“Don’t hit the ball so hard, you’ll make the bowler feel bad.”

When I began my PhD, I assumed that there was going to be plenty of background knowledge to work with. It was never my intention to travel the road of academia, I didn’t even know if a PhD was the right way to tackle the problem, but I went ahead anyway because it was such a rare opportunity and I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to be at the forefront of women in sports research and found out that I was much further behind than I had anticipated.

“Don’t hit the ball so hard, you’ll make the bowler feel bad.”

That is the quote I overheard one day while coaching a junior girls cricket competition. There was a girl from the country who was absolutely commanding the field, a fierce force of cunning and power. She was years ahead of the rest in terms of skill development, and when I asked why she thought that was the case, she proudly boasted about all the boys’ cricket she played at home, in the street, local parts, and schoolyard. After hearing about the declining rates of play in children, this story made me feel hopeful, and infuriated.

Her skill and dominance should not be thwarted to suit the needs of others. We should be providing her with the environment to thrive, just as we have for the other girls who maybe haven’t had as much exposure or room to compete. Instead of telling her to take it easy, we should be building competitions that challenge her, which encourages her to keep growing and learning. So I set about my research career to answer how we can do such a thing.

This is when I walked into the classical dilemma of research: being able to justify why you’re doing what you do, without an existing foundation of knowledge. I thought by 2018 we would have taken the time to explore why and how women were dominating the international cricket scene. There was nothing of the sorts and that’s when I realised that research into women’s cricket and talent development were necessary but hard to justify.

Before I could do anything, I had to build that foundation. For the first time, elite female cricketers were interviewed and asked about their early learning experiences, their pathway, their training sessions and what they think is important for expert performance. We even asked the coaches for an added perspective, querying how they came to coach female athletes and how they do it. While most people dread data analysis, I found it captivating to walk through these stories and find the best way to share them with the world. When it’s out there, you’ll be able to find it here.

That wasn’t so hard in the scheme of things. It’s the next half that has left me drained. I moved interstate to spend more time on campus and I was outraged to hear that most women’s cricket teams did not have a coach. They couldn’t afford it, the club wouldn’t help them, the captain would just help out and do it herself (sacrificing her development for the team), the excuses rolled on. But fundamentally, what they were missing was that nobody valued them enough to provide them with the opportunity to learn.

This was a huge realisation, but I couldn’t do anything with it yet. I had to spend a year establishing why this was important, which as a female athlete myself, felt like a waste of time. Again, nobody knows this yet, so we had to systematically find a way to show them. So I did my time and recorded every training over one season, just to find out they were all identical. Not being able to do a statistical analysis because there is no variation to explain does not sound like a great sales pitch to get published. I’m fighting hard for this one.

Now I’m at the fun part, the chance to intervene. This was supposed to be a collaborative effort with the coach, but that’s a little hard when they don’t currently exist. We wanted to know if we invest in amateur female cricketers in their local competitions, can they improve? What a condescending research question. Why does it matter what stage of the talent development pathway they are at? Despite the fact that they represent the crucial crossroad for elite junior athletes and experienced senior athletes, and provide the only opportunity for uncontracted players to make the elite level, this knowledge isn’t enough to spark change, so I jumped in and did it myself.

Sure, researcher-led intervention just sounds like a dictatorship of sorts but what else can we do? Sit around and wait for someone to grace us with their coaching presence at training on a Tuesday night? I don’t want to think about how long we would be waiting. It amazes me that these questions have to be asked and subsequently answered, even now. In a world that is pushing for equality and understanding, why do we know nothing about these women?

The biggest thing I have learned from doing research in this area is we haven’t come as far as we think.

Author: Alex Lascu is a passionate young coach who is completing her PhD in talent development for women’s cricket. Her work specialises in helping other coaches create positive learning environments which promote holistic growth and ongoing development. If you visit one of her sessions, there is always a lot of laughter, even more questions, and plenty of exploration.