Jack Morris is a good friend of my son and plays cricket in Gloucester Academy sports hall on a Thursday night with the County squad. He says it is the bounciest surface he’s ever played on. He is only 16, but has strong arms and shoulders, a steady eye and his timing of the ball is sensational. He hits it a very long way and when he hits it, it stays hit. Jack plays against my son and they play for rival teams. Sam bowls and Jack bats. Jack’s master plan is to completely dominate Sam’s bowling and intimidate him so he wilts, bowls a loose delivery and then Jack crashes everything to the boundary. Sam’s tactic is to bowl an in-swinging yorker which ducks into his crease, catches him unawares and smashes the stumps out of the ground. Despite this competitive edge, strangely they still like each other. But in my mind Jack is currently ahead. I have heard spectators watch Jack and say things like “Wow, what a talented lad, I wish I had that gift”. They don’t know what I have seen over the last few years.
Jack’s Dad has a kind of dog-ballthrower designed for rock-hard cricket balls, and for the last 9 years he has used it to hurl these at his beloved son at ridiculous speeds. This piece of kit is actually called a sidearm. I call it a slingshot because when they bowl it at me at 80mph it may as well be little shepherd David firing a slingshot at hairy Goliath’s forehead. You hold the slingshot high above your head and whip it down the pitch towards the batsman, who wears all the protective gear (including helmet) you could imagine. Cricket is a dangerous game. In some practice sessions Jack’s Dad hurls down 200 balls down at his son. Using the sidearm means that the delivery is near perfect, and as a batsman you can predict where it will come and practice that specific shot. The on-drive. The hook. The cut. Each one repeated over and over again. 20 or 30 times each. All of which means when you are out in the middle of a real match when that ball comes down from the real bowler into that same position, your eye adjusts, your shoulders rock into position and then you cannot fail.
Ration of praise and feedback: I watched the first 20 minutes of their training with a coaching company called Gecko this Friday. I wanted to learn what it was about the coaching that the boys were enjoying so much and learning from. After all, it’s not school – they don’t have to be there. There must be something magical happening. I counted 95 balls hurled from the bowling machine at 65 mph in the first 15 minutes. I listened to what the coaches actually said. This was what I heard: “Good shape Jack, nice drive Sam, good head position Jack, nice upright body position Sam, well left Jack, lovely cover drive Jack, nice shot, solid defence Sam, great shot Jack, top shot, good leave Sam, don’t play that one it’s too far away from your body, shot! Wrong shot for the ball, good straight drive Jack, great drive Sam, beautiful hit Jack, keep watching the ball, OK come over here we need to look at this one together”. So the first 18 shots yielded verbal feedback each time, 16 specific praise, 2 general praise. 15 specific positive praise and 3 specific feedback to improve. That’s about a five to one ratio, but it is the focus of the feedback which strikes me as part of the real success. Also notice the use of names almost every time and finally physically changing positions which leads to the individual summing up element of coaching. I wonder how much of my own teaching and my parenting reflects this level of specific positivity.
Accelerate the progress: 65mph on a full size pitch is one thing at the age of 15 or 16. When I watched I did a double take: both boys were asked to bat one third of the way up a 22 yard wicket, but with the same bowling speed. This dramatically reduced reaction time, meaning it was great practice for much quicker bowling. The boys quickly adapted to these new conditions although they played and missed more often. When they returned to full length pitch they were so much more controlled and relaxed in the shape of their shots, because they had more time. By changing the rules, they will become better, more proficient batsmen. In teaching we often create an artificial environment which controls some variables but allows students to focus on others. Allowing less time for a practice exam answer paring down our response-time until we can do it, and then building time back in should help students to relax in the way they respond
Know the language: It really helps. Too many of our students lack the basic terminology to build confidence in their subjects. Boys especially, which is ironic when you listen to their knowledge and articulation of Match of the Day, Play Station, bikes, new kit and technology. When I showed a photo of one of the boys playing a defensive shot to a friend Ruth who is herself a brilliant teacher and a Head of English, she showed her husband whose response showed typical male economy of (but precision with) language: “textbook orthodox defence” was all he said. Her response: “Ian, I have no idea what that means!”
Surround yourself with a peer group of winners: Friday night means best night of the week for Sam who goes off with his mates Jack, Joel and Tom. They are all good players, having a great time and playing serious cricket with adults. They are surrounded with high quality coaching and this combination – friends and great teaching is a toxic mixture. The best schools are unashamedly aspirational for their children and through role-modelling and close focus on areas to improve, this develops over time a special culture. What is that culture? It is not complicated: what gets results is commitment, great coaching and responding to clear feedback. Schools who articulate exactly what it is that they value and what they focus on will always get the right outcome: happy youngsters who come back for more.
Eat, sleep and breathe it: Becoming obsessive can be good! Great players sleep with their bats when they are young! They cruise through youtube clips of great shots and coaching tips. They are preoccupied with new kit. Jack is a little like this, and part of me thinks he should be really good. Anybody who spends that amount of time on their passion deserves to be brilliant. It is the embodiment of the 10 000 hours routine.
Know the season: This is winter nets season. In schools it is the season when the graft is done. It is when teachers really begin to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan tasks accordingly. It is when students apply themselves to developing great note-taking skills, building great books and folders. There will come a time when the nets, sports halls and kit-bags are substituted for summer outdoors and in each match there is one chance to transfer what you have inwardly learnt, what has become second nature over the winter, out into the middle. Then the focus of the coaching will change, there will be an adjustment toward fine-tuning the effectiveness of shots, of looking more closely at the fielding positions and seeking out the gaps. In school this looks like exam-technique, the importance of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar, using quotes more effectively to develop your argument, or just the sheer physical mechanism of writing practice, handwriting and pen-grip. However, these finishing school techniques are no substitute for the winter-slog. Although no-one can guarantee success in terms of big runs, there will always be a direct correlation between the regularity and intensity of winter nets practice and the scores under the sun in June and July. Likewise with summer exams and results.
Gegenpressing: While the rest of the world were enjoying England collapse in the rugby world cup, I’ve been tracking the two sports we in England can actually play. A few weeks ago the England skipper Alistair Cook scored 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. He beat Sir Len Hutton’s record-longest innings for England of 797 minutes during his 364 against Australia at The Oval, 1938. Cook’s knock is now the third-longest in Test history, behind Gary Kirsten and Hanif Mohammad, who occupies top spot. It was a long innings, no great guns, no big shots. Lots of sweat under a tropical sun. Meticulous application and the reward of years of hard practice. And then there is the introduction of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s new German manager. He arrived with feverish adulation from proud Liverpool fans, on the back of his reputation at Borussia Dortmund. And not because he plans to buy a silver purse of strikers. He is best known for ‘gegenpressing’, a sort of relentless chasing down the ball, a never-giving-up grit and determination. It is not pretty. Neither Cook’s innings nor Klopp’s managerial style will win prizes for flair. But this gutsy, gritty, don’t give up approach is a model of the ingredients to success, in sport or in school.
So for students and parents: It’s the winter nets season – time for getting your books and notes in order. Every after school session is another hurdle towards the finish line. Its not hoping that you will get the grades…it is getting to a place (through practice and more practice) where you cannot possibly fail.
Parents let’s think about our feedback. Play the long game – every conversation is an investment in the next conversation – keep it positive! Gegenpressing isn’t pretty – sometimes parenting is just about making sure your child is in the right place to learn!
And finally for teachers/support staff: Let’s think about our feedback. The Ruth I mentioned is one of the best teachers I have worked with. She inspires, she works really hard to prepare well-crafted lessons and gives her students brilliant, focused feedback. But what distinguishes her from many really strong teachers is that when she senses one of her students beginning to fall behind, that is when she steps up and ensures that everyone in the building knows that we all need to support and challenge that child. She is a terrier with a heart. She will not let children fall behind. This is our challenge.