Summer Junior Club Coaching - Coaching to be more competitive and aid player retention
Coaching your local club juniors can be a rewarding experience but for many, particularly voluntary coaches, it can also be hard work.
When you are coaching maybe 90 minutes a week for 13 weeks throughout the year it's very hard to build up enough experience of individuals and situations to know what to coach and how to coach.
What is the primary focus on your summer training?
For most age groups arguably it's to make sure they can be competitive in matches. Competitive doesn't necessarily mean winning, it just means that the team are able to be in a position not to get hammered every week. Winning is a wonderful feeling but nothing demotivates young people more than getting thrashed every week so it's critical to make sure that when match day comes it's an enjoyable experience.
That focus in itself gives you a strong lead on what to coach. For some of the clubs we work with, we produce a list of skills which we think young players should know by certain age groups. Ideally this work will start in earnest long before match play kicks in (usually under 8 or under 9) but the reality is most youngsters won't join a cricket club until around that age so will often find themselves playing matches soon after joining.
What are the key skills?
Bowling is probably the hardest one to crack for many young cricketers and in the majority of the early junior games Mr Wides is generally the top scorer in each innings. So I would strongly recommend spending as many hours as possible on bowling.
In late 2014 I adopted a "Bowling Buddies" system into the majority of my younger player sessions. This involved one or two early sessions on how to bowl with a straight arm - probably the hardest thing for some to master - and was followed by the first 5-10 minutes of every session having the players pair up and bowl a tennis ball to each other backwards and forwards. This is doubly useful.
As a coach you generally spend your first few minutes setting up and getting organised for your session and waiting for the stragglers to come in, something which always disrupts a session no matter how experienced you are. So as well as giving you time to get the session settled down, your players are bowling 20-30 balls to each other, practising their bowling actions and hopefully starting to develop something which is repeatable.
Use the time to go around each pair, dropping in maybe one tip to any who need it, but keep it simple. In the initial phase you just want them being able to bowl that ball overarm with a straight arm, broadly in the direction of their partner.
Once they've had some good practice, a target bowling session or two works well. Over the years I've found it's often not necessarily technique that's the major reason for bowling failure, but concentration. How I've proved this is by putting a clipboard on a perfect line & length and laying a £1 coin on top. The first player who lands a ball directly on the clipboard wins the money. If no-one has done it in the first few minutes (quite likely) add some more money. You will notice that for the vast majority of your group their accuracy is significantly better than it would be without a financial reward!
Fielding is also a key skill to work on. Key elements are of course catching and throwing but often in a game situation the biggest culprit is the failure of a keeper or bowler to stand behind the stumps to gather the ball or players behind them backing up. It's not unusual for teams at younger age groups to leak an extra 10-15 runs per innings from gathering/backing up errors. So now I focus as hard on those two key skills as I might do with throwing and catching which are often well covered by coaches. Getting young players used to standing behind the stumps (I would avoid the modern trend of standing in front for the first few years) and having at least two backing up every throw, will reduce opposition totals as much if not more than catching all your catches.
I had a meeting a while back with a senior figure in UK baseball who had worked with Ireland in one of the Cricket World Cups. At that time, they developed an 11 player strategy in the field so all players had an active role every ball and this could easily be adopted with a junior team to get them into good habits early on.
As soon as a ball is hit out into the outfield you potentially have 2 or 3 active fielders to chase the ball. Just because the ball is closer to one fielder than another doesn't necessarily mean the other fielders nearby shouldn't be active in case the ball is missed. You then have keeper and bowler behind each set of stumps and 2-3 players backing up each end. All in all, 10 or 11 players active every ball. Great habits to get into at the age of 8 or 9!
Finally, we come to batting. What are the key skills for young players preparing for match play? The one shot which gets under coached in my opinion is the forward defence. The modern trend of Twenty20 Cricket has brought so much excitement to the game but it's also brought the dreaded front leg clear which every young player seems to have naturally. What that does it leave a massive gap "through the gate" creating a lot more bowled dismissals.
In simple terms there are two shots in cricket - Attacking or Defensive. The first decision a player should be making is one of those. Once they've chosen they need to have an appropriate shot in their armoury. Many young players don't think that way or indeed have a defensive shot to use. I would recommend breaking shot selection down in the early years to that simple decision and making sure they know how (and when) to play defensively.
That alone will save you losing wickets (and indeed runs in pairs cricket) and could be the difference between you winning or losing or losing by 20 runs instead of 70.
The final skill that I believe should be focussed on in the early years of club coaching is running between the wickets. Teams that can communicate well when they are batting will not only heap pressure on fielding teams but also massively reduce the number of unnecessary run outs. Most young players fail to back up at all and a lot of focus should be put on the benefits of good backing up. Once you have a non-striker backing up - and paying attention to what is happening - a good use of "Yes", "No" and "Wait", and a good understanding of who calls, should make a significant difference on the field.
Bowling Accuracy - to reduce wides
Backing up in the field - to reduce overthrows
Defensive shots - to reduce wickets lost
Running between the wickets - to increase runs and reduce run outs
Potentially worth a 25-50 run swing in your favour in every game from just four key skills.