Coaches, Mentors and Ex-Pros – What’s the difference?

The title begs an interesting question. With so many support roles in cricket, which are the most useful? A criticism of the current Australian men’s team is their overwhelming staff size. Rather than facilitating better communication and information exchange, the staff has been accused of clogging up those very communication pathways they are supposed to serve. Too many cooks spoil the broth!

At amateur level, there is often no shortage of advice for cricketers – Dad telling you what you did wrong on the way home in the car, older siblings having their say, school coaches insisting on your playing a certain way, club coaches advising the opposite, teammates telling you what triggers to use, and opponents regularly offering unhelpful and unsolicited advice. Progress in these environments is confusing and difficult to navigate. My philosophy on the engagement of any help in your cricketing journey is that the person/people involved must be interested and invested in your improvement, and you as a player must see direct benefit in taking them with you on your development journey. So where does that leave a player desperate to improve, with all the options available now to youth players? While the three primary sources of ‘help’ available all have enormous capacity to help you on your journey, let’s try to understand how the roles differ, and how each can be of service to you.

The first is ‘the mentor’. Mentors are typically people with first hand experience in overcoming challenges that you might be struggling with. At an elite level – these are essentially ‘specialists’, focusing on very specific help. For example, a left handed batsman who likes to hit straight but struggles to sweep or find good options vs spin might engage someone like Matthew Hayden as a mentor. Usually, because of the skill-specific nature of the help, these relationships are short.

At an amateur level, the mentor’s role is easily expanded and more general. Particularly when dealing with youth cricketers, any successful ex-youth cricketer is a potential ‘mentor’, as they may have experienced similar struggles and learned methods to overcome them. Hopefully, they can share some of the things that helped them to work around or through obstacles. I see potential benefit in this, as cricket is really just problem-solving, and a mentor might have the knowledge to solve problems that you haven’t yet figured out. The primary consideration when employing a mentor (and this is a recurring theme) is do they have not only the knowledge, but also the skills to convey that knowledge and maximize your development.

The ‘ex-pro’ is a very common ‘helper’ that parents routinely turn to, and students get very excited about. Indeed, to be coached by someone you might have watched on TV is exciting, and it can make you feel closer to achieving your dreams. Although many ex-pros are not accredited coaches, this is not necessarily an issue, as these accreditors focus primarily on technical issues, and most pros are fairly adept at spotting a technical glitch, due to the amount of cricket they have played across many levels. This technical and even mental mentoring can certainly be of benefit to all players.

While ex-pros have enormous potential to help aspiring players, in my experience, great players don’t always make great coaches – in fact rarely do I think this is the case. The better ‘ex-pro’ helpers usually have vast successful captaincy experience, because this is where their communication skills are honed and proven. However, expecting transformative coaching from someone simply because they have played at a high level is likely to end in disappointment. If you are intent on using an ex-pro as a coach, then I urge you to be discerning as to how much they objectively aid your development, and how invested they are in your improvement. If the helper has ‘fallen back’ on coaching, as opposed to passionately pursuing it, your relationship with them may be less beneficial.

Coaches are the third and most common means of help. Coaches vary enormously in skill, scope and capacity. So what is a coach and how to decide on one?

If we look at the elite cricket landscape, the cricket world is slowly coming to grasp that coaching is simply teaching. The primary difference is that instead of using classrooms and books, they use fields and sports equipment. Like in a classroom, there are helpful teachers, and less helpful teachers. Some teachers might even harm development. The sooner players can grasp this, the easier their decision will be in choosing a coach.

While great coaching is often subjective, because of character match-ups, common triggers etc., there are certainly objective skill sets that all good teachers/coaches share. Think about what your best teachers have had in common? For example, they are inevitably fine role models and teach holistically. After all, “No written word nor spoken plea can teach young minds what they should be; nor all the books on all the shelves, its what the teachers are themselves”. Good coaches are inevitably excellent communicators. They filter complex concepts into simple plans. They maintain a consistent approach to excellence in training. They challenge students, while remaining supportive and positive. They adapt to fulfill the potential of any client willing to work. They innovate, and recognise that a variety of techniques can work in achieving goals. They consistently have a big picture mindset, and work toward the greater good.

What about playing experience – do all good coaches need to have been equally good players? It is easy to see that there is a trend in elite (national) coaches not having especially high playing qualifications. Is this a problem? It doesn’t seem to be. New Zealand’s improvement in culture and performance under Mike Hesson’s tenure has been profound, and he never exceeded amateur cricket in what is a small cricketing country. Trent Woodhill, an ex-Sydney grade cricketer is one of the most sought after batting coaches in the world, yet he never saw any state cricket. Noddy Holder is consistently praised for his coaching wizardry with batsmen despite a modest playing record. Gregg Popovich, perhaps the greatest coach in the NBA was not a special player.

So what makes these guys successful? In my opinion, it is that they build strong relationships, are consistent in their approach, passionate about serving players, and they are able to simplify the game. Their skills are largely interpersonal, as they manage to identify skills in a player, optimize these skills and build a platform, which gives athletes confidence and clarity. They harness player potential and challenge the player toward the player’s best self. They provide confidence, clarity and care.

All three helping roles can help an aspiring cricketer. As someone who has used all three, I feel that a good coach has mentoring capacity, and as such, their role has greater scope. This is why when you find a good coach, the game feels simpler, easier to understand, and skills become easier to replicate. Good coaches who meet the aforementioned criteria are few and far between. But in finding one, you have a reliable support base and a partner that is invested in your success.

Whichever means of help you decide on, make the choice consciously, because we all need a little help when pursuing big dreams, and the right help makes all the difference.