Image courtesy of: Pakistan Cricket Board
DAG increases conscientiousness and can help Pakistan win more matches: Cricket Psychologist Adrian McInman explains how little changes in conscientiousness can result in big performance improvements?
I interviewed Cricket Psychologist Adrian McInman after England thrashed Pakistan in the first of 3 ODIs (on July 8, 2021). I felt highly disappointed about that result. I was also quite disappointed about the second ODI, even though there were some positives like Hasan Ali taking 5 wickets and Saud Shakeel scoring 56. Likewise, Pakistan did well to limit England to only 247 runs, but their batting let them down in the chase, especially bearing in mind that England didn’t have many of their key players. Not only did Pakistan lose the second match, and the ODI series, but they then lost the third match.
I discussed concentration issues at length with Adrian for the previous article. However, concentration wasn’t the only problem. Techniques and tactics were arguably a problem. Mental fatigue may have also factored into the performance, as they have been playing plenty of cricket lately. For instance, they just finished the PSL and now they are into the international swing of things with quarantines and bubbles. Nevertheless, Pakistan has not shown the fight we expect of them, especially as they have done alright in England historically. To be blown out of the water, by a second-string side, is very surprising and disappointing.
So I was excited to interview Adrian one more time to talk about another possible reason – conscientiousness – for the poor performances. But I question whether conscientiousness is the problem, as I believe Pakistani people and Pakistani cricketers pride themselves on doing their work thoroughly and well. Staying in the bubble must be very lonely, boring, and repetitive, but these are professional men. And yes, Babar Azam has so much pressure on him to lead the team to victories and perform with the bat. But surely he is conscientious? After all, do you remember the hundred he scored in a must-win game for Pakistan against New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup or the Test hundred against Australia when many were questioning his Test match abilities?
So I want to learn whether conscientiousness is Pakistan’s problem, and if and how the Pakistani squad can improve their conscientiousness.
BM: What is conscientiousness?
AM: Conscientiousness is the degree to which an individual is hardworking, orderly, responsible, rule-abiding, and self-controlled. So it’s a style of behaving. It includes planning, setting goals, pursuing goals, and delaying instant pleasure so that goals can be achieved. Hence, highly conscientious individuals tend to be ambitious, organised, persistent, and self-directed, whereas non-conscientious individuals tend to be directionless, lazy, pleasure-seeking, and unreliable.
BM: Can you give me some examples with regards to Pakistani cricketers?
AM: Sure, let’s take the second ODI against England. Did you see how fast Imad Wasim was running when he got run out? He jogged most of it, until having to madly sprint at the end. That’s a good example of a low level of momentary conscientiousness.
However, in the same match, Babar Azam sprinted to the ball and as a result, made the catch that got Jos Butler out. Babar’s greater level of momentary conscientiousness was reflected in his face. You could see more determination and intent in Babar’s face.
I should point out that I said momentary conscientiousness or what psychologists call state conscientiousness. I am not saying Imad is always non-conscientious, as I have never met him. Normally, when we talk about behaviours like conscientiousness, we are meaning how a person usually thinks, feels, and behaves. We call that trait conscientiousness.
For example, when I was training a football manager in India, he explained how at the start of the season the footballers from Spain were more conscientious than the Indian footballers. He gave the example of how the Spanish players initially ate less and were more careful with what they chose to eat than the Indian footballers. In other words, the Spanish and Indian footballers had habitual levels of conscientiousness.
You can also view conscientiousness from a team perspective. I certainly noticed differences in the level of conscientiousness when it came to fielding at a recent cricket World Cup. One team’s cricketers appeared to have an attitude of really wanting the ball when fielding and used every fielding opportunity to put the opposition under “pressure,” but another team’s fielding was very laid-back and it hurt them on the scoreboard.
BM: Why is conscientiousness important?
AM: You gain in so many ways by being conscientious. Take health for example. Conscientious individuals have better body fat levels, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and live longer. And the reason why is simple. They’re proactive about their health. For example, they are more likely to exercise, wear a seat belt, check fire alarms, and get enough sleep.
Not surprisingly, conscientious students are likely to pursue more effort in their homework, manage their time and study environment more effectively, and achieve higher school grades, while conscientious employees provide better service and have lower rates of absenteeism.
BM: But does it really matter if a cricketer is non-conscientious?
AM: A cool thing about conscientiousness is that it is linked to both mental toughness and happiness. For instance, let’s imagine that a cricket coach is working with two cricketers. One of the cricketers is conscientious, but the other isn’t. The conscientious cricketer is likely to stick to their cricket goals and not be side-tracked by short-term distractions, such as smoking, drugs, parties, prostitutes, and reckless behaviour. They will also gain because their behaviours lead them, over time, to become mentally tougher and happier and that will make it even easier to stick to their goals. Hence, the coach can train them effectively.
However, the non-conscientious cricketer is less likely to stick to their cricket goals and more likely to skip a net session or a gym session so that they can instead spend time with their girlfriend or boyfriend. If the cricket psychologist, however, can help the cricketer become more conscientious, then such a situation can be avoided. But if all that isn’t enough proof that cricketers need conscientiousness, then let’s look at the research and then consider what has happened to several international cricketers in the last 5 years.
Research has concluded that conscientious people are less likely to use tobacco or alcohol excessively; be involved in violence, risky sexual behaviours, and risky driving; or use illegal drugs. Well, there have been many international cricketers arrested, banned, and/or jailed because they participated in such activities in the last 5 years.
BM: Can you give me an actual example of an international cricketer and why being conscientious mattered?
I’ll give you one specific example, but no names. The support staff of an international team was having so many problems with one of the cricketers who was consistently cheating in exercise drills, that they decided they had to circulate a one-page handout with the words “The distance between winning and losing.”
The words were accompanied by a photo of the legs of some of the team doing shuttle runs, with every cricketer’s leg beyond a cone, except for one cricketer, who consistently never ran the whole distance. If he was regularly trained to become more conscientious by a cricket psychologist, then he would become fitter, not need the handout, and not need to cheat.
BM: Can conscientiousness result in additional pressure on players that can go on to affect their mentality and overall performance?
AM: No, quite the opposite. The more conscientious you are, the better off mentally you will be. For instance, conscientious individuals feel less anxious, less depressed, and more in control. So their thinking and consequential emotions tend to be more appropriate. Conscientious individuals handle situations that others label as “difficult” more easily. So a conscientious cricketer feels less what you call “pressure” and performs better than most cricketers.
BM: Players like Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan feel the need to perform well and help the team win. Could this conscientiousness to constantly excel end up hindering their batting?
AM: Once again, no. If Babar and Mohammad decrease their levels of conscientiousness their batting will deteriorate, whereas if they have high levels of conscientiousness, then they are far better off. For instance, the more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to eat appropriately, exercise effectively, and get enough quality sleep, and thus ultimately you will bat better.
Don’t confuse other peoples’ expectations of you excelling with your level of conscientiousness. They are different things. The degree to which the media, fans, and others expect you to win should not impact a cricketer’s batting. Instead, the cricketer should decide what they want, determine things like their own personal mission, vision, values, and goals and then develop high levels of conscientiousness to achieve that. Frankly what the media and fans say should be irrelevant.
I advise all of my athletes to delete their Facebook and Twitter accounts. There is far too much negativity on those platforms. In the past, feedback was edited. For instance, newspaper articles were always edited by more than just the journalist. So if a journalist was too rude, unfair, or hostile, the editing process would do something about that, but today, any Tom or Mary can say just about whatever they like on social media. Thankfully, many athletes, especially due to the Black Lives Matter campaign, are deleting their social media accounts.
BM: Young bowlers like Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi are also under pressure to deliver results. Could this conscientiousness to take wickets constantly result in unwanted pressure and lead to them ultimately losing their place in the team?
AM: I don’t want to get into this too deeply, as that will take too long. If a reader wants to know more, then they can easily listen to Neel Khagram’s excellent interview about fear and what some people, unfortunately, call “stress.”
However, let me help you by asking a question: What is pressure? You are not referring to mechanical pressure, which can be measured by things like psi (pounds per square inch). You are referring to psychological pressure.
But what is psychological pressure? It’s just a perception. If Shaheen Afridi perceives he is under “pressure,” then he is likely to not feel in control, and thus his bowling will suffer, but if Hasan Ali, in the same match, does not perceive such “pressure,” then he is more likely to perform phenomenally.
BM: Haider Ali and Asif Ali are two big hitters who people expect to produce fireworks and results in virtually every game. While their conscientiousness to do well cannot be questioned, are the never-ending sky-high expectations of them causing them to perform poorly?
AM: Do you love your occupation? If you do and you have developed a high level of skill, then there is no reason to expect poor performances. I love my occupation. I have worked for exactly 40 years, since 1982, to get to this level. So if there are several things that I have to deal with that others might label “challenging,” I enjoy it.
I like expecting that every cricketer or staff member will walk away from every session having gained something. Sure some in the first few sessions will have negative thoughts about the sessions, because they are coming to terms with what mental skills training is all about and the mandatory nature of it, but they always gain at least one thing in every session. There is an expectation that will happen and I like the expectation.
Likewise, I like it when clients challenge me and ask me awkward questions such as, “Where is your evidence?” After all, I don’t want to train sheep who blindly accept everything I say. The same applies to Haider Ali and Asif Ali. If they like the “high” expectations, then they will do well.
BM: You say you like awkward questions, so let’s try one. Many people suggest that nepotism affects sport negatively. In other words, many believe that those in power in the cricket world tend to give their friends positions and not others who may be better qualified and/or more experienced. So should conscientiousness start on the field of play or before camp begins?
AM: Great question! Without a doubt, there is an Old Boy’s Club operating in cricket. CEOs want Head Coaches that fit in. Head Coaches want Assistant Coaches that fit in. Head Coaches don’t want too many changes in the way training is conducted, as, like everyone, they want to feel in control. So they tend to request people they have worked with before be hired for vacant positions, without seriously considering others with more skills, qualifications, and/or experience.
You can’t fully blame them. They want a happy camp and assume that if they give a mate a position, then the mate won’t challenge them often, if at all, won’t cause problems, and thus everyone is happy. And that has some merit, as we know that happy people and happy cricketers perform better than non-happy people and non-happy cricketers.
Yesterday, a coach echoed a similar belief to me. He suggested: “A coach’s job is tenuous and generally regarded as his to lose. Thus, I’d far rather go into the hot seat with people I know and trust than with people who would contradict my messages and methods just because they’d be the immediate beneficiaries of me getting the sack.”
Pakistan are currently positioned only 4th in T20, 5th in Test matches, and 6th in ODIs. If they want to rise through the ranks, then doing the same things over and over won’t help.
They need to get out of their comfort zones and try new, usually more modern approaches, if they want to change. That may even require hiring non-Urdu-speaking professionals for positions they usually desire Urdu-speaking people for. That’s where conscientiousness really helps. If you are truly conscientious, then you will find the courage to try new things and not fall into nepotism.
In this regard, let me briefly mention one international captain and one Pakistani coach. First, I was in South Africa training cricketers at North West Cricket. Bangladesh’s women’s team arrived to play the South Africans. I introduced myself to the Head coach, David Capel, and he quickly agreed to do some sessions with me. He likewise, had very little difficulty convincing the captain Rumana Ahmed to join the sessions.
Why was it so easy to convince David and Rumana? Part of the reason was that they were both open-minded, not closed-minded. Another reason was that they were both conscientious. They were willing to try something that sounded plausible. Likewise, without mentioning names, I trained one of the PCB’s senior coaches a few times and he even wants to do more sessions. Once again, he is clearly conscientious. For Pakistan to progress up the ladder, it will help to have other PCB staff, especially those in positions of power, increasing their level of conscientiousness (and maybe open-mindedness).
BM: How come conscientiousness seems to come naturally with the likes of England and New Zealand, but not others like Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka?
AM: Your genetics affect your behaviour. For instance, the behaviour of identical twins tends to be more similar than between non-identical twins, and especially between non-twin siblings. However, more recently we have learnt that there is no simple gene for a particular behaviour; many genetics studies have used volunteers, not randomly chosen people, and thus have been biased towards revealing greater twin similarities than really is the case; and twins reared apart do not appear to be as similar as we use to think.
Instead, research is indicating that behaviour is massively affected by the environment you spent most of your childhood in and the environment you currently are in. For instance, most students at Harvard University come from middle-class families. Why? Because middle-class parents tend to believe that education is a way to progress in life and so they create an environment for their children that is more conducive to studying than working-class or upper-class parents do.
For instance, middle-class parents are more likely to restrict their children’s cell phone and social media usage, require their children to study most days, and make their children’s study room as ideal as possible for educational opportunities (and not other things like television). The same applies at the international level. Some countries, like New Zealand, emphasise education. For instance, I lived in New Zealand for the first 20 years of my life where university education was not only free, but the Government paid students to go to university, as they wanted an educated population.
But other countries emphasize different things and thus the funding for education is not as large. The same thing applies to conscientiousness at the international level. In New Zealand, you are taught to work hard and conscientiousness is enthusiastically encouraged. Hence, it’s no accident that out of that tiny country of only 4 million people, comes arguably the historically best international rugby team, the All Blacks, and currently, New Zealand is ranked Number 1 in Test match cricket and Number 1 in ODIs on the ICC’s website.
So what I am saying is simple: conscientiousness may appear to others as coming naturally to New Zealanders more than other parts of the world, but it’s not naturally in their genetics. Instead, the Government and parents have consciously made decisions to make the environment in New Zealand more conducive to building conscientiousness.
BM: Many cricketers have told the media that they are suffering from psychological problems like depression. Can conscientiousness help with that?
AM: Yes many international cricketers have told the media about such emotional issues, but the good news is that conscientiousness can help, as conscientious people tend to be psychologically healthier.
For instance, conscientious adults are more likely to be satisfied with their life, satisfied with their health, less anxious, and less depressed. A major reason why is that conscientious people tend to use very effective thinking styles associated with being happy. For instance, research tells us that the more optimistic you are and the higher your self-esteem, the happier you will be.
And research also tells us that acting conscientiously causes us to be more optimistic and like ourselves. Hence, acting conscientiously causes us to think more effectively and thus be happier. And a cool research study with English county cricketers has found that cricketers score more runs when they’re happy than when they’re unhappy.
So if we put all the research together, the message is really clear: act conscientiously and you will think more effectively, that positive thinking will lead you to be happier, and when you are happy you play better cricket.
BM: So how can a cricketer become more conscientious?
AM: My best advice is to remember the word DAG. Australians call strange and unconventional individuals DAGs, but for us, it’s an acronym to remember three simple, but effective ways you can increase your conscientiousness big time. The D stands for “Daily plans”. The A stands for “Accountable”. And the G stands for “Good things”.
The first technique, daily plans, is very simple, but very few people do it, and even less do it effectively. All you have to do is write down what you want to achieve today. It could be as simple as writing down the 4 most important things you want to achieve today. A big key to doing this is the simple act of writing the goals, as the writing forces you to be specific with what you want to achieve. And it stops you from not facing your situation.
The second technique, accountable, requires you to make yourself more answerable. A good way to do this is to simply tell someone about your goals. Maybe you can send your daily goals as a text to one of your friends and maybe they might like to send you their daily goals. Then tomorrow you can briefly text each other if you achieved them, along with the new goals.
The final technique is nice as it’s less threatening, enjoyable to do, and just as effective. All you have to do is write down at the end of the day, 3 good things that occurred today. Research has found that when people do this for 3 weeks, their levels of sadness and depression decrease.
If you want to have more fun with this, then you can try a paperclip exercise, as I have done with the Sri Lankan national women’s team and the emerging squad. I gave them 20 paperclips each and got them to transfer one paperclip from one pocket to another any time they had a negative thought. At the end of one hour, they counted how many paperclips they had transferred from one pocket to another.
International cricketers from the various countries I have tested, before training them, tend to have about 4-5 negative thoughts per hour, but I have had some say they had no negative thoughts, and others say they had as many as 12 negative thoughts. After doing the paperclip exercise, you can do the 3 good things exercise for 21 days, and then repeat the paperclip exercise, and then see if you are now having fewer negative thoughts.
BM: And how can a coach or staff member help a cricketer become more conscientious?
AM: If you are not a fully trained and experienced cricket psychologist, then don’t expect to do as good a job at helping your cricketers change their behaviour. Coaches are experts of tactics, techniques, and other matters, but they are not experts of behaviour change. They may be constantly involved with change, but that doesn’t mean they have received all the training necessary to be an elite expert of change.
So my best advice to coaches, in particular, is: Be brave! Sit down with your Cricket Psychologist and proactively learn from them. You will quickly discover a whole lot of things that you had no idea about. You will also learn that psychology and Cricket Psychologists are not as scary as you once thought. If for some crazy reason you don’t have a Sport Psychologist with your team, then you can read an expert cricket psychologist’s book full of techniques to help you become mentally tougher and happier (try both “Phenomenal Performances” and “Phenomenal Performances 2” on Amazon).
But thankfully those days are numbered. I was talking to a Portuguese football coach yesterday who told me that most football teams in Portugal’s top football competition have sport psychologists. It’s become the norm there.
BM: Up to what age can a cricketer realistically learn to be conscientious?
AM: Research has shown that we become more conscientious as we get older. For instance, the vast majority of adults in their 50s are more conscientious than when they were in their 20s. Furthermore, everyone can change and change substantially and they can do it at any age.
However, most people avoid change, because of fear. They fear the unknown and so would rather keep doing the same old thing, even when they know there are more effective ways of doing things. Sadly, most people only change due to environmental changes, such as getting married, having children, getting fired, getting a cancer diagnosis, or getting promoted.
BM: At what age should children be trained to be conscientious?
AM: The younger the better. And the best way to train children is to be a great role model. Eat an appropriate amount of good food; maintain appropriate body fat levels; never smoke; exercise regularly; get sufficient sleep; think and speak positively; keep your emotions under control; and be nice to friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues. By doing these things in front of your children, they will follow, as, at an early age, they mimic what they see.
BM: So is a lack of conscientiousness the Pakistan cricket team’s biggest problem?
AM: I am not with the squad, so I don’t know. But I assume that there are a variety of factors impacting their performance. It is quite likely that one of the reasons for the poor performance is because of the people around them. We have talked about the conscientiousness of the cricketers, but just as important is the level of conscientiousness of the coaches, support staff, High Performance Manager, Director of Cricket, CEO, board members, and administrative staff.
Are such people making good decisions? Are they open-minded to looking at other possibilities, or do they know best, stick to working only with their buddies, and follow their unwavering path? Are they mentoring good behaviours, or do they smoke, drink alcohol, have too large a stomach, not get enough sleep, or display other behaviours that don’t set a good example for the boys to follow?
No one should expect perfection, but my experience has been that the vast majority of people involved in sport could do several things to improve their own behaviour and thus set a better example.
BM: Thanks for your time Adrian for these two interviews. Is there any thought you would like us to finish on?
AM: Most people limit themselves by fear. It’s the same with people in power. They also limit themselves by fear. Unfortunately, their fear oftentimes limits others they are in charge of. However, we can all do better when we overcome our fears and use experts.
So if I may, I would like to finish with the same sentence, as my first book finishes with: “We will be happier and the world will be a better place when I think and act as us and we – not I and me.”
You can learn more in Adrian’s 2 books (available on Amazon):