How effective is professional cricket coaching?

My current work in professional sport was kick-started when the results of my 2004 Masters Thesis* showed that the coaching methods employed by South African provincial and national cricket coaches between 1991-2004 did not measure up to players ideal, and that they remained behind more up-to-date leadership and performance approaches being employed in business. Evidence suggested the same applied throughout the cricket world. It presented a wonderful opportunity!

Here follows a brief executive summary of this 2004 thesis. (Presented here, in 2012, because the results still seem relevant)

Introduction: Sir John Whitmore (2002) suggested that coaching in sport had regressed over the past two centuries to become largely dogmatic and instruction-based. He adds that despite the recent emergence of new psychological models and coaching methodologies, which are successfully being employed in some sectors, including business where executive coaching has grown to be the second fastest growing profession (The Economist, 2002) and most significant business tool in the world (Upfront, 2002), little has charged in sport where, still rooted in old behavioural models, coaching methodologies lag a decade behind business.

This study set out to explore the effectiveness of coaching methods employed by South African provincial and national coaches from 1991-2004. Results were compared to leading edge thinking in performance and leadership philosophy.

The research method included written interviews with twenty-one senior provincial cricketers (averaging 257 caps per player), and eight national players (averaging of 100 international caps per player). Each gave information on their personal experiences of being coached, covering all four national coaches and 36 provincial coaches.

The main theories underpinning the work was Ken Wilber’s Integral approach, Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics and David Kolb’s Learning Styles.

The results included that

Players felt their provincial coaches employed (statistically significantly) too much of an instruction-based (authoritarian, dogmatic, dictatorial, telling, my-way-or-the-highway) approach, whilst national coaches seemed to have the balance between instruction and collaboration closer to the ideal

Players felt national and provincial coaches had (statistically significantly) too much of an external focus, on visible/ measurable aspects such as results/ technical skills/ strategy etc. (the science of cricket coaching). They felt greater coaching effectiveness would be gained by shifting towards incorporating more of an internal focus, addressing intangible entities such as the mental game/ managing emotions/ building relationships/ team culture/ team spirit etc. (the art of man-management)

Players felt national and provincial coaches had (statistically significantly) too great a Performance focus (on what a player does, e.g. his results/ skill/ fitness), and that greater coaching effectiveness would be gained by shifting towards incorporating more of a Personal focus (on who a player is as a unique individual)

The most frequently mentioned qualities of good coaching, in order of importance, included a) coach knowing/ understanding players personally, b) good man-management skills, c) technical knowledge, d) good communication skill/ good listener, e) trust, respect, and f) knowledge of the game. The most frequently mentioned qualities of poor coaching, in order of importance, were a) afraid to change/ inflexible/ one dimensional, b) authoritarian/ dictating, and c) inauthentic/ says one thing and does another/ can’t trust him/ dishonest. Interestingly, having peoples skills rated more highly than knowledge of the game!

It was suggested that

Unlike the majority of coaches who insist on employing a predominantly instruction-based/ autocratic style, a coach who uses a more collaborative style would predictably be more effective in the medium to long term

The success of a coach will be based not only his playing credentials/ knowledge of the game, but possibly even more importantly, on his ability to relate to and grow people

Successful coaches will skilfully work with, and will place a high value on what players are thinking and feeling, rather than just working on doing fitness, skill and strategy

High levels of self-awareness and emotional Intelligence are important factors in the sustained success of a team coach

Personal development of players and coaches, additional to professional/ skill development, may become important considerations in sport, and may well enhance on-field performance

Finally, an effective coach will accommodate for players different value systems/ worldviews at different stages of the teams development. This includes balancing i) team rituals and bonding, ii) individual spontaneity and freedom, iii) order, authority and control, iv) performance, innovation and rewards, and v) personal growth, self-awareness and relationships.

In conclusion

The next major innovations in cricket coaching and performance are most likely come through the art of managing people, rather than from the science of performance enhancement. It is suggested that the team, with no more than above average talent, that employs these coaching advances may well go ahead of the rest.

* Awarded with distinction, Middlesex University, Sept 2004

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