This is part-three of a trilogy of conversations with international cricket coach Richard Pybus.
In this part, we delved into the mindset of coaching, motivating players and how it can be applied to youngsters who are emerging in the game.
What are the major pillars that goes into building a high performance program for cricket?
Richard Pybus: “I’ll share the West Indies experience with you.
“Beginning with a blank piece of paper. I assessed the existing high performance program that was in place and reviewed that in terms of successful programs I’d designed and run previously. I presented feedback on that to the West Indies committee that had oversight of the program and they were happy to disband it and then reconstitute it.
“The focus was actually to get into the detail of what goes into producing world class athletes. I felt the previous program was well intentioned, but it was more focused towards turning the players into students in an academic sense and I moved the program back towards excellence in performance. Central to my mandate was to produce sides, or to support sides to be able to produce world class performances to move West Indies up the ICC rankings, to win World Cups, both male and female.
“I put together a new management team, not only were they well qualified but they had a track record of success in that field. So they brought experiential success. I selected people that could work together as a team and would focus on the overarching goal at that time which was the 2016 World Cups: There were two T20 World Cups, and a One-Day World Cup for the under-19 team. It was really a case of reverse engineering it. So what does it look like to be able to win a World Cup? And I think that translates to what does it look like for anybody who’s playing in a championship? Who’s playing in a league? Who’s playing in a cup competition? What does winning on finals day look like and understanding that?
“There’s a degree of research which goes into that, what is the level of performance, what is the level of fitness, the technical skills? Then what game plans do they need to have to be able to deliver on the final?
“It’s a reverse engineering process and you timeline it back all the way to the present day when you’re sitting with your high performance managers and saying, ‘right, let’s start designing this process, we know what day the finals are. Let’s reverse engineer that process back to today.’ And then we’re going to push forward from that process.”
To a junior environment, youngsters, how do you teach the next generation on improvement and setting goals?
RP: “If you’re running a junior program whether it’s for under-15, under-17, under-19, male or female, whether it be club or representative there are very specific things that we need to put in place when we’re working with our team. When we are aiming at playing, like we would have played league football and the side at the end of the league season with the most amount of points would be the team that won the league. You might have played for a cup, but at the end of the day, the objectives are the same. So how do we break that out?
“And the first thing is that from a conditioning perspective is what is the level of fitness that we need? What is specific to the sport that we’re working in? Now conditioning for football is very different conditioning for rugby, even though they’re two sports where you’re running around and so the patterns of movement would be different. So understanding what is the level of conditioning which is going to allow your athlete to be able to perform consistently over the duration of a game and where we can make that conditioning as much fun as possible. Rather than having kids just run laps and laps of the oval, how can you set up the fitness training so that the kids are moving and playing a game at the same time? Then how can we do that where we can play games which are going to simulate particular aspects of strategy, and they’re continuing to get fit, continuing to have fun and they’re continuing to learn. The first part of it is what is what is our level of physical fitness?
“And then on the mental side of it, and I discriminate that relative to psychology, and I say this respectfully to all sports psychologists, psychology has got interested in sport but my issue with psychology is it comes from a medical model.
“Sport is about fun, and to improve in sport you have to learn. It’s great for psychology to examine sports, I just get a bit concerned when the medical model starts to intervene in something which is about learning and education. This isn’t to malign sports psychology because there’s obviously some great analysis and insights. On the mental side of the game, it’s really about being clear about what we’re aiming at; Are we clear about wanting to win the league? Are we clear about wanting to win the cup? Have we set that as a goal? Once we’ve set that as a goal, is starting to develop a strategy whereby you are involving your players in the design of that strategy, not only so that they are invested in the process, but also that they can bring their own insight and their own understanding and awareness to that process.
“Even if you’re taking that back down into junior programs, where you’re dealing with young kids that really helps to develop their understanding of what is going to go into improving performance. Not everybody’s going to win the championship, and that’s the reality, but we can win on a game by game basis by improving and learning.”
What core tenets drive this thinking?
RP: “We need to develop skills, build on our fitness base and make that as much fun as possible. And when I say fun, you do that with international players too. This isn’t divorced from kids or juniors. When you take your team to the training ground, and they’re training for three hours, they want to have fun, so it’s not a case of just going there and grinding through it. The coaching staff need to be innovative in making that as interesting as possible. So we need to develop skill and we need to learn new skills to be able to get better.
“We’re also doing it in a way that they get immediate feedback. So when I was a kid, the council had built a wall that you could kick a ball against. It’s just big, grey cinder blocks, and behind the wall was the bush. So if you missed the wall, you’d have to fetch your ball every time you missed. Now realistically that is immediate feedback. So you’re really concentrating on where you’re kicking the ball. And I used to take penalties for my team so you’ve got to pick the angles. So the wall was quite big so you had margin for error. If you kicked it too far underneath the ball, it was going to go straight over the wall. So you’re learning and you’re getting immediate feedback.”
The cricket analogy is pretty similar as well?
RP: “For a kid who wants to bowl better, if you’re bowling at the stumps and then you’re bowling at off stump, so the line of the delivery and the outcome are giving you immediate feedback as to what’s going on in your bowling action. When we design drills where there is as much immediate feedback for the players’ brain as possible, it allows them to be able to accelerate that learning process. That’s a challenge for coaches, how can you set up drills whereby the player gets immediate feedback and they can help to develop strategy so they’re getting immediate feedback in terms of learning a skill. Then we start to put different skills together to be able to build a strategy towards an outcome.
“I’ll give you an example from cricket, most kids when they go to the net for practice they go in there and they’ll bat for a little bit to get used to the bowling, and then they’ll look for balls which they can hit for four or six. And the rest of the time, it’s usually they’re playing defence. But looking at this generation of players who’ve spent a lot of time watching T20 highlights packages, I noticed from my youngest lad who is 11 is that almost every ball they want to hit is for four and six, which is great in intent but the reality is that it never happens in the game.
“You help them to understand a structure to their innings. The first part of the innings is actually switching on your attention so you’re watching the ball really closely. Of course, when you watch the ball closely you’re getting good feedback, so judgment of your shot is far better. Playing the first part of your innings, how do we get from nought to five runs? And so taking the kids that when they walk into the net, the first part of their strategy is to get your eye in. But rather than just get your eye in, it’s to switch your focus on and where am I going to get off strike? Where am I going to get my first run? And so that first part of your innings is low risk while you’re assessing the wicket, while you’re getting used to the bowling and the conditions.
“We’re looking from defence, to play the ball into space to get a single and then when we’ve done that, when you’re getting off strike, bowlers get frustrated, so they try stuff like bowling it too short or too full and we’ve already practiced our cut or drive or our pull and can put that ball away for a four. Now the pressure is back on the bowler. What we’re doing is we’re taking the skills and we’re just building them very gently into a strategy and then for performance that becomes exponential because now we’ve got a structure to the way that we’re laying out our game plan.”
How does an elite coach keep evolving? Evolve how they motivate and train players, improve their methods to better serve the team.
RP: “I can only speak for myself but what I would say is that you really want to invest your players in the process behind how you’re putting training together. Sitting with them and setting a clear goal for the season. In cricket, we would play for three competitions – T20, one-day and four or five day, long form competitions at the domestic or international level – but you’re playing different competitions, different formats and there is a commonality of strategy. But each game has a different strategy and relative to the amount of time you’ve got to play.
“So it’s sitting with the players and getting clear on what are the goals? What are we aiming for? What’s our big goal for the season and then breaking that down? If we want to win the championship, what do we need to consistently be doing?
“You then question, what’s our level of fitness? What are the skills that we have? What are the game plans that we need to have for the different units of the team? And then rehearsing that, putting that together so we practice that. We go test the game plan in preseason to see where there is a deficit in our skills and game plans and we tighten that up.
“You’re evolving that all the time, but get back to that engagement with the players, because you want your players deeply involved in that.”
My final question centres on that really great Pakistan team you coached for 1999 World Cup. How did you manage those personalities? Manage them into a cohesive unit? It was a talented team that went close to winning the World Cup.
RP: “There are a couple of things that are essential here. Firstly, again, sitting with the team and laying out how the team works optimally in a democratic way. It’s because every team is unique and if I say culturally, obviously a Pakistan team is going to be different to an Australian team. But even within countries, even within cities, even within small geographical area, as soon as you put a group of people together, and they have to work together, they are a unique group of people.
“So when I talk about the culture of the team, the culture of the team really just reflects the people within that group. So we’re not necessarily talking geographically although of course that comes into it. You’re working out, what are the principles that we are going to need to apply? Our human principles and by that, is if you are in a particular community where they are religious, obviously they bring the principles that would underpin their religious beliefs. But behind the other side of that are universal principles which are applicable beyond religion, and even though they may be expressed in religion, and so those principles don’t change. I was chatting with a group about this recently, honesty is perceived the same way in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, as it is in Australia, South Africa, the UK.
“So we would lay out a set of principles by which we believe the team which is going to ensure that the team is respectful to each other, that is respectful to our opponents and respectful to the fans and the staff that we work with. We would unpack a whole set of principles that would be the centre of all the work that we do. And that goes a little bit deeper than that because that actually comes back to why we do what we do. So we then end up expressing who we are as people through the team, and you get a much deeper connection there.
“Going back to that Pakistan team, the team clarifies the principles they are working to, of how the team’s going to work optimally. Once that design is decided, all players are guardians of it, senior and junior. Your senior players in particular, who have a greater understanding of the tradition of the team, of what was important to the team, who the team is representing, they really become the standard bearers of that, so they really have to pick up the leadership baton. And they need to ensure from other players that push the boundaries of that, they pull them back into line. That to me is the process, without sounding like it’s overly strategic, it’s actually just how do we respect each other? How do we work together?”
Knowing what the end goal is, and then making sure people buying into it strategically as well as culturally. Just buying into what the end goal is. I mean, sometimes a player gets dropped strategically, possibly because of specific conditions but they have to understand what their role is. Even if a player is on the fringes they are a vital cog nonetheless.
RP: “Absolutely, and when you come back to those fundamental principles is the players are far more grounded in themselves. It makes it easier for them to be able to accept those types of decisions and they’re coming back to a place where they’re actually there to serve the team.
“It’s not about going, ‘I’ve been dropped I’m going to go and have a bit of a sulk.’ We all have our disappointments and it’s about needing to come back and to serve the team again.
“For me, that’s what has been really fascinating having the opportunity to work in different parts of the world is the fact that when you ground people in those principles, and you make sure that they stay in people’s consciousness as well, that we come back to them consistently, is it really makes for harmonious relationships. It makes for a group of individuals working as a team, an environment which is really fun to be in, very respectful, everybody learning from their own experiences and learning to work together. Maybe your team isn’t yet ready to win, maybe they haven’t evolved to a point where they have the skills and the strategy to be able to win a championship yet. You can have a huge amount of fun and everybody continues to learn and develop and you get to the end of the season and maybe you came seventh or 10th or wherever, but you’ve had a lot of fun improving and growing. It allows you to consistently go into the next season to move your performance on a little bit, take it another step going into the next season.
“It’s a process of continual growth and I’m going to come back to that word fun, when you’re having fun with your mates, and you’re developing, growing and attaining goals, even if you don’t manage to attain the big goal, but you’re taking those little incremental steps, there’s a huge amount of enjoyment in that.”