Johnny Morton (www.jmsport.co.uk)
Lockdown has thrown up a number of challenges for people in cricket and coaches have had to adapt the way they communicate with their players.
Callum Atkinson has been at the forefront of development coaching in the NCU for the past few years, working with a variety of age groups and in the community.
Along with his own playing commitments for Premier League side Lisburn, Atkinson is usually busy all week long during the summer coaching sessions and working alongside his colleagues to provide the best training possible to the young NCU and Irish stars.
Coronavirus has meant that coaching and the way practice is done has drastically changed and Atkinson has had to deal with that experience first hand.
Here, he answers questions on the issues he has faced, how he has found this time and much more.
How has this time been for you as a coach and what have the main issues been?
CA: “I suppose more than anything mentally as a coach this is the time of the year where you’re out in the sun and working with your squads. Especially from a regional point of view and an Irish youth view where we have been working with those squads from October last year until the start of lockdown. A lot of that has been technical and tactical training. To do that all winter and not get an opportunity to play has been frustrating. There has been ways around it and we have adapted quite well. At the start of lockdown we were looking at how teachers were going to educate their pupils and Google Classroom was one of the main platforms. We have a NCU Google Classroom where squads and clubs can go on to find drills that our coaches are creating and we are getting stuff from coaches across the water as well.”
Have you found that you’ve had to adapt how you’re getting your message across with everything moved online?
CA: “The main challenge for us that we are finding is the two-way engagement that you would get with players face to face. There is a lot of work going on with the Google Classroom, webinars and things like that and it’s a lot of us talking at people and getting other coaches to talk at people. It’s the engagement that has been the struggle, especially for young players. You may put a link up to a session on Google Classroom but mightn’t get a response. In coaching, it’s a two-way relationship where you work on something together. If you don’t get that engagement or response it can be difficult to know what stage players are at.”
We have missed a big part of the early summer now so are participation numbers a concern for you?
CA: “I think for all sports but especially for us being traditionally a summer sport and missing that school phase where we would have went in to deliver programmes and worked closely with clubs to signpost children to clubs we have missed. It’s definitely a concern but there are ways around that. The first point of call is to retain current members when we get cricket back up and running and I think we need to look at winter options. If we can if possible, get indoors and start indoor cricket with schools and clubs on a regional level to get cricketers playing matches but also to make the season longer. That is maybe one of the positives that will come out of this is that we do create programmes throughout the winter that will be sustainable rather than just not seeing our kids for six months during the winter.”
Has it been tough coming up with drills to suit everyone because there are limiting factors such as space etc?
CA: “We are trying our best to find drills you can do in other areas of the house. Not everyone has a big back garden or garage that they can work in, so even at the side of the house there are drills for catching and batting. When we are putting drills onto the Classroom, as coaches we are looking for drills in different parts of the household so we aren’t just targeting the kids with the garden or garage.”
Has there been a good response to Google Classroom?
CA: “There has. We have about 400 kids on the Classroom from regional squads to club teams. You even see the likes of North Down who have created their own Google Classroom which has been great to see. The response has been good. There’s just that challenge of getting the two-way engagement that has been difficult. We can put everything out there for kids but it’s hard to know who is participating in the sessions.”
Right through the age groups I suppose the coaches are putting trust in their players that they are doing the drills and getting what they need out of it.
CA: “Absolutely. There is probably no way around that. One thing that the team worked on at the start of lockdown was a self-evaluation form. For players at club and regional level and generally this has been a good time for staff and clubs to do a bit of planning. The players filled in forms and will work with club coaches or us as regional coaches to discuss their game and once we get out of lockdown we can work on areas they need to improve.”
Keeping morale up must also be crucial because there’s a chance players put all this work in and don’t get rewarded with cricket this summer.
CA: “100%. It’s about keeping morale up but it’s about keeping the habit up as well. There’s a habit that cricketers have at this time of year of playing cricket, so it would be wrong of us as a development team not to continue cricket at this time of year. Hopefully they have had that opportunity and can continue the habit so that morale and motivation is there when we come back.”
In a way, has this helped improve coaches? You’ve had to think outside the box and evaluate what you’re doing so has it helped in any way?
CA: “There has been some positives to come out of this. We have certainly had to think outside the box in terms of the learning platform, webinars and Zoom calls. From a coach development perspective, coaches are working all year round and don’t often get a chance to look at our own personal development. Andy McCrea, who is our coach development mentor, would be big on learning opportunities and developing yourself. For example tonight (Thursday) we have Darren Thomas, an ex-Glamorgan fast bowler delivering a webinar to our club coaches. It has given us a chance to take a step back and look at our own development as coaches and players.”
We have a lot of good coaches in the NCU so have you been able to bounce ideas off each other?
CA: “We have almost become closer during this time. There has been plenty of Zoom calls and chats amongst all of our coaches and bouncing ideas off each other. I think everyone at this stage during lockdown is happy to share experiences of their development so that has been a big positive.”
From a general view over the past few seasons and looking towards the future, are you happy with how everything is progressing on the development side?
CA: “Definitely. We have a good system now in terms of school and club development. We have staff members focusing on clubs and staff focusing on schools and working closely together. The school-club link is crucial for us to gain new members and hopefully we will start seeing the benefits of that in the next couple of years from having those focused staff roles. There is plenty of new programmes out there. We are targeting new schools who traditionally don’t play cricket, we now have a walking programme for older people and we have a disability programme up and running. There are a lot of new programmes that have been piloted within the last year and we will see the benefits of them when we sustain them over the next couple of years.”
What have the numbers and participation been like in them?
CA: “The numbers have been good. The kids are loving the new schools programme. For example, one school that has worked really well with us in Our Lady’s in Knock. It’s a Catholic school and they’ve absolutely loved it. What we have found is that in schools like that they aren’t aware of what cricket is. They are really into GAA, basketball and other sports and sometimes aren’t aware of what cricket is. They think it’s standing around for five days in whites but that’s not necessarily cricket and we need to modify our formats for schools to try and get more engagement. Numbers have been good and I’m really looking forward to seeing the disability programme progress as well.”
It must be very exciting as a coach to be involved with such varied programmes?
CA: “It has certainly been exciting for the last few years that I’ve been involved. It’s moving quite quickly and in cricket in Ireland in general there seems like there’s always change going on and we are moving at a hundred miles an hour which is great. One of the positives of the past few months has been taking time to take a deep breath and work on your own game as a coach.”