‘Perfectionism (noun) – Refusal to accept any standard short of perfection’

Last week, 10 minutes into a session with a talented young batter, I asked: “How do you think you’re going?” His answer was something that, as a mentor, I hear all the time. “Ok”, he said. A bit rusty, but ok.

I was flicking balls at a good pace and he was playing them comfortably. He was making good decisions, moving well, hitting them cleanly, playing every shot with authority and hadn’t looked like getting out. In my opinion he had been batting exceptionally well. So why was he playing “just ok” or feeling “a bit rusty” in his own mind?

MY OWN EXPERIENCE

His review of himself caused me to recall a time a few months ago, during a practice session of my own when I had been equally critical of myself. During that session I had set up a camera and filmed myself having my hit. I was practicing with a couple of teammates – one was flicking at good pace from about 18 yards while the other was a first grade quick. Both were using new balls and it was a difficult turf wicket. Throughout the session I remember having thoughts and getting the feeling that I was playing “just ok”. I certainly didn’t ‘feel’ amazing and this made me a bit down on myself.

I’ve worked hard on my mindset over the past 18-24 months and try to play and train with a non-judgemental attitude towards my game. I try to keep batting as simple as possible and not be critical of myself. I know that at times I’m going to make mistakes, so when I do, I accept it, try to understand what happened, learn from it and then move on very quickly with the hope that next time I’m confronted with the same situation, I won’t make the same mistake. 

On this particular occasion I finished my hit and remember leaving the net thinking I hadn’t played very well. I’d been doing my best not to let negative thoughts take over, however, as every player knows, you get a ‘feel’ for how you’ve played.

Upon reviewing the video footage of the session later that day, I was pleasantly surprised and quite shocked at what I saw. In the video footage it looked like I had batted well. While there were a couple of shanks and the odd play and miss, I was getting it good positions and most of the shots had come out of the middle. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with how it appeared I had played.

THE COMPLEX HUMAN BRAIN

As a player I understand how hard it can be to get your mindset right and as I reviewed the footage it made me even more curious about how our minds work and why we think what we think. Human brains are incredibly complex and powerful and although they are our central control system, they can be difficult to understand.

As cricketers and indeed anyone who seeks to succeed, we are usually our own harshest critics. We often focus on one or two negative moments even though there are usually many many more positives to outweigh the negatives. 

This brings me back to the coaching session I had with the young (17-year-old district) batsman last week. After hearing his analysis that he was only playing ‘ok’, I recounted the story of watching myself on the video and what it had reminded me about a successful mindset. Here’s what I said to him…

“As a batter we know what our best shot feels like. We know how good it feels to hit our best cover drive, cut shot or pull shot. So whenever we don’t hit our very best shot we feel like it’s not as good as it could or should have been. If we’re seeking perfection then this makes us feel like we’re not playing as well as we know we can. This then creates a feeling that we’re only playing ‘ok’ when the reality is that we’re playing well. Even striking the ball at 85-90% of our very best is still good.”

PERFECTIONISM

I’ve come across a lot of cricketers who strive to be perfect. While it’s great to set high standards for ourselves, players who strive for perfection often judge their self-worth based largely on their ability to achieve those exceptionally high standards.

One shanked drive or inside edge (batters), or one half-volley or ball on leg stump (bowlers) and a perfectionist feels like a failure for not reaching the (possibly unachievable) standards they expect. This kind of pressure is likely to cause them to feel constantly on edge, tense, and stressed out and over time makes them believe that they aren’t good enough as they didn’t perform to their ‘perfect’ standard.

SELF-DEFEATING

According to the Centre for Clinical Interventions, the excessive drive to achieve ever-higher levels of performance is self-defeating as it limits a person’s development and leaves little chance of meeting your goals and feeling good about yourself. This setting of ‘perfect’ standards causes players to experience negative consequences yet they continue to chase such standards despite the detriment it has to their game and the way they perceive themselves.

I’ve seen numerous training sessions and players performances in matches ruined in an instance by one mistake. Usually, after starting their session well, the pursuit of perfection cuts them down and they aren’t able to let go of the feeling of failure if they’ve made a mistake.

Former Australian batsman Adam Voges is an elite player who is extremely effective, not perfect

EFFECTIVE, NOT PERFECT

As a mentor, I encourage all the players I work with to find a way to be effective, not perfect. No cricketer (or person for that matter) is perfect, yet some compare every shot to what they think is perfection. Most of the time they fall short of their expectations which creates a negative feeling and causes them to temporarily lose confidence in themselves. Over time this temporary loss of confidence can become permanent as they are constantly coming up short of their own demanding standards.

Now I am certainly not saying that players shouldn’t set high standards for themselves or strive for excellence. I encourage all the players I mentor to set an extremely high vision for themselves. I tell them to think big and not be restrained by other people’s limiting beliefs or thoughts that they aren’t good enough. It’s also my job to make sure they set very high standards and I demand they challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone and be the best they can be every session.

But I also ask that you be kind to yourself. Cricket is a tough art and as I’ve said many times before it is a game that is won or lost in the mind of a player. Confidence is something that is fragile and needs to be nurtured and bullying yourself for a bad shot or one mistake only makes it harder for you to perform well.

FIND A WAY

Being effective means finding a way to succeed. Throughout your career there will be countless times where you don’t ‘feel’ great or aren’t playing as well as you’d like. The best players are able to FIND A WAY to stay in and score runs even if they aren’t hitting the ball at their absolute best.

Having played with and spoken to some of the world’s most elite players, it is clear that even they aren’t perfect and don’t try to be. Their strength comes in their ability to accept mistakes, learn from them and move on quickly. The best players practice extremely hard to minimise their mistakes but also know that mistakes are always going to be a part of the game and therefore aren’t fazed by making them. They want to be effective in all conditions and situations and seek improvement not perfection.

So my advice for all young cricketers or sportsman for that matter is to strive for your highest standard every session but also go easy on yourself. If you’re not executing the perfect shot every ball don’t let that perfectionism voice make you feel like you’re not playing well. Cricket is hard enough without your perfect self telling you you’re not playing well. Mistakes are a part of everyone’s learning and development so embrace them. Aim to learn and improve every session and find a way to get the job done, not be perfect.

Tom Scollay batting for Middlesex

About the writer: I founded Cricket Mentoring as I believe there isn’t enough emphasis put on understanding the mental side of the game. Our articles aim to help cricketers from anywhere in the world learn more about what’s required to become your best – in cricket and life in general. 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 the great game.

If you enjoy our thoughts and insight into the game then please Subscribe to get our articles straight to your inbox.

About the author : Tom Scollay

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Chris 'Bucky' Rogers batting for Somerset in one of his 554 First-class innings

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I once spoke to a former professional player who became a coach in the professional ranks and asked him whether he would change his technique during the season during his playing career. He responded in the negative.

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About the writer: Chris 'Bucky' Rogers isn't your typical cricketer. Having toiled away in First-class cricket for over 15 years, he was finally rewarded for years of dominance opening the batting in both Australia & England with selection in the Australian Test team for the 2013 Ashes in England. He went on to play 25 Test matches for Australia where he scored 2,015 runs @ 42.87 including 5 x 100s. With the amazing First-class record of 25,470 runs & 76 centuries, he has now retired from playing and transitioned into coaching, where he currently is the batting coach for Somerset CCC. 

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He said working on technique is for preseason and once he started playing, all that mattered was watching the ball.

That, I’ve discovered, is a very traditional response, handed down from father to son.

I had to stop myself from groaning out loud. “How short-sighted” I wanted to reply. I’m sure he’s not alone and these days, coaches are reluctant to challenge technical issues in young players, preferring the students to figure it out themselves. Perhaps they fear intervention will only create more problems.

NO PRE-SEASON?

What if a player never has a pre-season as, like me, he plays continuously on both sides of the world, where the seasons overlap?

Just once did I have a pre-season in Australia – and that I remember mostly for the agony of running the sand-hills at City Beach in Perth, rather than any working on technique.

Instead I was chasing an endless summer by playing 12 months of the year in England as well as home. “What is a pre-season?” was my standard jibe at teammates.

That meant technical experimentation had to be done on the job – so the standard answer to not work on your game for six months of the year seems like a waste of time and opportunity to me.

Often as a young batsman, you’ll have days when you pick up a bat and it feels like it is a natural extension of your body and other days when it feels like you’re hefting around a railway sleeper.

DAYS WHEN THINGS WEREN'T WORKING

Numerous days in grade cricket and even opening the batting for Western Australia, my swing would feel so awkward I would be trying to adjust almost every ball. I might try picking the bat up higher in my swing, other times move my hands forward in my stance and even change the width of my stance. These were just a very few of many.

In fact what would really confuse me is, somehow I’d last until the lunch break feeling like I couldn’t hit one off the square and then come out after a 40 minute sit down and feel like I was Brian Lara … well not quite but you get the drift.

What it taught me though was to keep trying to get better. I would often think to myself, and now sprout this to every kid possible, one step back to go two steps forward. Working with my dad who was my coach, I’d try all sorts of technical changes and usually, after a while, something would click and it would all fall into place. It would be like hitting at a brick wall and then all of a sudden one thing works and the rest fall over like dominoes.

PROBLEM SOLVING - DON'T GET OUT THE SAME WAY

One of the great advantages of playing in four innings matches is the chance to problem solve as a batsman between the first and second innings. I disliked … no, I hated getting out the same way or to the same bowler in the second innings as I did in the first.

After getting out I would sit down and figure out a way to combat the bowler who dismissed me first time around. It might not have just been a mental change but quite possibly a technical one.

Stuart Clark once dismissed me for a duck with a perfect ball that pitched on off stump line and nipped away but instead of just accepting he’d bowled me a jaffa, I checked out the footage and saw my hands were not coming down straight in my swing pattern and caused everything - my hands and bat - to go towards mid on. So my bat actually was inside the line, hence the ball found my outside edge.

Second innings, my focus was trying to get my hands to go towards mid-off while playing with the inside half of my bat to counter the away movement. Yes I know this is a bit more than ‘Batting 101’ but I only started to understand my own batting by constantly tinkering – even to the extent of working out what doesn’t work, to find out what does.

PLAYING TO COACHING

As I moved from player to become a coach, a surprise first-up piece of advice from other coaches was to be careful about the level of input you try to pass on. Yes, that makes sense and it would be ignorant to not listen to advice from people who have spent a long time coaching. However, it will need to be balanced against my long-held belief that the best players in the world never stop seeking improvement.

My first club-coaching role came via former Australian player and teammate Bob Quiney to help out at his beloved St Kilda Cricket Club, where the players have an average age younger than ever and a thirst for learning.

I was wary of saying too much early, but when one player said, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do Buck”, my tinkering instincts took over.

“One step back to go two steps forward”, I reasoned.

The first player asked me how to play slow medium pace bowlers as he had nicked off to one the previous Saturday. I told him to be positive and proactive. Walk at the bowler or walk into his line … a la Steve Smith … and whip him through the leg side if the bowler went for the stumps. The next Saturday he was in the same position and ended up, he said, with too much going through his mind and being neither proactive nor defensive. He nicked off again. But he had learnt from his mistake and knew what he’d do the next time and since has had some success.

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 Bucky passing on some knowledge during a batting masterclass for Cricket Mentoring in Perth

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INDOOR NETS SYNDROME

Another had what I call ‘indoor nets syndrome’ and had developed a swing where he just jabbed at balls that would race off his bat on the true synthetic surface, but had difficulty with the natural variation of turf wickets. His hands would go towards the leg side in his swing but the ball would slice to cover or more likely the slips. I was wary of trying to reshape his whole swing but then thought “Why not?” I’ll show him what I think works and he can figure the end result out for himself”. He was quite difficult to adjust and we even experimented with grip changes, not something I’d usually recommend.

After an hour’s work he was starting to get the basic principles and enjoying it. He had a far better understanding of a swing after trying something new and that can only benefit him. He can always go back to what he was doing but at least he’d tinkered and thought about it. Afterwards he seemed genuinely excited at the change and the understanding.

Yet there have been plenty of times where my coaching hasn’t worked. I tried to help Peter Siddle with his batting but made it worse. Eventually he figured a few things out himself and is still getting better – so maybe my “one-step-backwards” theory helped!

CHANGE TAKES TIME

With most things, change takes time to feel natural and this principle needs to be stressed and I’m wary of trying to change players into playing like me but sometimes certain things need to be tried.  I’m amazed when I see any tall player stand with his feet close together in his stance when Kevin Pietersen is ‘Example A’ of how to succeed as a tall batsman.

I firmly believe all the best players in the world are tinkerers and never stop trying to improve. Just ask Marcus Trescothick, who at age 41 was still telling everyone how he’s trying to fix things. That and his saying that ‘form hides in mysterious places’ were my two favourite things I got from him.

At the moment the county season has just started and he’s still working on his game plan against different kind of bowling. You’d think he’d have it all sorted by now but no, he’s using every opportunity to improve as we all should.

SUCCEEDING AT THE AGE OF 38

When asking me to write this article, Scolls (Tom Scollay) asked that I write a little about my own journey and how I managed to play well in the 2015 Ashes at age 38.

Like Trescothick, I had a thirst for perfection. Grit and determination was only a part of it. So many years of 12-months-playing of four-day cricket meant I had a very good understanding of my own game, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and to have some success against James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood and Steve Finn in bowler-friendly conditions was only possible with an in depth, intimate knowledge of my swing and my game.

For different bowlers and conditions, I would have different triggers. On the wickets that provided more bounce and seam I would have a back and across trigger while at other times, particularly against Anderson’s swing, I would push forward to try and cover the movement.

This skill only comes from trial and error and experimentation and willingness to learn. If every time I tried something, had initial failure and not persevered, my game would have been very one dimensional and limited.

Growing up I often watched in awe some of the bigger kids who seemed to make batting look easy but then fell away when they had to play against adults who matched them in size and strength. I believe it was because these kids had got it so easy early on, that they hadn’t learned to work at their game to try to understand it better.

ALL THE BEST ARE ALWAYS CHASING IMPROVEMENT

Of course, there are plenty of examples to disprove the mould but of all the best batsmen I have seen, the one consistent attribute they possess is a desire to never be satisfied and to chase improvement.

They tinker to learn … and then comes improvement.

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