Race for No. 1: It’s all in the mind

The Same Mental Issues in Cricket Exist in Any Sport

The Times of India – Times News Network – Partha Bhaduri -As India and SA resume battle to replace Australia as the world’s best cricket team, psychologists believe mental skills will hold the key.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra once ambiguously remarked how sport is 90% mental, the other half is physical, but how much of a game is actually won or lost in the mind? Interestingly, some leading sports psychologists across the globe say the answer to who will usurp Australia’s crown and become cricket’s next No. 1 team might lie in the minds of the players themselves. They believe the churning in the game’s order of dominance has been brought about by India and South Africa’s clarity of vision, even as the declining Aussies continue to lose cohesion due to frequent changes in personnel. Dhoni and Graeme Smith’s squads, say psychologists, are on a confidence-performance spiral, a rare occurrence in team sport in which the uncluttered minds of in-form individuals creates a modelling effect on the rest, boosting performance and making the team well-placed to win the key moments. It’s here that skill sets are put to the test: this spiral  is what motivates a team member to play above himself in a tight situation.

Agree or not, it’s an interesting debate which stretches across the full spectrum of sport. Roger Federer’s travails against Rafael Nadal are a case in point, but instant-reaction team games like cricket are as dependent on individual situational factors as, say, tennis is. Batsmen out of form push at the ball harder because their mind is confused and muscles tense, denying the team crucial momentum. Conversely, like in Dhoni and Gary Kirsten’s case, smart captaincy or coaching can induce confidence and team harmony, leading to a winning run.

For example, within 18 months of Roger Bannister’s breakthrough sub-four-minute mile run in 1954, 16 other athletes followed suit. Did they suddenly get faster and train harder? No. Bannister had simply breached the psychological barrier and runners were no longer limited by their minds. By shredding Australia’s long-perceived aura of invincibility, India and SA might have created a similar ripple effect in cricket.

Renowned sport performance expert John F. Murray, the “Roger Federer of sports psychology” who first introduced the concept of the MPI or “Mental Performance Index” in sport and helped Vincent Spadea recover from the longest losing streak in tennis history, 21 games, and climb from No. 229 to No. 18 in the rankings, spies some interesting mental battles currently underway in cricket.

He says Australia, hampered by the retirement of a clutch of once-in-a-generation players, are “trying too hard and becoming overly aware of their struggles, leading to lower confidence, changes in strategy and an attempt to force things.” He suggests such teams need to look at “specific, individual mental ratings and performance-related factors” to boost team results. India, on the other hand, are on the cusp of building a collective aura in New Zealand much like SA are at home with Dhoni’s clarity of thought and flexible strategies, along with a clutch of “champion mentality” players, creating a bold and aggressive approach.

“Winning habits are initiated in the brain. The difference between individual and team sport is actually less than it appears on the surface,”. Murray told TOI. “Players with the champion mentality can rise above external distractions.” This is not to suggest team harmony or smart coaching is not effective. Coaches can turn teams around mentally and conversely, a coaching change can also be disastrous for a well-oiled outfit. But individuals foster team habits. Players who don’s perform well negatively influence others. “Winning teams,” suggests Murray, “develop resilience and consistent visualization routines,” helping them to turn a game around from impossible situations.

Dr Bob Grove of the School of Sport Science at the University of Western Australia believes Australia are suffering from “paralysis-by-analysis” because they are a team in transition.  “Australia had a high benchmark. Sports performers in general tend to be concrete thinkers who believe the harder you try, the better you do. But paying attention to every little detail can be counterproductive. Also, with so many new players coming in, you can’t really expect the same degree of personal comfort and group-level confidence in Australia anymore.” Mental attitude, in essence, is more important than mental capacity, explaining why India’s natural strokeplayers like Sehwag and Yuvraj can play with such arrogant freedom. This is where Grove believes India and SA are getting the mental basics right:  “In a fast-paced, reactive sport like cricket, it isn’t possible to focus on more than two key elements of a skilled physical performance. “Uncluttered doesn’t mean blank, it means focusing on one or two aspects of the skill. In time, this permeates through a group.”

This is the “confidence-performance spiral,” but it’s not just pure instinct. In New Zealand, where conditions are unfamiliar to more than half the squad, the collective mindset could play a crucial role. India’s move to induct five pacers has found favour from psychologists as it suggests a bold, confident approach. Murray, however, warns: “No team can remain static or it will fall by the wayside.”

Since top-level sport is mostly in the mind, why do teams, or individuals, still slip up on the mental aspects? Former cricketerturned-psychologist Jeremy Snape, who helped JP Duminy with “visualisation” skills before the Australia series, told TOI:  “Duminy was thinking he wouldn’t get a game, so we prepared him as if he was playing the first Test. As luck would have it, (Ashwell) Prince broke his thumb and Duminy was ready. I think we have separated the mind and technical aspects for too long. The best coaches of the future will unlock habits and potential more effectively. The players need more coping skills in this increasingly pressurised atmosphere but they seem to be training in the same old ways. Coaching styles play a role in the motivational climate.” India and SA have managed distractions well, but whose trained instincts will shine through better? Who will set limits on their thoughts first, and stumble? That will be the key to which team dominates in the long run.