The psychology behind sports psychology

The psychology behind sports psychology

Take a moment to picture yourself playing for the Australian men’s national team. Feel the binding of pads around your shins. How the bat fits inside the palm of your hand.

The shadow of the baggy green angling over your face.

It’s the third Test. You bat at number four. Your form feels like it’s deserting you. You seem to strike the ball well in the nets, your timing is right and even the balls sent down on a good length you drive decisively. But during the Tests so far something has gone wrong.

You’ve managed only one double figure score. From the moment you step onto the field and look into the sun adjusting eyes to the light, the self-doubt starts. By the time you arrive at the wicket your confidence has faded.

The muttered sledges get under your skin and you avoid eye contact with the fielders. After you’re out cheaply again, you return to the change room, sitting heavily, head in hands. Justin Langer saunters over to you, patting you lightly on the shoulder.

“Mate, this game is played above the shoulders. I know you can do it. But we need to get you in the right frame of mind.”

Enter the sports psychologist.

What does a sports psychologist do? A quick Google search spells it out. Provide athletes with counselling related to performance. Develop strategies to overcome setbacks and injuries. Identify mental strengths and weaknesses.

Translated, those steps mean building confidence and self- belief with a result of improved performance.

Allan Border recalls a sports psychologist joining the Queensland Sheffield Shield team. There’d been upheaval in the side with the selection of England all-rounder Ian Botham in the team not working out.

A new coach was appointed for the following season. A decision was subsequently made to bring in a psychologist, Betty Hedley to speak to the team.

Betty was to discuss setting goals, remaining motivated and creating mental strength. The playing group had their doubts. There was already friction among players over the coaching tactics.

Extra laps being run, at times with hands raised above heads and a feeling professional cricketers were being coached in the same way as school students created resentment, not exactly helping them to be open to a psychologist.

Did it work? Queensland lost their next match, although it was close. The loss however left them equal second, but not making the final due to percentage.

Sports psychology has been described as a final frontier of cricket. As if it remains as the last area of great potential that if exploited thoroughly, will lead to enhanced performance. But what are the components of sports psychology in the context of cricket?

Team optimism and unity, dressing room mood, communication (including between batsmen as a snap decision is made whether to take a second run), when to be patient (such as waiting on that loose delivery), toughness when the opposition gains the upper hand and celebrating as well as supporting each other are some of the ingredients.

As sports psychologist for our national cricket team, Dr Michael Lloyd emphasises resilience.

He claims it’s not avoiding getting knocked down, but possessing the ability to get back up. He says well being is also a factor, including eating and sleep habits.

Are there great moments in utilising sports psychology? Ben Stokes’ 135 not out in the Ashes Test at Old Trafford, giving England victory is certainly a demonstration of determination and concentration.

Ben Stokes celebrates hitting the winning runs

What about Sri Lanka positioned at 9/226 looking unlikely to score the 304 needed to win in the 2019 first Test against South Africa. But a final wicket stand succeeded, ending South Africa’s seven home series wins and triumphing against the likes of fast bowlers Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada.

As well there’s Steve Smith’s return to the crease after being struck on the elbow, forearm and neck by Jofra Archer deliveries in last year’s ashes series.

Of course there are many more.

Shane Warne’s alleged sledge to South African batsman Daryl Cullinan brought sports psychology into the headlines. Cullinan had been regularly unable to play Warne’s flipper delivery.

Cullinan conceded at the time to a South African newspaper he had sought a professional psychologist to help him. During a match Warne supposedly told the batsman he would send him back to the psychologist’s couch.

(Warne now tells a different story about the sledge, not acknowledging he made that remark). Despite a credible Test career average, Cullinan’s average against Australia of 12.75 suggests any counselling he had wasn’t successful, at least when playing Australia.

Every cricketer is in the end their own sports psychologist. The efforts of Stokes, Smith and that tenth wicket partnership by Sri Lanka may not have needed professional counselling or a spirit raising motivational speech before they performed.

These players were able to dig deep into talent and fortitude to achieve the results they had. But as cricketing teams continue to search for anything that provides that winning advantage, sports psychologists are here to stay, providing that all important mental edge