Back in 2006, England coach at the time Duncan Fletcher asked me if we should select the 21 year old, Alistair Cook to open the batting in the first Test Match. I had worked with Cooky with England U15s and despite not being able to hit the ball particularly hard in those days, myself and another coach at the time pushed for his selection amongst physically stronger players who could beat the field with power.
The 15 year old Cook had something that was different. As coaches, we wanted to give that talent the opportunity as it may grow into something special. So, My response to Fletcher in 2006 went a little bit like this,
"Fletch, I don't know if he is technically good enough for Test Cricket yet? But he has the right kind of mind and the right kind of heart for a challenge".
Fletcher then said
"In that case, he's playing".
The rest, as they say is history. Cook became the youngest player to reach 10,000 runs in Test Cricket history. He is on track to score more runs that even the great Sachin Tendulkar! That's incredible.
I always had Cook down as being a mentally tough player, a vital skill to have as an International cricketer.
But what actually is mental toughness?
In the early 2000's the term mental toughness was mentioned a lot about the England Cricket team. England were deemed weak. Australia were the epitome of mental toughness. Sports Psychologist, Dr Steve Bull pulled together the views of the top 100 coaches in England. He asked us to give him our to 10 mentally toughest England cricketers of all time.
The final list was compiled and Dr Bull interviewed each of the players to see if their were any common trends in how they viewed mental toughness. Steve also established some common themes with the aim that we could then identify and develop mentally robust future England cricketers.
There were 4 clearly defined areas that came out of Dr Bulls work. These were:
- FIGHT: The choice to never give up, even when it seems like all is lost. Fighting until the bitter end.
- INNER DRIVE: Choosing to do the things that others wouldn't, practising independently as well as with your coach, really challenging yourself to do the tough practice and the repetitive stuff as you know that it will make you a better player in the long run. In last week's article I stated that “The main differential between those that don’t succeed and those that do is the work the individual do themselves.” - this ultimately is inner drive.
- RESILIENCE: The ability to bounce back after setbacks or adversity. This could be how someone deals with a series of poor scores or some unlucky umpire decisions. Or coping positively with being dropped and coming back from a long term injury. Resilience is crucial in our sport as its a game where we often fail, especially as batters. The best in the world score well in one innings out of three or four. No batter is or will ever be consistently successful.
- CRITICAL MOMENT CONTROL: Can you control yourself in order to execute your skills under the most extreme pressure or high tension match situation? The best recent example of someone with immense CMC was Carlos Brathwaite's incredible striking in the the last over of the ICC World T20 Cup final.
Interestingly despite my thinking that Cooky was mentally tough at the age of 15, when interviewed recently, the now England Test skipper said that it used to annoy him that he was called mentally tough as he didn't actually feel that way until the time when he had scored 4000 Test Runs. Until that point he felt that he had the same mental vulnerabilities as anyone else.
When we analysed and assessed numerous Test players in the early to mid 2000's against these 4 areas, we found that:
- Many top players scored high in two areas and average in two areas of mental toughness
- Some players scored high in three areas and average in one area of mental toughness. These were the greats of the game at the time.
- Only one player came out at the time with four high scoring areas of mental toughness. Australian Captain, Steve Waugh.
My summation of the present day Test players is that Alistair Cook is now England's "Steve Waugh" from a mental toughness perspective. As an Englishman, and someone who was lucky enough to share some time with both the boy and man, that makes me incredibly proud of Cooky.
Can you identify some of the mental traits in your squad players from this research?
Are there some areas that they presently fall down and could be an area of development for the future.
Armed with these mental toughness definitions, you could now have some really great coaching conversations with the players in your squads?
I bet you can.