Why Mental Toughness is a Myth

In a brand new column, psychologist Karl Stevenson looks at the crucial mental side of cricket. This article debunks the myth of mental toughness...

In and amongst cricketing circles you may have many citing the importance of ‘mental toughness’. However, when asked about what mental toughness is and why it is important, people begin to falter.

They reel off a few generic terms, such as ‘determination’ or ‘motivation’.

While important, these do not automatically make a player mentally tough.

So what is really happening?

Performing is as simple as 1, 2, and 3

Batting, is a complex skill that requires three different skill sets to be successful.

The three different skill sets that contribute to successful performance

Psycho-visual skills are the single most important skill group.

Psycho-visual skills allow batsmen make the best possible shot selections as fast as possible based on picking up a bowlers line and length. If you have good psycho-visual skills you can move into the correct striking position and make bat–ball contact.

Some coaches may suggest that a batsman’s technical skills are the most important, but my argument is that without the psycho-visual information, a player can’t apply their perfect technical skills to suit the situation.

True mental toughness

Batsmen like England opener Alistair Cook have to be able to play fast bowling at speeds in excess of 145kph. At this speed, it takes the ball 500ms to reach the batsman from ball release.

Science has shown that it takes 200ms to make a decision and a further 700ms to execute this decision.

In other words, batsman need to make their decision 400ms before the bowler has even released the ball.

How is this possible?

This is where the power of psycho-visual skill comes into play.

Psycho-visual skills are a set of 5 processes that interact with each other to allow a batsman to be able to gain as much information from the situation as possible, draw on previous experiences, and make the best possible shot selection to a given delivery.

The 5 psycho-visual skills that contribute towards a batsman’s decision-making process.

Let's continue to use Alistair Cook as an example.

Before he gets into his stance, Alistair would look around the field and take note of all of the fielders positions, the gaps in the field, and the possible shot’s he could play to score runs to this exact field set.

This is the first stage of his visual search process; it will allow him to narrow the possible scoring options he has down to ideally 3 shots (this has advantages as we progress).

The second stage of his visual search starts as soon as the bowler starts his run up. At this point, Alistair may take note of what angle the bowler is approaching the crease from, his grip on the ball, and identify the shiny side of the ball.

The main event starts as soon as a bowler enters their delivery stride. Alistair will visually search the bowlers delivery in an efficient pattern, looking at parts of their action at the most ‘information rich’ times, allowing him to gather as much information as possible on what delivery may be coming his way.

This is a ‘quiet’ or a subconscious skill: he does have to think about it, he just does it. This is closely related to a his (and your) perceptual skills. These skills consist of depth, width, and speed perception that allow Alistair to translate his view into specific and accurate pieces of information that will allow his brain to understand the bowler's actions.

With this information, he can identify the speed, trajectory, and potential swing of the incoming delivery.

We all posses these two very animalistic skills, but the difference between lesser skilled and skilled batsmen is their ability to be able to recognise these pieces of information.

Recognition skills are broken down into three parts:

The three components of recognition skill, which are fed into and interact with our sport specific memory.

We have briefly touched on location; this is a skill that allows Alistair to be able to track the ball in space and time by using his perceptual skills.

But what is more relevant to cricket batting is a batsman’s ability to identify ‘advanced cues’.

Reading the bowler

Advanced cues allow Alistair to be able to shorten the 400ms time deficit.

If Alistair was facing a fast bowler, by visually searching his body movements he could identify a short delivery based on a dipped shoulder, a heightened jump, a later release point, or any other specific cue that he may have identified over time.

Using these cues he would be able to get onto the back foot and execute the pull shot. His ability to recognise those advanced cues allows him to play this shot so effectively to fuller length deliveries that some would not dare to. This skill becomes particularly important when playing against and reading deceptive spin bowling.

Lastly, his ability to be able to use this information and recognise patterns, without being able to recognise patterns or cue’s in a bowler’s action, he would not be able to draw on his sport specific memories.

Alistair has been in the England Youth and Academy set up for many years prior to becoming England’s opening batsmen. His experiences along the way have shaped what we call his ‘Sport Specific Memory’, in his case this will be all the experiences he has had during batting practice and out in the middle in various different environments on different types of pitches.

He is able to draw on these experiences to be able to know what has and hasn’t worked in the past. These are the experiences that have allowed him to develop his visual search, his perceptual skills, and his recognition skills. Without that experience he would not be able to use those skills effectively, and the wealth of experience to best judge the current situation.

The final piece of the puzzle is Alistair’s cognitive skills, basically his decision-making skills.

He has been able to narrow down exactly what delivery the bowler is going to bowl (subconsciously before the ball has actually been released), now he has to select his shot (from the possible 3 that he had selected when looking at the field set earlier), and rely on the movement and technical skills he is so well drilled in to be able to make perfect bat-ball contact to be successful.

A successful shot, after the 5 psycho visual skills had allowed the batsman to move into position and execute his technical skills.

These 5 processes sum up the psychological demands batting in action.

There are only two things that are outside your (and Alistair's) control that can alter the outcome of these processes. Two environmental demands that can either make or break you, and these are the context that they are performing the skills in.

This may vary from different levels of cricket to the format that you are playing, to the current situation that the team may be in. These tie in nicely with the tactical demands of the situation: Do you need to be aggressive, or on the defense?

These two environmental stressors can be the linchpins in how a player performs.

How do we link all this back to mental toughness?

mentalMental toughness is the ability to be able to execute psycho-visual skills under a variety of situations and environments consistently, with minimal levels of emotional stress.

Once you can do this, you are on the road to mental toughness, and the key to developing ‘mental toughness’ is in the experiences and sport specific memories that batsmen develop along the way.

Karl Stevenson is a final year PhD student who has spent the last 7 years investigating the psycho-visual skills of striking sports. He worsk alongside coaches and athletes as a mental skills coach to develop skills in an applied setting.

If you liked this article you'll love Mark Garaway's First Class Fielding.The guide contains the latest research into fielding, and how to successfully apply new throwing and catching methods to players from international to school levels.

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Comments

My understanding of one crucial and often overlooked aspect of mental strength: the ability to still convince yourself you care about losing even when losing looks inevitable.

It's mentally and emotionally exhausting to keep wanting to win when a game is going badly. Its much easier to just allow yourself and the team to drift into a state of apathy, and say things like "it doesn't matter if we lose", "we don't really mind, its only a game" etc. Once the team starts doing that, effort and concentration drop and the game is lost. You see amateur and even professional teams doing this all the time. One decent stand and all the fight goes out of them in the field. A couple of quick wickets, and the next batsmen bat like they're in a hurry to get to the pub.

It takes real mental fortitude to say "No, we CAN win this damn game. I DO mind if we lose. I will take it as a personal failure", even when winning looks impossible. You're denying yourself the chance of shrugging your shoulders and having an easy carefree loss. When you do lose, it will hurt like hell. But in return it will win you an extra two or three close games a season and those will be the wins you will really enjoy.

There are two different personality traits when it comes to performing:

Players who have a need to achieve success - These players face the situations that you have mentioned with adversity and resilience regardless of the inevitable outcome. These players tend to have a vault of personal drive and take pride out of their personal achievements. These players put pressure on themselves and tend to blame themselves for their downfalls.

Players who have a need to avoid failure - These players face the situations you have mentioned with apathy. The reason for this is that they are able to then deflect their own personal performance and attribute it to something wrong with the pitch, conditions, or their fellow team members because it gives them a way to avoid feelings of failure.

You will always have a balance of these individuals in any team. Like I mentioned in the article, you can have good control of your psycho-visual skills, but the environment and the context of the game are the real linchpins in performance. Being able to train these two different personality types to take responsibility for performance and to be able to reflect on their performance realistically will bring home those close games and build team spirit amongst its members. All you need to do is transform one, and the rest will follow.

Hi Karl, don't know if you're still monitoring this page, but it's a very useful piece, thank you.

One question - where does self-confidence come into play in all of this? I've personally found the most distracting and disabling mental element is a loud, conscious self-doubt. At its worst, often near the beginning of an innings, it can actually be a voice that 'sees through' my attempts to concentrate and I end up telling myself something ridiculous like 'you're going to get out this ball'.

When (if!) I make it through and settle in things often improve, but I find this part of the game really hard, despite some obvious successes that should give me more confidence than they seem to.

Any thoughts would be incredibly welcome!

Alex

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