Cricket: Mind games key at the top

By Anendra Singh

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Domestic cricketers are willing to do it, the Black Caps aren't. Jesse Ryder's certainly doing it right but how well Ross Taylor will only time will tell.

Playing the game, that is.

No, not the one that unfolds on the prime strip of real estate at cricket parks around the country but the one between the ears.

"What makes cricket such a demanding mental game is that there are so many outcomes you've got to get the temptations out of the way," says sports psychologist Dr Gary Hermansson, who is working with the Devon Hotel Central Districts Stags.

Hermansson, of Palmerston North, often finds provincial cricketers are more willing to open up to embrace a desirable mental fortitude.

His experience with the Black Caps suggests otherwise.

"There's a little shift away there because you're expected to be perfect and all sorted out at the top level," says the man who has mentored Commonwealth and Olympics athletes and in 2007 likened the All Blacks' grieving process after losing to France in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals akin to when someone dies.

The 72-year-old says physical differences at the first-class level of cricket are relatively minor so elite players who want to make a difference tend to gravitate towards him.

"They ask to take care of their mental game and see it as a possibilities-driven thing rather than a problem-driven one," Hermansson says, adding the Black Caps are in good company with their counterparts around the world.

"The mental side of things are so private they [Black Caps] don't feel very comfortable about that but at the provincial level players are able to separate that and are quite eager to get the best out of me."

Using the Black Caps' mediocrity in South Africa during the test series as an example, Hermansson impresses good cricketers don't just become bad overnight.

"Their skills have dropped so badly - and it's not that they are unskilled - they find their mental processes start interfering with their skill and ability."

The Mike Hesson-coached New Zealanders keep falling back on technical issues but Hermansson believes it's much more than that.

"Technique issues play a part but technique is largely influenced by a mental mind set, so managing the mind is a much more important thing to give attention to when you start to struggle a bit."

He describes CD batsman Mathew Sinclair as a "unique character", saying his journeyman career has put the 37-year-old in a good space.

"The sad thing about Mathew is that ... a lot of expectations and pressure were going on [when he was an international] and for various reasons he struggled with the latter part of his career with the Black Caps. It can be pretty brutal because once you're out of it, it can be very difficult to get back in, so for now Skippy's at a point where he's playing a bit of a legacy in his mind.

"He's a bit like Jesse Ryder, as well, at the moment. Once you step away, you say you aren't going to put pressure on yourself," he says of former CD batsman Ryder who, after disciplinary action from New Zealand Cricket, took time off to deal with his fitness and drinking demons.

"In Mathew's case, this environment doesn't have the same pressures as those at the national level because you can go out there [at domestic level] and be free to enjoy the game," says Hermansson of the former Black Cap who will be the first to agree he didn't make the most of his opportunities on the international stage. "Jesse's doing it right, by choice and decision," he says of the Wellington Firebird cricketer who has made it unequivocally clear through his manager that he'll return when he's ready, ruling himself out of the England tour here, too, early next month.

In Hermansson's experience, some CD Stags have to be reminded of the tension required before games, while with others it's a matter of relaxing a little bit more, trying to build a bubble around that intensity.

"The main thing is to focus on matters at hand in their competitive game.

"It's like any challenge. Once you get into the sporting arena, pressure comes from all those other things around the game."

The other things include selection issues on the eve of a match or minutes before the game after the wicket comes under scrutiny.

"In some ways they are very complicated issues and in other ways it's pretty simple," Hermansson says, believing controlling the controllables happens in the practice nets.

"Finding a way to keep all that other stuff out of it is the challenge and that differs with each individual."

Primarily for Hermansson, it entails helping players find a process to ease the load of unrealistic expectations.

Just as golfers tend to focus on the hole rather than the shot under pressure, batsmen approaching a sizeable total tend to shift their attention from the ensuing immediate delivery.

"So many batsmen tend to go out in the 40s or when they are approaching a century."

Conversely, bowlers tend to be distracted when approaching a maiden or when they are anxious about bowling wides.

"The important thing should be what happens when the bowler lobs the ball to the other end."

In the case of dumped New Zealand captain Taylor, intensity is heightened amid immense scrutiny of people wondering how he'll manage.

"The circumstances are different but the principles are the same.

"Ross' biggest challenge is now to be able to recognise what is going around him and park it, so that when he's batting, ball by ball, those things don't intrude," Hermansson says.

Some players tend to think about anything but cricket while others use something as simple as a tune in their head.

Hermansson tries to help players identify two to three things to establish a mental drill.

Teaching them discipline and helping them manage it is crucial, especially when players show a shift in mentality and a sense of readiness to comply.

"It'll become increasingly important as athletes get to shift on the positive parts of the mental game rather than seeing it as something you look at only when you're in trouble."

Some athletes can be superstitious.

Batsmen, for instance, like to put their pads on the "right way" and, occasionally, there are those who want to put their gear in the "right order".

"When they have bad form they start looking for a solution through rituals that will cure it.

"For me that's an indication of recognition of the mental side or that fate plays a part but when they are in good form they forget about that altogether, with the attitude of whatever happens, happens.

"Whenever I hear about players getting so stuck on superstition I just think, 'Oh, here's a guy who just doesn't have the shots to play a mental game, so let's narrow it down to shift him away from relying on the lottery and turn it into something he or she can manage', so that's what matters."

Bowlers have an advantage in that they can deliver a bad ball but shift their focus to the next ball in a bid to make things right.

Batsmen have a tougher time. If they do something wrong they are out of it until the next innings.

Conversely, in the shorter form of cricket, bowlers have to learn how to manage their thought processes so they can work it together with the mechanics of the body.

"The problem is when the mind's cut, things start getting in the way and the skills drop away," Hermansson says.

In many ways wicketkeepers are more prone to monotony on the field than anyone else, with a "switch-on, switch-off" process in trying to meet the demands of gloving every delivery and adjusting to myriad bowling styles.

"Keepers can have the same dilemmas but the most important thing is being able to manage their concentration levels because they get so exhausted they can start playing badly."

It's equally tricky with captains who have to juggle field management with some level of responsibility.

However, for the others it can get in the way of their overall performance because it's so intense when they have to concentrate on bowling and fielding changes.

Nevertheless, Hermansson says good skippers not only incorporate the added tasks in their repertoire but also draw on the extra accountability and responsibility to turn that into improving their own performance.

In his first Commonwealth Games in 1998, he found athletes kept a healthy distance from him because approaching sports psychologists was often perceived as an admission they were in some sort of trouble.

In contrast, the shift was remarkable during the London Olympic Games last year as athletes gravitated towards him.

Hermansson says the mind and body work together so diet, exercise and sleep are essential prerequisites to developing a solid mental constitution.

"I regard sleep as a very important skill than a physical one because some people are so preoccupied with their thoughts they do not sleep well."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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