One thing I have railed against for years is the idea of “standard nets”: The unthinking practice where you have a few bowlers, one batter and 10 minutes each.
In more recent times, I have started to realise the inevitable nature of this kind of net session, especially with teenage and adult players. While I have plenty of alternative strategies, I also think it’s not as unhelpful as I have suggested in the past. Plus, I’ve come to accept there’s not much I can do about it.
Cricket net mentality
When I’m working with engaged, self-sufficient and coachable players in a group net, I notice a certain mentality. Players with this mindset do not need a coach nudge. They go in to bat with a specific aim in mind. They don’t need the bowlers to do anything, they work with what they have.
For example, last year the pro at West would net for 10 minutes against whoever was bowling (sometimes pretty average players). He would work on his footwork to spinners and how big a stride he was taking to seamers. He never got fed up and hit out. He played with patience and focus. He walked out thanking every bowler for their efforts. He made the most of the situation.
Compare that to the average group of club players.
When left to net, they bowl until it’s their turn to bat. They bat for a bit with no real goal then have a swing at the end. They walk out with a general feeling of it going well or badly. This latter group is in the vast majority, even with experienced, talented and skilful players.
In the worst cases, when the situation is challenging - like a tired net wicket that is hard to bat on - some players give up altogether and either swing until time is up or come out early.
When I first started coaching full time in nets I tried very hard to come up with ways to prevent this unfocused thinking: Games, drills, removing nets, putting up incentives, whiteboard themes, one to one conversations and more. Every intervention was met with some success but always the same end result eventually: A return to standard nets.
I felt a lot of frustration about this, and tried even harder to help players find a focus. Some of these methods worked well but there was no universal solution. And I think over 10 years of trying with different teams has proven how hard default nets stick.
Really it was my ego getting bruised when I saw “failure”.
In fact, the default net stays default partly because it is a useful tool. When done right it works to,
- Allow players to focus on action-perception training with bat and ball (e.g. picking line and length).
- Develop mindset and mental skills around batting and bowling.
- Socialise and have fun with teammates (crucial in club cricket, not a thing to be avoided).
- Get a lot of players with efficient time on task.
It’s easy, comfortable, it broadly works. For these reason the shadow of the default net looms large.
Recently I realised I had not been thinking about nets in the right way.
I can never make default nets vanish and replace them with something else because it’s too easy, too ingrained, too trusted by players who have had a lot of success in cricket. I saw it from their viewpoint; fixing something that is not broken. Perhaps even risking their form for some foolish new fangled way to train.
No wonder they don’t want to change.
No wonder I see net games break down the moment I stop scoring the game. No wonder most players can’t even focus enough to even tell me what they are working on when I ask. No wonder people have literally walked out of my middle practice sessions because they don’t get the safe feeling net.
In their mind, especially a group mind, nets feel good and work fine.
With this thought, I realised it’s not personal. It’s not about my coaching skills. It’s not my job to get frustrated when players don’t fit my methods and principles. That’s my ego talking. My job is to find ways that work for the players, even when that’s not always what I want to coach.
Of course, there are also many ways nets can be unhelpful to development. It’s too easy to switch off. It’s not as realistic as middle practice or as focused as game based drills. You can’t work on technique.
However, they can be useful. More importantly, most players think they are useful in that group setting. And what’s the saying about bringing a horse to water?
Cricket net coaching 3.0
Where does this reality leave the coach’s role at group nets?
First and foremost, I think we have to develop a real understanding of the players we coach. What motivates them? What inspires them? How do they think? How do they act in a group and as a group? What do they think works to develop their game (if they even have enough desire to do so)? What do they need to do to improve?
The more we know, the more we can match net sessions to the players.
Sometimes those sessions will look a lot like traditional netting. Even when we know in our heart of hearts there are more useful and developmental ways of training. If we know a group are the type to resist, its time to rethink the plan. If we think we can push harder and get a response, then try.
I like to think one day I will coach a group who feel the same as me about default netting. But I can’t control that because it’s always the player’s choice to make as an individual and as a group. Conscious or unconscious, social loafing or individual motivation. Respect for the coach or not.
As coaches, we can inspire, set up options, motivate, grow culture, encourage mindful action, explain why thing work, understand character and build environments. But we can never make that final choice to engage. To be coachable.
So we need to accept nets will eventually default to the simplest option. Take the chance when it comes to offer more helpful things but remember it’s the player’s choice, not ours. That helps us accept when our methods are rejected. That helps us realise there is only so much we can do.
Sometimes a traditional net is helpful because everyone is engaged and motivated towards a target. Sometimes it’s unhelpful for development but helpful for having a laugh with mates. Sometimes it’s unhelpful busywork. That’s really up to the players, not us. Not matter how hard we try and take the lead.
In my mind now I have relaxed my sense of wanting to be in control. Of course there are things we can and should do: Understand the players, make an offer. View the outcomes and adjust. See where the players take us when we try.
We might not end up where we wanted, but we will have fun seeing how far we can go with people who trust us because they know how much we care.
In the end, cricket coaching is far more about helping and guiding people than getting nets right.