“I had no idea about the mental skills needed to be successful at the elite level.”
I wanted to share a story with you that for some reason, I was thinking about the other day.
Before I start, let me point out that I’m no hero cricketer. I wasn’t born a good cricketer or into a family who lived and breathed cricket and taught it to me from a young age. None of my family had ever played cricket before I did and I didn’t play my first match until I was 10 years old. However, from the moment I first played, I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it.
The reason I made it to be a professional cricketer 12 years later (at the age of 22) was through hard work, determination and a love of hitting cricket balls. I’m very competitive and was desperate to always get better so that one day I could be the best. While I had some good cricket coaches, growing up in Alice Springs meant a lot of the time I was left to my own devices to train and learn the game which was both good and detrimental to my career. More on that another time.
MY PROFESSIONAL DEBUT
Today I want to share the story of my List A (one-day domestic) debut for Middlesex CCC, at the home of cricket – Lord’s. It wasn’t a regular Pro40 match but was against Bangladesh who were touring the UK in the lead up to an ODI series against England.
A week before the match against Bangladesh I was un-contracted, playing in the 2nd XI and pondering my future. With a big staff and some very experienced batters in the squad, I wasn’t sure if I would get an opportunity at the London club. I decided to tell Middlesex that I was going to trial elsewhere (on the back of advice from our batting coach, Mark O’Neill) as Hampshire were keen for me to play 2nd XI for them as well. Richard Johnson, the Middlesex 2nd XI coach said he was keen to sign me but needed me to get a big score and asked me to play that week against Gloucestershire as he had already picked the team.
I told Hampshire that I would play this final game with Middlesex and then come and trial with them – a decision that proved to be a good one. For whatever reason, things clicked and I did just as Johno asked and after scoring 179 for the 2’s against Gloucestershire 2nd XI
, Angus Fraser (Middlesex CCC’s Director of cricket) offered me a summer contract for the remaining 3 months of the 2010 season followed by a full contract for 2 years and also told me that I was going to play against Bangladesh at Lord’s a few days later.
It was a dream come true! While I was full of excitement and riding the high of becoming a PROFESSIONAL CRICKETER at one of the best counties, being picked to debut at Lord’s plus having just scored a big hundred, I was also SCARED and immediately had doubts and negative thoughts creep into my mind.
I had a couple of days to think about the match and played club (league) cricket on the Saturday – 2 days before. I was captain of my club team, Eastcote CC, and while I did ok, I remember being very distracted by the game in 2 days.
PUTTING MORE PRESSURE ON MYSELF
A load of my friends took the day off work and came to watch – which made me put more pressure on myself as I didn’t want to let them down. [I’ll tell you the story of trying to get them all (20 something of them) free tickets another time].
While it was truly an amazing day playing at Lord’s for the first time and I remember lots of the match very clearly, there’s one memory that sticks out!
Firstly, let me give you a bit of context. We fielded first and got smacked for 301. When it was our turn to bat both openers were out early I found myself next in as I was batting at number 5. I did have to wait for a while though as current England Test batsman Dawid Malan, and former England batsman Owais Shah put on a decent partnership.
Sweeping – although it was my downfall in my debut, it’s a good scoring option against an accurate spinner
With the score 2-12 you would have thought I was incredibly nervous. Yes I had nervous energy running all around my body but I remember vividly feeling incredibly TIRED. One of the strongest memories that I have of the day is fighting myself from falling asleep while sitting on the balcony next into bat. I remember having a few micro sleeps then jolting awake I was that tired.
TRYING TO STAY AWAKE
You know the feeling when you’re so tired you can barely keep your eyes open but you have to stay awake for something? Well that’s how I felt just before I went out to bat….at Lord’s…on debut…with 20 odd friends in the crowd eagerly waiting for me to do well plus a few thousand other spectators.
Every time I’d feel the urge to fall asleep (which happened regularly) or did drift off for a millisecond, I’d have to wake myself up by standing up and doing a few exercises. Mix the tiredness with the nerves that you would expect and it wasn’t the best state to be in before playing in the biggest match of my life up until that point.
Finally the third wicket fell at 3-99 (17.1 overs after the second wicket had fallen). Now it was my turn to bat! I walked out to the middle in this state of tiredness but walking down the stairs, through the long room and onto the ground for the first time with the bat in my hand, certainly got my adrenaline pumping.
Unfortunately it wasn’t a debut to remember as I was out LBW trying to slog sweep a left-arm spinner for 3 off 13 balls. While I was obviously extremely disappointed to get out so cheaply, I was also pleased that I had played the way I wanted to and been positive. I had had a lot of success slog sweeping spinners so backed myself to play to one of my strengths but hadn’t executed my shot on this occasion.
Walking onto the ground – hearing my name announced and the cheering from my group of friends, getting my first run and batting with Owais are all still very fond memories and ones I’ll remember forever.
WHY WAS I SO TIRED?
So I’m sure you’re wondering, why was I so tired?
I’m sure you’ve had a restless night before a big match or job interview or something important to you in the past… Well I wasn’t tired because my preparation was bad. I ate a nutritious dinner, drank lots of water and went to bed early the night before. I’d ticked all the boxes for a good preparation.
Yet I only got 40 MINUTES SLEEP!
I remember looking at the clock next to my bed, having not fallen asleep yet and it said 5:30am! I was getting picked up at 7am as we had to be at the ground by 8am for breakfast and then warm ups and I was so angry that I hadn’t fallen asleep yet. I did manage to fall asleep from about 6:00am til 6:40am which is when my alarm went off (the latest I could put it back until). I still remember the sick feeling I had when I got out of bed feeling like I’d been hit by a truck or had a massive night out and knowing I had such a huge day in my life ahead of me.
SO WHY COULDN’T I SLEEP?
My mind was racing! And I didn’t know how to calm it down (like I do now). I played my innings and the match over and over and over in my head and must have thought about/ visualised every single scenario possible (mostly the negative ones).
“What if I drop a catch?” “What if I get a duck?” “Everybody’s coming to watch tomorrow. I can’t let them down!” Etc. Etc. Etc.
At this point in my life I was 22 years old and living the dream. I trained really hard and was so happy to be playing cricket day in day out and making enough £’s to survive from it.
However, I had no idea about the mental SKILLS needed to be successful at the elite level. I didn’t know how, or even that I could, have used mental conditioning to ‘quieten’ my mind and fall asleep more easily. Now I’m not saying that the result would have been any different. But I do know that I would have had a lot more energy and felt a lot more alert if I had had a good nights sleep.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
The reason I’m sharing this story with you today is to give you an insight into how important being able to understand and then ‘control’ your thoughts and emotions are and how I learnt the hard way. We hear from so many aspiring cricketers who say they play well in the nets but can’t do it in a match. Do their physical suddenly disappear when they walk onto the ground? Of course not! It’s their thoughts and emotions that get in the way of their body doing what it can naturally do if allowed.
Since finishing my professional career with Middlesex at the end of the 2012 season, I have been extremely eager to learn about successful people and what makes them successful. This hunger to learn has made me consume thousands of books/ podcasts/ audiobooks/ documentaries/ Ted Talks/ Youtube videos etc. Anything that I can learn about people’s success and their mindset/ habits that make them successful or about how the brain works I try to consume.
No matter what profession or career, there are always similarities between the most elite performers. Their mindset, emotional control and habits set them apart from everyone else! We often see these people on TV and think they are special or were born with a ‘gift’. However it isn’t true. Every single person is human and has the same brain and emotions as you and I. What separates them is they work at understanding their thoughts and emotions so they can use them to their advantage instead of letting them sabotage their performance.
So, are you working on your mental conditioning? In my opinion, that’s what’s ultimately going to determine how successful you become. Keep hitting/ bowling/ catching as many balls as you can and work bloody hard at your physical fitness, but make sure you’re working on understanding yourself as well. Understand your thoughts and emotions and how to get into the state that allows you to play with freedom and express yourself as often as possible and you will have success.
I wish I knew this before my debut!