Psychology Of Cricket - Self-Confidence

Kevin Pietersen - a confident cricketer
©REUTERS / Action Images

"When you have it (confidence) you feel like you’re never going to lose it, when you haven’t got it, you feel like you’re never going to get it." Matthew Hayden

"When confidence is undermined, a player’s whole game can be shot to pieces." Graham Gooch

Self-Confidence in Cricket : Three Tips

If confidence could be packed into a pill it would be the most widely prescribed psychological pill on the market. Typically, confident cricketers are in complete control of their skills, things happen as they expect, they approach situations as a challenge, and performance standards are high.

The form of Australian captain Michael Clarke over the last 12 months or so is an illustration of someone with a high level of belief and how such beliefs can manifest into high levels of performance. When confidence is low - things are a struggle, skills don’t work, performance is poor, they start to question their abilities, and avoid situations where they are put under pressure.

Consider here the form of Ian Bell prior to the recent New Zealand winter series or the form or Mitchell Johnson during the 2009 Ashes. Both players appeared to struggle with their games and became tentative in their decisions and skill execution.

Research in sport psychology clearly and consistently demonstrates self- and team confidence to be one of the most important psychological factors for successful sport performance. High levels of confidence encourages cricketers and teams to enjoy playing under pressure, and gives them the freedom to express their abilities and talents, resulting in increased performance.

Interestingly, increased confidence sees individuals and teams work harder (increased effort), and prove more persistent in executing skills and tasks. England’s last day performance in the final test of the New Zealand series is an illustration of how teams with high confidence expend high levels of effort and persistence.

Team confidence results in an ability to keep going when winning seems impossible - working hard when in difficult situations. In contrast teams lacking confidence typically reduce physical and mental effort, and give in easily. A lack of team confidence can also lead to choking under pressure.

So, what are three of the big areas a player should look to target?

1. Control the Controllables

One reason why individuals and teams often lose confidence is that they become anxious and distracted by factors that they cannot directly control or influence.

This includes the weather, pitch conditions, or umpiring decisions (to some extent!). Psychologists generally suggest that you should focus on those things that you can control when competing such as levels of effort and concentration.

There is nothing to be gained from worrying about things you can’t influence such as an opponent’s preparation, quality/difficulty of the pitch, or the weather conditions. Essentially, elite players are good at focusing on the right cues - consider Jonathan Trott and his infamous routine - going through the same process for each delivery to allow him to focus on the right thoughts and hence block out irrelevant and distracting thoughts.

In addition, Ricky Ponting can often be seen saying to himself ‘watch the ball’ as the bowler is coming into bowl - allowing himself to focus accordingly.

2. ‘Be a good coach to yourself’

Often, cricket players (and coaches) have a tendency to speak to themselves in a manner which is unhelpful and very different to how they would talk to colleagues in similar situations. Following an unsuccessful performance some players will berate or beat themselves up, consistently reminding themselves of their failings and what a poor player they are.

What players really need to do is be good coaches to themselves. They should talk to themselves in the same way they would communicate to a fellow player and provide encouragement, reassurance and look to build confidence. Positive self-talk is key here.

One thing we encourage the players we work with to do is reflect on the good aspects of their performance after each session or innings. For example, a player may indicate that they remained calm, and focussed but could improve their decision making when running between the wickets.

3. Body Language

During a cricket game, players and spectators alike will judge how confident a player is on the basis of their body language… how does the batsman walk out to bat? How does he deal with a mistake, and cope with pressure?

We have all seen how a player who walks slowly out to bat with their head held low, and tension across their brow immediately gives information to their opponents - this player is anxious and uncomfortable. In comparison, a player who jogs out from the pavilion shadowing shots, with head held high, and chest pushed out displays confidence and control.

One key skill is for players to act confidently even if inside they may not feel it. This will influence the perception opponents have about them and hopefully offer a slight advantage. The really interesting thing is that, over time, by acting as a confident performer - a player actually starts to think like a confident player.

Good body language does not just relate to how one approaches the wicket. Good players deal with mistakes by not replaying failure in their body language. For example, a batsman who plays and misses will not replay the poor shot when shadowing the shot - they will rehearse what they should have done - building self-confidence and exuding confidence and control to their opponents.

Ian Bell is someone who in my opinion does this very well. To illustrate, whatever the outcome he can often be seen either rehearsing or reinforcing a particular shot. Kevin Pieterson can often be seen pulling away or raising his hand to indicate to the bowler he is not ready - here he simply maintaining control and indicating to his opponents that he is control of his thoughts and game - that is if he does not feel ready he is not going to be rushed into doing something he does not want to do.

Confident players display good body language when under pressure. It might be a wry smile or a cheeky wink. Good advice to any player entering a pressure situation is to smile. No one ever expects people to smile under pressure, yet alone look like they are actually enjoying it.

Second, smiling releases feel good hormones into our blood stream making us feel calm and upbeat. And that’s a good place to be!

By Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Martin Turner, Sport Psychologists specialising in cricket and contributors to The Psychology of Cricket: Developing Mental Toughness by Dr. Stewart Cotterill and Dr. Jamie Barker.