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UK Coaching Team
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Young people Rapport Building and Communicating Crime Prevention

Changing Lives with Wicketz

Coaching and teaching will always have its challenges. We’re dealing with humans after all. We can be difficult, stressful, emotional creatures. But the rewards can be enormous. UK Coaching’s Ian Slattery reports on the life-changing impact the free Lord's Taverners Wicketz programme is having on young people aged eight to 19 living in deprived communities

It is often assumed that sport finds people in their most agreeable forms, with players choosing to attend and eager to learn and do well.

That’s not always the case though. Not through any fault of cricket, or its coaches, but because some people taking part are, for a variety of reasons, a challenge to engage and work with.

For most of us that’s just the occasional player or group, but for the coaches working in projects like Wicketz, it’s their norm.

Amran Malik, Senior Wicketz Development Officer at Cricket East, is, by his own admittance, often performing a role more closely associated with a social worker than a coach. Through the inspiring work of coaches like him, and the life-changing projects funded by the ECB, Lord’s Taverners and others, young people are finding a way out of difficult situations through programmes spearheaded by sport.

Using sport in that way, to engage people, Amran’s work connects three different objectives at the same time:

  • For the ECB, participation in cricket is growing
  • For Wicketz, it is helping young people who may otherwise have been left behind
  • For the police and local council, it is reducing rates of crime.

That has been achieved by some out-of-the-box thinking, coming up with programmes that will benefit people in all those different ways.

As Amran points out, with over 230 different languages spoken in a city like Luton, where he is based, sport can unite different communities in a way other interventions can’t.

To reinforce that point, he begins our conversation with the story of a group of young Afghan refugees in Luton who were regular cricketers, but were also getting in to fights with other groups – often because they were competing for one space to play.

“I went in with Wicketz. We got some free equipment from the police, organised some pairs cricket, and actually got the different groups to come to the same sessions and play together.

All of a sudden the anti-social behaviour dropped, and the success of that meant we could continue to support the Afghan kids – we took them to Lord’s, organised games against village teams, just gave them incentives to keep out of trouble.

From that anti-social starting point, most of the guys are now in college, working towards jobs and careers,” Amran explains.

Combat cricket

Part of the team in Luton is Dave Summers, Cricket East’s Diverse Communities Officer and an ECB Coach Developer. Having worked closely with Amran, he’s full of praise for his skill in creating projects which reach far beyond their initial brief.

“Amran has taken the basic Wicketz concept to another level – he’s connected with three universities nationally, with MPs in this country and further afield. He’s even taken cricket into the gym, where he’s introduced mixed martial arts (MMA) to sessions to access more young people.”

Picking this up with Amran, he explains that this was part of the journey to better engage the Afghan refugees, some of whom had wider challenges with their mental health and with anger, partly as a result of their experiences before they arrived here.

“Early on I said to some of them, ‘I know cricket isn’t even your favourite sport, so what would you really like to be doing?’” Amran recalls.

“MMA came out as a big thing for them, so I went to Storm Gym in Luton and with the director there, Paul Lonergan, we created an eight-week course specifically for this Afghan group.

“Dave Summers was a big part of that process too, as his skills as a coach led to some really innovative indoor training in the course, mixing gym work with cricket practices – reaction catches using the crash mats for example.

“The technical side of cricket we mainly put to one side, because they all attended cricket sessions anyway so we had that covered there, but hand-eye coordination we worked on, some throwing, things like that.”

It wasn’t just about giving them what they want and making them happy, there were goals set for all involved. The project followed the players before and after, with Amran rightly proud of the outcomes.

The results from that course were astounding. We cherry-picked the most challenging youth to attend – almost all of them at been involved in fights in the weeks leading up to it. Yet throughout the course and in the months afterwards, they all stayed out of trouble,” reports Amran.

“Yes, the concept was pretty extravagant, mixing those two very different sports together, but it was effective, and actually cricket was the thing that held it all together. As a team sport, it brings people together, it teaches you patience, it introduces some life skills that young people may not possess.”

Amran and Paul didn’t stop there. Since that initial course, they’ve taken it into educational settings, working with kids that have been excluded from school. 

Chance to Shine Street kindly let us use some of their material, which set up sessions around different themes – behaviour, mental health and so on,” says Amran.

“There, some of the young people had never even played cricket before, but they loved MMA and the cricketing elements were an important cool down in the course, something a bit slower having just worked on martial arts for ages. And it’s fun as well, getting a tennis ball smashed at you and trying to catch it!

“It’s a really subtle, soft introduction to cricket for some of these kids, and we have been able to pass some of them on to cricket clubs and groups, because they’ve enjoyed the cricketing parts of the programme.”

Coaching hard-to-reach young people

With all these experiences to tap in to, we asked Amran about what his process is when beginning these projects with a new set of young people, and what advice he could give to coaches – whether working with challenging groups, or just looking to build relationships with players.

Before we get started with new groups, me and Paul will set up 5-10 minute ‘interviews’ where we set things up, get to know people a bit, and lay down some boundaries. Because there does need to be some order and discipline.

In those interviews, I try to find out what their challenges are, what has brought them to the point where they’ve been excluded or got into trouble.

Yet before we finish, I make one point really clear: I’m not part of the education system. I am a cricket coach. I am a mentor.

That, hopefully, allows me to be someone they can trust, that they can talk to. And our analysis so far has shown that these young people have confided more in us – their coaches – than in their foster parents (in the case of the refugees) or their teachers.

By creating the right social climate, the right environment for them, you can give them hope. You can help them understand what they are good at, what they may want to do after school.

I know it sounds like a lot, and we do feel as much like social workers and educators as cricket coaches, but that’s what is needed to help these kids out.

It’s also true that these bits of advice make excellent, effective coaches, regardless of the setting and audience. 

If you want young players to stick around, be a part of the club for years to come, to make your life easier as a coach, then skills like developing relationships and being emotionally intelligent are at the heart of that.

Amran’s Top Five Tips

  1. Build relationships – talk about your own experiences and ask about theirs.
  1. Empathy – appreciate and understand the challenges they face.
  1. Emotional intelligence – learn when to talk during a session and when to play some cricket or practice. 
  1. Don’t judge – they may well have been told they are ‘difficult’ by teachers, family or peers, so the last thing they want is their coach having that as a starting point.
  1. Give them hope – don’t over-promise, but if there is something relevant they need or want (to join a sports club for example, or a piece of equipment), make those phone calls and help them out.

Click here for more information about the Lord’s Taverners. Or to find out more about the Wicketz programme visit their website

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