Image courtesy of: Pakistan Cricket Board
The English Men’s Cricket Team was decimated by injuries to several players and a Covid-19 outbreak that caused numerous players and staff members to test positive for the virus. The decimation inflicted on England, however, was nothing compared with the demolition that the newly-constructed English squad inflicted on Pakistan’s national team on Thursday (July 8, 2021). Personally, I felt highly disappointed about the result. Others in Pakistan felt the same way. For instance, a Pakistani Coach mentioned he felt “disappointed”. He also noted that the Pakistani public only want the team to win. Hence, it’s not surprising that many on social media more zealously expressed frustration and humiliation, and suggested that the “pathetic performance… [was a] big wake up call”.
I watched a good part of their innings and felt that Pakistan looked panicked after losing quick wickets early on. They looked to score runs but couldn’t really build any meaningful partnerships and always looked on the back foot, especially after losing two of their best batsmen in Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. Obviously, I was hoping for a more closely contested affair, but Pakistan just looked out of their depth and really struggled to get anything going.
I asked myself, how could a team fall apart so badly and yet at the same time, Saqib Mahmood, who had not played an international match in 10 months, take two wickets in the first over of the day and finish with career-best figures of 4 for 42? I had recently read a two-part article about batting collapses (Part 1, Part 2) in which the Cricket Psychologist Adrian McInman, who has had contracts with Afghanistan Cricket Board, Sri Lanka Cricket, and the Zimbabwe Cricket Board, explained that cricketers historically have become more negative and tentative, and less confident in a batting collapse. But this was not just a batting collapse, as one social media writer exclaimed: “Club level batting, very average bowling.” So I asked Adrian a series of questions about the performance and what should be done.
BM: Adrian why do you think Pakistan performed so poorly on Thursday?
AM: I am not involved with the PCB, so I don’t know what the cricketers and support staff did on game day and just as crucially in the weeks leading up to this match. However, I talked to a well-respected Pakistani coach the next day about the match and he told me that historically, Pakistan has taken time to adjust to the different conditions when they tour the United Kingdom, and thus, like in the past, he felt that they will come back stronger. He also mentioned that training indoors in the UK is not ideal preparation, as those conditions are substantially different from outdoors.
I guess it’s important to acknowledge that we are talking about humans and humans are not always perfect. When such poor performances occur, I like to remind myself how hugely successful ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s has a Ben and Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard (at Waterbury in Vermont). When a flavour such as Cool Britannia and Aloha Macadamia don’t sell well, they have a ceremony, bury the flavour, and never use it again.
Consistently performing phenomenally should be advocated, but demanding perfectionism 365 days of the year is a recipe for disaster. Having said that, it’s obvious that something went seriously wrong. Usually, coaches and cricketers attribute such a failure to the conditions, or the coin toss, or sometimes tactics. However, if you ask them what percentage of whether they win or lose comes from mental reasons and what percentage comes from everything else, they will contradict their reasoning for the failure, as they will tell you the major reason why they will or lose is because of mental things.
With regards to Pakistan’s most recent poor performance, it could be one or many things, but it’s likely to be a combination of factors. Humans like simple answers, but life isn’t always so neat and simple. Maybe it was due to low levels of conscientiousness; poor concentration; lack of well-practiced routines; lack of proactivity; lack of team harmony; lack of confidence; non-ideal mental states due to dealing with bio-bubbles, lockdowns, and other covid-19 related factors; and/or some other factors.
What I can tell you is that many people in the cricket world have told me over the years that Pakistan is more inconsistent than most of the other international teams. They tend to run a bit more hot and cold. I asked my friend, the Pakistani coach, “why?” and he suggested that one reason is because the conditions in other countries vary a lot more than in Pakistan and that Pakistani cricketers are not used to that.
After discussing these issues with Adrian I decided to focus on two of the factors he mentioned and create two articles. This article will deal with concentration and the other will deal with conscientiousness. I specifically want to know how Pakistan can improve in these two areas. This article will focus on concentration, while next week’s article will concentrate on conscientiousness.
BM: What exactly is concentration?
AM: The ability to focus effectively on something, while ignoring irrelevant things.
BM: Do you feel at times that cricketers, especially those in the sub-continent who face so much pressure, over-concentrate on their game and does this result in them doing more harm than good?
AM: I have never heard of the words “over-concentrate” in scientific or sport psychology circles. I don’t think that is possible. If you think about the definition I provided you for concentration, which was the ability to focus effectively on something while ignoring irrelevant things, then you are somewhere on a continuum from 100% not focusing on something to 100% focusing on something. You can’t concentrate 110% on something. 100% is the maximum. What is more likely to be happening is that if a cricketer, while actually playing cricket, is perceiving the “pressure” they are experiencing as too much, then they are not ignoring irrelevant things. In other words, they are not concentrating effectively. To concentrate well, regardless of your culture, you have to do one thing and one thing only: focus only on what matters.
BM: I have heard people say that athletes, especially in the subcontinent, can’t concentrate for long. Is that true?
AM: Definitely not. I have also been told that by several people who are not trained in psychology or physical education. I remember when I was training the cricketers at Rajasthan Cricket Association. We did non-stop three-hour sessions, five days per week, and they focused every minute. It was truly amazing. And after all, if athletes can’t concentrate, then how on earth can they play Test matches? Many research studies have shown if you exercise today, you will have a temporary improvement in your ability to concentrate, the speed of your mental processes will become quicker, and your memory will improve. So that means, you can bat, bowl, and field more effectively if you do a physical warm-up. And there is also research that shows that if you improve your aerobic fitness by consistent physical training over several months, then the speed of your mental processes will become quicker and your ability to concentrate will improve. In simple words, what I am saying is: if you become physically fitter, you become mentally fitter.
BM: Does cultural upbringing and level of education have a bearing on your ability to concentrate?
AM: Compared with those two factors, I think the degree of open-mindedness you have is far more important. If you are willing to listen, think logically about concentration techniques you are being encouraged to try, and if they make sense try them, then you will be able to concentrate at elite levels. You do not need university or even high school qualifications to be a phenomenal concentrator.
However, the type of upbringing you have will have a substantial impact on your concentration abilities. Concentration is a skill. Like any skill, if you train it appropriately you will get better at it, but if you fall victim to current dumbing-down trends in almost all societies, then your ability to concentrate won’t flourish. For instance, in the past children were encouraged to speak with good grammar, study for hours, and say full sentences, but today smartphone usage and texting have had a seriously negative impact on the way people “communicate”.
This is affecting people in a whole lot of other ways. A good example of this is the truly pathetic behaviour of ghosting, that even a substantial number of adults, including those in the cricket world, utilise. It’s got to the stage where educated people say things incorrect things like, “Athletes can’t concentrate for more than 20 minutes”. They honestly believe that and yet football has 45-minute non-stop halves and one-day cricket matches go on for hours!
BM: Modern cricketers have an unprecedented amount of information coming their way due to things such as analytics. Does the amount of information cricketers receive impair one’s ability to concentrate?
AM: That’s a great and tricky question. You are so correct that, not only cricketers, but the general public, are bombarded by more choices today than at any other time in history. Barry Schwartz wrote a book more than a decade ago in which he explained how he went to a supermarket in the United States and was simply overwhelmed by all the variety. He counted 285 varieties of cookies and 85 types of fruit juice! His three-point opinion was simple: (1) when people have no choice, life is almost unbearable; (2) give them some choice and they feel better, but (3) give people too many choices and they will feel overwhelmed.
So yes, there is the possibility of being overwhelmed by cricket analytics. But it’s not the analytics that’s the problem. The problem, or rather the solution, is that you need to determine the right amount of analytics to provide your cricketers (or look at yourself). Unfortunately, a dumbing-down approach tends to be used. Analysts are often advised to only provide the cricketers with a small amount of information, due to a belief that the cricketers can’t focus on a lot of information. But that is oftentimes really bad advice. That is falling into the trap of expectancy effects. In other words, if you think a cricketer can only handle a small amount of information, then that’s all you will provide them, and as a result, the cricketer won’t gain as much as they potentially could have if you thought they could handle more information.
Afterwards, you are likely to notice any behaviour that supports your preconceived ideas of inability to handle lots of information and use that as justification to do the same again in the future. So to prevent the two opposing problems from limiting cricketers, I like to use two strategies. First, I provide the cricketer, coach, or administrator slightly more information than they can handle, so they have to determine what they believe is the most important slices of information for them. But, second, I also use a common three-phase approach: (1) tell them what you are going to tell them, (2) tell them it, and then (3) remind them of what you told them. So if you put those two things together, the strategy is actually very simple.
First, tell the cricketer what you think are the most important things. Second, elaborate on those things, but provide a little extra information on a few other pertinent things. Third, sum up the discussion with an emphasis on what you think are the most important things. Please let me finish by emphasising an important point: never, never, never under-stimulate and under-challenge athletes. They usually can do more than non-athletes if challenged sensibly, as their brains are fitter.
BM: How can Pakistani cricketers improve their concentration?
AM: I teach my cricketers a concept I call TRIPE, but it actually improves everyone’s concentration. You probably know that TRIPE is the edible lining from the stomach of animals, but with regards to concentration, it’s an acronym to remember five techniques to improve your concentration. They are: Turn your concentration on and off, perform Regular meditation, Ignore irrelevant stimuli, stay Positive, and design your Environment so that you see what you want to spend time focusing on.
BM: Babar Azam is one of the top batsmen in all three formats. When batting he makes it look so effortless, but how does he maintain his concentration for so long?
AM: I have never trained him. In fact, we have never even spoken together. Regardless, some people have learnt to be able to concentrate for a substantial number of hours. Take myself as an example. My memory is pathetic. I use to go to the movies with a girlfriend once a week. After ten minutes of the movie finishing, I couldn’t remember a lot of the plot and after 20 minutes I had forgotten most of the actor’s names, but I have developed my concentration powers to an elite level.
I tend to work 10-hour days, seven days per week, and usually that is non-stop. For instance, when I worked with the Zimbabwe Cricket Board, I had to do the sessions in the hotel adjoining the cricket premises due to a lack of office space. I would see cricketer after cricketer non-stop for 10 hours. There’s nothing special about me in this regard, as we are all born as non-experts. We can’t even defecate effectively when we are born and many need help just to take their first breath. But due to our upbringing, some learn to concentrate effectively and others don’t.
My environment just happened to be ideal for learning to concentrate. So it’s quite likely that Babar has had a similar background to me, and thus without any expert cricket psychology training, has learnt to concentrate non-stop for hours. He probably has the right mental space and just easily gets in the zone and makes it happen. Other cricketers can’t do that. Many want an easier approach. So that’s where the T in TRIPE helps. For them, they need to focus during crucial periods and then switch off in pauses.
Australian cricketer Greg Chappell once explained how he did this effectively while fielding in the slips. He started to concentrate the moment the bowler started his run-up. Then in between balls, he relaxed by talking to the other fielders or listening to the crowd. The problem with this approach is that you need to remember to turn on again. If you don’t, well you will drop catches. A trigger, like touching your index finger with your thumb and saying something to yourself each time the bowler starts his/her run-up can help remind you to focus more intently now.
BM: With the rise of T20 cricket, do you feel that concentration has become less of a priority for batsmen and bowlers since scoring runs and taking wickets is constantly drummed into their minds?
AM: No. If anything, concentration has become more important. In a Test match, it’s not such a calamity if you only score two runs when hitting a drive, when it should have gone to the boundary and provided four runs. But in T20 cricket, every ball matters. You have to be switched on from the very first ball. What has changed is the duration cricketers have to concentrate for. The match is far shorter. However, that actually works better for me, as I prefer to train cricketers to be able to stay concentrated for the whole match, especially while fielding, and not switch on and off all the time, because if you forget to switch on, well your poor performance can cause the game to be lost.
BM: Which of the 5 TRIPE factors is the most important for cricketers?
AM: Probably the I (Ignore irrelevant stimuli), but to do I, you really need to do the P (stay Positive) well. Let me explain. As a cricketer, if you can’t do I (Ignore irrelevant stimuli), then you will get yourself into all sorts of problems. Let me ask you a simple question: What is the typical reaction of people, especially men, if someone attacks their honour, self-esteem, or manhood? They react and usually react negatively. As a result, their brain chemistry and brain mechanics change. Hence, you can’t think as effectively and can’t concentrate as well.
But how do you ignore irrelevant stimuli? There are many ways, but basically it involves learning to ignore unimportant or irrelevant things. For instance, if you read a negative social media comment by yourself, you need to let it go. If a news photographer is hiding in your bushes waiting to take your photo, do the same thing, let them stay there uncomfortable and miserable. Simply pay no attention to them, by focusing on something else. They will eventually leave.
Pakistan captain Babar Azam did I recently, probably without even realising it. He has explained how the team did not think about calling off the tour to England upon hearing the news of the Covid-19 outbreak inside the England team camp. He and the team just carried on accordingly. Sure the information should be processed, so that if any discussions and decisions can be implemented, but if nothing needs to change, then stick to what you are doing, and don’t think again about the information.
The same applies to sledging. My advice with sledging is simple. If someone does it to you simply ignore it. Act as if it simply never happened. Don’t even smile. Sure, if you can turn the sledge to your advantage, then do so. But don’t react at the time, as that is what the sledger wants. But this is far harder to do if you are not a positive person. If you are truly happy and positive, then you are going to view what others see as a “negative” more calmly and possibly more positively.
“So doing everything you can to think positively is worthwhile. Now how do you do that? Well, my best advice is simple: train with an expert cricket psychologist and if you don’t have access to one, then read an expert cricket psychologist’s book full of techniques to do to become mentally tougher and happier (try both “Phenomenal Performances” and “Phenomenal Performances 2” on Amazon.
BM: When batsmen find themselves in a situation where they start running out of partners, what are the best ways they can stay concentrated and not give in the mounting pressure that is being stacked on them?
AM: The best way is to stick to the P (stay Positive) of TRIPE. What would happen if on the first day that I meet an international team that I am about to train I take one look at them and thought, “These cricketers will never become Number 1 in the world.” Without even realising it, I will not put in as much effort as I need to. My actions will be less than 100% heartfelt. If someone approached me with an idea of how to do things differently, I would be dismissive. But if I stay 100% positive, then anything is possible. Bimal, do you disagree? Don’t you believe me? Let me give you an example. Do you know why Pakistan lost the ODI match to Sri Lanka on July 26, 2015?
Pakistan won the three-match Test series in June and July 2015 and then won the first four matches of the six-match ODI series. I happened to be in Sri Lanka at the time and had dinner with one of their cricket legends. He liked what I said so much, he got on the phone and convinced the Sri Lanka Cricket President to organise for me to be driven the next day to do the stadium.
Within minutes of arriving at the hotel, I was standing in front of the national Sri Lankan cricketers. And with less than 5 minutes before I was about to start training them, someone said to me, “You will have to do a Houdini, otherwise they will never use you again”. He was referring to Harry Houdini, the Hungarian-born American magician, noted for his phenomenal feats of magic. Tell me Bimal, were those words the ideal set of words to say to a foreigner not use to Sri Lankan culture, especially bearing in mind I had never met any of these cricketers before?
I just replied, “It’s not a problem. I can do this.” I stayed positive and confident, trained the boys for 75 minutes, trained them again for 15 minutes the next day just before they went out to bat, and then got on a series of planes bound for Jamaica. In Kingston, I opened up my laptop and was pleased to see Sri Lanka had scored 368 for 4, with Kusal Perera top-scoring with a nice 116 runs, and then they bowled Pakistan out for 203 runs in only 37.2 overs.
What caused that was not magic, but rather quite simple. I did some things that gave the boys two things. I gave them hope and I taught them a few ways to stay positive on the field. Staying positive in difficult times doesn’t ensure success, but staying positive makes it easier to concentrate and you are far more likely to succeed.
So going back to your question. You have to believe in your batting partner’s ability to stay at the crease. You need to emit positive energy and say positive things to them. Say or think anything negative towards them and they will pick up on that.
BM: Which of the 5 TRIPE factors is the most important for non-cricketers, such as support staff and administrators?
AM: Probably E. Many of our behaviours are driven by automatic processes. Thus, when there is the possibility to do them, we’re likely to do them without thinking. What we see, is what we may think about and do, whereas if we don’t see something we are less likely to think about them or do them. So, place exercise clothes where you are most likely to see them, such as near your front door, and remove things that distract you from what you really want to do, like too many things on your study desk.
Similarly, if you want to be more productive, decrease the number of televisions in your household, place printed copies of your goals and vision statements where you can easily see them, and surround yourself with positive, happy, and purposeful people.
BM: In the past, Pakistan has done well as experts of slow pitches, but television money is virtually dictating that pitches provide more for the batters, so that matches appear more exciting for the fans. As a result, the concentration demands are different now. With that in mind, can Pakistan be the Number 1 force in cricket again if they don’t get as much exposure to these unfamiliar conditions?
AM: If you can become an expert of one thing, then you can become an expert of something similar. The trick of course is to solve the problem of: How do you become an expert of one thing when financial resources are limited and thus it’s hard to create conditions that are not usually found in Pakistan? I think that’s where someone like me is needed the most.
One of the best things about hiring a Cricket Psychologist is that you will learn to think differently. You will become more open-minded and creative, while also becoming more comfortable with change. For instance, when I first train with cricket coaches, I always suggest to them the need to make training similar to what the players will experience on game day. They usually instantaneously agree. However, when I point out that in a franchise match a batter usually has to wait 17 seconds from when a ball is fielded to when a fast bowler has bowled the next ball, but in the nets, it’s usually half to a third of that time, they say they want to give the batter as many hits as possible in the nets. In other words, they are not replicating match day.
So you can imagine what happens when I suggest to a coach that they should consider bringing in speakers beside the nets in training that play recordings of fans! But after training with me for many sessions, coaches relax, become more open-minded, and the next thing you know they are trying more innovative techniques. So the same thing can happen with making the conditions more like what’s overseas. As former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison stated: “Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination.”
You can learn more in Adrian’s 2 book’s (available on Amazon):