Learning to lead through sports coaching
The joy of nets: 6 tips for more effective practice

The joy of nets: 6 tips for more effective practice

Coaches are increasingly told that fixed practices aren’t as effective as other kinds in helping kids practise cricket and other sports. That may be true – but you can still get plenty of value from a session in the nets.

What’s wrong with fixed practice?

Fixed practice – where players go through a repeated set of moves in order to practice a skill – used to be the bedrock of PE lessons and sports coaching sessions.

I remember being taught to play football by standing in a line and playing short side-foot passes to the player opposite me, receiving a return pass and then repeating it.

I also remember learning to play cricket in the nets: either batting as a succession of bowlers took it in turns to give me their best shot, or queuing up to take my turn to bowl at someone else.

The problem with such practices is that they are entirely predictable and don’t replicate much of what actually happens in a match. A basic net practice – one person throwing down half-volleys for a batter to drive has a certain benefit. It allows a player to practise a movement, or a situation, over and over again – ideally until they can play it unthinkingly – in an efficient amount of time. I might get one good opportunity a fortnight to practice my cover drive playing in matches, but I can practice it dozens of times in an evening in the nets.

But basic net practice doesn’t have two of the biggest things that make batting difficult:

  1. In a match the ball doesn’t arrive in the same place, at the same speed, every time. You have to be ready to play a range of shots, with a range of timings, from a range of positions. And:
  2. There are fielders in a real game – narrowing down the directions and heights in which you can successfully play the ball.

There is of course some variation once you introduce a bowler into the nets, rather than throw-downs (or a bowling machine), in that at most levels of the game a net bowler will be unable to truly replicate the same delivery into a particular area every time. So, as a batsman, you might not be able to set yourself up to play an off-drive every single ball.

But that doesn’t really help.

Performing in most sports involves athletes doing two things: making a good decision, and executing it successfully. You have to be able to do both to perform well, and do them under pressure.

In a standard net practice, as at the driving range at golf, the first part of the formula is removed. There are no bad decisions, because there is no consequence to choosing poorly. And there is no pressure on the batsman.

This is why you will hear a player who is often out playing, say, a sweep shot saying “the annoying thing is, I play it perfectly in the nets”. They may have been: the question is, should they have played it to the delivery that got them out at all? Was their downfall their decision-making, rather than their execution?

Then of course there is the pressure: the need to score runs; the risk of losing your wicket; the memory of perhaps being out playing a sweep shot before. Executing the shot becomes so much harder, mentally but also literally, physically, when you feel under pressure not to get it wrong. You don’t get that pressure in the nets.

Recreating pressure in the nets

Or do you?

It seems obvious to me that the answer is to beef up net sessions to introduce more factors that make them more game-realistic.

There are various ways that you can do this that I’ve listed below. They can all be done independently, or combined together. Some combinations will move the practice closer to being like a game than others.

1. Introduce scoring

This common way of making nets more realistic involves the coach, or another third party other than batter or bowler, giving each shot a score replicating what they think might happen in a match. A glance down the leg side might be judged a one or a two while a hefty swipe back over the bowler’s head might be called a four or a six.

2. Make out mean out

Most net sessions give a batsman a fixed amount of time to bat, whether a bowler gets them out or not. This makes sense given the time it takes to pad up – you don’t want to go to all that trouble for a single delivery – and the fact that everyone in theory needs equal practise time.

But that removes the mental pressure of having to stay in. Out in the middle on a Saturday or Sunday you have to think about protecting your wicket as well as scoring runs. So making “out” mean “out” in the nets is a natural progression towards game-realistic net practice.

As a compromise, you could always give batsmen a guaranteed minimum time (18 or 24 deliveries, say) before introducing “out means out”, making sure it’s worthwhile them padding up while introducing the element of risk to encourage them to think in the same way they would in a match.

3. Give bowlers more than one delivery at a time

Most net sessions involve bowlers queueing up to bowl one delivery each before returning to the back of the line. Matches don’t work like that. Bowlers set traps for batsmen and should ideally be able to do it in practice as well as in a game (especially spinners). Batsman need to get used to that happening, and practise mentally preparing for multiple deliveries from the same bowler. 

The ‘cost’ of bowlers bowling more than one delivery each time comes in terms of the speed the line moves – but, again, you can always compromise. Three deliveries from the same bowler will be better than one, but faster than six.

4. Introduce a wicket keeper

Wicket keeping is a specialist skill and keepers often practise with intense drills that work on their anticipation, reflexes and physical movement. However, nothing beats being out in the middle and having to work from ‘reading’ a bowler through to making the take if the ball beats (or nicks) the bat. So why not combine wicket keeping with batting and bowling training and sticking a keeper in the nets (when it is safe to do so – you’ll need a very long net for your keeper to stand at a normal distance from the stumps if your net bowler can send it down at 80mph).

5. Introduce another batsman

Having batsmen work in pairs is one of the most important intricacies of cricket and in many ways requires the biggest element of teamwork. Nets, however, often function to improve only an individual’s skills.

You could try introducing another batsmen into your practice and get them either to run between the wickets or simply rotate them – a good way of keeping bowlers on their toes if they are bowling multiple deliveries as above.

6. Introduce ‘fielder’ zones

Putting actual fielders in the nets is a bad idea, but you can replicate the idea of fielders by marking out zones that the batsman has to avoid. Put two cones on the leg side of the net marking out where cow corner would be and say all shots between them are either out or lose runs, for example. It’s a good way to encourage the batsman to look elsewhere to play their shots.

I’m sure there are many other ways you can think of that will make nets more realistic – you may have already tried them out. Let me know by commenting below – and please share how successful it was.

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