Coaches Corner – Start where the player is

Gary Kirsten

Picture this scenario. A well-known, high level coach is working with an U11 batsman working on their straight drive. As an observer you hear advise such as “Your back swing is moving into out”, “Create mid-flexion in your stance”, “Extend to the intended target”. As we may well know, these pieces of information are all gold nuggets of advice, the concern is whether the message is received by the player. So often in coaching, our lens through which we view the game plays out in the language we use with our players whilst teaching and instructing. It is vitally important that we consider one simple question when doing this, “Am I starting where the player is?”

In a recent Coach Education program which Gary and I were facilitating, we joined with some coaches who were working with some young players from a primary school. Upon observing a young bowler deliver 6 balls (which were on a variety of lines) the coaches were asked about what would be their observations and first interventions with the player. A plethora of varying answers emerged – as expected. Advice varied all the way from an angled run up to suggesting a new a grip on the ball as well as various changes that could be made to his action, release position and follow through. With all these viewpoints, which were often conflicting… I tried a coaching “experiment”.

The first question which I asked him was, “When you bowl your best, where do you find the most joy? With a beaming smile on the young man’s face he replied. “When I CLEAN bowl him!!!”. This gave us all a great starting point on where to pitch a message to the enthusiastic inswing bowler. Through a series of open questions, the boy got to his own answer about what he needed to do in order to do this more consistently. “I need to start the ball wider with MY swing”. Brilliant! “Where do you normally aim?”, I asked in curiosity. “At the stumps of course”, he replied confidently. A silence of epiphany gripped the group of coaches who had assembled, which included many who had worked with him before. The rest was now going to be simple. I instructed the player, “Take this cone and place it on a line in which you want to start the ball in order to “Clean Bowl” him”. He duly did, about a foot and a half outside off stump. With a bound in his step he returned to the top of his run up, rearing to try again. Of the next 6 balls – 5 hit the stumps, much to the delight of the player and coaches alike. So what was the learning?

In simple terms, we started where the player is. So often as coaches, with our coaching knowledge of technique, game plans, drills and jargon, we start where we are. The language which we understand, the lens on the game which is our own, the technical “models” we hold as perfection. In player-centered coaching, this can be the exact issue that inhibits our ability to connect with the players on their level. Understanding what makes the player unique and their view the game is a much more influential starting point. Building the relationship between player and coach allows trust to form and belief to exist which can ultimately lead to significant change.

Upon reflection of this particular experience, an image gathered in my mind of a camp which we ran in Dubai about a year ago – Gary with the young player in Dubai

Perhaps starting where the player is, is as simple as that!

Head coach – Ryan Cook