Crispin Andrews reports on how the noble traditions of cricket are helping inner-city children tackle their behaviour
While all team games can teach fair play, co-operation and mutual respect, cricket has particular characteristics suited to helping young people develop other life skills and coping strategies. Young people can learn either through playing themselves or by following the sport's example.
"Cricket's non-contact so there's far less scope for confrontational behaviour than in more physical games such as football," says teacher Raoul D'Monte who takes a group of 12- to 16-year-olds from the Phil Edwards pupil referral unit (PRU) to weekly multi-sports sessions run by the local Positive Futures project. Under the guidance of coaches from Crystal Palace Football Club's Football in the Community scheme, a simple fast-paced version of cricket is played using plastic equipment and a soft ball.
Alex, aged 14, believes cricket is helping him control his anger. "You don't get into so many arguments like in football when someone fouls you or won't pass," he says. "There are more breaks in the game so you can cool off if you lose your temper and get to know new people who join the group."
Natural breaks in the flow of play also allow informal mentoring to take place during games. Positive Futures project worker Cillian Leahy attends the Phil Edwards sessions to build relationships with the young people and encourage them to get involved in other positive community activities - nationally, Positive Futures is looking to extend the use of cricket as a tool for both personal and community development.
Working with the Cricket Foundation, the Metropolitan Police and the charity Cricket for Change will be running Positive Futures cricket sessions in known crime hot spots within 10 London boroughs in an effort to make contact with hard-to-reach young people.
"Cricket is of interest to people from many different religious and ethnic groups making it an ideal way to bring communities together," says Mark Blake, the director of Positive Futures. His predecessor Gary Stannet, who was involved in setting up the scheme, called Street Chance, adds: "We aim to establish vibrant community programmes in to which social services, youth offending teams and PRUs can refer young people."
Ex-professional cricketer Richard Doughty has two-years experience of mentoring at-risk young people on the Youth Sport Trust's Respect Athlete Mentoring Programme. He believes that self-reliance and responsibility for your actions can be learnt from cricket. "When you are batting you need great powers of concentration and self-discipline to do the best for yourself, but what you achieve also contributes to your team's success."
Doughty often uses the world of professional cricket to communicate key life skills to the young people he mentors. "This can be about timekeeping, getting on with others, preparation and presentation," he says.
For youngsters from the Phil Edwards PRU cricket is a relatively new game with no pecking order influencing perceptions and attitudes. "Everyone starts from scratch and it is not just the good footballers or the biggest, most athletic individuals who can shine," says D'Monte.
Tom, a small 12-year-old with co-ordination difficulties, was considered too much of a risk to go off-site at his old school because of his emotional, often aggressive, outbursts. He says: "I can get involved more and don't have to worry about being teased, getting flattened by a tackle or thinking I'm useless compared to the others. It's really helping my fitness."
The game also has a defined set of roles and a clear structure. "You know when it's your turn to bat, bowl or field - so you don't argue about who should be doing what," says Alex.
Of 12-year-old Tony, who is batting, D'Monte adds: "Like many youngsters with emotional behavioural difficulties, he operates well in a structured environment. When things are more open-ended towards ambiguous long-term goals he can get frustrated and lose his temper."
Staff at the Phil Edwards PRU regularly draw parallels between what happens on the playing field and what happens in their students' life.
For Doughty, cricket teaches youngsters who are used to instant gratification how to build for their futures. "A cricketer scores a 100 gradually - with lots of little successes contributing to their overall success, so too does a player work hard over a number of years to reach the top and stay there," he says.
"With so much in their lives instantly to hand, these sorts of concepts can be difficult for young people to acknowledge and apply - but once you start making comparisons with high profile professionals such as [current England cricketers] Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, it becomes easier for them to see the value of working hard now to achieve later."
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This article is published in the 31 July issue of Community Care magazine under the title Cricket offers lessons in life for children