Traditionally, it has been said that a grade cricketer is only ever two great performances away from playing for Australia. However, can it be still said nowadays?
In a recent article (see my earlier post on learning to bat before learning to bat) Greg Chappell suggested that the talent pathway that had served Australian cricket for so many years was not working any more. In this post I suggest that one of the main problems is that there has been a reduction in the overlap between players playing at the different levels of the game and this is largely due to the increase in the amount of Test cricket being played. I propose that to get the talent development system back on track requires strategies from administrators that result in the up and coming club player once again being able to test himself regularly against the best state and test players. To that end I propose a move away from the Step-Wise Sequential Model currently in place in Australian cricket, back to the traditional Adaptive Transitional Developmental Model. (sorry about the jargon )
In Australia, the changing international performance landscapes and the advent of professionalism (in what was a largely amateur sport where even Bradman went out to work before playing for South Australia) has led to a radical change in the structure of the sport. As highlighted above this new approach is providing cause for concern as a separation has occurred between performance levels and a Step-Wise Sequential Model has developed (Portus, 2010). For example, in the past, state and international cricket players regularly played in grade (club) competitions and this was viewed as one of the foundations of Australia’s success over the decades as players were only ever two short steps away from playing at the highest level. However, when the game went professional in the mid-90s, it has led to very little cross-over between levels; a situation that became even more challenging with the advent of centrally contracted players who rarely play state cricket, and almost never play club cricket.
Creating opportunities for cricketers to compete against higher level opponents is important to help develop more skilled performers. Playing better players, means that players are pushed out of their comfort zones away from stable solutions and forced to adapt to more demanding performance environments. These phases can be challenging psychologically and lead to high levels of emotional variability.
However, despite the importance in cricket talent development, the structure of the sport acts to limit the development opportunities for players. Opportunities for players to move out of their comfort zone is largely dependent on breaking into higher levels of competition, training with higher squads or perhaps occasionally playing against a high performing player who is playing at the lower level as part of his/her rehabilitation from injury.
This traditional group-based approach which we have termed the Step-Wise Sequential Model creates a number of challenges in developing talent. Firstly, the difference in standard between performance levels means that selection is often based on guesswork as assessment of performance potential is often based on the whim of coaches who are all powerful (Christensen, 2009). In this sort of system the coach can be over reliant on statistical data or second hand evaluations when selecting (e.g., by the media). This may be more or less useful as it does not necessarily reveal data about the psychological attributes of the athlete. Secondly, lower initial performance levels would be predicted as the new player takes time to adapt to the increase in skill demands (perceptually, technically and in decision-making). Thirdly, promoted athlete may face a number of psychological barriers including being overawed or intimidated by playing against ‘stars’, low self-confidence and high levels of anxiety as the nagging question “am I good enough” rears its head until success is (hopefully) achieved. Fourth, selectors are likely to make more mistakes in selection as players are chosen who do not have the requisite qualities to succeed, Finally, because of the limited opportunity to compare players at different levels, players with the potential to be successful at higher levels may have to play for a long time before they get their chance at the higher level. This effect means that their performance can become too stable and they reach a plateau. Subsequently, when they do get their chance they struggle to adapt to the new demands.
The previous discussion highlights that over-riding issue for the Step-Wise Sequential Model is that the match between the intrinsic dynamics (e.g., the current abilities) of performers and the ‘new’ task constraints of the higher level is largely dependent on the size of the step between two levels. The height of the step can be influenced by cultural constraints that influence the structure of performance pathways. For example, the step from club level in many English Counties to County 2nd XI and eventually county cricket can be massive. A potential way of solving this problem is to design competition structures that create overlap of playing talent between performance levels. Creating a system where players perform at two or even three levels promotes skill acquisition by moving performers to meta-stable regions of their performance landscape. This approach which we term the Adaptive Transitional Developmental Model (ATDM) is much more individually focussed and may go some way to solving the problems inherent in the Step-Wise Sequential Model. Below are some of the assumptions/advantages of adopting an ATDM approach:
i. Provides opportunity to learn by playing with and against the best players. This would include off-field behaviours and preparation.
ii. A number of players playing at two levels means that the step up for up and coming players is less severe as they have played against a selection of the ‘better’ players in the lower level competition.
iii. The time required to adapt to the higher standard is likely to be shorter.
iv. Promoted players may be more confident when promoted as they have played against (and most importantly had some success against) some of the players while at the lower level.
v. Up and coming payers are less intimidated and not overawed by better players as they are more familiar with them.
vi. There is a greater chance of selectors choosing the right players as their performance can be assessed when they play against players from the higher levels (in their current level).
vii. Provides opportunity to move players up for a short period and then back down again…give them a taste of the requirements of the higher level.
viii. If a player fails at the higher level it can be a good thing as they know they can go back to the lower level and work on the areas of need.
ix. The greater movement between levels means that players can be given an early chance to be exposed to higher levels.
x. Playing ‘down’ a level also can be advantageous as it:
a. Gives the player the opportunity to take risks without significant consequences: to create new adaptive solutions.
b. Creates mental toughness
i. as expectation levels are higher
ii. as the player has to fight off the challenges of the ‘new kid on the block’
c. It means that the better player has to become a team player and help the more junior partner. At appropriate moments this can involve protecting the player or giving them the chance to lead; act as a role model (in all aspects of performance); pass on knowledge that cannot be found in books.
This back to the future concept for cricket may be the answer to Greg Chappell’s fears; but, putting it into place in the face of the over loaded international calendars may be more difficult.
This article was adapted from a Book Chapter:
Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Phillips, E., & Kerherve, H. (2011). Developing talent in athletes as complex neurobiological systems. In J. Baker, S. Cobley & J. Schorer (Eds.), Talent Identification and Development in Sport: International Perspectives. London: Routledge.