Contrary to the belief of many, effective coaching needs more than knowledge and experience in the game.

As coaches, we need a framework to build our expertise around. We began this framework by talking about performance as behaviours. This article continues to build that structure around skill development. We do this by building “performance environments”. More on what that means later.

First, good performance starts with something counter-intuitive: mindset.

Doing your best

We already know how difficult it is to coach players who don’t want to learn. The flip side is “coachable” players. They are a joy. They listen, they work hard, and they they are prepared to try new things. The result of these behaviours is faster skill development.

In short, coachable players try to do their best.

The good news for us as coaches is “doing your best” is an acheivable aim for everyone. It has no reliance on genetic talent, age, social class, gender or skin colour. It is a universal human ability.

This natural ability has been called the growth mindset.

(There’s a brilliant research-based book on the growth concept by Carol Dweck that is worth the further reading.)

Warriors and Corinthians

This mindset is not as common as it could be in cricket because of the way the game has grown up. “Trying” is often seen as negative. Cricket came up in a time when trying too hard was unsporting.

This has led in modern times to two attitudes to cricket. You will see both in your sessions. On one hand are the Warriors: performance-focused players where growth and effort is valued highly. On the other hand are the Corinthians: enjoyment and playing for fun has a much higher value. Effort has less worth, innate talent has more worth.

Neither are objectively wrong. It’s just a different view.

It’s also true that both mindsets are willing and able to win matches. Everyone is competitive and wants to win games. Both mindsets can achieve success in results. That’s because mindset and ability are unrelated. Talented players can be motivated more by leisure than development, just as total novices can be motivated by growth.

However, as we know, coaches have the greater impact on the coachable and they are growth-focused. They are Warriors. Our ideal is to coach growth mindset Warriors.

Where possible this means influencing Corinthians in your team to switch focus to Warriors. This is perfectly possible as it’s a mindset not an immutable characteristic. We can change it if we want. The fastest and most effective way to do this is by agreeing expectations of commitment and focus on constant improvement.

Your language as a coach is also important to influence people. Avoid praising outcomes or talking about talent. Instead, praise behaviours based in effort, trying new things, not giving up and players stretching themselves. Back this language up with clear expectations. Many players respond to this.

When we can’t influence a mindset change, we can ask the Corinthians to fill a different role: Support to the Warriors. Agree behaviours they can achieve that are helpful. This could be deep involvement as Rule of Two enforcers. It could as simple as assisting at training by throwing with the Sidearm to Warrior batsmen.

Agree it and apply it relentlessly as you would any other behaviour.

Then you can get to work with the Warriors.

Of course, it’s still not easy.

Not even the best Warrior does their best all the time. It’s hard work. It takes being in the moment and supreme self-awareness. It requires us to truly accept the counter-intuitive idea of failure as an essential part of learning. But as long as we all agree that a Warrior mindset as the aim, we can be vigilant and relentless in holding each other accountable.

Let’s take a look at how a training session looks based on this.

Effective environments

The buzz word around teams at the moment is “environment”. I quite like it as a term as it has a deeper meaning than practice drills, nets or training; although it is those things too. It encompasses everything about how you train and what you work on.

Environments shape skill development. As we have seen, an effective environment is built on a Warrior mindset but what do you actually do in a session to make the most of this mindset?

Here’s what I think.

Environments are most effective when we focus on one thing at a time. Each session or game must start with defining this outcome.

There are many names for it: OAT (one awesome thing), learning outcome, critical outcome, theme or goal. Call it anything you like, as long as everyone knows what you are striving to achieve.

It’s important to be one thing because if players try to focus on multiple areas at once they end up recalling nothing. As coaches we become frustrated. We get into this strange loop where we tell a player something, they achieve some success at first, then are unable to recreate it later. We say “I have told you this!” And they just can’t remember. Multiple goals are a distraction and a frustration.

Stick to eating your OAT, even when you are tempted to go off on a tangent. Nail one thing before moving on.

The outcome can be any skill, tactic or behaviour. However, the crucial part is players must agree the behaviours that will lead to a successful outcome. Guide the players agree this through questioning. The best question you can ask to start this process is,

  • What does success in this outcome look like?

(Or flip it round if it’s easier and ask “what is unacceptable when trying to achieve this outcome?”)

With this question as a guide, you can set minimum acceptable standards for the session.

For example, lets say the goal is to learn to rotate the strike as the players are nowhere near the required standard, facing too many dots in game situations. To the players, success might mean playing with intent to score from more balls, hitting the ball into undefended areas or between fielders, and playing the spinners off the back foot more often. They might also say unacceptable behaviours are defending balls, staying on the crease against spinners and hitting the ball into highly defended areas against movement of the ball.

As with the cultural non-negotiable standards, these standards work best when they are limited to between one and three, specific, measurable and achievable. We want to be able to tell quickly if the standards are being upheld, so we minimise the stuff that is open to interpretation.

A final bonus is to define what might happen if we were to be exceptional in our behaviours around the outcome.

These goals are our “stretch goals” and are tougher to achieve than the minimum standard. You have to have success in the minimums before moving up. Going back to to our strike rotation example, players might say exceptional behaviours are coming down the pitch to spinners, experimenting with new shots to hit target areas or hitting safely into the movement of the ball. The team you coach may have different answers.

From here, you can build a practice or game around these clear aims. Everyone knows what they have agreed to do and why they are doing it.

I usually put these acceptable and exceptional goals in writing on a whiteboard or in another clearly visible way. It helps players remember their aims as they train.

Rule of Three

As we work through the session with our standards as a touch point we can use the Rule of Three to hold everyone accountable to their agreement.

The first part of this is asking,

  • “How long can you maintain the minimum standard?”

The answer will dictate how much rope players give themselves to self-correct before you intervene. So, our strike rotators might agree you will wait five balls before intervening on an unacceptable behaviour like defending the ball.

Of course, this is the third part of the Rule of Three (R3), which we have covered. However, there is one key addition.

When working on technical and tactical problems, the power in R3 can be reversed:

  1. The player recognises an issue and solves it themselves.

  2. The player recognises an issue, but is unable to solve it so they turn to team-mates for assistance.

  3. The player and team-mates combined are unable to solve the issue and ask the coach for assistance.

This is the ideal, but again it takes some work from the players to get into the habit of self-awareness and humility to ask for help. Most cricketers have gone through the game with people telling them what to do all the time. This method requires the player to recognise an issue themselves, work to resolve it unaided then ask for help if they can’t. That’s much harder to do, so be patient here. It’s worth it when they start to get it.

While they are learning to do this consistently, we still have our time constraint in place: If the issue is not recognised by player or team-mates in the agreed time, we will step in with the usual “Why have we stopped?” question.

Practice types

So far we have been focusing on behaviours - even in a skill context - for quite a while without mentioning a drill or net practice. Drills, games, techniques and tactics are where we live as coaches. But by now I hope I have convinced you that behaviours are what matter first.

The “why” and “how” defines what we do. Nevertheless, we still need those drills, practices and activities. So let’s assume we are starting to put the framework in place and have purpose, principles, expectations and behaviours agreed.

What do we actually do?

It’s hard to be prescriptive here because there are so many options and these options will be based on the unique needs of the players you coach. However, when deciding what to do at your sessions, there are some general principles.

First, practice fits into one of three categories:

  • Learning. Developing a skill that has not been mastered.

  • Testing. Putting an existing skill under match conditions to see if it stands up. This also includes actual games.

  • Habituation. Trying to improve an existing skill outside of match conditions.

The category will determine the type of training to a large extent. If you are learning skills you spend more time on being able to do the basics. There tend to be more drills and nets. If you are testing them you find ways to add stress. The activities tend to be more game-based.

Habituation is the most common and the least useful. Think hitting half-volleys on the bowling machine as a classic example. It seems like it’s helping because it feels good but it lacks both skill development and testing under match conditions. As coaches we should be very careful about helping players habituate mindlessly. While it does have some useful applications such as “blowing away the cobwebs” after a long lay off or adapting to different conditions, it’s often used as the default and is done without focus or commitment to outcomes. Tred carefully and question a great deal.

Second, I strongly recommend building activity broadly around the constraints-led approach (CLA). Cricket suits this theoretical approach because all training is naturally constrained anyway. Think about a typical net session and you will see some of the principles at work:

  • Perception-action coupling (PAC) as the batsman responds to the bowler, and bowler to the batsman.

  • A constrained environment with netting or sports halls decreasing dimensions, shorter time scales and adapted rules.

  • A requirement to use movement variability be adaptable to different styles of bowling or batsman.

  • Encourages “hands off coaching” with individualised problem-solving.

Of course, nets are not perfect CLA tools. There is no PAC from batsman to fielders. It requires mental effort to bat in context rather than it just being the game situation. Yet we already have constraints built in to every net. Why not use CLA; a method that has a great deal of backing in research?

The point is, it doesn’t take a huge leap to turn your environment into CLA-style training: You focus on manipulating the environment to encourage skill to emerge naturally

The alternative is “command and control” style: Telling players what to do and drilling it repeatedly. While you can do this, it’s almost impossible in nets where the environment is too open ended. It’s also been criticised for being ineffective because players tend to rely on the coach for instruction and are less adaptable in game situations when the coach is unable to assist. That’s not to say CLA is the perfect solution either. How you coach is a personal choice based on your values. However, I do urge all coaches to consider mindfully how they deliver practice. In my mind, CLA has been most effective.

So how do you manipulate the environment based on CLA?

The best analogy I heard was thinking of yourself as a sheep herder. The sheep are players and can be allowed to roam free in the field (that’s free play). You also have a number of gates available to you that you can open or close to increase or decrease the size of the field. All gates closed is is fixed drill, and there is a range of activities between fully open and fully closed. Your role is to match the environment to needs.

For cricket, the gates are (STEP):

  • Space. Often physical constraints such as netting or sports hall walls. However, you can get creative with cones and intervention poles to alter perception of space.

  • Time. Not just actual time repeating a drill, this also includes number of deliveries bowled or faced to complete the task. It also includes any modified rules such as “straight hits worth double”.

  • Equipment. Bat and ball size and weight. Number of stumps. Coaching aids like Sidearm, fielding bats and Katchet boards. All these modifications have an environmental effect we, as coaches, need to understand. The practice surface and climate are also part of this although often not under coach control.

  • People. Number of fielders. Number of bowlers in a net. Batting in pairs, individually or in rotation. It also can mean the physical constraints of an individual (height, movement skill, injury and so on).

The “time” gate is also often tied to the testing category. Some might say “playing under pressure”, but I prefer to say testing under match conditions. Whatever you call it, this should only be applied during a testing practice. This is one of the hardest areas to manage because recreating intensity is a challenge. Game rules help a lot, but making sure players have committed to full intensity is even more important.

It’s at this point in the process that players and coaches start to realise something; the idea of “having a net” has become the wrong way to think about practice.

Yes, nets are a method of practice, but we need to know more before we mindlessly get the nets out. Is it a learning or a skill net? What is the critical outcome? What STEP structure can we use to meet our outcome? Are we committed 100%?

We might end up with no nets, a small sided-game like Battle zone, a focused activity or even fixed drills instead. If we start with the drill or net we are reducing our chances of success. Start at the other end, with the goal.

Now the skill of the coach comes with being a good designer. We may build an environment that is unfocused, too challenging or not challenging enough. It is no longer matching our agreed outcome. In that moment we need to recognise the issue and manage a swift change. For me, this is one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of modern coaching.

We can see how running sessions effectively is not just doing a bunch of drills around a technical area. There is a process which, to summarise, starts with a growth mindset. Then:

  1. Define session outcome.

  2. Define success (acceptable and exceptional).

  3. Agree appropriate practice environment.

  4. Practice with Warrior commitment and the Rule of Three.

The final step in this process is to review progress. We will discuss effective ways to do this next.