Let talent find its own way
Posted by Dean Holden at April 19th, 2013
by Greg Baum, 6 April 2013
Here’s a first-world problem if ever there was one. Reviewing the Australian cricket team’s capitulation in India, Greg Chappell thinks the issue was not a lack of coaching, but a surfeit. ”In developed countries, structured environments, with highly intrusive coaching methods that have replaced creative learning environments, have reduced batting to an exercise in trying to perfect the imperfectible,” Chappell writes in a column in The Hindu.
Consequently, writes Chappell, batting skills have deteriorated alarmingly. He might have been thinking about Phil Hughes. When Hughes first arrived on the scene, his technique looked home-grown. Now it looks as if it has been rebuilt by a committee. Stand by for the next laboratory redesign.
Chappell’s thesis is that in developed cricket countries, with lavish facilities, career coaches and banks of auxiliaries, the instinct of young players for the game is dulled rather than sharpened.
”The developed countries have lost the natural environments that were a big part of their development structures in bygone eras,” he writes. ”In these environments, young cricketers learnt from watching good players and then emulating them in pick-up matches with family and friends.
”Usually, any instruction that was received was rudimentary, while interference from adults was minimal. In these unstructured settings, players developed a natural style while learning to compete against older players, during which they learned critical coping and survival skills.”
Chappell holds up Indian captain M.S.Dhoni as an example of au naturel learning. But he fears that nouveau riche India will fall for the same trap.
Chappell’s observations arise at the end of a week in the searchlight for AFL coaches. All week, Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley have been forced into an awkward and excruciating pas de deux.
To fit the storyline, they were characterised as master and apprentice. In fact, by the time Malthouse arrived at Collingwood, Buckley had been a league footballer for seven years, and had won three best-and-fairests. Malthouse was no more master to Buckley than, for instance, Kevin Sheedy was to James Hird.
Also this week, a team from the AFL academy, a team pretentiously titled Australia, took off for the AFL hotbed of Milan. The academy is the equivalent of the cricket finishing schools whose efficacy Chappell doubts. Simultaneously, a clutch of footballers from outside this system made their AFL debuts and showed that there is still as much to be said for the ability to get a touch as there is for the finishing touch.
You could draw as many conclusions as you like from all these loose ends. Here are two. We pay enormous attention to coaches because we presume they are in absolute control. No coach discourages this, because the illusion is necessary for what they do. Doubtless, some coaches would have you believe the rogue bounce that so fatefully eluded Stephen Milne at the end of the 2010 grand final could have been anticipated and processed.
But only so much order can be imposed on a game as gloriously chaotic as Australian football, either in prospect or retrospect (ask Mark Neeld). Malthouse’s mark is already apparent in the way Carlton plays, but in assessing last week’s loss to Richmond, Malthouse rued the Blues’ sparing use of interchange. Thus, he acknowledged tacitly that one fundamental – the roll call of Carlton players on the field at a given time – was outside his control.
A couple of years ago, Brownlow medallist Jimmy Bartel said that Geelong practised for stoppages and breakdowns, but that otherwise a footballer still played on intuition. Since, the AFL has legislated to further circumscribe stoppages. Over a severe breakfast this week, Malthouse mused that there was no point in assigning tags any more; in the constant rollover of players, it was impossible to make one stick. For these protections of free expression, let us be grateful.
Which leads back to Chappell. His theory is that talent, including sporting talent, best flourishes when the talented are left to their own devices, in a creative environment, but ”without too much interference from adults”. After all, when they are tested on the arena, no one will be there to hold their hand.
He draws on the work of educationalist Sugata Mitra. In 1999, Mitra conducted the first of a series of ”hole in the wall” experiments, putting a computer in a slum in Delhi, for the free use of children. Quickly, and despite lack of English, the children taught themselves. Mitra’s work inspired a novel, which inspired Slumdog Millionaire.
Chappell writes that if he had his way, he would educate coaches not to present as all-knowing fonts of wisdom, but as managers of ”creative learning environments”, in which young cricketers would learn ”with minimal invasion from adults”.
”I can hear those who believe that batting is all about technique asking how these ‘free-range’ cricketers will become technically adept,” he writes. ”All I can say is that for the first 100 years of Test cricket, that is how the very best were bred.”
He quotes Don Bradman, from his The Art of Cricket, thus: ”I would prefer to tell a young player what to do than how to do it.”