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Can Former Athletes Be Taught How to Coach?

Matthew Betsey on the Coaching Programs at Cricket Australia.

One need not look too far to find stories of athletes-turned-coaches who have been dismissed from a coaching role. With little recourse to the skills that served them so well during their playing careers, they have often floundered when devising game plans and sending out others to do what seemingly came naturally to them. Cricket Australia believes such scenarios are avoidable and tackles the question through its renowned High Performance Coaching Program.


By John Portch

“There is a place for those who haven’t played at the highest level and the coaching experience  they bring to the table but a key part of our strategy is transitioning players from playing and into coaching,” says Matthew Betsey, the Head of Coach Development at Cricket Australia.

The program, which is led by Elite Coaching Manager Darren Holder, has given coach development opportunities to former Australian internationals including Darren Lehmann and Stuart Law, who now coach the senior men’s teams of Australia and the West Indies respectively, as well as former players from overseas, such as new Sri Lanka men’s national Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha. The reputation of Cricket Australia’s coaching pathways has seen the organisation partner with governing bodies to run projects in Bangladesh, India and the United States.

Every year in March, Cricket Australia induct 24 elite level coaches on their High Performance Coaching Program and it is not uncommon to see former Test and first-class players amongst their number. “Whilst I was involved in the program, Matt and Darren provided many opportunities for me to develop and expand my coaching skills so that I could learn about being a high performing coach in the modern game” says former Test fast bowler Ryan Harris – a 2015 graduate of the program. With some of its esteemed alumni in mind, Performance asks Betsey how Cricket Australia is giving former players the best possible opportunity.


What skills are needed by coaches in modern cricket?

MB: We evaluate our coaches based on a Coach Evaluation Framework where their skills and capabilities are evaluated in eight key areas. These include coaching frameworks, their ability to demonstrate a vision and a philosophy; personal qualities, in terms of character, energy and work ethic; coaching approach, how they use technology or work to improve player technique; communication skills, how well they engage players and staff and use personnel effectively; their ability to plan and use resources; how they manage the performances of both the players individually and as a team; their ability to lead and inspire others; and, of course, their cricket knowledge is fundamentally important. The former players bring great cricket knowledge but to be successful as a coach they may need greater development in other areas like presentation and communication skills or a professional development course on how to manage stakeholders; or even a media training course.

 

 

What does that Framework look like and how will you take one of those aforementioned aspects and measure progress with the aspiring coach?

MB: The Coach Evaluation tool produces an Individual Coach Development Plan and we use a traffic light system on a dashboard that can be found on the coaches’ homepage of our Athlete Management System [AMS], where the coaches log all the data on their players. The areas that they’re strong in are green; those in mid-range are amber; and those requiring development are red. The evaluation is 360 degrees so a copy of the form is completed by their peers, their manager and their players – there will be between four and ten people providing feedback based on the observation framework and it works out at 40-50 inputs on a five-rating scale. The 360-degree review gives us a good indication of their skills and areas where they need development.

What does your High Performance Coaching Program actually look like?

MB: Across a 12-month period, the coaches will work with Darren Holder, who designs a learning environment to challenge the coaches in a range of contexts with the assistance of expertise from around the country from within cricket and we also look outside of cricket as an important factor of our program. On a local level, their learning is managed by State Coaching Managers who help develop coaches by providing the right coaching opportunities at the right time for each coach. This usually includes involvement in state level teams and programs including specialist sessions for regional pathway academies to ensure our youngest players have access to High Performance coaching expertise. The coaches will also participate in practical coaching opportunities with the National Performance Squads through the BUPA National Cricket Centre staff, including Troy Cooley, Ryan Harris, Matthew Elliott and Greg Chappell. Throughout the program their coaching pedagogy is overseen and independently reviewed by Professor Cliff Mallett and Dr Steven Rynne through our partnership with the University of Queensland.

 

 

How does your High Performance Coaching Program break down across the 12 months?

MB: At the end of the season in March or April we’ll send them their pre-residential tasks. Then in May or June we’ll bring them to Brisbane for seven to ten days. At the end of the residential course they’ll keep a diary for that upcoming season and there’s a whole range of materials they need to collect. Then they must apply for a High Performance Coaching role and conduct an interview as the final piece the following March. The evidence they collect should be in the context of them being able to articulate to a High Performance Manager that they can coach at a high performance level and that they have the capacity and capability to learn and grow as a coach and leader of a high performance system.

What does the content itself look like?

MB: The pre-residential phase sees coaches submit a Coaching Profile online via the AMS. They must also complete our online ‘Introduction to Cricket’ learning module, which is a community-based pre-requisite for all coaches. They’ll also need to produce a book review that relates to coaching as well as prepare a five-minute presentation on their coaching philosophy to share with the group. They need a thorough understanding of the high performance pathway in their state and must read and respond to questions on various contemporary articles and case studies related to teaching and learning, skill acquisition, self-reflection and game sense.

What about the residential phase?

MB: We’ll then go through a series of topics when we see them face to face; that includes what they have to do on our AMS; they review their own profile, they review someone else; they coach the athletes based at the National Cricket Centre and the coaches will reflect and receive feedback during the program. For example, previously we have used microphones around the ground so that coaches can hear each other and what they’re saying to players, as well as what the players are saying. Those sessions are then debriefed by our national skills coaches and the players themselves and the coaches are evaluated in terms of delivering the outcomes of the session.

And when they return to their states?

MB: Coaches will work closely with their State Coach Development Manager as they keep a diary, where they are required to collect evidence of coaching at a high performance level related to each of the categories covered in the program. For example, they must show how they integrate a range of principles into their sessions, such as connecting teaching & learning with biomechanics when planning a pace bowling game sense session. Ahead of their exit interview, we provide them with job ads from the previous 12 months and they need to choose one to apply for and they’re interviewed by a panel within their home state. We find that’s an important process because it might only be a one-hour interview but the preparation that goes into that and their ability to articulate their skills, strengths, and what they bring to an organisation ensures they reflect on their readiness to coach and our aim to set them up for success.

 

 

You’ve said that your coaches need to look away from cricket to get better – how do you provide for them in this regard?

MB: A significant focus for us has been looking outside of cricket for innovation and inspiration for our coaches. We continually strive to design environments, through meetings, workshops or courses that provide learning opportunities. We say ‘you only know what you know’ so we seek to identify experts in various fields to inspire, challenge and develop our coaches. For example, we’ve invited the Australia-based Patrick Hunt, Chairman FIBA Technical Commission [global basketball’s international federation] to work with our coaches. He has no cricket background but he observes our coaches ‘coaching’ and provides feedback. He will fill out the same Coach Observation Framework as the others involved in the 360-degree review. He’ll also meet with the coaches, sit in team meetings, watch their warm-ups, see them on game day and provide feedback and support for the coach based on what other people are telling him and what he’s actually seen.

Are former players at an advantage or disadvantage on your coaching pathway?

MB: The former players get great support from the ACA (Australian Cricketers Association) and we are strategic in ensuring players can transition into coaching – however, at the start of every course we work to take away the stigma from the ‘playing legends’ in the room, while also giving credibility to others, who may have spent their lives coaching or as educators. I’ll ask them to stand up and then I’ll ask those with the most coaching experience to stand at one end of the room and those who have never coached before at the other. Generally, you’ll have a lot of non-players who have done a lot of coaching and a lot of past players or recently-retired players opposite them with little/no coaching experience at all. Maybe you have played for Australia but what about when you need to plan for a series in 12 months’ time, write a board report, tell a player that they’re dropped or if they have issues at home? The whole point is to illustrate that different people bring different things to the table and the best coaches will try to identify where they’re strong and where they need more experience, and it highlights the opportunity to learn from other coaches around them.

Are there any particular aspects of the course that former players struggle with?

MB: If I was to generalise, it stems from the traits of an elite sportsperson; as a player there is an element where you need to be single-minded on your own performance – you do have to be selfish and very focused on what you need to perform well for the team, particularly in cricket where it’s an individual sport within a team game. Some of that does transfer into coaching but for us it’s also about helping transitioning players with their emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the ability to reflect on their intra and interpersonal skills. It’s their ability to focus on what they’re doing and how that’s affecting other people; how can they change that to drive better performance. I recently had a meeting with the Australian Cricketers’ Association and one of the things we spoke about was enhancing the ability of their members to articulate their coaching skills in simple terms. They might come with the mentality that they have played the game, that they must know a little bit about it, and that will get them through. There’s been plenty of occasions where that’s been the case but what we try to do over the course of our program, sometimes subtly, is to make them aware of their strengths and their weaknesses and remind them that they have an opportunity to learn and develop as a better coach – we aim to set them up for success.

What makes the best future coaches stand out?

MB: The best are those who are passionate about helping others perform and become better – they know how to get the best out of a group of players and their support staff. Generally speaking, the players that make the best transition into coaching have good self-awareness; they have good emotional intelligence or at least the ability to work on it and can reflect on and review their own performance in being effective. As part of the program, we help the coaches identify who can assist them with this, and we have different people to help and that’s important because in a group of 24, each of those 24 people have different needs and they might have different relationships with different people. It might be a peer, a manager, or it might be a mentor that we help them identify; and it might be somebody who’s not even in the room. We try to get them to identify who are the people they can have tough conversations with; who’s going to give them the feedback they need to become better. The CA sports psychologist talks about ‘the person who’s going to stab you in the front; you’ll have lots of people try to stab you in the back but who will stab you in the front’ it’s about getting better and getting  the information you need to improve?

 

 

What does the future hold for the High Performance Coaching Program?

MB: We’re always looking to improve at every opportunity to be a world leading coach development system; if what we’re doing doesn’t help coaches be better then we need to review it. We’re constantly reviewing and have external people, such as the Australian Institute of Sport and other tertiary institutions provide feedback. We are constantly looking at research into coach effectiveness as well as meeting with other sports and industry leaders to continue developing our program. The world of artificial intelligence and virtual reality will open up new opportunities and we are looking at ways coaches can create their own digital portfolios to help them reflect on their coaching practice.

Do you envisage a time when the head coach of Australia did not play cricket at the elite level?

MB: International cricket is a unique context for coaching – on top of the ‘technical coaching’ most international coaches are responsible for managing teams of staff, large budgets, leading teams across three different formats, a team with immense national pride and media attention, managing boards as well as their own well-being whilst on the road for up to 300 days a year. Therefore, the skills required can be very different to those gathered by only playing the game. So, I do think that it could be the case but it’s about having a team of coaches with complementary skillsets and that is the right fit for the group at that time. If you don’t have first-class or international experience, then you’ll need people around you who do have that experience and vice versa. Having people that are different to you and see the world differently can enhance your effectiveness as a coach – it is about ensuring you have people around you who can help pick up your ‘blind spots’.


 

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