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Growing cricket and developing player pathways is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of clubs and coaches in the NCU.
Templepatrick CC has long been at the forefront in leading the way when it comes to producing young talent. This is largely due to the selfless services of volunteers, most notably ECB Level 3 Coach and their Cricket Development Officer, Andy McCrea.
Andy was recently awarded a British Empire Medal on the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to cricket and young people in Northern Ireland and has continued his hard work with Templepatrick's Youth System through the summer.
"Our youth section at TCC is the lifeblood of our club. We are delighted with how vibrant and healthy it is at the minute and how it has continually developed and progressed. We have, although, been constantly adapting our thoughts and structures over the last 30 years and it has been hard work but very much worth it and can be seen through the progression of the entire club.
Over the last 20 years, we have actively coached in 12 local primary schools in our area and also provide coaches to local post-primary schools. This school's program then feeds into the sessions that are on offer at our club. Our Wednesday night sessions are for P1 to P7 boys and girls and 120 kids have signed up for these this year. We are very thankful to the 14 coaches who very kindly volunteer their time for these so that we can cope with the large numbers. As part of this, we now have 2 very active U9s softball teams who play friendlies against other clubs, which is a great new initiative to test their skills against others.
We are thankful to the other NCU clubs with U9s setups who have visited us and hosted us. We are starting to experiment with fun games against other clubs for the U7s age group just so that they can get out there and be in a new environment with new people. It is purely about enjoyment and inclusion.
The next step up is our U11, U13 and U15 teams where we can field A and B teams at each level and thankfully again have a healthy group of hard-working coaches. Our ethos with all this coaching is engagement, ensuring kids know that when they come to practice and matches, they will get a chance to engage and have fun and play a part. This keeps young people coming back and ensures higher participation rates. Youth cricket coaching is not about winning, it is about creating a love for the sport and laying down good foundations that can be further built on later. That is how youth structure success should be measured."
The transition from youth to senior cricket can be quite a step for some young players, and it is important that they can be supported through this transition.
"At some stage, our young players feed into our Senior teams. This is all relative to the individual and can happen earlier or later in a player's timeline depending on the physical, mental, and technical characteristics. It is not about rushing the young individual into Senior cricket, it is about ensuring the time and the environments are right so that the opportunity is the right one and a good one."
Trying to encourage young people to continue playing cricket is especially challenging these days, with so many other activities available. Often clubs find it increasingly difficult to keep players in their mid to late teens interested.
"We started our youth section 30 years ago with just one U15s team and since then it has grown and grown. This year we have an unbelievable 211 registered from 4-year-olds to 18-year-olds.
Our P1 to P7 night was an excellent initiative 12 years ago and even recently has grown from 75 registered in 2019 to 95 registered in 2021 to 120 registered this year. The challenges are to cope with these numbers and to always make sure we have enough suitably qualified volunteers available to keep the sessions manageable, enjoyable and of benefit to everyone. While we have a healthy coaching volunteer workforce, we are continually having to add to this so that we do not overburden our coaches.
We have started a girls' team this year, and this has added to our coaching workload, but we want to develop this further into a healthy girls and ladies set up with well-structured practices and matches.
One area that is always a challenge for all sports is to keep the 15 to 20-year-old age group engaged. We have tackled this by having age-specific sessions for them in their peer group so that they can enjoy each other's company. Anyone that has played against our senior teams this year has hopefully seen that this has borne fruit and we have a considerable number of 15 to 20-year-olds in our teams.
I suppose our ultimate overall challenge is to keep managing the whole structure as smoothly as possible, keeping it as high quality as possible, relevant and sustainable."
Giving individuals equal participation opportunities is key to maintaining interest and Andy and his coaching team have come up with effective strategies to manage this.
"Thankfully, a lot of our members take up the request to become qualified coaches, and we have a large array of coaches qualified at different levels. We always have to keep supplementing this and people's lifestyles are always shifting, so their availability fluctuates. We are always looking to educate new coaches and ensure our current coaches are up to speed with the current philosophies and procedures.
As we have high youth numbers, we offer match experience in different formats - competitive NCU league and cup matches for our A and B teams as well as friendlies against other clubs but also in-house matches where for example our U11 B team can play against our U13 C team. Team selection is rotated to make sure a range of players are getting match experience. We also look to make sure everyone in most matches gets to play a part in some way.
With a large amount of space we have at the Cloughan and our separate 4-bay Astro practice area, we thankfully can cater to plenty of activity at one time. We also have a very good relationship with Ballyclare High School, where we can make use of their two cricket pitches."
New Cricket Ireland participation initiatives such as 'It's Wicket' and 'Smash It!' have helped encourage new players to take up cricket in a fun and simple form.
"We were keen to get involved in Cricket Ireland's new grassroots initiative "Smash it!" during the summer months of 2021. We took on Smash It! last year as a summer scheme-type program. We were offering additional summer cricket for players aged 10 years old and above, but nothing for our 5 to 9-year-olds, so Smash It fulfilled this role beautifully and we had 22 young players sign up.
It worked well, so this year we decided to do the same Smash It! summer program and also decided to add in the It's Wicket scheme as we wanted to get a girls' section up and running. The It's Wicket was a natural fit for girls aged 9 to 13 who had engaged with cricket through our school's coaching program, so both these schemes fit nicely into our player pathway as summer schemes.
These new programs promote the game of cricket to a grassroots community and offer sessions to that cohort. From these sessions, we have then had new players join our club as they have enjoyed their first experiences of cricket with us through the schemes.
Throughout the sessions, the kids have had great fun working on their cricketing skills alongside their general movements skills and, of course, a key at this age - just getting stuck in and giving things a go in a fun environment.
We were delighted with the resources that we got through the scheme (session plans and equipment, as well as training for our coaches) and so were the players who each got a bat, bag, ball and T-shirt as part of the package.
The proof of the pudding is that everyone is having a great experience at the sessions and the smiles on faces and progression of skills shine through.
As well as the time gave up by dedicated coaches, Andy is also thankful for other avenues in which the youth system is given a chance to develop.
"We are very appreciative of the people who help support all that we try to do.
The recent Sport NI Project Re-Boot: Activate fund via Crowdfunder has been an excellent financial support mechanism that we availed off and also our key sponsors who have got on board with us are all worthy of mention as they are supporting us superbly in all that we try to offer the community.
We are very thankful to - Richard Greer Car Sales, Mango Bikes, Geoff Bryans Transport, Country Estates, Ballyvesey Holdings, Dennison Commercials and Abbey Bond Lovis."
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