You Can’t Think Your Way to Mental Toughness | Cricket coaching, fitness and tips

You Can’t Think Your Way to Mental Toughness

The more you think, the worse your cricket mental game becomes.


It’s easy to see mental toughness as something you can deal with when there is a problem: Feeling under pressure in a big moment? Learn to deal with pressure. Can’t play the short ball through fear? Work on your fight and remove the flight.

The reality is, thinking through these issues makes you try harder, clench up more and lose the instincts that made you good in the first place.

What’s happening?

More important, how do we cut this problem off?

It’s all about your brain.

Two cricket brains

Long ago, science realised we have two brains that fight for control.

One is based on instinct. It’s primal and protects us from the worst harms in life. It works fast. The other is intellectual and rational. It gives us higher functions like problem solving and works slowly.

Neither brain is better, just more or less useful at different times. If we are attacked, the primal brain goes into action to get us ready to fight or run away fast. If we are doing maths homework, the intellectual brain says “I’ll take it from here”.

In cricket, we need both too.

The instinct is there as we wait to bat, run in to bowl or set in the field. The intellect is there to work out how to chase down a score or set a field.

Intellect blocks instinct

The problem happens when the intellect tries to sort out the stupid instinct. There’s a problem to be solved and the intellect is the problem solver.

It tries to push instinct away because it knows best. It thinks whatever the instinct is doing is failing you so it’s time to get rational and start thinking through the problem.

Good idea?

Only if you have time. The intellectual brain is way too slow. It has to be to weigh up the options and possibilities. If you have ever said “stop, let me think about that”, you know how slow this brain feels compared to instinctive actions.

Think about when you are batting. If you try and think through everything you will start to think all kinds of thoughts, many of them very unhelpful. For example, trying to work out a technical flaw during an innings.

Even the best batsmen have that thought cross their mind after a play and miss or two.

And while you are having all these thoughts, ideas and assessments, your instinct has gone.

Power in not thinking

The answer - while being unintuitive - is to stop thinking.

You can’t stop thoughts of course, but you can stop worrying about them. Let your instinct do the work when you are out in the middle.

If you are a batsman or fielder, your focus is on the ball and your reaction to it.

If you are a bowler, your focus is on hitting your area.

These are not conscious thoughts. These are an absence of conscious thoughts. You are simply playing, acting and reacting. Seeing and moving. The same way you would catch a tennis ball if someone lobbed it to you. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it.

In the book The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallway talks about letting the serve “serve itself” buy focusing on hitting the shot. This is just as true for cricket. You know how to play, you just have to let your instinct do the work by keeping your rational brain quiet.

The truth about toughness

All this means the truth about mental toughness and handling pressure is not some quick trick you can apply.

The truth is you have all the tools at your disposal you need in your instinctive brain. It’s your rational brain that feels pressure or worries your technique is not up to the short ball.

Tell it to shut up.

There are times you will need it - tactical decisions, or working on some technique for example - so keep it close by. Yet, when you are in the heat of battle and you require concentration, focus, calmness and relaxed confidence, reach for instinct instead.

Do this well and people will start asking how you got so mentally tough.

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