Wil James was National lead psychologist for England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) 2008 – 2013
The ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 is well underway, with spectacles such as Ben Stokes’ extraordinary catch already wowing crowds. There will be six weeks of matches, from 30th May right through to 14th July, and the competition represents the culmination of a five-year global qualification process.
In a long competition, the challenge of sustaining success becomes much more acute. Physically and psychologically, the hurdles between the teams and the trophy are great. So, what is the secret to balancing performance with endurance?
The challenges of the Cricket World Cup
There is one key difference between all the practice matches, all the prep, and the real thing: pressure.
From an England perspective, the team goes in as favourites, and individuals won’t want to let the team down. Whether as a batsman trying to maintain the strike rate, a bowler trying to limit runs or take wickets, or a fielder under a high catch – there is no shortage of sources of individual pressure player keen to do his country proud.
The second challenge is external feedback and media noise. There are a number of measures of success in a Cricket World Cup match, but the main one is of course who won. However, as individuals we can’t guarantee a win for our team, and so there’s this dissonance between the pressure of media and public expectations and a player’s ability to respond to that pressure. This can lead players to overanalyse and try too hard to get everything right. Sometimes you have to be able to say “it’s good enough” rather than beating yourself up over not being perfect.
The third major challenge is the scale of the competition. Games come fast and frequently, making it hard to reflect and reset before the next. They’re also at different venues so you’re on the move a lot – you might have a match one day in London and then three days later in the North East. There’s a mental and physical exhaustion element.
Preparing for these challenges
In order to prepare well as a team, you need a good leader who can understand the needs of individuals and provide that support. One aspect of this is facilitating contracting between all the players, being clear about people’s roles and what’s expected of everyone. That way you’ll have created a climate where everyone can give honest feedback and provide emotional support. The aim ultimately is to stay focussed on the right stuff and stay confident, and that requires a team who can reinforce the right messages and treat each other well.
For dealing with outside attention, players have to be skilled at breaking down what they can control. What causes a win? High performance. What affects performance? Your processes and your routines. If you’re being successful in those, then you’re more likely to perform and you’re more likely to win. This means setting the standards you expect of each other and yourself before the start of the competition and staying focussed on those.
Think of it like making a map before you set off – you familiarise yourself with the overall route from A to B and start thinking about some of the tricky bits of the journey. This way you know that if your route is blocked off then there are some other routes that you can take to still get there without panicking. You don’t want to suddenly have to write the map in the middle of the competition, getting the compass out and trying to unfold the paper properly when tensions are high.
Dealing with the physical demands of the competition, or indeed a particularly challenging period at work, requires knowing how you can adjust your day-to-day routines to compensate for the fact you might be travelling more, might have a different bed each night, or won’t be eating food from your own fridge.
You have to go into a period like this knowing how you are going to maintain your personal resilience and wellbeing in a different context. How is your recipe for success going to adjust?
It can be helpful to think in terms of proactive resilience and reactive resilience:
- Proactive resilience is thinking about what is likely to happen in the future, recognising the physical or psychological effect that might have on you, and planning how your routines and plans will need to alter in order to compensate. This is building your foundation of wellbeing.
- Reactive resilience is about being able to handle unexpected circumstances and might rely a lot more on a supportive team and coach. Embracing adversity rather than shying away from it is key to this skill.
Making success sustainable
The big thing for sustaining success is momentum and how you manage it. In a long-term tournament like the Cricket World Cup or an intense period of project work, losing momentum can be catastrophic.
Apologies for using the B-word, but take Brexit as an example: an immense amount of work and focus has gone into that, and yet what you see is momentum starting to slip away and everything becoming doubly hard because everyone’s feeling negative, everyone’s feeling confused, everyone’s feeling disjointed.
In cricket, the danger is that when you get a win you can get carried away with the outcome, when really it’s just as important to get back down to the controllables as ever.
Likewise, when you have a loss the response can often be emotional, and you start to worry about the next game. You need to arrest that negative momentum to stop yourself spiralling, and the way to do that is to focus on the fundamentals: what are the routines and processes we need to follow in order to meet the standards we expect of ourselves?
Prolonged performance requires an ability to build on positive momentum and minimise negative momentum. Be honest with yourself after a setback: what could you have done better? What can you learn from it? Don’t hide from the truth and blame everyone else.
But be fair to yourself too: what did you do well? What was ‘good enough’ today? Don’t beat yourself up or you’ll add even more pressure.
There are a lot of challenges to sustaining success, but with examples like the England Cricket Team we won’t go far wrong.
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