I'm sure you recognise this frustration.
You have a talented youngster. He starts missing training sessions. At first he still comes to matches, but more often he is injured, or has a migraine. After a while the parents stop returning your calls and texts altogether.
What's happening to these players? Can you put it down to the modern obsession with Xboxes and iPads and curse technology?
But what if it's closer to home: The focus on results on the pitch?
For younger cricketers, the experience is about much more than runs, wickets and winners. And when you understand this context, you can easily adjust to retain more players in the game for longer.
That's the message from Dr. Martin Toms, Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching and University of Birmingham. When I caught up with Martin for a chat over Skype recently he revealed some of the things he had discovered about young players in cricket.
"There is a tendency for us to forget that cricket is not all about performance on the pitch, for young people it is all about experience in the environment, and the process of learning and engaging."
"The best clubs engage young people and attract them to come back week after week. Kids are very good at de-selecting things they do not enjoy or clubs that do not offer a good experience."
Playing vs. winning
For some, this is a hard pill to swallow.
Many coaches, senior players, and administrators are progressive in their approach, but many subscribe to the "it's the way I was brought up and it did me no harm" ideal. Winning is the priority. "participation" is code for being a tree-hugger and cricket is about results because we keep score.
But does it have to be a zero sum game?
Even the most woolly liberal involved in cricket agrees that competition is important. Even the most staunch win-at-all-costs coach agrees that the more people playing, the better. So, there is a balance to be had:
"Cricket is not about the results, but about the process of gaining the results. At every age the focus must be upon learning, development and enjoyment. If a team loses, the children lose interest and fall away from the game. If they are engaged in an environment that supports participation and development where the result is important then the kids will stay."
"Remember that if people drop out, they are unlikely to seek a cricket experience from anywhere ever again."
In other words, to keep kids you need to understand what motivates them; and not the club, the coach, or the Chairman.
Build a family club
All this talk of "engaging environments" sounds great, you might say, but what is the practical part, and how does a recreational team put these high-falutin' ideas into action?
There is no need to start singing kumbaya round the campfire, making the game easier or changing the coaching system. It's simpler than that.
Build a family club.
"Ensure there is a family environment or community where young players can develop social as well as cricketing skills. There is a key need for all the adults at a club to similarly engage in this process. As clubs are centrally to our sporting community, the more you can engage (in whatever way is possible at your club) the parents and young people in what goes on, the more likely they are to return and get involved in the club as they get older."
Here are some practical ways to do exactly that:
- Start a youth committee. Give them a voice that is heard throughout the club.
- Encourage parents to take a role in the club: Sponsor, umpire, score, mentor, committee, picking up a pint of milk. Most importantly, support the child.
- Focus on opportunity over numbers. Keep squads small and coach numbers high so everyone gets to play games and train in fun ways.
- Cross train. Give kids the opportunity to engage in other sports. Coach players in other activities, particularly hand-eye co-ordination related where talent transfer can occur. Remember that - regardless of the ability of the child - he or she needs to be coached and supported in a way that will allow them to choose whether they want to specialise in the game when they are in their mid teens.
- Use practice that involves games and engagement. Avoid net sessions where taking turns in an unreal situation causes boredom to all.
"If you understand what young people and their parents want - and match that to what you are offering - then that sense of empowerment is excellent."
It should become the ethos of the club to ensure you better understand young players, as well as understand the expectations of parents, coaches and the club. A positive environment is developed by understanding your ‘cast’ of coaches and club officials, as they are all characters involved in one dynamic family club. Imagine the club was your own family, and think about how you would go about trying to make a change to that dynamic family unit.
By going through a process of reflection you can achieve this family atmosphere.
"As top sports coaching academics point out: '10 year of coaching without reflection is 1 year of coaching repeated 10 times'. As an academic who set up and delivers on the Masters in Sports Coaching at the University of Birmingham, one of my greatest pleasures is to see how this one simple quote has had an effect on every coach I have spoken to."
One of the best examples Martin gave was a session held at a cricket club for all of the junior coaches.
They assessed each other and allowed everyone to work out the best person for each role. This worked magnificently, as they suddenly realised that people were only doing the job/age group that they were doing because they felt they ought to. Like a team, it is about identifying an individual's strengths and ensuring they are used as much as possible.
An excellent coach of 9 year olds may not make an excellent coach with the 16 year olds and vice versa. So a coach must identify where they see their own strengths.
And the last word, well, I will leave that to Martin:
"Developing cricketers is not significantly about technique or tactics, as much as attitude and opportunity within clubs. Obviously, junior cricket requires a level of coaching that means a young player can learn and improve, but the wider context of this is that it is the wider experience of the game and engagement with it that reflects ‘the good and the bad’ of the game."
"Ultimately the good club will retain young players and the bad club will lose them (and sadly they will probably be lost to the game). If we want to see the survival of the grass roots game in the future we must ensure we coach for the person first, the sport second and our club last."
How will these ideas change the way you are involved in cricket?