June 01, 2006

The Importance of Mental Training


By H Natarajan

It was in the Sri Lankan Cricket Board HQ in Colombo that my eyes fell on a book that I had been searching for a long time. I was keen to know more about the author and his methodologies that had helped extricate two of the greatest batsmen in the 70s from the crisis they were facing in their career.

I promptly bought three books – one for myself and gifted the other two to Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Tendulkar was then the captain of the Indian team and I thought the book may interest him while Dravid, I knew from my interactions with him, loved reading books, especially books that delved into the mental aspect of the game.

Sadly, my copy of Rudi Webster's book “Winning Ways” went missing even before I could read it.

I have not had the good fortune of the meeting Dr Webster, but a few years back we exchanged a few emails when he had sought my help to get in touch with somebody in Indian cricket. The one thing that I sensed from those communications with him was that he nursed a desire to work with Indian cricket – not necessarily with the national team.

The move to get Dr Webster help the Indian team has to be applauded. Cynics, however, may sneer that this is yet another move by Greg Chappell to get one of ‘his men’ into the think-thank working behind the scene for the Indian team. Such criticism would not only mean questioning Chappell’s integrity but also Dr Webster’s eminence as a psychologist.

Dr Webster’s appointment comes at a juncture when the team, collectively, finds itself in an inexplicable slump. If anything is questionable about the appointment it’s the fleetingly short duration. There are no easy answers to matters related to the complexities of the mind and its debatable if much good would come from just a week’s interaction between Dr Webster and the players.

Dravid was practical when he said that he did not expect “magic spell” from Dr Webster. “The idea is that the younger players should be exposed to different types of people and thoughts. Rudi knows the mental side of the game and should come handy to the team," he explained.

In the more advanced countries, sports psychologists play an important part in the careers of sportspersons. And among the well-known sports psychologist of the world is Dr Jim Loehr who has trained some of the world's greatest athletes, including mega stars like Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and golfer Mark O'Meara.

When others of his time were finding excuses for their inadequacies and inconsistencies to combat genuine pace, Sunil Gavaskar emerged from the same environment to be acknowledged as one of the all-time greatest batsmen. The era in which he played had the greatest assemblage of fast bowlers, but the Little Master stood tall. What separated SMG from the rest? Among other things, his granite toughness of mind stood out. As he has said in the past, at the highest level its temperament more than technique that separates the good players from the great. Temperament is all about the mental aspect of the game.

Guys like Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are not the paragons when it comes to adhering to the coaching manuals, but both men are supreme examples of belief in their own abilities that has made the best of bowlers look pedestrian. They have minds that are radically different from the average player and that is reflected in their performances which is different from the rest.

No player in any sport can experience the joys of being on a high all the time. And when confronted with slumps, doubts creep into the mind and defects into the game. And, if not arrested immediately, it can cause great damage – at times, irreversible. Sport is replete with instances of players at the peak of their prowess one moment and then slipping to abysmal lows quite rapidly. One need not look beyond Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Vinod Kambli, two players whose careers held great possibilities. Timely help from a sports psychologist like Dr Webster or Dr Loehr could have saved their careers from untimely and unfortunate deaths.

Greg Chappell himself was on the verge of quitting as he went through a nightmarish time scoring just 164 runs from 10 Tests in 1981-82. In a three-month period at this juncture he also played in 14 ODIs (for an average of over 17), where nine times he was dismissed for single digit scores. The frustrations reached a stage when he was contemplating quitting the game. It was this lowest point of his career that he sought help from Dr Webster. The sports psychologist told Chappell that he was not picking up the ball early in flight and as a result was not in the correct position to play his shot. Once the problem was identified, Chappell regained his magical touch and his position as one of the best batsmen of the world with three hundreds from four Tests.

When Viv Richards was going through the horrors in Australia very early in his career in the 70s, Dr Webster found out that it was simply a case of anxiety. Richards was batting then at No 5, and for a person who likes to dictate and dominate, waiting his turn to bat in a strong line-up where he was preceded by batsmen like Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredricks, Lawrence Rowe and Alvin Kallicharan was very frustrating. A promotion in the order, on Dr Webster’s advice, changed Richards’s fortunes and gave the world a batsman widely reckoned as the best after Sir Don Bradman.

Hopefully, the sessions with Dr Webster will remove the cobwebs and negativity that would have resulted in the minds of many of the Indian players following the 1-4 defeat in the ODI series against the West Indies.

The mind is capable of achieving seemingly impossible things if the thinking is along the right lines. And to help think along those lines, an expert like Dr Webster is most beneficial. Of course, a lot depends on the receptiveness of the players. It will certainly do no good to a player who deep down does not accept such thinking or dismisses it as intellectual mumbo-jumbo.

Top players in all sports, or for that matter anybody from any walk of life, will tell you the power of visualization. I have read many books and spoken to several high-achievers who all said that they were not just driven by their passion but also kept visualizing in their mind what they wanted to achieve.

Running the mile under four minutes was deemed ‘impossible’. But once Roger Bannister made the ‘impossible’ possible, his record stood exactly for 46 days. Subsequently thousands have emulated Bannister, who now reckons the day will come when someone will run it under three and a half minutes.

Having a coach and a captain who are cerebral enough to understand the positive spin-offs from strengthening the mental aspects of the game is a blessing for the Indian team. Both men are not only erudite but highly respected for what they have achieved. Dr Webster himself has a good track record: He played first-class cricket for Warwickshire and Otago and in 70 matches took 272 wickets as a fast-medium bowler at a respectable average of 19.44. He was the manager of the West Indies team in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and later performance consultant and founding director of the West Indies Cricket Board’s academy in Grenada.

The talent in this Indian team – like in the past – is undeniably rich. If there is one aspect that needs attention, it is the mental aspect of the game. If that can be fine tuned, the world will see a different Indian team.

The importance of mind can never be underestimated. Sadly, it has not got the the importance it deserves. As Dr Webster once said: “When I ask players what percentage the mind plays in competition and performance, most say about 50 to 80 percent. But when I ask them how much training time they spend on the mental aspects of their game, the answer is less than five percent.”

With sports increasingly adopting modern science to enhance performances, sports psychologists will play a greater role to play in the days to come.

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