You begin your journey from the pavilion to the middle. Maybe you’re a club cricketer, you’ve been waiting all week to play your favourite sport, been standing in the field all afternoon watching the bowlers do their thing, waiting for the opportunity to do yours. Maybe you’re an international cricketer, you’re playing in a test match, and you’ve been standing in the field for two days, watching your opposition counterparts flourishing in good batting conditions.
What are you thinking? Are you excited? Ready to seize your opportunity to do what you do best? To do what you enjoy? Or maybe you don’t enjoy it? You’re nervous? Worried that you’ll be back in the pavilion just as soon as you’d left it?
You reach your crease. Take your guard. Go through your final habits, maybe adjusting pads, gloves, helmet or even the sleeves of your shirt. The bowler’s at the end of their mark, ready to go as soon as you get into position, signalling to them that you’re ready too.
What are you thinking? This is it? This is your moment? Ready for whatever the bowler serves up? Able to clear your head as you tap your bat behind your foot? Able to trust your ability, trust your instincts? Or maybe you can’t? Maybe you’re worried about getting out first ball? So worried that it’s all you can think about? Because if you get out first ball, what does that mean? Game over? So worried that as the bowler begins to run in you’re head’s still full of thoughts, images, scenarios?
The first ball is a good line. A good length too. Right in the block hole. You defend it comfortably with a large confident stride towards the ball and form a stone wall with your bat and pad. The ball had to be played on merit, but you never felt threatened by it, was never going to get out to it. Or do you see it that way? Maybe you just about survived the first ball. Phew. A sense of relief that the golden duck is now out of the equation. Maybe you’re even beginning to think too far ahead. That was a good ball. This is a good bowler. You got away with that one, would be lucky to defend that successfully again. Even if you do stick around, where are you going to score runs here?
It’s 5 or 6 overs later. You’ve faced your fair share of dot balls. But that’s fine. It’s early in the innings and there’s plenty of time. You’ve picked up the singles where you can. Rotated the strike. Not let the bowlers pin you down. You’re in control. You’ve got your eye in now. A stable base to build on. The runs will start to pick up now. Is that how you’re thinking? Maybe not. Maybe there’s another sense of relief. At least you haven’t got a duck today. That’s one positive. But you’ve faced far too many dot balls. Hogged the strike. You’re not scoring quickly enough. It’s about time you stepped it up and stopped wasting valuable opportunity. Worried you’re letting your teammates down. If one of them had faced that ball they’d have hit it for four. You might as well start trying to hit now, if you get out it will be better for the team anyway. At least you won’t be wasting more time.
You attempt to work a straight ball into that gap on the leg side. You miss it. It hits you on the pad. You’re out. LBW. The return journey to the pavilion commences. You process what just happened. It was a valid run scoring option. You had already successfully executed the same shot several times today. It’s ok. You’ve played your role. It was the right time to start looking for more runs. It wasn’t a reckless swing. These things happen. There’s always next week. Or, on the flip side, you’re beating yourself up. What did you do that for? Playing across the line? That’s something you can’t forgive yourself for doing. Took the risk one too many times, you deserved to get punished for it. At least you’re not out there hogging the strike any more. Using up deliveries. Now you get to sit and watch everyone else doing what you wish you had been able to do. Just like last week, and probably the week before that too. At this moment you feel like that’s always the case. When is your time ever going to come? When will you finally get it right? Every week it’s another stupid mistake.
It’s later that evening. Your team won. You’re happy. Thoughts of your dismissal are long gone. You’ve acknowledged what you may have done wrong in that particular shot. Maybe you just played through it a bit too early. 9 times out of 10 you’d have nailed it. You’ve moved on, next week is a new week, a new innings, and a new situation. Or are those thoughts long gone? Maybe they’re lingering? Maybe that shot is replaying in your head over and over again? If only you’d done this, or done that. You know you should be happy. It’s a team game. You won. But you don’t feel that you deserve to share that glory. What did you contribute to the team? You stood in the field, went out and wasted run scoring opportunities and then got out. It’s been another week wasted, and now there’s a whole week to wait before you can try again. Part of you wants that opportunity to come around quickly, to at least give you a chance of putting something right. The other part of you thinks what’s the point? You’ll only mess up in some other way next week. Maybe it’s about time you gave up. All those weeks, months, years spent waiting for progress to show, but it’s not happening, because you’re still messing up in the same ways you always have. How can you even call yourself a batsman? Batsman score runs. That’s their job. You haven’t scored many. Maybe you should just quit.
There’s no doubt that being a batsman has plenty of psychological challenges. This only covers a small number of them. Obviously other aspects of cricket, such as bowling, and other sports, all have their own sets of psychological challenges, but I think the one thing about batting that seems particularly hard is that you only get one chance in a game. If you’re out, you’re out. One mistimed shot, one mistake and it is game over. If a bowler bowls a bad ball, or a bad over, there will be more opportunities to get it right. A batsman can’t ask to come back in and try again.
Cricket is also a game that lends itself very well to periods of introspection, particularly if the batsman gets out early on in the innings and has to sit and watch for a considerable amount of time. This is also particularly true for international cricketers, who spend the majority of the year away on tour, and therefore have plenty of time and opportunity to ruminate as they sit in their hotels waiting for the next game to start.
Looking at the two very different mindsets above, it is clear that one will be much more conducive to optimal performance than the other, and just as importantly, will be much more conducive to good mental health than the other. This is why sport psychology is important. The same situation can be perceived by the mind of the athlete in many different ways. Our job is to give them the tools to train their mind to perceive it in the best way possible, both in terms of performance and psychological wellbeing.