So, the England Cricket team was supposed to go to the West Indies and win the current series easily. I heard former players on the radio predicting with conviction a 3 – 0 series win.
However, after two heavy test defeats, England find themselves 2 – 0 down with the series already lost. The post-mortems on Sky Sports have been critical of the players, their preparation, their technique and their approach. I heard also mentioned the words ‘mental toughness’, Spoken by at least two former international players in the aftermath of the two defeats. Both accusing the batsmen of not being mentally tough enough. What do they mean when they say this?
Let’s look at our 4 C’s mental toughness model and analyse this phrase ‘mental toughness’ in the context of England’s performances.
Facing four fast bowlers is not easy. Pace unsettles a batsman more than anything else. Shannon Gabriel was clocked at around 150kph and facing that speed is putting yourself in harm’s way, particularly on a difficult batting surface. It’s natural to feel apprehension, even fear in that situation. So, did some of our batters lack emotional control? Did the apprehension affect their decision making? Did anxiety inhibit their natural movements? Were they distracted by the so-called’ scoreboard pressure’? Did they just blame the state of the wicket for their dismissals? It’s likely that some or all of the above is true. The more self-aware will be honest with themselves, recognise this and look to work on putting it right. The less self-aware will not.
It’s much harder to be honest with yourself if you are new into the team or fighting to retain your place. If the culture doesn’t allow you to admit to needing support, a player is unlikely to ask for it. Could this be true of the England camp, particularly as some players seem to be regularly getting dismissed in very similar ways?
The West Indies batters in their first innings in Antigua seemed to have a clear idea of how to bat on a challenging surface and what their approach was going to be. England however, played in a manner that seems to befit the ‘we’ll always play a positive brand of cricket’ culture that the team espouses. You can still be positive and realistic at the same time. It seems however, they’ve confused positivity with an overly-aggressive approach irrespective of the situation they’re in. They didn’t seem to be clear on the best approach on that wicket and what they were trying to achieve. Without that clarity, you’re kind of making it up as you go along.
Given that the West Indies batters had shown the way to bat on the Antigua wicket, it’s then surprising that England didn’t adopt a similar approach. They needed to show the tenacity and patience to grind out the runs needed to put the Windies under pressure in their 2nd innings. This just didn’t happen and without a clear plan, it’s then difficult to exhibit the habits needed to achieve the desired outcome.
Did England’s batters weigh up the risks of playing in a ‘positive’ manner? What was their mindset when faced with a 120 run first innings deficit on a difficult surface? Did they relish batting on that surface against a battery of quick bowlers? Every player will admit that they were up for the challenge. Being up for a challenge doesn’t have to mean being ‘gung ho’ and carefree (and careless). It means weighing up risk and reward. It recognises that there will be times when the bowling side are on top and you need to accept that and dig in. Bowlers are allowed to bowl well and every batter will know that this Windies attack is a very good one. Being mentally tough means recognising when to grind it out and when to take control. Some of the England players seem to want to live up to their reputations of being positive attacking players at all times. There’s nothing wrong with this. However, it’s knowing when you have to reign in your ‘natural game’ and take a different approach to get the same reward that is the key.
The England batting line-up has been consistently accused of not being consistent. Too often there have been collapses without any apparent differences in subsequent approach. What really effective processes take place that enable the players to learn from their mistakes? We see batters getting out in the same manner repeatedly. I’ve been in team changing rooms after a defeat. It’s not often that a balanced debrief takes place. The same old tired statements get thrown around such as “You’re not learning from your mistakes”, “You need to take responsibility”, “You need to be mentally tougher” etc etc.. If the team is to really learn, then proper reflective processes have to in place that suit each individual. Whole team ‘locked door ‘bollockings’ rarely work! Giving players time and support to notice when things start to go off track, is much more productive than waiting until the wheels fall off before then deciding to drop someone. Encouraging players to reflect when things are going well is also great practice, particularly when cricket matches come thick and fast.
You’d expect international players to have confidence in their ability to play at this level. Or would you? Despite the fact that lots of positive statements come out of the England camp about their approach and mindset, it often doesn’t seem to translate into their test match cricket. When they’re in the heat of the battle what automatic negative thoughts come into their heads? How much of their self-belief is being affected by what’s gone before or by the criticism they might get from the media if they don’t bat well? These are all top-class players who seem to thrive in the shorter formats of the game but seem less clear on their role and identity in test match cricket. There seems to be uncertainty in selection, in where people bat in the order and how they are expected to bat. It’s therefore natural that without that clarity or certainty some players would question themselves and their abilities, particularly in the aftermath of a heavy defeat.
The phrase mental toughness gets used loosely and lazily in sport. It’s used without people really knowing what it actually is and how to do something about it.
The 4C’s mental toughness model provides clarity, understanding and a means to develop this vital personality trait. Each of the 4C’s, breaks down into 2 further sub-scales, giving us 8 key areas of mental toughness. This then allows an athlete to be much more precise about where they need to develop to make the most impactful difference in their performance.
If your performance (in any sport) would benefit from developing your mental toughness (and it definitely would), get in touch and let’s talk about how you can take the MTQPlus assessment and receive your personal development report that will show you how mentally tough you really are. We’ll get you back on track and get you putting into place productive habits that will improve your sporting performance.
Steve Dent is a Mental Toughness Coach & Trainer, Master Practitioner of NLP, Licensed to administer the MTQ family of assessments, ECB Level 3 Performance Coach and Founder of Pro Mind Coaching & Training