The end of the season is looming and our intrepid Psych Club volunteers continue to put their minds under the microscope.
Some are thriving, some are not, but none of them will ever look at a game of cricket in the same way again.
THE PRO PLAYER’S VIEW
Jon Batty, a former client of our resident psychologist Amanda Owens, shares his experiences of sports psych.
“I realised that doing something for a living when it used to be just for pleasure changes everything.” So says former keeper-batsman Jon Batty, who retired three years ago with a 19-year county career behind him, including over 13,000 runs and 992 dismissals across all formats. It was a couple of years after he became a regular for Surrey that Batty realised he wasn’t enjoying the game as he used to, and was not performing as well as he wished.
“I had always loved cricket but it had always been my escape. Now it was my job. My livelihood depended on my performances – and they were suffering.”
So in the year 2000, Batty found our resident Psych Club expert, Amanda Owens.
“I got some stick from the dressing room at the start because almost no one else was doing this back then – well, no one in cricket. Other sports where it was all about the individual – golf and tennis for example – had embraced the idea years ago and many of the most successful players swore by it.
“Initially it was all about relaxation, visualisation and working out what my ideal performance states were – and how to reach them. We looked at what I was doing, both physically and emotionally, when I played well rather than the usual thing players do, which is to pore over their poor performances.
“I also really focused on how to switch off, both outside of the game and during it. You’d think that being an opening batsman and keeper, which I was during my most productive years, would be difficult in terms of concentration and fatigue but I found it far more tiring to bat at No.7 and live every single ball for maybe 300 runs until I needed to go in. With opening, I’d be straight back into the zone. I worked on my fitness to ensure I could do it physically and on my ability to switch off between deliveries so I could do it mentally.”
Batty, along with Amanda, developed a visualisation that he used before and sometimes during games that combined relaxation with recall of some of his best performances and shots. He used this to put him in the right mood for the match. As if to demonstrate just how important it was, he takes out his phone and within seconds is holding it up: ‘Visualisation’ it says on his phone. It’s 20 minutes of Amanda talking him through his pre-game visualisation routine.
Batty is a man who has thought a lot about his game and how to make the best of what he has. It goes without saying that as well as a lot of thinking, he’s also done an awful lot of practising and become as fit as he could be. He went into every challenge knowing that he had prepared for it as best he could. So what did sports psychology add on top of that?
“It brought self-awareness, which allowed me to improve my game. It gave me confidence, and with confidence comes calmness, and with calmness comes the clarity that allows you to play your best, most instinctively, and without overthinking.”
Batty is a fairly unassuming pioneer but he led the way in making sports psychology an acceptable weapon in the pro cricketer’s armoury. He certainly has no regrets: “It just seems so obvious to me,” he says. “Players practise for hours and hours on end but in cricket it’s the space between the ears that matters most. I continued to see Amanda right up to my retirement and I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the career I had without her.”
Now onto our regular monthly guinea pigs.
Features editor at AOC and a keen club cricketer, Ed plays at Fair Oak CC in Hampshire, Southern Premier League Division 3.
After some bad weather, some bad luck and some bad shots, my confidence reached its lowest point of the season.
For a temperamentally optimistic player with an arguably inflated view of his own abilities, that is perhaps not as damaging as it sounds. But being told, ‘That shrink is making you worse’ by a couple of clubmates was something of a jolt.
I thought about it. In truth, the ‘slump’ they were lamenting had only really been a couple of knocks: one dismissal in a small chase saw a profoundly portly slip fielder take what I insist was a world-class diving catch to send me away for my second duck of the season. The next week, another screamer at backward point. Whoever the green was rubbing, it certainly wasn’t me. Neither shot had been well-executed, mind.
I thought about the idea that Amanda’s sessions were, far from enhancing my performances, actually damaging them. Tempting though it was – who wouldn’t want an external figure at whose door to lay blame? – the notion was ridiculous. In fact, early in the season, after our first run of sessions, I believe she had helped me to be better. Then, a few games in, I’d started to get too worked up. As a response to that, I’d given up on the methods and stopped thinking about anything at all – with the result that my concentration on each ball, particularly in second-innings chases when tired, was nowhere near as strong.
The next game was at May’s Bounty, the old Hampshire out-ground at Basingstoke where, two years ago, I’d made a hundred. Short boundary, quick outfield. Good feelings were stirring, and a positive meeting with Amanda a few days before did no harm at all.
So I got back in touch with the only thing that I have found really to matter – and certainly the most valuable part of my experience of elite sports psychology: resetting to face each ball with as complete a focus as possible. Using ‘Aware’ as an internal trigger word as I tap my bat and look up – as I had done during my ton in the first game of the season – I gradually rediscovered what I would call the ‘temporary blinkeredness’ required to bat at my best: getting closer to the point where, each delivery, for a couple of seconds, the ball is the only thing in the universe. I made a boundary-heavy 58 before brushing my pad and getting given caught behind. It was a hundred missed out on, but better to get triggered on 58 than 0, and I had, after all, been dropped (tough one though) on about 20. We won an important match and everything felt good again.
I took that into the next couple of games: 46 in a tricky but successful chase, then 37 in a low-scoring win. I’d like them all to have been bigger scores, but they were good contributions achieved with the help of a rediscovered clarity of mind.
The professional’s view:
We’ve done a lot of work on what Ed does away from the crease, how he gets into the right frame of mind to perform and he’s found this really helpful. We continue to ensure he is not overthinking at the crease, and are working on reflecting more on his game so he can reduce the risk of a negative situation happening over and over again.
Performance to date:
Inns: 14 Runs: 444 Average: 34.15
Author and journalist Jon plays for the Authors XI. He is a batsman.
I was at the Oval for the first day of the final Test between England and Pakistan, where Wahab Riaz bowled a couple of brutal spells. Forget about what the speed gun said or how it looked on television, he was clearly the fastest and most aggressive bowler at that game. He dismissed James Vince with a beast of a rising ball that almost took his glove off, and then hit Moeen on the head with a bouncer that he simply didn’t have the resources to avoid. Moeen might have been out three times before he’d reached 20, but the gods were with him and he struck a hundred as sweet as the summer air. Vince really needed some runs, too…
I often wonder how players deal with this great uncertainty at the heart of their professional lives. Luck seems to have its role. Sometimes you feel it’s with you, at others its absence is almost palpable. The mental strength to keep those feelings at bay, to treat each delivery of every innings as an individual event unaffected by what has gone on before it, seems to be at heart of sports psychology.
I spoke to Amanda a little about this during a phone session. The best results I’ve had this season have come when I’ve been able to ‘reset’ as she calls it, and isolate each delivery. It’s certainly the most helpful thing I’ve learned, and in the innings since our last diaries it’s got me through a couple of tricky spells. I’ve been lucky during those innings too – I survived a close lbw that the umpire told me later he was on the verge of giving, I’ve been dropped by a wicketkeeper twice and a couple of aerial wafts haven’t quite gone to hand. I realised I reflect far less on these instances of ‘good’ luck than I do on the ‘bad’. I suspect most people are the same. And I’ve found that periods where I’ve felt my luck was ‘bad’ become quite self-fulfilling in the past, so I’m resolving to take it as the natural ebb and flow of things and to keep giving myself the best chance of playing well by playing one ball at a time.
And saying a prayer of thanks that it’s not being delivered by Wahab Riaz…
The professional’s view:
We spoke about not focusing on the negatives after a couple of poorer performances, and how he could be more consistent. Jon had become a bit stuck and less happy with his game. I reminded him of how far he has come and how he’s having a brilliant season. It’s very easy to fall back into a negative mindset and negative emotions and we worked on counteracting that.
Performance to date:
Inns: 18 Runs: 546 Average: 39.07
Writer and psychotherapist in training, allrounder Nick plays for Walton-on-Trent CC in Division 2 of the Derbyshire County League.
I feel a bit embarrassed really. Not just about my batting average of 10 but that my first batting practice this season was on August 12. Amanda has been really very patient with me but must be more than a little fed up that all the work we’ve been doing has not had strong foundations on which to build.
Unsurprisingly, the day after I practised – actually, had some coaching – I scored my highest score of the season. Yes, it was only 33 but I batted a long time, put on over a hundred for the second wicket and finally felt like I’d contributed to the team with the bat for the first time this season. I also felt different at the crease, calmer, more in control, actually enjoying it.
The coaching session was not very technical. Despite my coach for the day being a highly experienced and thoughtful Level 4 coach, we got little further than ‘stand still, feel balanced, watch the ball all the way on to the bat’. Feet? Don’t care. Head? Don’t worry about it. Backlift? Whatever. Left elbow? Meh. But actually, it turns out that watching the ball all the way on to the bat is actually quite useful, as is staying balanced and still until the ball is on its way. Hitting it directly under the eyes is considerably more effective than desperately reaching out in front of you, searching for it. And once you’re looking at the ball, your head goes towards it, and where your head goes, so do your feet – and hey presto, sometimes you’re in a great position to hit it. Who knew? Oh, what’s that? Everyone? Oh.
Anyway, the upshot is that I’m now trying to simplify everything. Stand still, relax in my stance, watch the ball all the way and hit it. My batting average has leapt from 5 to 10. I have just four league games left to make my mark.
The professional’s view:
I think there has been a breakthrough with Nick in understanding the importance of practice in being able to implement what we do. Sports psychology is all about self-development and self-awareness and dealing with both success and failure, it’s not just a set of tools to hand over and expect to work. I’m delighted Nick found time to practise and then scored his highest score of the season and was able to be composed at the crease, reacting instead of premeditating.
Performance to date:
Inns: 10 Runs: 91 Average: 10.11
Overs: 61 Runs: 353 Wickets: 14 Average 25.21
Sophie Le Marchand
Keeper batsman Sophie has played for Worcestershire and Somerset, England Women’s under 21s and England Women’s Development Squad. She now plays for Bath CC having retired from county cricket.
I’ve learnt two important things this month. Firstly, that I need a greater motivation than simply trying to win in order to be at my best. And secondly, that I’m terrible at practising what I preach!
The death of one of my biggest cricketing influences, Peter Iddon, has given me a heightened sense of determination and has helped me to remember just to enjoy the game. This seems to have worked because my last three innings have yielded 308 runs (129, 76, 103*).
My most recent conversations with Amanda have touched upon developing my relationship with my opening batting partner. It’s fair to say that calling and running between the wickets has been somewhat problematic for us. My more youthful team mate’s running anxiety has made her reluctant to call at all, so as the more senior player I have tended to take on much of the responsibility. However, if our partnership is to develop and grow, this is an issue we must address.
So before one of our most recent games, I endeavoured to tackle the issue head on and begin communicating properly about our running. We had such a great chat! I encouraged her to call confidently and back herself and together we reasoned that as long as we fully trusted each other it would be fine.
In the next game it was all going so well! We had put on over 100 runs without the loss of a wicket and without a dither or a hesitation in our running. This is fantastic, I thought! Communication is the key; just have an honest chat and the problems will melt away. And then, out of nowhere, I ran her out. Best laid plans …
The professional’s view:
Sophie came to our last session concerned that she’d been overthinking on the day of the match, so we decided to move almost all her preparation to the day before, keeping matchday pretty chilled. We also worked on how she could re-energise and reset effectively to counteract the fatigue of being both a keeper and a batsman. She continues to do incredibly well.
Performance to date:
Inns: 6 Runs: 491 Average: 122.75
Historian and broadcaster Tom is a bowler for the Authors XI.
When I had my latest session with Amanda, it was after a month and more of no cricket. As usually happens when I don’t play for an extended period of time, anxiety had begun to gnaw at me: that I’d become unfit, that my streak of good form would have come to an end, that I wouldn’t be able to get the ball on the wicket when I bowled. Perhaps, sitting down with Amanda, I should have discussed these forebodings – but hey, that would have been for a wimp. Wallowing in pessimism was something that, following my immersion in sports psychology, I no longer did – and so instead I decided to present a brave face that was not entirely for show, and talk about my batting.
Amanda’s message was, at its core, the same one that had helped so much with my bowling: to take myself seriously. Since I’m a far worse batsman than I am a bowler, it was more of a challenge for me to summon up positive memories of striking boundaries or posting match-winning scores than it had been to reminisce happily about taking hat-tricks. Nevertheless, there were a few good vignettes I could draw upon – so I used these to conjure up for myself a kind of dream-like space in which I was indeed a determined and domineering batsman. As with my bowling, so with my batting, there were three essential exercises that Amanda gave me: to think about practical things I could to improve my performance (head over the ball, etc, etc); to feel what it had been like to hit a perfect shot; to breath in deeply between each ball, and to walk away from the stumps, thereby forcing the bowler to behave obediently to my rhythms.
Well, it kind of worked. My first re-introduction to cricket was in the form of a single-wicket competition – and precisely because it was essentially a frivolous form of the game, in which all 10 of us who were taking part had the chance to bat for at least five overs, no matter how many times we got out, the pressure was off. I didn’t cover myself with glory, but I didn’t disgrace myself either. One shot that might properly be described as a mow to leg, but which in my memory is enshrined as a slog-sweep, gave me the shiver of true joy that batting is properly about. The sports psychology hadn’t worked miracles with my batting – but neither had it shown itself a busted flush.
Then, in a match against an opposition that are far too good for us, and always rub our noses in the fact, I managed to score 7. It wasn’t much, by the standards of most batsmen – but it made me happy. That my scoring shots had included a boundary, and consisted entirely of cuts and pulls, left me with a kind of aureate sense that perhaps, just perhaps, I can indeed improve myself. Certainly, looking ahead to the end of the season, I feel confident that I’ll be able to put Amanda’s advice to even better effect.
And my bowling? Not great – but then again, I had the shits. A year ago, I would have clung to this excuse like a drowning man to a piece of wreckage – but now I genuinely feel that feeling ill was a valid excuse for not bowling well. I still got a wicket, managed to bowl the odd good ball, and left the field determined not to surrender to despair. The whole point of sports psychology, after all, is to buttress you in bad times as well as good.
The professional’s view:
Tom’s bowling continues to go incredibly well and he remains a bowler transformed: confident, consistent, knows what he’s doing and how to take wickets. He now has a very strong mental process he goes through when he bowls. We focused on batting in our last session and have started to try and apply the same processes as are working with his bowling.
Amanda JN Owens is a highly qualified and experienced sports psychologist with a detailed understanding of the science behind what it takes to achieve exceptional performance. Amanda was involved for many years and with great success at Surrey and Essex and she has also worked individually with some of the country’s best-known cricketers.