Interview with Harrow Drive: Sports Psychology and Cricket

David Hinchcliffe of the excellent cricket coaching weblog Harrow Drive was kind enough to ask me some questions about sports psychology in relation to cricket. He’s incorporated my answers into a fuller article which you can read here.

David’s site is probably unique in terms of its reach and content, and it’s well worth setting aside an afternoon to work through it, especially if you are still playing or coach players.

The full uncontextualised text of the interview is below:

1. First of all, for those who don’t know, can you tell us a bit about who you are what you do for sports men and women?

In broad terms, I try to help sportspeople cope with, and overcome, both failure and the fear of failure. Everything in enjoying sport and succeeding in sport, comes down to that in the end, including even such mysterious semi-spiritual concepts as “the zone” and other Gallweyesque idealisms.
2. What inspired you to start your blog?

I wasn’t finding the kind of sports writing that I wanted to read, so decided to come up with it myself. Contributing to the material available online about sports psychology was only one part of my agenda in that sense. Fake heartiness, middle-class nostalgia for a fake working-class lost utopia, and a general British desire to be stupid when it comes to sport hamper all but the most intelligent sports journalists and writers. In modern British football in particular, no one is making any serious effort to track where the game is coming from, and the decisions being made now, which will shape the game’s future, are based on false assumptions. Proper historical writing has its disciplines, and much of what the site carries in 2007 will reflect those. With very few exceptions – even in cricket, which has always had the best literature of any sport – British sports writers see sport as soap opera, not as a serious professional exercise. They aren’t aware of it, but a couple of hours paging through continental sports magazines gives the game away.

3. How important is awareness and practice of mental training to club cricketers?

That depends entirely on what the individual club cricketer wants to take from his game. If what he/she is looking for is an enjoyable summer pastime to spend with friends, one that comes complete with an excellent social life and one that can be sustained into late middle age, but isn’t really worried about how well they play or if they improve – then they can quite happily ignore mental training entirely and be absolutely none the worse for it. Proper mental training 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. I am particularly excited by a technique I have been working towards that offers players the means to recover confidence and composure under pressure and at speed – for instance, if you’ve just bowled the first ball of an Ashes series and it hasn’t gone quite to plan. For the club cricketer, both match and net time is limited, so mental training offers ways to practice and hone skills away from the ground or training centre that have been shown to be as effective in terms of improvement as actual physical practice. I don’t just mean “visualisation” in that sense. Visualisation is one of sports psychology’s favourite red herrings. Practically every book on the subject is crammed with top athlete’s tales of how they could picture every blad of grass, every inch of track etc. In fact, these athletes’ experience of creating images in their heads is no better than anyone else’s. Everyone’s mental imagery is fugitive, unclear, partial, muddy, incomplete, even slightly surreal – it has to be, or else we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between input from the senses and our own imaginations. Our mental imagery also carries information about our own moral/aesthetic judgements about whatever’s being thought about – and the way this is done, once understood by a player, can be used to their advantage (that, rather than the “clarity” of the image, is the headstart being enjoyed by the top athletes in the sports psych. manuals).

4. What sort of resistance to ‘mental fitness’ do you see in sport?

The football world is prone to mistake sports psychology for psychotherapy. No one likes, or should like, the idea that they need a mind doctor or shrink, and I’ve every sympathy for players’ reluctance in that sense. I’ve less for some of the journalists who perpetuate this error for the sake of a cheap joke (usually at someone’s expense). That error is the most common source of resistance to mental training. In Britain, we’ve inherited the attitude that the player knows best, and that brings with it resistance to coaching of any kind. That’s beginning to fade out now, in cricket and rugby more quickly than in football, and it’s gone altogether in athletics. In relation to psychotherapy, the real downside to resistance to mental training, and the only one that matters, is that when a player really does need psychotherapeutic help, the negative attitude to therapy is a barrier to their finding it. The mere existence of Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic has helped no end in this respect. It’s easier for players to approach experts approved by a former England captain who has trodden their path and won medals than to climb the stairs of some anonymous white coat on Harley Street. But that’s just the hard crust of the problem. Psychotherapy is often still quite self-deluding and useless. Paul Gascoigne’s recent autobiography “Being Gazza” is a dreadful saga of arrogance and malpractice on the part of therapy professionals. And the horrifying frequency of suicide in the game of cricket remains mysterious – mysterious, and neglected, which means we have more of it to come, I’m afraid.

5. How do you deal with negative opinion towards what you do?

To be perfectly frank, I agree with most of it. There’s no point in denying that I have a very low opinion of the majority of my colleagues. Sports psychology is crowded with hucksters and inspiration merchants, and sport generally lacks the intellectual framework that might keep them off. No form of psychology or psychotherapy has been capable of attracting anything like the brightest and the best to its careers – rather the opposite, and that shows through in the relative lack of respect and status enjoyed by the profession. In the soap opera of British sport, the sports psychologist takes the role of fool, and, although I dislike the fact, the role is probably hard earned.

6. What kind of changes have you seen in sport psychology/psychotherapy since you began working in the field?

Almost none. I don’t think the subject’s moved an inch in twenty years, not since NLP began to be used by sportspeople (NLP, for those readers who don’t recognise the term, is a combination of cognitive-behavioural techniqes and hypnotherapy dating from the early ’70s. There are genuinely useful skills to draw from it, but I wouldn’t call it new.) Sports psychology is more of a presence in the UK now, but it’s still very much a peripheral part of the overall scene.

7. What is the difference in the mental approach of recreational and professional players? How crucial is this?

Less than you might assume. The kind of talent that permits a sporting career at the top is indiscriminating and is found across all personality types. There are plenty of recreational players who take their sport more seriously, prepare more carefully, and look after themselves better, than many professionals. But amongst professionals that I’ve worked with, there has been a small but distinct group – distinct – not just from recreational players, but from everyone else I’ve worked with. First of all, there’s the sheer aggression they possess, perfectly marshalled and disciplined. Secondly, the teak-hardness, the grip they keep on themselves. These qualities force themselves upon your attention immediately in a way I have never encountered in a “normal” human being. It’s a hellish way to be, in my opinion, and it doesn’t translate into “successful lives” as most of us would define them, lives marked by love and friendship. Every single one of this group has been at the very top of their sport. None of them has had any compunction of any kind about dominating other people by any means available – indeed, one gets the impression that sport presents them with a chance to crush the opposition that they enjoy and would otherwise miss in their life.

8. How important is the national sporting culture in defining attitudes to both the recreational and professional games?

I’d say that that culture is almost entirely defined by history. One of the most interesting changes in British sporting life in the last twenty years is the new willingness to learn from abroad. Football has never fully accepted that Britain is behind, and is in the process of reversing its trend, retreating to the old superstitions about “passion” and the obsession with heroic underdogs, but rugby and cricket are quite willing to learn from Australia and New Zealand. It’s a mature and realistic attitude. The recreational game has had its experience of this – Sir Clive Woodward’s first coaching role, at Henley, was characterised by his successful attempts to pioneer the use of the Australian flat back line. But the idea that having invented the games the world plays, that we have nothing real to learn from abroad and that our national “passion” and “inspiration” will see us through against superior skill and fitness persists. The sad fact is that Britain is not a place marked by either “passion” or “inspiration”: pessimism, suspicion and stoicism perhaps, but we have never been as keen on defeating Australia as they have been about defeating us. Of course, we invented those games, all those years ago, for our amusement – a distraction from the serious business of life. It doesn’t occur to British sport as a whole to innovate, to be the first to pioneer successful approaches – we’ll keep up, just about, by importing ideas once they are proven abroad.

9. What 5-10 general tips would you give to amateur club cricketers who recognise they want to improve their mental game but don’t know where to start?

The longer I’m involved in either sports psychology or psychotherapy, the less I am impressed by generalised “tips”, simply because everyone’s situation is unique to them and has to be addressed as such, but what follows will do more good than harm.
a. 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.
b. 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 real strengths, resulting in heightened, justified confidence.
c. 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 eyes closed, 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, and it’s that straightforward.
d. 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.
e. From any decent NLP textbook – “submodalities” and “anchoring” are both directly useful to sportsmen of any kind and worth learning about.

10. Is there anything unique about cricket as a team sport that requires different mental disciples compared to, say, football or rugby?

Cricket is a unique team sport, but two differences stick out. One is the sheer length of the game. 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 – especially 3 and 5-day cricket – requires every ounce of your effort over that entire period. Shane Warne is able to use every part of his body language, his wit (in its widest sense) and his, ahem, verbal felicity, to bend his opponent to his will – and he keeps it going all day when in the field. It must be shattering – like undergoing a series of eight-hour public exams day after day – in hot sunshine, more often than not, and under the scrutiny of the world – but he’s succeeded in doing it for fifteen years and more.

11. Finally, you told me you know how to solve the Ashes conundrum. Can you tell us how?

Putting to one side the scapegoating of Fletcher and Flintoff that all of the armchair generals are indulging in, I can see two main things I’d have done differently.
a. I’d have taken a leaf out of Clive Woodward’s book and taken the team to the pub after the first test defeat, and kept them there until they’d got the game off their respective chests and started to enjoy being in Australia. Repeat to fade.This isn’t one of those playboy England touring sides that doesn’t care – they care far too much, and the nerves and fear that engenders is pulling their game to pieces. More and better distraction is the key – the WAGS were a nod in that direction, but clearly not enough.
b. Australia are technically the better team, and our hope of retaining the Ashes, especially with our diminished squad, lay in Australia underperforming. The pressure on England has not been to perform at our best – unless Australia blew up, that would still end in defeat for England – but to play beyond what they are actually capable of. Kick Harmison hard enough, the thinking goes, and not only will that somehow bring his confidence back, but turn him into a young Glenn McGrath. All that tells Harmison, a fast bowler, but never the straightest even at his best, that what he can do will never be good enough – and that is what collapses his confidence. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Likewise poor Geraint Jones, who was called upon to bat, not like Geraint Jones, but like another Ian Healy. This has been happening across the team – and as a result, they’ve been abandoning their strengths, however limited, with the disastrous results we’ve seen. Absurd to ask the press to take a player to one side and say that too much is being asked of him – that all he has to do is be Harmison or Jones G. or Mahmood S., that that is all that can be (sanely) asked of them and no more. I’d have done it, and reminded them of their real strengths with a pile of DVDs etc. whilst I was at it. Stick to your strengths, guard against your weaknesses, just be yourself, don’t be a hero – old lessons, that we all have to relearn sometimes. It’s not lack of passion or commitment, in this instance, that’s done England down – far from it. It’s lunatic demands for the impossible, the constant calling for heroes, for finest hours, for saviours and miracle workers. In 2005, we played to our capabilities, no more – that’s all you’ll find on the scorecard. Australia didn’t, but had they done so, we’d have lost.

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