Is there anyone in cricket with more pressure on them than the players of Australia and England at the start of an Ashes series?
It's certainly far more stress than you or I have experienced as cricketers (unless you happen to be MS Dhoni). However, even club players feel pressure situations: Finals (maybe even on TV), league deciders and even the local derby where you play out your own mini Ashes-style rivalry.
What can club players and coaches learn from how the Ashes cricketers deal with pressure?
1. Don't leave it to the last moment
One really common mistake with big games is to fail to think about them until the days before the match. Dealing with pressure situations starts long before that.
As you will learn, the best players all deal with pressure by knowing what is best for them. This may well vary a great deal: Graham Gooch was the eternal net and fitness man while David Gower could score runs without a jog or a net.
The only way you can know what works for you is by trying things out. You may find a net before the game focuses your mind for example. Some people need 10 hours of sleep a night to feel rested, others can get by on 7 or less.
All this means thinking ahead. When are you likely to have a high pressure match? How far back can you go to start laying the foundations of feeling calm under pressure?
2. Do be ready
Once you know what works for you (something that can take months or years to establish), the next step is to start preparing as soon as possible.
For most of us, we need to practice. Club cricketers with jobs or school rarely get enough time to practice fully, but every session you put in becomes an investment in the 'bank'. That training is usually skill based (either developing new ones or honing existing ones). The key is not to waste preparation time by just 'going through the motions' like having a hit in the net and going home.
Some people need less preparation than others. They may feel ready without a lot of practice as they are more confident in their skills. For example, a player who has just retired from first class cricket but has decided to turn out for a local team on Saturday to keep a bit fit. They would have little fear of the opposition and a lot of confidence in their ability to perform with the minimum of practice. For them the investment was made years ago at a higher level.
It's also important to remember the 'support' preparation too:
- Suitable nutrition
- The right amount of sleep
- A fitness plan suitable to your needs (including recovery work like foam rolling and swimming)
3. Do work under pressure
Assuming your preparation has gone well in the months and weeks before your big game, you can start your build up to the match by simulating some pressure in practice.
The easiest way to do this is to bat in the nets under a game situation. Have a normal net but with the following changes:
- Set the game situation. It could be any point in the game, don't automatically set a slog target (12 runs in 4 balls).
- Bowlers set their field and bowl in 6 ball overs.
- Someone acts as an umpire and judge of runs scored/wickets taken
- Keep score and find out who 'wins'
Extra pressure can be added by forcing players to run when they hit it, putting close fielders in (if the net is double sized) or saying 'when you are out, you are out'. You can also incorporate practice games (in set scenarios) instead of nets with enough players
4. Do focus on success
Our minds are wired in funny ways. It's been proven that thinking about success makes you more likely to be successful than thinking about failure.
That may seem obvious, but we tend to think and worry about failure more than we focus on success. Our imaginations often think about what could happen if it all goes wrong. To counter that it's important to consciously spend some time thinking about success.
One really simple way to do that is to write down exactly what is would be like to have outstanding success.
If you were an Ashes captain you might write a fake newspaper report detailing how your team won 5-0, every game by an innings. Sure, it might not be realistic, but the higher the success you think about the more likely any success will come about. So even if you end up winning the series on the last day in a hard fought 2-1 win, you still have reached your aim of winning.
The point is not to try and plan for a massive victory, but just to imagine it. The more positive thoughts you have the less negative ones you have time for.
4. Don't ignore your tension
Coaches all over the world tell their players regularly to relax; don't try and bowl too fast or hit the ball too hard. The reason is that trying too hard make you tense up and instead of hitting or bowling better, you get worse.
Under pressure this tension is even more likely to come out in hunches shoulders, gritted teeth or a tighter grip.
When this happens to you, take a moment to let the tension out. If you are a bowler stand at the top of your run and make an effort to relax: face and shoulders especially. As a batsman you can try the technique outlined here. This conscious effort will let the tension out and allow you to focus on smooth, flowing movements that are efficient rather than leaking energy through tension.
5. Know your role
Finally, it's important to know what your job is on the day of the big game. If you are unsure speak to the captain to find out.
If you are a bowler the captain may turn to you when you have a lot of runs to play with and tell you to get the wickets at whatever cost. On another day he might want you to keep it tighter. Batsmen may be told to stay in and build a platform or increase the run rate.
It's important to remember that your role be something you don't like: Bowling into the wind uphill or reigning in your attacking batting to save a match. Nevertheless, as long as the team benefits you must try hard to ignore your ego and work hard for the team. A good captain will always pat you on the back if you did what he needed. Sometimes a bowling analysis 1-36 can be just as important to victory as 5-67, even if it doesn't look it.
image credit: Hopkinsii