Going for gold
It is often said that a large percentage of success in sport is down to the mental approach rather than the physical.
Despite this most coaches spend the vast majority of their time developing a player physically rather than looking at their mental skills.
Hours are spent grafting shots technically in the nets. Sweat pours off by the bucket load in the gym. Laptops overheat as the tactical approach to games is drawn up. Yet everyone seems to agree what divides the good from the great is the way players think during a match.
Sports psychologists are still treated wearily. You never hear players admitting to any mental frailties after defeat, but they will happily share stories about a niggling back, a poorly executed shot, or a wrong decision at a crucial moment in the game.
Like it or not sports psychology remains misunderstood, and the last great taboo in sport. Cricket, more than most sports, is recognising the issue, and coaches are now expected to address the mental aspects of a player’s development.
One man who is well qualified to talk on the subject is Olympic gold medallist turned sports psychologist Adrian Moorhouse. His company, “Lane 4”, run seminars and training sessions on mental skills for business and sports people.
He readily admits to having only limited knowledge of cricket, but says mental skills apply regardless of the sport you are dealing with.
"Mental toughness of sports people – the rowers, cyclists and swimmers - have it in spades," said Moorhouse, who raced to gold in the 100m breaststroke in Seoul.
"It is developable. It is really about how you build belief."
Trying to define mental toughness is not straight forward. Trying to fathom who has it is even more difficult. Moorhouse has a clear idea of what he is looking for in a mentally tough competitor.
“Mental toughness is self belief and knowing how to build that when things don’t go your way," he added. "Staying motivated, using goals appropriately, staying focused, because a lot of people get distracted, and then handling pressure."
The handling of pressure has led to some spectacular and some disastrous performances on the cricket field. Clear thinkers who can handle the situation win matches, while those who either panic or freeze will never cut it at the top level.
“You imagine the start of an Olympic final that you’ve trained for four years," he said. "That’s your only opportunity. If you blow it you have another four years to wait.
“In the Olympic squad we’d have group session conversations about how you view the situation and deal with that pressure. Do you build it up as a mountain or a mole hill? What is the worst thing that could happen? Don’t build it up into a catastrophe if you lose, because usually it really isn’t."
That sense of perspective is something Andy Flower, the England Team Director, regularly mentions. Be it taking players to the battlefields of Flanders or reminding them of the Haiti earthquake victims, he likes to remind players it is only a cricket match and really the consequences of losing are not that great.
Having a reliable and repeatable routine can help. Pre-delivery routines for both bowlers and batsman are more than just nervous twitches or unnecessary gardening. A routine avoids becoming rushed or daunted and makes a situation more familiar, regardless of the importance or significance.
Making an event seem familiar through visualisation is another suggestion Moorhouse advocates.
“When I won my gold at Seoul I had envisaged being in every race position from first to last at the turn," he said. "That helped me hold my nerve when I was well down the field after 50 metres.
“The other thing is how much control you have over an event. I see people talking about things and worrying about things they have no control over. Rather than taking the very first step over what you can control.
"Going back to the Olympics, you sit in a room waiting for an Olympic final – if all you’re thinking about is I’ve got to win the Olympics and beat the whole world, well that’s actually not true. You’ve got to beat seven people. What you can control is get a good dive. You need to manage performance and manage the way you think about it."
So he has told us what mental strength is and given us a few clues as to how it is best developed in players, but who does he view as the mentally toughest in sport today?
Immediately he offers American swimmer Michael Phelps as his mentally toughest sportsman of the era.
“The guy won eight gold medals at the last Olympics," said Moorhouse. "He was at his first Olympics at the age of 15, so he’s had three Olympics. He’s sustained it and for me anyone who sustains a performance over a long time is not just mentally tough in the moment, which is important, but can deal with all the drudgery that goes with being a top level sportsman."