Club cricketers don't practice much. There is not the culture, enthusiasm or time to do so regularly. How do club players get around this?
Sport psychologist James Hamilton may have some answers. In a wide raging conversation with me recently we covered the benefits and techniques involved in good mental training: "Mental training offers ways to practice and hone skills away from the ground that have been shown to be as effective in terms of improvement as actual physical practice." He told me.
Staying Off the Couch
Many people picture mental training as something for the weak willed or mentally unstable. In fact nothing could be futher from the truth.
"That error is the most common source of resistance to mental training." Says James. "No one likes the idea that they need a mind doctor or shrink and I've every sympathy for players' reluctance in that sense." Even top player play on that assumption for ammunition: Glen McGrath making jibes at Monty Panesar before the Ashes for example.
Much to Offer
In fact James revealed that: "It has much to offer someone who wants to improve as a player, especially if they see their improvement as an enjoyable challenge rather than compensation for sagging confidence."
And he should know. James has worked with the best of the best in a wide range of sports including top flight cricket. Interesting then that he thinks that there is little difference between the mental preparation between amateurs and professionals: "There are plenty of recreational players who take their sport more seriously, prepare more carefully, and look after themselves better." he concluded.
I had to ask what this preparation looked like. After all, if there are some club players succeeding at it, there is hope for everyone.
The Mental Demands of Cricket
There are two main areas that cricketers need to work on to be at their best: "Firstly, cricket demands concentration over enormous periods of time - you have to maintain attention, to be ready to react in a fraction of a second to situations that might come once in two or three hours. Secondly, to impose yourself on a game of cricket requires every ounce of your effort over that entire period."
You need to look no further than Shane Warne to see a master of this in action: Pulling every trick of body language, sledging, double bluff and bluster in the field over long periods. "It must be shattering" James says. "Like undergoing a series of eight-hour public exams day after day - in hot sunshine and under the scrutiny of the world - but he's succeeded in doing it for fifteen years and more."
How to be as Mentally Tough as Shane Warne
If Warne is your model, how do you reflect him? Over to James for some ideas to develop your own Warney attitude: "Everyone's situation is unique to them and has to be addressed as such, but what follows will do more good than harm:"
- In the company of a good coach, identify and isolate your game strengths and weaknesses. Find out what you can do well, and what you can't. Don't do what you can't - if that is play a particular shot, then don't play that shot if you can avoid it. If you can't bowl a particular kind of ball, eliminate it from your repertoire. The consequence of this is that you will be able to trust yourself on the field in everything you take on. You won't punish yourself for your inability to do what you can't do. You'll play with confidence - justified confidence, based on a realistic analysis of the kind of player you are.
- Again, in the company of a good coach, set yourself realistic, challenging goals. Make sure that they are things you can achieve regardless of your team's progress - setting out to score x runs in a season, and then finding yourself running out of partners every week, is self-defeating. Goals focus your mind, heighten your interest and build your strengths resulting in heightened, justified confidence.
- You need to relax completely for at least 20 minutes every day to maximise your body's recovery from exercise and activity, so combine that with some useful mental training. Pick a strength, not a weakness, to work on. Flop in a comfortable chair with your eyesclosed, and let yourself relax. Then imagine in your own way - don't worry about clear visual images as you don't need them - the scenario in which you use your strength, and play it through again and again in your head. Imagine yourself getting things right - change things around until you are - and rehearse it all in your head. This is the most effective form of mental training you can do.
- Pay attention to your body language - your body posture and facial expression have a prevailing control over your state of mind. Watch Shane Warne in the field - how he walks, how he holds himself, and adapt what he does to your own style and personality.
- From any decent NLP textbook - "submodalities" and "anchoring" are directly useful to sportspeople of any kind and worth learning about.
James Hamilton was born in Widnes, Lancashire, in 1968. He graduated from Oxford University in 1991 and has been working in psychotherapy and sports psychology since 1998. He has been a guest expert for The London Times, Sky Sports and Sky One, and has consulted for Radio 4, Channel 4 and variety of interested magazines and websites.
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