"The difference between an average cricketer and a top class cricketer is how mentally tough he is."
A recent study has looked at mental toughness through the eyes of cricketers and their coaches. The conclusions have given hope to millions of players.
The work comes from Junaid Iqbal at Leeds University, who researched the latest findings from sport psychology and combined them with experiences from coaches and players at all levels of the game.
His dissertation concluded that mental toughness underpins cricket ability at all levels, and it can be improved in anyone.
Once you know that, you are a step ahead of others still focused on technique alone.
So what does that mean from a practical standpoint?
Good players and coaches understand their game
Firstly, no matter how you define mental toughness, it's clear that the better you understand yourself, or the players you coach, the better a cricketer you will be.
Mental toughness is difficult to get a handle on because it changes between people. Some players are highly committed but lack confidence. Others have excellent concentration skills but are poor at dealing with failure. We all have a unique personality make up that goes far beyond the ability to "man up".
Add to this that some mental toughness traits can change over time: You gain or lose confidence, and you become more or less committed depending on your motivation.
At the very least you need to understand your own levels of:
- Confidence: How do feel you can perform, even under pressure?
- Commitment: How much effort are you putting in to improve?
- Self-control: Can you stay calm and do "the right thing" on and off the field?
- Concentration: How do you block out distractions and stay focused on your short and long term goals?
Mental toughness is integrated into training
That said, your personality is not a paper exercise. To become mentally tough as a cricketer you need to take your understanding and apply it in training.
We already know - through research - that focused work on developing mental strength will result in improved performance. Junaid found that coaches apply this through scenario training:
"Coaches must recognise the significance of pressure on performance and create adverse situations within training to ensure players are prepared for competition. Players must also engage and exert effort within these environments to overcome such scenarios. Strategies of mental toughness development are more effective, if applied in a cricketing context. Therefore coaches must... integrate it with technique. Consequently players can understand the applicability of the strategy and develop both technically and mentally to maximise performance."
Also, coaches in the study looked to the power of physical fitness:
"A coach believed physical factors impact mental toughness as quoted 'being super fit makes you think clearer' in pressure situations supporting Weisensteinner (2009) of physical fitness being positive to handling pressure."
However, there is no template as the reasons you play cricket, the level you play and the time you have must be taken into account when training.
There are simple "tricks"
So far, the picture of mental toughness is a complex one: It is about evolving player personality and motivations, and the ability of the coach to understand and serve each player individually.
The good news is that Junaid discovered there are still some simple tricks, or hacks, that can work right out of the box.
Players respond well to visualisation, repetition drills, and goal setting; all of which have increased mental toughness. You can put them into your game right away and start getting results quickly and consistently.
While these are great it's important not to think that they are the key to mental toughness. To conclude I'll let Junaid explain:
"Effective coaching practice is being able to and taking time in understanding personalities and which components of mental toughness must be targeted opposed to generalised strategies."