I was having a chat with one of our first team players last night and he mentioned the idea of "training upwards". What was he talking about?
Currently, the team I coach is having trouble with the bat. There have been no first team fifties despite being 10 weeks into the season. However, the other two senior teams and the under 18 side are doing much better, with good averages for several guys.
This problem is where the idea of "training up" was hatched.
The theory goes that lower team players are coming to training and coming up against bowlers of their level or better. Meanwhile the first team guys face lower skilled bowling. A training session might see two or three first team standard bowlers, with the rest of variable skill. The top guys can't bowl all night (especially if they also bat).
As you are already thinking, this means good batsmen face average bowlers most of the time: They are training down. So on match day, they come up against even better bowlers (some at first class and international level in our case) who are a step up again in class and accuracy. The preparation has not matched the challenge and they are found wanting.
For my team, this is about the batting, but the same can easily apply to bowling and fielding. Bowlers who bowl to worse batsmen can lack creativity and skill under pressure. Fielders who only have a few knock up catches are less likely to take the huge hit on the boundary or make a clean stop in the ring.
To stem the tide, you need to train upwards.
Train upwards to play better
With this thought in mind, matching standards to players is crucial. How do you do this?
Start by looking to practice at a standard that best matches your skill level.
The coach or session runner has a key role here. It's easy to make sure the opening batsmen face the opening bowlers, so start with that. However, as the session goes on, things tend to get looser and you end up with good middle order batsmen facing weak bowlers. To mitigate against this, keep the better players together in a group and plan out beforehand which bowlers will bowl at which batters.
Remember, the coach can't do everything all the time, especially in larger groups. You need to take responsibility by knowing who should be bowling to you and what kind of fielding level is challenging. Then you need to ask for it to happen.
If, for some practical reason, you can't get what you need in a group training session you can still do more to train up,
- Buddy up with a player of the right standard to train one to one away from the group session.
- Spend time on the bowling machine.
- Ask team mates to feed you with a sidearm or throw downs instead of bowling at you.
- Work on other areas. You can replicate big match pressure, work on fitness or do something technical that doesn't require highly skilled opponents.
- Get a small group together who all want to up the fielding standards and take time to go aside and really go through the drills that challenge you.
- Video everything, and track as much as you can. Both of these are individual challenges outside of the standard of bowler or batsman you are facing.
Train up, even when you can't
This is not easy, and it will not always work. There will come times where you are not in the best situation. You will be facing poor bowlers and will wonder what the point is of your precious 15 minutes in the net.
However, even in this circumstance you can make strides forward in your game and form. You just need to have the right frame of mind.
Say, for example, you come up against a spinner bowling too slow and inaccurate to challenge you. You could easily smash every ball without any bother. This could be a waste, or it could become a challenge of your ability to concentrate. Are you able to stick to your game plan even when there are loads of wides and full tosses? Do you give up and swing from the laces safe in the knowledge you cant be out even if you do mis-hit? Do more of the former and you can have a session that keeps you working on your game plan. It's not ideal but it's certainly not a waste.
One example from our team is an aggressive batsman who is also a good bowler. The challenge for him is that he always faces one fewer first team bowler because he can't bowl to himself. This means he often faces weak bowling. As a result he gets frustrated quickly and the first poor ball he gets, he smashes it. He then says, rightly, that it was a rubbish ball and deserved to be hit.
However, it also puts him in the "hit everything" mindset and when he gets a good ball he also tries to smash it but to mixed success. He then leaves the net saying he didn't get a good session. My challenge to him is to change his mindset to stay on "playing an innings". Yes, he will get poor balls than he can crash if he wants but only if he treats the good balls in the way he would play in the middle of a first team match. That way he can use the good balls, despite getting less of them than is ideal.
Additionally, hitting or bowling lots of balls is not always the best practice anyway.
Volume is one way to get better but it's not the only way. It's most likely not even the best way for you. You also have access to recalling past success, technical drills, tactical discussion and planning, fitness drills and much more. If you didn't get challenged in the nets on Tuesday, you don't get a free pass to play poorly on Saturday.
If your routine requires you to face a high standard of bowling at high volume in nets, then find a way to do this by planning it out yourself. If you can do other things to train upwards and be equally successful, (and most people can) then you don't even need to worry about it.
So, work hard to achieve the ideal, and when it doesn't happen - which will always be the case at some point or another - find a new way to train up. You'll be surprised how easily you can train up even in imperfect moments.
Oh, and thanks to Lucas for a great idea to get me thinking about how to get us out of our top level slump!