I was fortunate enough to attend the 4th M A K Pataudi lecture delivered by Rahul Dravid. As always he spoke articulately and the topic he presented, “junior cricket” was very engaging and thought provoking. Rahul spoke on a wide range of issues with regards to junior and grass root cricket, but the point which really struck me was about how coaches should encourage “game time” every kid should get when they play matches rather than focusing on “winning” every match at the junior level. He said this with regards to keeping the interest of young children in cricket in an age where there are a lot of other options.
As a cricket coach who started at the grass root level way back in 2001 with a bunch of under 13’s in a private academy in Hyderabad, I always pondered about the importance of winning at the junior level.
Most people, who have played the game for a number of years, have been on both sides (winning and losing) and most of the time, they would agree the winning side is more enjoyable. As coaches we have to look at how we emphasize winning with our team and be honest about whose ego is being inflated by having a championship team.
In general terms, the joy of winning and being part of a special team can be ruined by coaches whose only goal is winning. On the other side, players can feel like they have had a great season without winning the league, if they believe they not only improved, but also had a fun season.
Definition of fun
Part of the confusion though, stems from the definition of fun. Many people equate fun on the cricket field to a coach who has little control and provides a supervised recess instead of a cricket practice. For players that type of atmosphere is frustrating and while it may provide moments of joy, most players hate playing in a non-structured environment.
The ideal definition of fun out on the field is "having structured and organized practices where players are challenged and are allowed to enjoy playing and learning the game". I highlighted the second part of the statement because many coaches who are very organized; run well structured practices; teach great fundamentals; provide positive feedback; but do it in a way that doesn't promote fun. Drills are great, but they can be boring. You may be proud of your batting practice that runs as smooth as silk, but if the kids aren't enjoying it, then chances are they aren't trying hard to master the skills either.
While the practice may be organized, it may not be challenging the players to improve. This is often where coaches will become frustrated and begin to rely on yelling and punishment to get players motivated to play harder. If players aren't willing to play hard during practice, then they either don't like cricket and are playing because they were signed up by a parent or more likely, they're bored.
Coaches should seldom have a goal for the team like - winning the tournament or winning a certain number of games. If the kids bring it up, just let them know that your expectation is simply that they always give their best effort.
Believe in positive coaching, but you also have to be honest with your players about the effort they are giving. If the goal is effort, then you have to let players know when they are not meeting those expectations. Don't embarrass or belittle the player in front of his family and teammates, but let him know that he needs to always give his best effort. Winning and losing is a result that can't be guaranteed, but good preparation and effort are things that everyone can achieve.
The goal of winning
So what's wrong with setting goals and talking about winning? Often those goals are unrealistic or wishful thinking. In a 27-team tournament, if every coach told his team that the goal is to win the league, it would lead to 26 teams that fail. In addition, if winning is the only goal, the pressure to perform can be very intense for young cricketers. We see international level cricketers that have failed to perform up to their ability when under extreme pressure situations. These are the cricketers that you would expect could handle the stress and many times they can't.
Take this down to the youth level and you can see that adding pressure to a young cricketer to perform will decrease, not increase, the chances of success.
It's okay to fail
What gives your players and team the best chance of success? Coaches should want to build a team that gives great effort and isn't afraid to fail either individually or as a team. While this is easier said than done, if it can get them close to that, then you have a team that will play, lose and play with confidence because they aren't afraid of what will happen if they don't perform or they don't win."
Fear of failure is a major reason why many players fail in critical situations. Coaches should try to get their players to understand that the best cricket players in the world fail on a regular basis and one aspect that makes them special is their ability to learn from the failure and try to improve. There are many quotes that you can give from professional players and coaches to emphasize this point, I like this one from Greg Maddux: “Failure is the best teacher in the world; you get to learn from what happens to you - both good and bad - in a real-live game situation.”
Is winning important? Yes, it's important. Kids know the score. They get disappointed when they lose and they're happy when they win. They often see greater pride and acceptance from parents and coaches when the team wins and they perform well. That desire can place a great amount of pressure on the player. As a coach it's important that you put winning and losing in a proper perspective. Make sure goals are achievable and tied to effort not results. If you focus on creating a positive and productive practice environment, your players will flourish and the wins will come.
“It’s not about creating champion teams or players, it is about creating an environment where champions and championships are inevitable”