How the dressing room environment can impact its players
In the team dressing room, there are various personalities who come from different cultural backgrounds. As a coach or mentor, you want to ensure that that's acknowledged and you want to ensure that they are given opportunities to voice their opinion in their own comfortable way, where there is no language barrier.
The Indian Premier League is THE place where you see such a vast difference in culture in each team. There are cricketers, not only from all around the country but all around the world, from different backgrounds, religions, etc. To put things in perspective, the Royal Challengers Bangalore do not have a single player from Karnataka in their playing XI, and on the other hand, the Kings XI Punjab, have three Karnataka stars in their playing XI.
Speaking of the IPL, three weeks have ended and we have a clear picture of which team is performing well and which team is falling behind.
As a coach, I have borne witness to both scenarios and I understand what exactly the dressing room goes through in different scenarios.
The dressing room does get tested when a team loses and at times, there is complete silence, so much so that it can become awkward. During these times, as the staff, you begin to think about the roles of the players and whether they were defined or not.
There are some days where, in the dressing room, you just don't want to say anything to the players and walk away. Instead, you speak to the team one day later. The reason for this is, after a loss, you tend to look at the negatives rather than the positives. Instead, you need time to self-reflect, where a player is able to look at the positives amongst the sea of negatives and realise where he went wrong and improve upon that aspect for the next game.
It becomes extremely important to acknowledge the difficult task a player is asked to perform. For example, R Vinay Kumar probably had the most difficult task of bowling at the death in the first two matches and despite getting hit. At that point, it is important that the captain of the team speaks to him and acknowledges the difficult role he was given. The last thing a player wants is his own staff doubting him.
When the players are clear about the role they have to perform on the side, the teams end up performing well.
The importance of keeping the team morale high
It is also important for the captain to have positive thoughts after a close-fought encounter which you might end up losing. This would help boost the team morale.
I remember an instance, during my time with the Rajasthan Royals when we had lost an extremely close-fought encounter against CSK. Rahul Dravid, who was the captain then, came back to the dressing room and appreciated the team for their efforts and told them that he was extremely proud of them. He acknowledged the fact that he was proud to be a part of the team despite being on the losing side. That really lifted the spirit of the team.
We have seen few teams who keep coming from behind and winning games. In those situations what works for them is the mantra of having nothing to lose and focussing on the present.
As a team, you need to filter out those things which can affect your morale. At times, I have seen simple things like the points table affecting the players in a negative way. Such things are absolutely not in your control and players tend to drain their energy talking about it. It's fine to a certain extent but instead, players need to think about their game and focus on how to improve and help their team win. And the team management needs to help them focus on what roles they have.
There are situations when a bowler comes up against a batsman who has a history of knocking him out of the park or when a batsman comes up against a bowler who has got his number. During times like these, it is important for the team and the support staff to remind that particular batsman or bowler of their strength and ensure that they don't slip up.
They need to keep speaking to the players and asking them about the changes they bring about in their game. For example, when Ankit Rajpoot got a five-wicket haul or when Rashid Khan came back strong after a couple of poor performances, the team management would have spoken to them and asked them what they did different from the previous game and ensure they continued to do so in the upcoming matches.
As a coach/mentor you need to create such an atmosphere where cricketers who haven't played a single game are also given an opportunity to open up. Culture to make everyone talk. They might have been sitting on the bench, however, they will also have a lot of observations after watching their teammates play on the field. Hence, it is important to take their views as well and make sure they are a part of the team.
The cricketers on the bench matter a lot and the character of the team gets defined when those cricketers open up about what they think of the performance of the team. At times, it is one of those cricketers who brings up a point of improvement for the team and that makes a big difference in the team's results.
How teams cope with stress and loss
Sometimes, teams have a very simple message when they are on the brink of losing a match in order to turn the match on its head. For example, I know that the only message probably given to Krishnappa Gowtham during their nail-biting victory against the Mumbai Indians was "Believe". That has been the mantra of the Royals over the past few years. Sometimes, a simple one word message can turn things around, the way it did for the 29-year-old Gowtham as he smashed 31 off just 11 balls to take his side to victory.
During my stint with the Royals, we used the "doll concept", which was introduced by the then Director of coaching, Darren Barry. This concept was used when things used to go wrong on the field and the team ended up losing. It was a concept used to bring some discipline in the team, albeit in a fun manner. After a loss, the team would gather around in the dressing room and a few players would nominate one player to speak about what he didn't do right according to the team rules. It was a fun activity and would help boost the team spirit and would not let the players think too much about the loss.
Later on, I myself introduced the "Commitment Award", which was to identify the efforts by the cricketers which usually tend to go unnoticed during a win or a loss. For example, a boundary saved or putting pressure during the death overs. When these small little things were acknowledged in the dressing room, it would stay with the cricketers as something they would cherish forever.
In the same way, the other teams have their own way to help them overcome difficult circumstances. Dinesh Karthik, as I know him, believes in keeping calm in difficult situations. And Dhoni, well, his post-match comments say it all. What is interesting about him is that he continues to persist with certain players for 4-5 matches despite them not performing well and his belief in those players is something to look out for.
All in all, It's pivotal for a team to establish channels of communication and ensure that every individual can speak out freely, irrespective of experience. Especially when a group suffers a setback, it's important to reflect and address your areas of concern.
It's just as important to define an individual's role clearly as it makes them more comfortable and helps to extract good performances from them.