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Learn different practices to help improve mental skills

This is an excerpt from Cutting Edge Cricket by Cricket Australia,Frank Pyke & Ken Davis.

Mental Skills Practices

The following practices can be done either on or off the field. Initially, it is important to consider the type of game for which a player is preparing. The Twenty20 format requires a different mindset than 50-over matches, which, in turn, are vastly different from matches lasting in excess of two days. Practices need to be structured to cater to the style of matches. For instance, leaving the ball alone for a batter may be appropriate in longer versions of the game and should be practiced. However, in preparing for Twenty20 matches, it is not desirable to spend much practice time letting the ball pass through to the wicketkeeper.

As mentioned earlier, throughout his book The Psychology of Cricket, Graham Winter outlines many activities for practicing mental skills. These are presented in summary form here, along with some practices adopted by Ken Davis. These practices can comfortably be used to enhance the mental skills of cricketers.

General Mental Skills

The following practices can be used to improve the mental skills of players in all areas of the game. They should be applied during training routines as a prelude to being used to enhance performance in competition matches.

Finding the Right Feeling State

For players with a passive attitude before a match, an energetic warm-up with forceful instructions is recommended to raise aggression levels. The coach in this situation would consistently use a strong voice to encourage the players to increase the tempo of their preparation. Conversely, with players who are overly excited before a match, it might be necessary to do some relaxation exercises to calm them down before the contest. Deep breathing and listening to calming music or hearing positive reinforcement are some useful strategies to settle this type of player.

Reinforcing Correct Movement Patterns

Because reinforcing correct movement patterns is important for confidence in developing automatic skill responses, coaches should encourage players to repeat successful drills. In practice, when players perform a drill well, they should repeat it for several days in a row. Alternatively, if they are having difficulty with their skills during a particular session, the coach should try to finish on a note where the players achieve some success.

Visualising Skilled Movement Patterns

Players should visualise the way they want to perform a skill. For example, with catching, players should picture themselves between deliveries running to take a catch and should strive to remember the feelings of how the ball is to be taken in the hands. Visualisation can also help bowlers as they prepare to bowl. A bowler should see and feel the delivery she wants to bowl; then execute it in a relaxed manner. Visualising is different for batters because they do not know where the ball is going to be bowled. However, visualisation can still be useful for developing the feelings and rhythms of particular shots.

Enhancing Consistency

Players in every position should spend time establishing and maintaining the routines they do before each delivery to make sure they do not just drift into a delivery without appropriate focus and care. Routines are very individual, but they should be done consistently. For example, a batter between deliveries might walk down the pitch and sweep away any bits of loose turf; then turn around, take a deep breath and relax the shoulders before moving into a batting stance in a systematic way. He might want to control his thought process by focusing on a swing thought (such as ‘play straight', ‘quick feet' or ‘be aggressive') when facing the next delivery. Bowlers, fielders and wicketkeepers should adopt a similar process. Practicing these routines should become a part of training sessions so that, like all other skills, they become automatic and set the player in a state of readiness for each delivery in a match.

Modelling Elite Performers

Modelling the smoothly coordinated movement of a player can be done by watching the performance repeatedly on a television screen. Ideally, the player should become absorbed in the movement and try to feel the rhythm exhibited by the skilled performer. This process has commercially been known as sybervision and relies on a process known as neurolinguistic programming to cement the skill into the subconscious of the athlete. When we consider how easy it is for some young people to mimic the actions of star players, the value of such an exercise is apparent. A player may achieve the same outcome by watching himself repeatedly doing a skill well.

Controlling Self-Talk

Controlling self-talk is vital in cricket. Often, players' thoughts are negative, which can inhibit their performance. To control self-talk, a player must first make herself aware of their negative thoughts and find ways to stop them immediately. For example, some athletes visualise a stop sign in their minds. Others may simply say ‘Stop' to themselves whenever negative thoughts occur. The aim is to counter a negative thought with an appropriate positive one. For batters and wicketkeepers, the focus should return to the ball, and their thoughts should be positive and energising. Such thoughts as ‘Be positive with my feet' or ‘In behind the ball' may be appropriate for a batter; a keeper's thought may be ‘Watch the ball into my gloves'. Bowlers may think only of the feeling or rhythm they feel when they bowl well. When positive thoughts are going through the mind, it is not possible to have negative thoughts. This skill does take practice, but it can be done in all aspects of one's life. Training oneself to see the positives in every situation will soon result in positive self-talk pervading one's internal dialogue.

Controlling the Controllables

Players should learn to focus on things that are under their control. So often, players are distracted by such things as crowd noise, pitch conditions, fielders dropping catches, umpiring decisions and sledging from an opponent. These are all aspects of the match that are clearly out of their control and should not be allowed to enter the mind. Refocusing on the essentials of the task and executing the skills precisely is crucial here. For example, when an umpiring decision goes against a bowler, the bowler must get involved immediately with planning and executing the next delivery with energy and controlled aggression. Dwelling on the past misfortune can distract bowlers and reduce their intensity. So often at training, players curse when batting under adverse conditions and then reduce their focus by playing wild shots during the remaining part of their batting time. Such players need to accept the conditions and challenge themselves to cope, because there will come a day when match conditions are not ideal. When that happens, such practice may be beneficial.

One way to improve the ability to handle distractions is to practice with them present. Coaches can have players talk to the batter or walk behind the bowler's arm to simulate possible match situations. So long as these activities do not threaten the safety of participants, they can become fun interludes in training sessions.

Restoring Confidence

Confidence is one of those curious states that can come and go very quickly. Fundamentally, one needs a strong belief that the task at hand is achievable. Doubts, however, can hover around even the most confident person. A series of poor performances, a pitch that is producing uncertain bounce, a menacing bowler or even an ailing body can erode a batter's confidence. A bowler may just not feel right in his action, which may produce some errant deliveries, or he may be attacked by a batter, which lessens his confidence. To restore confidence, players should take the following steps:

  1. Recall and imagine yourself doing the skills well.
  2. Project a positive, calm and composed image at all times.
  3. Act confidently as you go out to perform. Use your voice in a strong, authoritative way.
  4. Deal with one ball at a time and avoid focusing on past or future events.
  5. Focus on the fundamentals of the skills and do not get tied up with too many fancy shots or deliveries.
  6. Commit to giving your best effort every ball.
  7. Tell yourself you are only one match away from being in good form.
  8. Identify the positives in every performance even if they are sometimes difficult to see.
  9. Focus on one or two key areas for improvement rather than being overwhelmed with negatives in your performance.
  10. Make sure you prepare well for the next contest. Leave training feeling better about your game.

Players must always try to focus on the positive. This means feeling confident about their preparation for the match and being able to deal with any situation that arises while retaining a focus on what is happening presently.

Dealing With Mistakes

In addition to having a routine to precede every delivery, players should have a specific process to deal with mistakes when they occur. Whenever they make mistakes, players should be conditioned to respond in a positive manner. For instance, if a bowler is hit for a six, then she must project a positive and determined image to the batter with no swearing, shaking the head or kicking the ground. As bowlers walk back to their mark, they should analyse what went wrong previously and then dismiss the ball from their minds. They should then focus on the upcoming ball and turn at the top of their mark presenting a strong, aggressive image to the batter. Batters, fielders and wicketkeepers alike should adopt a similar approach to their own errors. This process should be practiced at training and in matches so that it becomes an automatic response.

More Excerpts From Cutting Edge Cricket