Sport psychology consultants often find that when an athlete is seeking their advice or support, the athlete feels that their individual concern/sport is unique in some way. Although the importance of individual differences when working with a client can not be underestimated, it is very difficult to dispute the fact that all sports have a psychological component that underlies effective performance.
This is an important starting point when we talk about cricket. Cricketers past and present often talk about the importance of this psychological component. People may disagree on the relative importance of this component (i.e. Cricket is 80% mental, 20% physical or 90% mental, 10% physical) however we tend to agree that cricket is demanding mentally and that “mentally tough” or “smart” cricketers are the ones that will generally succeed . Despite this belief, it appears that there is a large discrepancy between this long-standing belief and how many of us have learned to play the game.
I was very fortunate to be a part of representative teams in Ireland growing up and would not trade these experiences for anything. I was so blessed to have so many experienced coaches and players support my development during this time and it is no surprise that so many talented cricketers have come through the Irish system.
However it is interesting to consider how little time is spent developing mental skills from a young age. Thankfully we are making progress on this front. In sport psychology we talk about “mental skills training” as something that can improve performance with athletes.
Currently there are 4 skills we teach athletes about i.e. Relaxation, Imagery, Self-Talk and Goal-Setting, but depending on the sport psychologist-athlete relationship, these skills may not be applicable. I would never suggest that an athlete should use these techniques without proper guidance but it is worth discussing that many young cricketers spend years going through an “elite” system without having any knowledge of mental skills training or how they should approach the sport mentally.
There has got to be a place in coaching circles for teaching young cricketers more about the mental demands of the sport and mental skills needed to be successful. Even if this means having training sessions dedicated exclusively to things such as coping with poor performances, preparing for a game mentally or how to prevent burnout.
These are just a few examples, but the number of training sessions you could run focussing on mental aspects of the game are truly endless. Add to this sessions devoted to tactical preparation and you can see that there is potential to better align the balance between mental and physical training in our sport. This is not to say that young cricketers don’t learn these skills outside of training but what if they aren’t ? It’s simple – we are doing them a disservice. As a result, a conscious effort needs to be made to include these elements in future training regimes.
If I were to provide a reason for why we place so little emphasis on the mental side of the game, it would probably be directed at how cricket has perennially been viewed as a “traditional” game. By traditional I refer to our inability to embrace change, our acceptance of what has happened previously as “the done thing” and our reliance on previous generations to learn “how the game should be played”.
This characteristic is what makes the game so special but it is also what curses it when change is occuring. This has been shown in recent times when looking at the disagreement surrounding the increased popularity of T20 cricket and the involvement of associate nations in Cricket World Cups.
It is up to the current generation to understand that there is more we can be doing to explore the mental side of the game. The old adage of “keeping things simple” will always have its place once the rope has been crossed but when we are off the pitch recovering from play, training or preparing for play – we need to embrace the complexity of the mental side of the game.
This means embracing sport psychology as something that could change the game for the better and help not just the Mike Hussey or Justin Langer-types amongst us (the so-called overthinkers) but those who don’t think about the game enough. My question is simple – is getting yourself in the best possible headspace to perform really a weakness or something to strive for?