In Defence of our ChildrenNeil Pickup |
Mid-April means a few things to anybody involved in English cricket. The County Championship has started, inevitably amidst a slew of rain breaks and drawn games. Club players nationwide are still faithful that this year will be the season that doesn’t degenerate into a series of single-figure scores and dropped catches. The IPL is underway, lots of sponsored sixes have been hit, and we still can’t remember who is playing for which franchise. More recently, however, the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket charity has published an annual survey at around this time of year, which generally has the effect of making everyone feel bad about the generation of children we’re raising.
Last year we learned that verbal abuse was rife in school sports, 2011’s survey told us that we were a nation of bad losers, and now it’s apparent that we’re all a bunch of cheats, manufactured by the pressure of the game. This is, of course, without reading the various other surveys bemoaning the absence of competitive sport at grass-roots level. To an outsider, it would be easily to draw a conclusion that grass-roots sport in England is a rotten apple; both bloated and malnourished depending on the source you read.
You can do a lot with statistics, though. Look deeper at these results, and what are they really telling us? If a ten-year-old is given out LBW first ball – when he knows he has hit the ball – how can you expect him to hold things together? What of a run-out mid-innings, the clear fault of a batting partner? I cannot believe that anybody expecting a boy to maintain an equable reaction in these circumstances has ever worked with children. Boys invest hours of hard work and effort into making themselves better players, and then see everything they have strived to achieve taken away from them, through no fault of their own.
These are young children, who very often live in the moment and do not physiologically possess our adult capabilities to chalk down a mistake to Oscar Wilde’s bank of experience, and – as is the human condition – are desperate to succeed. Changing clubs for a moment, how many men can shrug their shoulders and walk up to a greenside bunker with a smile on their face, having sliced their approach shot into the sand? Just months ago, the USPGA’s rules chief admitted that Tour Professionals struggle with the rules in the heat of the moment. So what are we expecting to achieve here?
Childhood is about learning. Learning is about making mistakes. They happen. Does institutional hand-wringing make this less likely, or does it simply add one more rung of authority to deepen a child’s anxiety? What do we want to achieve in our game? I have been lucky enough to work with a number of tremendous children during my time as a coach; children who have listened, tried and improved, led, supported and learned. The same children have cried, sworn, lashed out and made mistakes. Does this make them bad sportsmen, or negative influences on their team? No. It makes them children.
I am not going to pretend for a moment that I’m innocent. It can be all too easy for any one – player, coach or parent – to define their own self-worth through the simple measure of results. I am not ashamed to admit that I hate defeat, but I am now old enough, and experienced enough, to see the bigger picture, whether from the football terraces or with my coach’s cap on. Yes, we all play to win, but it’s not the only reason we play. Permit me the indulgence of quoting some of my own tweets from last summer:
“Message to all parents out there. Youth cricket is not about results or numbers. It’s about teamwork, enjoyment, performance & improvement. Yes it’s nice to win but there is much, much more to any game than the final scoreboard tells you. There will be days when you win but play bad cricket, and days you lose but can look back with pure pride. Very proud of the U11s today and would have been even if we hadn’t scraped home by one wicket chasing 168. It was the first time they’d been together as a team and the teamwork, spirit and support was brilliant. Well done, all of you!”
Our job as coaches, as parents, as teachers, and as friends, is to recognise this, to understand that temptation challenges every one of us in the midst of competition, and to reflect on this after the game; to highlight successes and learn from errors – together. In all likelihood, this is the MCC’s point, but I can’t remember the last press release that praised the way that most county junior sides mix at a typical summer festival, or one highlighting co-operation between neighbouring clubs or districts to develop specialist coaching that benefits the whole partnership.
Perhaps next year, the MCC might ask how many children have learned new skills – cricketing or otherwise – from their coaches, been helped out by a team mate when they’ve been feeling down, or simply made new friends along the way? The Cricket Foundation knows that positive reinforcement goes so much further than negative discipline: would it be too much to ask for this in their dealings with the media?
Forgive the cynicism, but maybe that wouldn’t capture the column inches.