aspects. Outside of the team setting, at both the professional and amateur levels, the best option is often to attend a cricket academy.

It is difficult to define a cricket academy since there are so many unique facilities and programmes out there. They cater to different age groups, abilities, skill levels, environments (climate, seasons, wickets, etc) and even competition requirements. Most countries have some sort of national academy, where scholarships are offered to promising youngsters. Cricket Australia's Centre of Excellence is one example of an academy that has acted as a finishing school for some of the world's best players. Admissions there are kept to a select few, but there are certainly commercial academies around the world that target specifics like fast bowling, spin, wicketkeeping, fielding, fitness, talent identification or combinations of these. And that's not just in the mainstream cricket-playing nations either, since the ICC is committed to spreading the sport globally. With more and more post-retirement players attaching themselves to academies, there is also a very high level of support available.

For the past few years I have been lucky to be involved in the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy, based at the Adelaide Oval. Each domestic summer we host anywhere up to 30 talented players from around the world during the Australian domestic summer season. It is quite a different programme in that our players are also expected to participate in the local domestic competition in addition to working on their own goals. The academy's relationship with the South Australian Cricket Association allows an Academy XI to play regular games against stronger sides comprising 2nd XI and first-class players (including ex-internationals).

Academies have gone hi-tech these days, with online versions becoming quite established. These interactive websites are a great alternative to being physically present in a camp or coaching situation, and they open up high-level cricket training to a potentially massive (and commercial) audience. Some may argue that there are limitations with such distance training, especially in areas where movement and skill acquisition is concerned, where instant feedback and knowledge of results is required. But overall they certainly fill a niche in the mass market and offer services otherwise impossible for some people to access.

The success and reputation of any academy depends on many factors, but it is important that the main outcomes or goals of the programme are identified. Since players only attend for a certain period, time tables need to be allocated and balanced according to these identified goals. Offering or promising too much to the players instead of focusing on specific targets can potentially dilute the outcomes.

Short-term academies are great for educating players on how to train since there is not enough time to progress a training programme. Training techniques, postural correction, exercise progressions, functional training and prehabilitation drills can all be taught

For example, when trying to develop any cricket skill, the coach seeks to change the player's neuromuscular system or motor patterning (adding or removing the associated thought processes). But there is only so much repetition and practice that can be performed before fatigue develops and rest is required. When fitness improvement is an associated goal then tiring a player out before he is scheduled to practise skills will have an adverse effect. Optimal skill development could be compromised. This is a simple example of how the management of these and other areas can impact the effectiveness of the programme. It is a juggling act but the better academies get this balance right. The DLCA website has a weekly programme structure that will give you an idea of how such training is conducted.

For strength and conditioning, it is equally important that the level of physical training offered at an academy be structured according to the length of the programme. Physiological adaptation to fitness training is developed over months, not days. In my experience I find that a lot of stakeholders have unrealistic expectations in this department. Outcomes need to be balanced and realistic. Short-term academies are great for educating players on how to train since there is not enough time to progress a training programme. Efforts to "hammer" the players into the ground with intensive training sessions only impede their skill development, unless the goal of the programme is primarily fitness-based. Training techniques, postural correction, exercise progressions, functional training and prehabilitation drills can all be taught.

Seasonal, full-time academy programmes over the course of months are able to offer more individualised and progressive strength and conditioning programmes, achieving great results with fewer injuries. Allied strength and conditioning sessions involving yoga, pilates and cross-training can be extremely beneficial and break the grind of repetitive cricket-based drills..

Modern academies also recognise that it's not just skill and fitness that create a good cricketer. An important aspect of any academy training is allied education. Youth programmes offer a unique opportunity to not only coach and train players but to develop professionalism - the "teach a man to fish rather than give him a fish" analogy. Education is provided to develop skills so that the players have these tools available to them throughout their careers. This especially applies to psychological skill development. Any good academy programme will undertake performance profiling with each player, identifying individual areas of strength and weakness. There are a variety of psychological tools and exercises that, with quality practice and a good coach/sports psychologist, can improve a player's decision-making processes and coping abilities under stress. This is a key element at both amateur and elite levels. Some like to consider this part of the process of developing "mental toughness". Modern academies use a great deal of match situation practice to combine the mental aspect of cricket with the physical skill development. The better academies also offer participation in regular competitive matches so that skills developed in the nets can be applied in the real world at a level suitable for the player's standard.

Khaled Masud holds a discussion with Bangladesh's Academy players, Mirpur, August 2, 2008
Young players also need guidance to do with living a life outside of cricket ©

Life skills are an element not generally considered when discussing cricket training and coaching but have become integral to developing a well-balanced and successful player. Too often young players have burst onto the international scene still ignorant of how to handle everything that comes with success. Full-time academies spend time with their junior players and go over subjects like management of success, media training, personal finance, and even life beyond cricket. Elite cricket is still the domain of a select few and those who don't make it need to have some sort of back-up plan.

The typical DLCA "graduates" will return to their own clubs with a sound fitness base, a greater understanding of their game and a summer of high-level competition. A few have even gone on to play international cricket for their countries.

Derbyshire's Ross Whiteley said he grew to enjoy the fitness workouts. "The challenge of how hard you can push your body until it gives in, breaking that level of comfortable exhaustion the mind puts in place and being ignorant to all the things telling you to stop. I have always said that if I don't make it as a cricketer I want it to be down to my skills just not being good enough, not the fact my fitness or any other aspect got in the way."

The professional cricket academy is a wonderful experience for any budding cricketer looking to refine skills or to develop new skills and understand the game. As with any opportunity in life, however, the benefits will still depend on the work ethic and maturity of the player. Structured well, it will be extremely challenging, but that is what success is built on.

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Gillette Fitness Zone video series presented by Adrian Le Roux will explore fitness exercises to enhance the performance of the modern day cricket player. The 25-episode series will focus on the functional exercises that can be done anyplace anywhere; and then move on to functional and core stability exercises that involve lot of movement and power.

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