My last post outlined the four attentional styles: broad external, narrow external, broad internal, narrow internal. I also stressed that each of us has a preferred style, which we will revert to when we have a choice or when under pressure.
Let me make a prediction – your preferred style is internal, either narrow or broad. How do I know this? Because you’re reading a “science-themed blog”! You obviously enjoy thinking about things, and spend idle moments wrapped up in your own thoughts rather than looking around you for entertainment. I certainly do.
(I must give a warning before I move on: Griffiths repeatedly stresses that there is no “one-size-fits-all” mental strategy in sports. I am largely applying the techniques of Griffiths’ book to myself, as an internal attender. Don’t assume that everyone needs to do what I do.)
Let me begin with a surprising statement: in many sporting contexts, conscious thought inhibits performance. Griffiths calls it paralysis by analysis, saying:
“… analysing during the execution of a stroke or while you are bowling a ball is highly detrimental to performance … The well-meaning supporter who yells out ‘think about it’ every time someone in the team makes any sort of error should be given a ticket to the races whenever an important game is on!”
There are two reasons for this. The first is given by Daniel Dennett in his book “Freedom Evolves.” He cites the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that even the simplest conscious decisions take at least 0.3 seconds to perform. Remember that a batsman has just 0.6 seconds to execute a stroke, and cannot change his mind in the last 0.2 seconds. Thus, conscious decisions are too slow. A batsman hitting a ball is reacting, not deciding. As Dennett puts it:
“The consciousness of the decision comes from the conscious decision to train oneself to react in a certain way.”
If you try to consciously decide how to hit a fast delivery, you’ll react too late. You don’t have time to ‘think about it’.
The second reason comes with an illustration from musical performance. I’m currently reading “The Inner Game Of Music”, by Barry Green. It contains this revealing passage:
“The hundreds of musicians that I have spoken with … almost all find it very difficult to remember much about the times when everything [in a performance] went well … Most of us have very clear memories of that self-critical internal conversation while we were playing poorly.”
Conscious thought directs our concentration internally when it needs to be external. And when our performance suffers, those internal thoughts become disparaging, making the situation worse. Allow me to illustrate.
Suppose you are playing for NSW in Rugby League’s State of Origin. Queensland is one point in front with 30 seconds left. NSW are awarded a penalty, 40 metres out. The ball is handed to you – if you can kick the goal, you get 2 points and NSW win. Otherwise, time runs out and Queensland win.
Here’s the problem. When you practice your goal kicking, you’re on an empty field, monotonously kicking the ball between the posts. But now 50,000 hostile Queenslanders surround you. The task is simple enough – your brain has to send the right signals to your body to propel the ball between the posts. But while on the training park your mind was clear and focused, now you find that your head is invaded by a thousand different thoughts: I hope this goes over, I’ve done it before, you imagine being a hero, you imagine the disappointment as it sails wide, just stay calm, head down, my leg is shaking, just relax …
The problem is apparent – you can’t recreate your “training park” state of mind. Your brain hasn’t had any practice at kicking a goal while dealing with the pressure applied by 50,000 Queenslanders. It only knows how to do it with no distractions. Telling yourself to “concentrate!” won’t help either – that’s just another thought.
Trying to “block out the thoughts” won’t work, especially if you’re an internal attender: the situation is too intense, and your brain is naturally too active to expect to be able to think about nothing for a whole minute. You have to accept that there will be thoughts in your brain in high-pressure situations, and it is in this realisation that we find the key to a technique that is a tried-and-tested paradigm of sports psychology.
It’s called a routine. The idea is this: you can’t empty your head of all thoughts, but you can control what those thoughts are. You have to practice your mental state. It’s not enough to have your physical actions worked out beforehand; you also need to have a preprepared and thoroughly rehearsed set of thoughts. When the crucial moment comes, you won’t have time to think about the pressure / crowd / external distractions / unplanned thoughts. You’ll be too busy executing your deliberate movements and pre-scripted thoughts – your routine.
Routines can be seen in many sports, and often involve small preliminary actions to accompany initial thoughts – watch the number of times a golfer “waggles” the club, a basketballer bounces the ball on the free throw line. I’ll conclude next time by applying this idea to batting.
Introduction to Batting in Cricket: Mechanics, Visual Strategy and Psychology
Other posts in this series:
- Batting 101: Don’t Watch The Ball
- Batting 102: Visual Speedometer
- Batting 103: Swing More Than The Bat
- Batting 104: A Concentration Model
- Batting 105: Don’t Think About It
- Batting 106: How To Build A Routine