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Home » Groups » Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) » blogs » Phill O Brien » Talent ID or Tradition Unchecked
Coaching Children (Ages 5-12)

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Talent ID or Tradition Unchecked

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Child playing cricket

I have loved the part I have taken in running All Stars at my cricket club this year.   The underpinning philosophy of learning through fun, for all, is wonderful.   I’m not at all sure though that we have enough of this philosophy as the kids get older.   I think we are in too great a rush to turn children into mini adults with scant regard for their needs as developing children / cricketers.

In particular I’m really uncertain that the work we do as a cricket community to develop children aged 13 and under is as thoughtful and effective as it could be, in particular when the kids show signs of ability.   In this blog I’m asking whether our investment in performance / talent path ways at 13 and under is fit for purpose.   I think we may be thoughtlessly rolling out the traditions of the past with little respect for the learning around talent hotbeds, skill development or child development.

I’m a level 2 and club coach who originally trained as a PE teacher but has spent  a career in a variety of roles building the capacity of others and of organisations.   I’m fascinated by learning and skill development and I have 2 higher degrees including a MEd.   I’ve not set out to write an academic piece, if you want references please message me.

The search for talent.   Talent is a word we often used but I’m not confident we have a shared understanding in the game of what  it means?   Ask yourself do you use the word talent in a different way to the words high performing?  I suspect not. I know I didn’t until I started to give it thought.

Many children who perform strongly do not continue in the game as adults let alone become elite players.   Conversely many elite players were not strong performers as children or even cricketers at all.   Presently we have a structure that selects high performing kids and invests in them but do we really have evidence this is an effective approach to developing elite players?

Ross Tucker argues that a talented individual is one likely to become an elite player as an adult.   I like this as it helps distinguish talent from performance.   His definition challenges the common use of the word in cricket communities where we bandy the word talent around when kids stand out (runs/wickets).    Dr Jean Cote amongst others have presented evidence pointing to the difficulty of reliable talent ID prior to physical maturation and on an anecdotal level I, and I’m sure you too, will be able to list dozens of 13 year old stars who never went on to even play in their clubs adult teams let alone becoming elite.   So we have all these high performing 9, 10 , 11, 12 and 13 year olds being funnelled into and out of performance / talent pathways and we have little evidence to justify  these decisions.

What  do we do for the better  kids now?  We seem to focus on filling teams from ages 10 and upwards with ‘the best (performing)’ boys and girls.  The best performing kids test themselves against one another.     Its strength is tradition and charm, the kids love their kit and wonderful memories are created.

Coaching within this framework of competition is sparing.   A representative squad, depending on their county/ district/ region could have as many as 20 sessions a year or as few as no sessions a year.   It is typically less than 10 sessions a year.

Kids in these talent or performance programmes tend to be the physically larger and chronologically older (relative age effect).   It is also an advantage to be on the inside – a cricketing or sporting parent who plays lots with you effecting an acceleration in your skills development relative to your peers.   Do we invite the talented in or the fortunate?

If performance is an unreliable indicator of talent then can we really  justify the spend on this activity?

Would a broad based pyramid be a more appropriate? Developing many boys and girls with a foundation of physical, creative, social, personal and cognitive skills who love the game has to be the way forward.  Respect the difficulty of talent ID at this age and stop trying – a charter for supporting all who want to improve.

It makes sense in terms of learning.   Skills develop when we get the right volume of practice at the right level of difficulty.    The more ‘right’ these variables (volume and difficulty) the speedier the skill development.   Our job as coaches / educators is facilitating sessions where we take our players quickly to their level of competence and make them feel sufficiently safe (physically and psychologically) and motivated to work just beyond that level.    Working just beyond that level is the way to accelerate development, working below that level is practice and leads to a plateaux if not deterioration.

What’s wrong with the performance pathway we have got? As I see it the model is flawed on 4 levels; not fit for purpose, counterproductive, unnecessary negative collateral damage and finally financially inefficient.

Not fit for purpose.  High volumes of travel and waiting are not a great method of developing or promoting a love of the game or for skill development.   If we analyse all the time that a kid spends in a representative programme they will spend tiny single figure percentage executing their major discipline competing against another child who is of an ability level that will stretch them and help them develop.

An anecdote was shared with me recently of a 13 year old child representing their county in an away fixture that involved 6 hours travel only for them to bowl 12 balls.   I have dozens of similar anecdotes.   I chose this one because their farther is a former first class player.   We  can be proud our sport  is very  fair – the system does not discriminate it treats those within the establishment poorly as well as those from outside.

Unnecessary negative side effects.  This nomination, selection and rejection merry-go-round sees thousands of kids as young as 8 and 9 receive rejection messages from our sport.   A strong case might be made for this if we have strong evidence that it feeds an effective system of identifying talent – but unless my  research is faulty we don’t.   Across differing sports and in differing countries it seems to be common place that less than a single figure  percentage of those in the talent pathway, pre puberty, go on to make elite level.  I have not been able to find anything in the literature relating to cricket in this respect so it  may be that as a sport we are unique – I look forward to hearing from those with more knowledge than I in that respect.

At a time that kids are turning away from physical activity and where the market for the physically literate kids is increasingly contested, our sport has a system that unnecessarily and disproportionately rejects kids – we have a system effecting early, pointless and subjective rejection not long term development.

I spoke with the parent of a 15 year old this month.   Constant rejection from county has led to the kid no longer wanting to be a cricketer.  By 15 (the age at  which Jimmy Anderson, if the rhetoric is to be believed, had yet to come under the county radar) children have been ground down by a system to the point that their ambition has been crushed.   Reduced ambition acts as a break on motivation and development.  The kid in question is a first XI player in a premier league.

Counterproductive.  Trials lead to the season of a child cricketer being punctuated in a series of ‘crisis moments’.   Times of high stress and high importance leading to the children valuing themselves on the basis of subjective judgements made by over stretched coaches at trials. This is hardly places kids in a physical and psychological state to develop their skills or show of their best.

At an age that when coaches should be working long term development our system throws in a series of short term ‘crisis points’ seducing the kids (and their parents) to judge and value themselves on the outcomes of the subjective judgements of coaches.   This seems diametrically opposed to the development of healthy learning behaviours.   We could argue that our system encourages the fixed mind-set approach (Dweck).

The selection and rejection merry go round feeds the private fee paying coaching ‘industry’.  I’m reflecting on the ethics of county coaches and selectors also doing fee paying coaching with kids in their cohort and I remain to be convinced this is in the long term interests of the children involved or of a meritocratic selection process.    I have had many parents tell me that  their kids ‘one to one’ coach has said they  should be nominated for county – this has never matched my  own judgement (which  is of course possibly  wrong).   I think it’s a bit like commissioning a decorator to paint your lounge, then asking his advice on whether it  is a well decorated lounge.   It’s in his interests to tell you that it is well decorated and to alert  you  to the fact that  it  would benefit from a regular repaint.

The focus on games seduces coaches and managers to focus on the short term goal of winning the game.   In this paradigm why wouldn’t your best batters bat, your best bowlers bowl and the marginal kids be given their token over while they bat 9?   It’s someone else’s job to make sure those kids who miss out get a go isn’t it?   I’ve been guilty  of this myself –  you justify  it to yourself because this is how the game isn’t it?    In reality the game is only  like that  if we, as coaches, run it  like that.   Kids games do not have to look like adult games.

Competition further leads to parents and coaches ‘telling’ kids how to play (strategy, fielding positions etc), standing on the boundary moving fielders and making bowling changes.   See Hockey Canada’s wonderful parody of this type of sports parenting here. Learning is better done through trial and error, learning from mistakes and real life experience than through instruction.   Once on the field the kids should be left  to play – if the coach needs to tell them what they have to do during a game then they have got their preparation right yet.   I heard an anecdote of a senior officer within the game watching their child play representative cricket this summer and shouting on instruction.   Hardly  a great  example or a recipe for independent, free thinking creative players – perhaps we would rather  have clones!

A recent anecdote of a league declining to play an interleague game because they couldn’t field their ‘best  kids’ adds fuel to the fire that the present pathway leads adults to focus on short term outcome not long term development and experiential learning.

Financially inefficient.   2 match balls, 2 umpires, 2 scorers, a ground, teas, coach fees, travel kit and so on –  a game of cricket  costs…. Cricket  costs lots, let’s say £100 a game – too low I know but  for the sake of argument go with me.   I think there are 300 games of representative cricket in my county alone at ages 13 and under.   That’s £30k – and I’m sure we all accept my estimates of costs are conservative.    Now that’s just 1 county, multiply  it  by  all the county  boards (30+) and we are talking a lot of resource.   If we add to that all the time we have our best qualified coaches (level 3 and beyond) effectively traveling to and from, and then watching, games of cricket when they could be coaching and supporting the kids to develop their skills then it is easy to make a case for the system not being a sensible use of resource.

So what would be better?  Stop the focus on squads and games and find a better  way of developing skills.   Why  not invest  in localised high quality development programmes.   At these programmes all children who wish to (yes no rejection and selection) would experience a long term development program led by a coach who only has the athlete’s long term development in mind.   Liberated coach from the pressure and time involved in competing in games.   Allow coach to get  to know the child as a person, support the coach to work with the whole child, free them to learn what is the ‘right’ level of practice and  the ‘right’ volume of practice for each child.

Provide all kids who want it with a high quality environment to develop their skills.   Not because of some utopian value driven altruism but because it makes more sense to broaden the base of the pyramid up to 14.  Pay for it using the resources released by scrapping the representative cricket programme at 14 and under and through a reasonable cost recovery fee structure.   A number of sports grassroots survive in a fee paying commercial world (tennis, gymnastics, dance, swimming).   In our sport  we have the capacity to do this and better.

Just Imagine ……

  • 6 or 7 programmes in each  county
  • each programme having 25 kids (or so) at each age group (10s to 14s), each programme running, for example, 20  high quality development sessions a year.
  • Kids leaving the sessions with training and skill development objectives
  • Clubs receiving feedback on how to support their kids with those specific objectives.
  • Club coaches attending to observe the high quality sessions being delivered, cascading this back into their clubs.
  • How these centres could then become hubs for coach CPD

I’ve raised a number of questions and made a series of assertions in this piece.   My motivation is a genuine concern that this is an area of our sport  that  we have yet to get  right –  I genuinely  don’t believe we are sufficiently  child centred or smart  in our  activity.   I have proposed one alternative solution – perhaps you have a different idea. 

I hope to spark dialogue and in so doing educate my own position.  Thanks for reading please share your observations by adding a comment below.

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Comments (15)

   
andrewb62

hi Phill
Really interesting post - lots of challenges for talent id in cricket (and other sports)..
I see that Kent are changing the way they run their Performance squad at U11 next season, to put more emphasis on coaching (and playing) with their Area squads - http://www.kentcricket.co.uk/news/new-player-pathway-for-boys/ . Along the lines of your proposal, although the U11 Performance squad will still exist to play games against other Counties.

07/09/17
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Owiepob

Thank you Andrew, yes I had been signposted to this development in Kent by another reader. The language of it all is simply ridiculous though isn't it performance squads for children of 9 and 10 years old. You're right about it being cross sports - when researching for the blog I spent time with a former performance analyst at a premier league academy (football) - he told me of the work he was doing analysing the performance of the under 8s! yes under 8s. He also told me of the kid who went from under 12 to u16s when he was released only to be sought after by the same club 18 months later at a £12 million price tag. If the professional, resource rich sports can't get talent ID right when they throw money at it how can we take ourselves seriously when we pretend to do it on a shoestring. Its too hard to do well, causes lots of problems, costs lots of money, impacts negatively on participation. Stop trying and give all kids a fantastic grounding.

07/09/17
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andrewb62

Have your read Michael Calvin's "No Hunger in Paradise"? Heartbreaking and (occasionally) heartening on the talent machine in professional football.

07/09/17
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nimeshap

Hi Phil,
Great work, each and every word is correct and pity nothing is going to change anytime soon. Lot of county coaches give eg. Of Jimmy Anderson and make their selection not based on pure merit. We are losing lot of young players because they are not given the right opportunity for too long.

13/09/17
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Owiepob

Thanks Nimesh

It's been an interesting journey researching and writing this piece. The fascinating thing has been the feedback. Only 1 person has challenged my blog, a local chap who has invested enormous amounts of time and effort into the county system. A man I respect a lot. People from withing the governing body have been in touch celebrating the fact that I have exposed the King's Invisible Clothes ( their words not mine). I have to say I'm disappointed at the lack of robust challenge I was hoping to learn from the counter views of others.

13/09/17
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andrewb62

Hi Phill

I can’t say I am that surprised at the absence of debate. Paul Connolly asked a not dissimilar question to yours - https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/forums/high-performance-coaching/7960/representative-selection - and got only a fairly limited response.

Given the prestige (and potential for career development) associated with being a “development pathway” cricket coach, perhaps it is not surprising that there is some reticence amongst the other cricket coaches on this site to publicly debate changes to that pathway, however relevant that change might be to the actual development of players.

Looking in from outside the development pathway (aside from a little Club coaching and private 1-2-1s, I mostly coach U11s and younger – much younger - in “participation” schemes), there certainly are elements that appear inefficient and even counter-productive.

FWIW I agree that U11 seems too far too early for County representative squads.

U13 might be the age to introduce a Performance squad (although perhaps for competitive matches only, with training still in regional/district squads per the Kent model) – I think it might be important to give young players something to aspire to (such as a County cap) before they get sucked into the GCSE round. There does seem to be a large drop in playing numbers at Club level after U13, hence this might be the last year when the County would have a large cohort to select from.

13/09/17
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Owiepob

Thanks Andrew. I have spoken with Paul Connoly about this but I hadn't appreciated he had posted about it. I'm happy to be contradicted but I understand the NGB don't fund counties to run any rep cricket till u15, so what happens is the result of local decisions about priorities. I'm clear the principals the NGB coach Ed teams espouse are not supported by the rep structure.. solving simple problems, many repetitions, high levels of success, very little down time.. etc.

You may be onto something when you hint that there are many vested interests withing the coaching community threatened by a change to the system. I think though this need not be the case. Working in a high quality learning environment could come with high rewards , including personal prestige but more importantly the great feeling that comes from seeing the smiles in kids eyes when they really nail something they have work hard for.

13/09/17
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Ifonly

Phil, This is a well put together argument, You are asking all the right questions, Don't hold your breath for a positive or negative response(s) from all Counties... The one I would ask of County programs and coaches, are you honestly getting out of it, to what you envisaged? If they are not(and i am sure there are some), well you can be SURE the children are not.
Junior County Cricket needs to be honest with itself IMO, until this happens nothing will change, the status quo will continue without radical thinking and ideas. Good Luck with your journey, I hope those with ambition for change(in the right direction) take up your baton at the county level.

14/09/17
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Dr.Madhu

Hi Phil
Its a very interesting article. You have raised relevant questions in your article. Junior cricket per se is poorly structured not only in UK but thro out the world. In the junior cricket or for that matter any sports, the physical development indices or growth indices are not taken into consideration. Some kids are stronger for their age and some will have early or late growth spurts. Again the cut off date to be considered for each age group is unscientific( sept 1st). Thats the reason according to available statistics the most successful players in all sports in UK are born between September and December. Does this mean kids born between Feb to Aug are less talented?  This clearly shows the junior sports development  is not well structured in UK. Also this poor structured programme gets more complicated when we consider the first generation immigrant children from third world   countries. The kids who get immigrated to UK from some countries will have wrong date of birth. The parents fudge the age for the kids to give a leverage to adapt to the local launguage and in academics. But this age fudging gives undue advantage when these kids participate in trials for representitive junior cricket.

The selection process in the junior cricket is limited due to lack of time or funds or staff. Juniors are mainly asessed  on how quick they bowl or how many runs they score or how many wickets they take. The kids who are stronger for their age will excel in all these departments. I completely disagree with your local respected colleague who disagree with you on certain points. Its a well researched article but you are short of suggesting a good solution.

In my opinion the they should divide the groups based on growth indices but not on date of births. They can have 3 main groups. Age 9 to 11, age 11 to 13 and age 13 to 15. Instead of selecting 11 players of each group they should pick 44 to 60 talented kids for the county based on the growth indices. The 4 teams should be drawn from this pool and play  as many matches between them. Newzealand is the first country which has introduced this system in Rugby few years ago and have acheived excellent results. This is a very fair system. This topic should be well debated in coaches forums. Again development of junior cricketers between the age of 15 to 18 is another big topic which is beyond the scope of your article. When you get a chance please write another article on this issue as well. I sincerely hope ECB comes out with a well structured programme for junior cricket based on the statistics and scientific evidence available
Regards
Dr.Madhu

19/09/17
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andrewb62

Dr Madhu
I'm not sure that the experience of bio-banding by NZ rugby is directly applicable to other sports. The All Blacks were the strongest rugby nation long before the introduction of age- or size-based selection at junior levels. Bio-banding appears to be as much about safety, in a contact sport, as player development (although it is certainly true that moving the bigger boys up to the next age group will allow the smaller ones at least to get more game time).

It would be very interesting to see any research on bio-banding _in cricket_. We have probably all seen age-group matches dominated by boys who are physically more mature than their peers. On the other hand, the best junior cricketers I have seen over the last 8 years (when I started coaching seriously) have all had older brothers, cousins, or "competitive Dads"...

19/09/17
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andrewb62

Hi Phill
I think you are right when you say that Counties make their own decision about representative cricket at the younger age groups.
A quick survey of county pathways around London suggests there are quite different approaches.
Essex are close to the Kent model – District programmes at U11 with selection for just two Area programmes; the first County rep team is at U12, but this is a one-off, festival squad, selected from the ongoing Area programmes. At U13, District programmes lead to a County Age Group squad.
Middlesex have CAG squads from U11 upwards, fed from borough and regional programmes.
Surrey appear to have “Performance” squads at U9 (but I can’t confirm this as their website appears to have expired).

There has been a significant expansion of the programmes run by the London Schools Cricket Association - this used to exist largely as a safety net for London-based players who missed out on selection for their County age-group squads, but the numbers of players at LSCA appear to have increased. Perhaps, ironically considering your proposal, at least partly to compensate for the reduction in rep squads at the younger ages?

19/09/17
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Owiepob

It's worth noting that Lancs Cricket Board tweeted yesterday that in the last 35 years out of all the kids who have played county cricket at u11 for them 24 have become county players. That must be in the region of 4%. That would appear to be better than other sports report so perhaps there is something unique in cricket.

22/09/17
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andrewb62

That's an interesting stat. I know the Essex Academy (much older, I know) has an impressive strike rate, as well (Westley, Lawrence, Foakes, Mills, Topley recently).

But a "graduation" rate of 4% doesn't necessarily prove the CAG system is working. It _could_ be evidence that the Counties don't look far enough beyond the players identified at U11, or that development opportunities _outside_ the County development pathways are lacking.

You would need to compare the conversion rates for Counties with different systems, rather than with other sports (and given that the Counties' age group systems change so often it would be difficult to compare like with like).

22/09/17
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andyB

As a coach from Smallbore shooting it was interesting to read of the issues surrounding coaching young people in cricket. From what was said there are common issues across all sport in respect of talent identification in young people. The problem with my sport is there is a lack of organisation in respect of coaching at the county levels and even at regional level where a program exists.

our sport is expensive for anyone to start and without substantial backing from clubs it is very difficult to get on unless you have very big pockets. Given that national squads only take 20 young people there is a big gulf between the club shooter and the elite. The national governing body still seems stuck in the 1950's and is not seen as a modern progressive body seeking to widen opportunities to increase participation but rather concentrating on a small elite.

22/09/17
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piggottpark

You might want to have a look at my Bolton News article on the subject of high performance player development in Lancashire. You are spot on it isn't fit for purpose, wastes a lot of money and appears to start at far too young an age. I would support your conclusions virtually one hundred per cent!

13/10/17
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andrewb62

Your article makes pretty stark reading:
http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/sport/boltoncricket/15568120.Bolton_Cricket_League_chairman_claims_young_players_not_being_told_the_truth_about_their_prospects/#comments-anchor

Interestingly, though, Lancs must be doing something right, even with the low conversion rate from U11. Looking at the 2017 squad (as listed on the Lancs CC website), all but 2 of the English-born players appeared to have played in the Academy set-up - Jos Buttler signed from Somerset, and Jimmy Anderson's debut possibly predates the Academy.

14/10/17
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Owiepob

My concerns are not about academy or activity post 14 or 15. Others will be better placed to observe on that. My concerns are precisely about what we do with children pre maturation. Anecdote and evidence from other sports suggest it is an expensive folly trying to identify future elite players at this age.

14/10/17
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