Dealing with nerves, anxiety and pressure are challenges any high-performing athlete has to deal with. As human beings, we have inbuilt emotional responses to uncertainty and no doubt, at some stage, you’ve had nerves or anxiety get the better of you. For some people, this is an all too regular occurrence.
Personally, I’ve written about the ‘Night Before My Debut At Lord’s’ and how sleep escaped me because of the anxiety of making a debut. Since my professional cricket career ended, I’ve been determined to understand what separates the best performers, from those that aren’t as consistent (like myself), and have learned so much. The most intriguing element in this, for me, is the power of the mind, and therefore, human potential. In order to learn and up-skill in certain areas, I have read, listened to audiobooks and podcasts, watched TED talks and other educational videos, and most importantly, talked to those far more qualified and knowledgeable.
In Episode 8 of Under The Lid with Scolls, Buck & Burkey, we invited Peter Clarke to join us. Pete is a sports psychologist who works with Cricket Australia – from the junior pathway to national sides – and during our hour long conversation, we (former Australian Test Opener Chris Rogers and I) asked Pete a variety of questions dealing with nerves, anxiety and pressure.
This article is a summary of some of the things that Clarke shared with us in part one of this three part series.
If you went to the gym once, would you expect to put 10kgs of muscle on straight away? … Of course you wouldn’t!
Yet Clarke said that some people expect to understand and train their mind with one special strategy or technique…which isn’t possible. There is no ‘silver bullet’ that is going to make you mentally the best you can be. It’s far more broad than that. It’s a holistic process that you have to work on, day after day, to see improvement.
Clarke also started by saying not everything is going to make sense for each person. What’s important is you take the information and apply it, to see if it resonates with you. If it doesn’t work for you, keep searching for what does.
What do Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and LeBron James have in common?
Well, according to Clarke, they have all gone through similar mental and emotional battles, much like I was going through the night before my debut at Lord’s. Clarke said the first thing he does when coaching an athlete on this topic, is to normalise the experience. As aspiring athletes, we think the players on TV don’t feel the same way we do, and this makes us think there is something ‘wrong’ with us! However, it’s ok to feel anxious or nervous! It’s actually incredibly normal (I wish I knew this as I tossed and turned in the early hours of the morning before my debut).
Feeling nervous or anxious is a default human response. As a default mechanism, the human brain strives to look for some sort of control or predictability. Therefore, when there is a level of uncertainty paired with a level of importance on the result, there’s a strong possibility of the presence of anxiety. The night before a game is a prime example of when we have no control of the outcome, hence why we can feel anxious. With thoughts about the opposition, the conditions, your statistics or place in the side, who’s going to be watching, what could go wrong, plus thousands of other things, it can be extremely hard to stay calm and in control the night before a game.
To deal with nerves, Clark gave an example of what he tells his athletes…
“Hey mate. It’s ok to feel anxious or nervous. This is a very normal, natural response.”
According to Clarke, by just telling the athlete it’s normal to experience these feelings, and they aren’t strange or different, it often helps them feel more calm.
NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT
Feeling nervous is completely normal and you CAN perform well when you’re nervous! It is unrealistic to think you have to feel perfectly calm and confident to perform well. Clarke told us it’s the actions that are most important, not how you’re feeling.
Clarke explained, that as humans, our core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us are defined by the ‘lens’ through which we see. Outside of that, we have a dynamic process around how we interact with our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. We’re always thinking, feeling and acting in a certain way … so it’s important to understand your own mind and think about how you influence the process.
How do you start to influence your thinking? How do you manage your emotions and behaviours?…something which Clarke said is what you want to lean on the most.
Peter Clarke is not only a sports psychologist but also the head coach of the very successful University of Queensland Cricket Club
CHANGE THE STORY YOU TELL YOURSELF
For anyone who struggles with nerves, you need to change the narrative and how you perceive nerves. Instead of being scared of them, see the nervous energy as a good thing. Ask yourself, how can I harness this energy to my advantage? By changing how you view the nerves, it can have a huge impact on how you deal with them.
Clarke suggested that you should identify what the nerves are about. It’s normal to think ‘what if I don’t do well here?’ and focus on the negative outcome, but this just exacerbates the already normal nerves to a point that isn’t helpful. So changing the narrative to ‘what an amazing opportunity I’ve got tomorrow’, can really help bring a deeper sense of calm. Another great way to calm your nerves if they are getting out of control, is to try and put the situation of the match and outcome into perspective. Instead of thinking that your whole life depends on the outcome of the upcoming match, thinking things like ‘my mum’s still going to love me’, takes a bit of pressure off and gets your nerves into a place that you can manage.
At the end of the day, you can’t control the outcome of a match and Clarke said that ‘all you can ever do is give yourself the best chance.’ This is amazing advice for any young athletes who are desperate to do well, to understand. You can’t do any more than prepare well to give yourself the best chance. The result will then look after itself. Some days it will go your way and, especially in cricket, a lot of days it won’t go your way.
IDENTIFY THE CONTROLLABLES
“Life is 10% what you make it and 90% how you take it.” This is a famous quote that Clarke shared with us, which he said relates to the psychology principle of the ‘locus of control.’ I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘control the controllables’ before. Clarke said that what’s even more important, is identifying what the controllables are. Ask yourself, ‘what are they in this situation?’ Then you’ve got to make sure that you spend your energy focusing on the controllables. Instead of worrying about who you’re playing, bring it back to what you CAN control. You can’t change or control the conditions, so instead of worrying about what the conditions are going to be like, all you can do is adapt your plans to the conditions that you’re faced with.
CONSISTENCY IN YOUR PREPARATION
So what can you control? Consistency reduces anxiety, while uncertainty provokes it. So building consistency around your routines and processes (your preparation) is a great way to calm nerves and anxiety. As an athlete, you should be striving to find a way to be consistent in off-field activities like sleep, diet, homework (match planning), and have a clear plan of what you want to do. If you’ve done your physical (your skills) and tactical preparation, then you’ve got to try and ‘park the rest of it’ (not focus on the outcome).
Everyone reading this will know that this is a lot easier said than done! As humans, we often focus on the result and outcome. However, Clarke said that rather than dwell or focus on these things, instead, try and put your energy and focus into the controllables. Build a routine around that, and it will start to alleviate your nerves because it creates consistency.
‘This is what I do the night before a game. This is what I do on the morning of the game.’ By having consistency in your routines and preparation, it allows your mind to focus on what’s important, while performing, such as making good-decisions and problem-solving.
“I JUST WANT TO SEE BALL, HIT BALL”
Towards the end of this episode (part 1 of 3 with Clarke), Buck asked him his thoughts on when people say that they ‘don’t want to think.’ Both Buck and I have come across players who believe that thinking is bad, and they just want to see the ball and hit it.
Clarke responded with:
“I think you’ll struggle to find a great, consistent performer in any sport, who’s not a great thinker of at least that game. They are usually a great problem solver and understand their game and the game really well.”
CLEAR MIND VS BLANK MIND
When executing your skill, what state of mind do you want to be in? Clarke said that people get confused between a clear mind and a blank mind. A clear mind is when you’re only thinking about the things that are relevant in that moment. When you’re thinking about the ‘right stuff,’ you get into a sense of flow and clarity.
When you’re really nervous, thinking about the result too much, dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, that’s when you feel a ‘scattered mind.’
Thanks for reading this article. Stayed tuned for parts 2 & 3 coming soon.
About the writer: I founded Cricket Mentoring in August 2016 with the goal of helping cricketers all over the world become the best they can be – on and off the field. As a former professional cricketer with Middlesex CCC (2010-2012), I’ve played with and against some of the world’s best players and worked with some elite coaches. I’m a Cricket Australia Level 2 coach and through my own personal experiences, practice and a hunger to always learn, I’ve developed and continue to refine my principles and philosophies on coaching and cricket. I believe there’s 6 pillars to peak performance (Technical, Tactical, Mental, Emotional, Physical, Lifestyle) and most athletes only focus on one or a few things. All of our content (articles, videos, podcast) covers the 6 pillars and has been created to assist cricketers understand what it takes to achieve great things in the game.
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