By Dr. Rudi Webster
0y 2018 the West Indies cricket team was in ninth position in the ICC Test rankings, just ahead of Zimbabwe; and In the ODI rankings the team nudged out Afghanistan for the ninth place. That was a bit of a surprise because Afghanistan defeated West Indies in their last three encounters.
Outdated structures, adversarial and self-defeating environments, as well as increasingly dysfunctional and autocratic leadership within the organization contributed greatly to the team’s downfall. So too have ineffective performance enhancing programmes, poorly designed development agendas and major changes in the players’ and the board’s values, attitudes, priorities and responsibilities.
Today, a private business performing at the same level as the current West Indies team would abruptly dismiss its chairman/president and its board of directors in order to survive and change its fortune. Over the years, numerous head coaches and specialist coaches have tried but failed to arrest and reverse the West Indies’ failure spiral. Their teams were not the most talented but even so, they played well below their potential. The good news is that the team’s performance can be improved with just a few intelligent and fundamental changes.
Our coaches must now undergo a thorough and honest examination of themselves and their teaching methods, find out why their players are not learning and performing better, stop blaming the players and making excuses for them, and take full responsibility for the team’s performance.
When West Indies dominated world cricket in the Worrell/Lloyd eras, professional coaches were not around. There was no formal or structured coaching and yet, the teams played exceptionally well. How did the captains and players manage to get so much out of each other? A few thoughts on coaching from Sir Garfield Sobers, Jacques Kallis and Richie Benaud, three of the world’s greatest players, might give us a hint.
A few years ago, I asked Kallis what he would change if he had a free hand in coaching. He said: “I would decrease the players’ dependence on the coach and focus them on self-reliance, self-awareness and self-responsibility. In some ways coaching today is like a dictatorship. By that I mean that players are too dependent on their coaches and that coaches don’t encourage them to stand on their own feet and think for themselves. When you are batting in the middle, the coach can’t help you and if you can’t think for yourself, make proper decisions and deal with the different situations you are going to face you won’t do well. Today when something goes wrong, one of the first things a player does is to go to the coach to get his opinion about what went wrong and what he has to do to correct it, instead of trying to figure it out for himself. The coach can be helpful in these cases but the player must take responsibility for finding the solutions to his problems.”
Sir Garfield highlighted important facets of coaching like mastering the basic skills, identifying and dealing with different game situations, believing in self, thinking simply and clearly, and learning to improve and maintain concentration, especially in periods of crisis.
He stressed: “If I had a free hand in coaching I would first spend most of my time teaching the basics of the game. Thereafter, I would spend an equal amount of time teaching players how to identify and deal with the many different situations they are likely to face in the game. They would then know how to tailor their skills and strategies to meet those demands. They would know what to do, how to do it and when to do it.” Sir Garfield added, “The proper use of the mind is the one thing that separates champions from the merely good players. It helps them to cope with difficult situations. No matter how good a player you think you are you won’t make it to the top unless you develop your mind. The top players know how to think, how to concentrate and what to do in tough situations. When you are faced with a tough situation you must believe in yourself and trust your skills. If you doubt yourself and your ability you will be severely handicapped. You must talk to yourself sensibly, approach the situation calmly and try to apply the appropriate skills to deal with the problem areas. If you do this you are likely to get the best out of yourself.”
Richie Benaud, Australia’s cricket captain during the Worrell era emphasised the importance of learning to cope with pressure and how to capitalize on it. He once said to me, “There is never any shortage of talented sportsmen either in this age or past eras, some have even been potentially great but have never quite managed to take that little last step. It is in fact a giant stride! That advance is the difference between the good and the great player. The successful sportsman is the one who knows how best to handle the pressures of the day and the situations about to land upon him, the one who is able to gauge when the pressures are being applied to him and when they must be applied to others.”
I don’t know how much attention the modern-day coach is devoting to these important performance-enhancing and match winning factors. Ignoring them or allowing them to fall into the basket of forgotten factors will not just undermine the principles of teaching, learning and achieving peak performance but will also guarantee substandard performance.
Physical technique is extremely important but it should be the servant not the master. Many coaches feel that the physical skills are the ultimate component of performance and look at faults and mistakes through that lens. They will do well to remember an old African saying: “When a man falls, don’t look at where he falls, look at where he slips.” So when looking at technical faults they should find out what went wrong just before the fault occurred. In most cases the trigger will be found in the mind, not the body.
Our coaches must now identify the best ways to teach and learn good technique. They might be surprised to discover how much technique can be learned without technical instructions. There is great value in these instructions so long as they don’t interfere with the players’ natural learning style. This is a mistake that coaches are repeatedly making with West Indian players. Imagine how difficult it would be for a baby if he understood language before he learned to walk. His parents would confuse him with their instructions, interfere with his natural learning process, diminish his confidence and make walking a more difficult task.
Finally, our coaches should constantly remind themselves of this tale. A centipede was happy and quiet until a toad in fun asked, “Pray, which leg comes after which?” This set his mind in such a pitch he lay distracted in the ditch thinking how to run.