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How important is mental conditioning in international cricket?

Attributes of mental strength are key factors for success at the highest level of sport.

Paddy Upton
Paddy Upton was Indian Cricket team’s mental conditioning coach when they won the World Cup in 2011

Mental conditioning is a core topic among elite athletes; a subject so profound that a sports psychologist has now become a vital member of the support staff. The bottom line is that STRENGTH (both physical & mental) are key requisites.

While it could be relatively easy for an athlete to develop physical strength, figuring out how to go about strengthening oneself from within is a challenge rooted with complexities! Some have mastered the art, some are learning and quite a few are yet to crack it. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying the fact that mental strength is a sharp two-edged sword with the ability to pierce through seemingly tough conditions.

The key to any sportsman rising to the peak of his prowess lies in him being able to conquer himself first. The earlier one realizes that ‘the enemy lies within’ the better. The dawning of that realization sets off the journey towards self-mastery. That is one reason why I am a great believer in sport as an activity. It not only enhances the physical outlook but also goes a long way in shaping the individual as a whole.

My experience in China (while I was the Head coach of the Chinese women’s national squad) confirmed my belief in this fact. The Chinese believe that sport is the greatest form of education that one can impart to its citizens and hence a robust sports policy was in place.

Some of their training methods are excruciating, to say the least (as they make sure the body and mind are both put to test during the training sessions) but in the end, they do yield results. They have a comprehensive structure in place (technically, biomechanically & psychologically) in order to churn out winners.

How the mind of a Cricketer works

Indian Cricket Team
Indian Cricket team during their mental conditioning camp prior to the 2011 World Cup

All the sports present their own challenges and require a high amount of skill and willpower to succeed. However the mind of a cricketer, especially that of a batsman is a unique one. A batsman in cricket has no room for error; he commits one mistake and he is gone. His level of focus and belief has to be of the highest order for him to be able to perform. A tiny lapse is sufficient for him to come crashing down.

We have had quite a few cases where a batsman has been highly skilled but has been unable to deliver. We also have cases of not so accomplished cricketers making it big; all this points in one direction - ‘mental strength’. In short, the ability to overcome mental challenges that competitive cricket presents is vital for success; notwithstanding the media glare and scrutiny! 

Some of our very own cricketers seem to possess strong mental attributes. A case in point is the recent success of KL Rahul.  

KL Rahul
To display such an astute mind this early in his career augurs well

I remember bumping into him, just before he left for Australia for his debut series. I wished him well and in the process of conversation, he was generally mentioning how he was working hard, above all, at negotiating the short and rising delivery. The first thought that crossed my mind was ‘WOW’, here is a man who knows what he wants to become and where he wants to go!

Although there was a blip early into his initiation as an international cricketer, where he happened to play a rather sheepish shot to be caught at square leg, he has impressed one and all thereafter. Having a legend in Dravid to fall back on for some ‘sound advice’ helped him calm his initial nerves and KL has ever since not looked back.

Also Read: Lokesh Rahul: India's key player for the home season

The amazement at his rise as an international cricketer has not only been about his success at the Test level but his metamorphosis to a budding player in the shortest format of the game!

IPL having contributed a great deal towards that end, it must be said that the opportunity for Rahul to feed off the mind of the likes of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers at RCB has had a profound impact on him evolving with such alacrity.

What strikes me most about him is the soundness of mind. It seems that he has understood and assessed the circumstances and things around him very well. To display such an astute mind this early in his career augurs well.

Another case in point is Manish Pandey, after struggling to break through in the early part of his career, he seems to have made a resurgence.  All this points to the mental challenges he has faced and him being able to successfully surmount them.

Manish Pandey
Given the kind of cricket Manish is displaying currently, he doesn’t seem to be far behind from Rahul

However, from the look of things, the challenge is far from over for Manish, who in spite of a classy (match-winning) knock in the final in Australia, is awaiting another opportunity to dawn India colors; having said that, in all probabilities, it should be coming Manish’s way soon.

In the meanwhile, the KKR-player has displayed strong character in staying focused and further enhancing his cause by having a wonderful India A tour. He not only did well personally but led his team to the championship; all this points to a strong character.

It takes the best of the best to excel in all 3 formats of the game and KL Rahul finds himself in that league. Given the kind of cricket Manish is displaying currently, he doesn’t seem to be far behind; all ample proof that here are two cricketers who have dug deep into their mental reservoirs; displaying strength, resolve and character in order to be at the top of their game.

Also Read: Why now is the right time for Manish Pandey

In conclusion, talking exclusively on the subject of mental strength, temperamentally we are all different and hence understanding what works and does not work for you is key in developing a sound mental approach to your game. A wholesale mental approach will prove to be a disaster; the saying ‘one man’s food is another man’s poison’ holds a lot of water.

However, the good news is that mental strength can be developed. There is a lot of professional material and there are a lot of professional psychologists out there who can impart sound guidance and wisdom to athletes.

In this day and age, every competitive edge is required in order to excel at sport, after all, international cricket is all about soaking in the pressure and being able to perform to best of one’s ability.

Mamatha Maben is a former captain of the Indian Women's Cricket team. She has been a journalist and has had successful stints as coach of the national women's teams of Bangladesh and China. She is currently the Chief Coach at RXCA and also assists at the KSCA academy. 

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