“We very rarely talk about winning”
Have you always been sporty?
I loved sport as a child. I was quite a good cricketer as a youngster, but when I got to 16 I was affected by something called the yips, which meant that when I ran into bowl I just couldn't let go of the ball. I had training soon after and spoke to the coach. He said: "I've got one piece of advice for you - start batting, because you'll never get rid of the problem." From that moment, my cricket career was gone.
After that I had to redirect my endeavours a little bit; I went from spending my whole life playing sport to thinking about education a bit more. I took my A-levels and went on to do Sports Studies (a forerunner to Sports Science) at university. I didn't really want to go to university, but after getting the yips I had a reason to go - I needed to know what had happened to me.
Why is it called the yips?
The first time yips was noticed was in golf, where people would get these massive involuntary muscle contractions while putting, which would mean they were unable to create a smooth stroke - people like Bernard Langer, who was number one in the world. Eric Bristow was world number one at darts when he got the yips and was unable to release the dart.
In the articles I found on the yips, everyone said the same thing: once you've got it, you've got it. I was fascinated by the psychology parts of my degree so I undertook a PhD on the yips. Half the time I understudied a sports psychologist who worked with the England table tennis team and the other half he supervised my PhD.
Since then I've supervised other students who have done PhDs on the yips. We've found out that it happens in multiple sports and that it's an emotional problem, unrelated to sport, that manifests as a physical thing when you're under pressure in sport. It is reversible if you catch it early, using so-called less-conscious techniques. Some people try to get those affected to think their way out of it, but it's not possible.
What's the main aim of sport psychology?
The art of sport psychology is to simplify people's thinking to its absolute minimum - get all the noise out of their heads so that they can stay in the present moment, non-judgementally. We call it 'staying in the bubble'. When you're in the bubble, you're not thinking about very much except the one thing you need to do. In cricket, if you're batting for a long period of time, the one thing you have to do is watch the ball and ignore everything else - like what the bowler's doing, the crowd and the cameras. My coaching with people is helping them simplify all that stuff so that they can do one thing simply.
Do certain types of people find it harder to get into the bubble?
Well, we use lots of different profiling tools, and we use a colour-based tool to characterise people. You have your cool blues, introverted thinkers. They're very analytical - they like to think about things and analyse them. My job is to make sure that they don't overthink and that they use their thinking logically. You've then got the opposite - the yellows, or extroverted feelers. They're much more emotional than thinking-based when they play. They tend to be much more 'into the battle', so if it's a bowler in cricket then they're much more into the battle with the batter. They don't think too much about what they do - they're not great analysers.
You can see them as assassins (thinkers) and warriors (feelers). As a sports psychologist, I need to know if I'm working with a natural assassin (for example, Bjorn Borg in tennis) or a natural warrior (for example, John McEnroe).
Is one of those types preferable for a particular position?
No, you can be either, you just need to know how to play to your strengths. You will actually move between the mindsets but you will have a natural preference for one. A bowler might be a natural assassin but then might need to step into the warrior mentality at times; for example, if they need to get into a contest with the batsman. But there'll be times in the game where they just need to be accurate and put the ball consistently in the right places, and then they'll need to go into a much more mechanistic kind of role, and that's when they step into the more assassin mindset. Either overdone is bad. In assassin mode you become robotic, and the other you just become a thug and end up trying to kill the batsman.
In cricket, who exemplifies which type?
Alastair Cook is really good example of an assassin, someone who's able repeatedly to stay within his bubble and do his own thing. Jonathan Trott and Chris Tremlett are also assassins. People like Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad are warriors, much more emotional, aggressive.
Is that applicable to other sports?
I apply that model to all sorts of sports: speedskating, squash, cricket, golf. It's a simple metaphor to help you understand what mental mode you're in. We always say: "you control your mindset, don't let your environment control you".
What do you do if someone's struggling?
I'm a positive psychologist, we work with the players all the time. When someone falls out of form we try to get them back to what we call their 'secure basics', the things someone does that makes their game work.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they're good at and how we make that better, rather than areas where they're weak. That's not to say that you ignore areas of weakness, but they're not the areas where you make vast improvements. If you find things that make you different and make them super strengths then you can see people make leaps in performance. Super strengths are the parts of the game in which someone could potentially be the best in the world.
Is it necessary to have failed to be a better player?
Everyone will have bad runs of form - the skill is in not doubting your ability to do your processes. When people go through bad form they start to doubt their methods, and they start changing things. What you start to see is that their decision-making goes and then their technique starts changing. Before you know it, they're in a big hole and takes time to drag them out. What we try and do is remind people that they need to learn quickly - go back to secure basics and just hammer them.
One thing I try and do is de-myth confidence for people, who often think that confidence is having absolutely no doubt and unbreakable self-belief. In normal life, everybody experiences fear, anxiety and self-doubt. My job is helping people realise that confidence isn't the absence of fear or doubt, it's trust in your method.
How do you keep a team motivated through a very long tour or in a packed season?
That's a really hard thing to do and that's really evident in cricket sometimes. We constantly try to break the whole thing up, down into the smallest possible chunks, like breaking a tour into sessions, into the smallest goals possible. If you work through the 'aim - plan - review - do' process: you're debriefing, reflecting, resetting your mind and then you go again. That's very important in order to stay motivated.
The other thing is to make sure you have plenty of switch-off time, to keep your mind hungry for performance. The harder thing is when you're away for long, long periods of time and those things themselves become tiring. That's where you see burnout.
Are you still involved if people are injured/sick?
When players become injured, particularly long-term, we work with them. We do very simple things, making sure that they've got a plan, that they've got their own personal development goals that they're working on alongside their recovery, that they're still connected to the team and the sport. We use it as an opportunity to develop mental parts of the game, so they do lots of mental practice.
What's mental practice?
Everything from hypnosis to visualisation. The brain doesn't really distinguish between a real event and a mental one. Someone with a long-term injury can 'remind' their brain what it's like to bowl at their very best (what it feels like, where you are emotionally when you bowl), so when you come back to play, it's not like your brain's been turned off for a year. Research with skiers has shown that you can sit down and mentally rehearse doing a ski-run and your muscles will respond in a very similar way. More importantly, you're reinforcing a blueprint in your brain when you're performing at your best.
We use mental practice all the time, even when players are not injured. You can mentally rehearse your best innings, the way you want to play, or even being in the bubble.
Is it possible you can rehearse poor performance?
I came a cropper of that in the early days! I was working with a table tennis player, doing lots of mental practice trying to recreate how he'd like to play. It wasn't until after six weeks or so that we reviewed this and I asked how it was going. "Brilliant," he said. "I can really feel myself in competition mode and I'm starting to really be able to feel in control of what I do in my mind. The only thing is that I always lose." In his mind, he'd been practising losing for six weeks!
Do you encourage people to visualise themselves winning?
We very rarely talk about winning. It's pretty unhelpful, really.
Yes, the greatest thing (winning) is outside of your control. You can't guarantee you're going to win because you can't say what's going to happen. Instead, we talk about what we need to do. If I just go out and do what I'm about to do then winning will take care of itself. But I wouldn't recommend people visualise themselves on the winners' podium.
Do you talk about losing?
No, we wouldn't talk about losing - again, we just talk about what we need to do. Obviously, winning and losing are outcomes, but we don't want to focus on outcomes, we just want to concentrate on our processes.
Do you find many players have lucky pants, rituals etc?
Everyone has pre-performance routines they use to get themselves in the right place mentally. The difference between a routine and a ritual or superstition is a very fine line. Most players have little things that started as part of their routine and have become a ritual (e.g. which sock goes on first).
We always used to say to avoid them, as they're unhelpful or might become obsessive, but I think that most athletes I work with have little superstitions. I don't see any problem with it, although I know other people would say different. You do need to keep them so that they remain a strength and don't become a weakness, though.
Do you have any advice for budding sportspeople?
We all have skills, talents and character strengths: the more you can apply them in different areas, the more you'll find you're capable of doing things you didn't realise. Take David Beckham, a great footballer. Was he great at heading? No. Was he great at tackling? Not really. Was he great at dribbling? No. But what he could do was accurately pass a football, and he applied that to crosses, corners, penalties and free kicks. He found a way of using his strengths to maximise his ability.
This article is part of the online content for ‘Big Picture: Exercise, Energy and Movement’.
- English Institute of Sport: Performance Psychology
- Dr Mark Bawden at Metaphorics
- Bawden M, Maynard I. Towards an understanding of the personal experience of the ‘yips’ in cricketers. J Sports Sci 2001;19(12):937-53.