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By Jamie Harrison
I’ve spent a lot of time talking and writing about how to get kids playing cricket in America, and the importance of taking the game to them while they are still in elementary school.
What I’ve discovered in the past few months is that I was not alone in my view of things; in fact, it seems as if there were literally hundreds of you who had the same idea, but were just waiting for someone to raise a flag somewhere to rally around. For many of you, the USYCA has become that flag, and for that I am deeply grateful.
As the USYCA has rapidly expanded, I am often asked for my broader view of cricket development in America. In other words: “OK, so you teach them the game while they’re young. Then what?” Sometimes, this question disguises a deeper concern that the USYCA intends to replace or supplant existing academies, clinics and youth leagues.
Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.
In my “cricket worldview,” I see the USYCA, academies, clinics, clubs and youth teams as partners in a harmoniously synchronized process, by which small children who know nothing about cricket become young adults competing for spots on national teams. As I see it, everyone has a specific, and very important role to play, and if the process fails at any point along the way, the end objective is not met.
Let me explain.
The process I will describe can be separated into six unique stages, each with its own place and clientele. If we try to cheat the system by skipping stages, the result will usually be less than satisfying. On the other hand, if we adhere tightly to the developmental process, we will, with patience and in time, produce a generation of Americans that can compete with, and win matches against, any nation in the world.
Here are the stages, described:
Stage 1 – Young children are introduced to a low-intensity, fun-filled version of cricket in places such as elementary schools, summer camps or public demonstrations. In this stage, the emphasis is on teaching the simplest forms of the game, and allowing the children to quickly play the game with very little pressure or technical instruction. Here we nurture their love for cricket by letting them enjoy it; in Stage 1, it’s all about the fun.
Stage 2 – Here children are formed into community softball cricket leagues, where the fun can continue outside of the limitations of gym class. By expanding the time when they can play, we are allowed to do some rudimentary instruction and we can devote more resources to nurturing not just their love for the game, but also their understanding of it. It is in Stage 2 where some children will begin to separate themselves from their peers, and many of these children will yearn for something more challenging; these we will channel toward local academies, indoor facilities and other instructional programs.
Stage 3 – This is where we will find our our indoor training facilities and specialist coaching clinics. These are the places where parents will bring their aspiring young cricketer to learn the proper way to play a pull shot, to stump a batter or to bowl with leg spin. Here the children will first put on their cricket armor and stride clumsily into the nets, where, with the patient encouragement of a dedicated coach, they will learn to be of value to their team.
This is the stage where the hard, “nitty-gritty” work of cricket development takes place. Here much sweat and frustration will be invested, and trusting parents will spend many dollars. Here, the raw, unskilled youngster will become the promising new talent of tomorrow. Stage 3, then, is the factory floor where the raw material supplied by Stages 1 and 2 become products ready for the finishing work of Stages 4 and 5.
Stage 4 – Now our young prospect is finally ready be placed on youth hardball teams, playing in youth hardball leagues. This is a critical development, because we all know that there is only so much coaching that is possible in the nets; much of what is learned must be discovered under fire, in the lonely 22 yards that rests between the wickets.
In Stage 4 we discover whether the promise that was displayed in practice will be carried over into live matches; in Stage 4 we get to see which players will be solid performers, which will be disappointing, and yes, every now and again, which will be considered as top prospects for our national teams. In Stage 4, as we watch certain players execute to perfection, we begin to get excited.
Stage 5 – In this stage, the most talented young players compete for, and are selected to, regional and national youth teams. Here, the kid we’ve “had our eye on” since the age of eight is selected to represent his country against the world’s best youth players. This stage also continues, and elevates, the coaching continuum that our youngster has been receiving; now, as a member of a regional or national squad, the player receives the absolute best coaching that is available to someone at that age.
In Stage 5, the United States begins to reap the rewards for all of the time, hard work and dedication put forward in Stages 1-4. Those who aren’t selected for a regional or national team will continue to play for local clubs as they pursue their dream, or simply their passion.
Stage 6 – And now, at last, we get the big payoff for all that has come before. In Stage 6, our little boy or girl of yesterday is elevated to the national senior team that will carry the flag of the United States into battle against the best cricketers on the face of the earth. In Stage 6, we will debate the wisdom of having the boy from Texas as one of the opening batsmen; we will argue over whether the girl from Ohio should have bowled the final over; and we will rejoice as a nation when the kid from Kansas hits a match-winning six against Australia. In Stage 6, the process is complete, and America has taken its place beside the other cricketing nations of the world.
In examining these stages, it becomes easy to identify what programs fit into what stages. While USYCA is clearly focused on Stages 1 and 2; other organizations have varying objectives. While some organizations like DreamCricket Academy run Stage 1 and Stage 2 programs in addition to Stage 3 clinics, many other academies are mostly focused on Stage 3 programs, while the teams they sponsor fall squarely into Stage 4.
In this hierarchy, the role of the USYCA is to provide guidance, structure and support for Stage 1 and 2 programs, including, but not limited to, material support, networking, sharing of resources and practical advice, such as developing “best practices.” By partnering with the USYCA, programs are able to leverage a powerful resource that will enable them to accomplish much more, much faster.
The distinctions between stages are not arbitrary, in fact, they are terribly important, because when it comes to introducing the game of cricket to a child with no previous knowledge of it, we can see that there is a clear correlation between the stage at which that child discovers cricket and the likelihood that the child will adopt the game and play it well.
For example, a child who first learns the game at age seven in school, and then methodically ascends the stages of development will undoubtedly be more likely to stay with cricket than a child of the same age who is introduced to the game at a Stage 3 facility. There’s nothing wrong with the Stage 3 program, it just serves a different purpose and is not a place for discovering the joy of cricket.
In a Stage 3 facility, the focus is on coaching and perfecting technique more so than having fun; a novice, especially a young one, will quickly tire of spending hours on his grip and stance when he’d rather be running and playing with wild abandon.
In the past, we have expended far too much time and energy trying to “game the system” by thinking we can jump to Stage 3, and turn kids on to cricket by putting them in helmet and pads and then spending a half an hour with them trying to perfect their swing.
Think about the way you first played the game when you were a child. How long was it before you first put on the heavy gear? And in the meantime, how many hours did you spend racing back and forth between the wickets? (Even if the wickets were your mother’s kitchen chairs.) We must first fall in love with cricket by playing it, before we can find the determination to work hard enough at it to become good. And don’t think, not even for a minute, that children new to the game will look forward to the prospect of standing around in pads being coached on their technique. Children want to run; children want to shout; children want to play – not to be coached.
This is where the stages help us to recognize the truth: It becomes incrementally more difficult to convert someone to cricket as we move up the stages. While it is easy to create cricket lovers from novices in Stage 1 and even Stage 2 programs, it is considerably more difficult in a Stage 3 program, and impossible beyond that point. (Let’s face it: placing a novice in a Stage 4 program might just get him killed). And the wonderful thing about following the program in stages is that the child will almost always tell you when it’s time to move up a level.
As a teacher at Cardinal Gibbons School, I watched cricket become an overnight phenomenon for dozens of teenagers. Luckily for them, I didn’t know enough about cricket at the time to be able to think I could coach them; otherwise I probably would have wrecked their fun and ruined their enthusiasm.
In April-May of 2008, they played Stage 1 cricket; in September-November, they played Stage 2 cricket; over the winter, they played Stage 3 cricket and in the spring they played Stage 4 cricket – and it worked at every step along the way. Within 12 months, twenty kids went from knowing nothing about the game to being fanatics who were willing to pay $150 each for the chance to be annihilated on a weekly basis by experienced players. That experience was my cricket laboratory, and I’m pleased to say that the elixir has been perfected.
All we need now are enough doctors to distribute the medicine or to help facilitate its distribution; many have volunteered already – I hope that you will join us in this sport revolution.