All they want is experience
Updated: May 19
With so much interest in school sport, there’s a lot of pressure on everyone to get results. This is a very hot topic in the South African context, especially in rugby circles. I’m very much an advocate for professional approaches to being competitive in school sport, but professional in the context of a school environment. We all know that training, interventions, culture, or practices should be population specific, so you can’t copy-paste what the Proteas do onto your u14A cricket team. I really hope my meaning isn’t misunderstood here, but ultimately children are not miniature pro athletes, and require a professional approach that addresses their developmental needs across cultural, academic, and sporting spheres. Maybe the best way to think of it is by comparing a psychologist to a child psychologist, they’re both professionals, just one works specifically with children.
Hypothetically, if you, as a sport scientist and a professional, are put in charge of a school’s sports programme, what would you look to address to improve performance? That’s a pretty broad question, and I have no doubt that there’d be myriad answers ranging from pure genius to delusional. Whenever I’ve started in a new position, one of the first things I’ve looked at is warm-ups and injury-preventing conditioning at my new school or club. I see this as low hanging fruit that will yield good returns. Think back to 2016 when Leicester City FC won the English Premier League, with a few theories doing the rounds, it was noted that Leicester had the fewest injuries in that 2015-16 season, and made use of fewer players than other teams in the league (see image below – accessed here). Closer to home, in our own Currie Cup competition, the research shows us that having fewer injuries in a season corresponds with success. Keep this in mind as point 1: Fewer injuries contribute to success or at least better team performance.
I’m not just worried about getting and keeping the best players on the park to win games now, but it’s also about the long-term. For me, it’s about experience and building relationships and cohesion. Players need to gain experience by spending time together and playing together to maximise cohesion and collective efficacy.
Furthermore, players need time on the park to be exposed to match-intensity, to have to make decisions with consequence, and to learn from the experience. From my own experience, I know of a school that struggles on the schoolboy waterpolo circuit, and I attribute this to a lack of game time through the age-groups. Other schools are playing in night leagues against opponents of various quality, while the boys at said school only play in weekend tournaments and seldom make play-offs. Each year, their peers are streaking ahead in terms of experience. I recently had a conversation with a friend who has coached cricket at few schools. He pointed out some contrasts in the amount of cricket games played by different schools. It made an interesting case for ensuring that players play games. Essentially, the u14s at school A might play 20 or so games in various formats in one season, whereas the u14s at school B only play 8-10 games in one season. School A’s u14s gained double the match experience in one season. If that trend continues through the age-groups, then school A’s cricketers will have played 30 more games by the end of u16 than school B. I’d argue that, each year, that difference in game experience is compounded. These players from school A have won and lost more, and (hopefully) have reflected and learned more from their time on the park. Sports coordinators need to organise the games, but the sport scientist, working with the physio, needs ensure that the players can make it onto the field for those games. Thus, point 2: Fewer injuries allow players to gain match experience for future success or at least better team performance.
I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that, because you’ll come up against institutional systems that are out-dated and hold you back from implementing changes, as well as out-dated and archaic coaching methods and mentalities that are way more interested in winning their u14B cricket game this weekend. I believe that’s called cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Protect the little nippers from injury so that they can play the game tomorrow, and win the game in 3 years’ time.
Starling, L. Teams with lower injury rates have greater success in the Currie Cup rugby union competition. South African J. Sport. Med. 31, 1–2 (2019).
Saulière, G. et al. Quantifying Collective Performance in Rugby Union. Front. Sport. Act. Living 1, 1–7 (2019).