The Psychological game of cricket: Why India may have won the World Cup!

“I would like to thank the support staff especially Mike Horn who joined us at the start of the tournament and was there for our last couple of games. He worked on the mental side and has helped us deal with the expectations and pressure” – Sachin Tendulkar

India wins the World Cup final, and what a match! Cricket legends around the world acknowledge that India indeed were the deserving champions of the cup this time.

Apart from physical fitness and cricketing skill, an area of strength the Indian team seemed to display was that of being able to handle pressure and manage their own self-doubt. According to folklore, cricket is 90% a mental game. And this is backed by research in sports psychology that suggests psychological strength is equally or more important than physical strength.

No wonder Sachin Tendulkar and other team players acknowledged the work of Mike Horn, who coached them on the psychological aspects of the game. This was reflected even in small ways like Gambhir and Yuvraj’s self talk saying ‘come on’ to themselves (caught on camera) before every ball they batted or Dhoni’s calm yet strategic focus after losing two important wickets . Like somebody mentioned, “With a match like India v/s Sri-lanka, where both the teams are equally good, it ultimately boils down to which team can handle the pressure better’.

Studies conducted by Dr Rob Duffield at the Charles Sturt University, and Dr Marc Portus, the Sports Science Manager of Cricket Australia, have found that you do not need to be as physically fit to play cricket as you do other sports such as football. However you do need to be psychologically strong and have a level of endurance and recovery. “Physical conditioning and muscle training is not going to necessarily improve your performance in cricket,” Dr Duffield said. “Having a high oxygen consumption or a faster twenty metre sprint time doesn’t mean you are going to be able to bowl better, or get more wickets, or score a century. The key to being a good cricketer is the ability to tackle the psychological aspects of the game by the use of mental conditioning.”

Independent studies by Alistair McRobert from Liverpool University, and Dr Sean Müller from RMIT University , have both concluded that the very best batsmen can predict the sort of ball they will receive even before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. Whilst a lesser batsman will only make his decision about where the ball will land once it is in flight, or will perhaps make an early faulty call, an experienced player can start this decision-making process earlier, giving him more time for shot selection.

Visualization and Guided Imagery in Cricket

After winning the finals against Srilanka, the Indian team, in their interviews talk about how they had set the goal of winning the World Cup 1.5 years back, and they were focused on the goal with a lot of work on the mental aspects of achieving it. Perhaps the coach used techniques of visualization and guided imagery where every player consistently practiced the mental rehearsal of their long term goal and short terms goals clearly and specifically every day till the D-day arrived.

Promoting the visualisation of positive scenes, such as run-scoring or wicket-taking moments, has become part of the coaching manual of many cricket teams, thanks to psychological research.

In addition to visualization, the Indian team may have also got a chance to work on their self belief and self talk. What we say to ourselves before bowling or batting, can have a profound influence on our performance.

Competitive Anxiety

Cricket coaches today are increasingly using psychological techniques to help players maintain control, cope with anxiety and optimize their performance in the competitive situation, allowing them to relax and to focus attention in a positive manner on the task. The 4C’s are considered as the mental qualities important for successful performance:

The 4C’s

  • Concentration – ability to maintain focus
  • Confidence – believe in one’s abilities
  • Control – ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
  • Commitment – ability to continue working to agreed goals

Jeremy Snape, Master in Sports Psychology, says that “Commonly, cricketers have no idea of how to shut out pressure or technical thoughts as they bat or bowl. A batsman may bat for over 3 hours in scoring a hundred but is only actually batting for around 8-10 seconds per delivery. It is how well we analyse and how well we switch off that determines our success. Being able to make this switch could be as easy as refocusing your attention on the good things. Don’t magnify what you are doing wrong, look in detail at when and how you are at your best.”

All this research combined with the quotes of the Indian team suggests that psychological techniques to equip the mental side of the players may have been an important weapon in India gaining the winning edge.

As MS Dhoni summed up his own mental experience in the end of a brilliant inning, “I had a point to prove to myself and to no one else.”

Team India – We are proud of you for not only conquering the world outside, but also your own world within!

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About Monisha Srichand

Monisha Srichand is the Director of TalkItOver Counselling Services. She is also a counselling psychologist, executive coach and leadership development facilitator. She has served in Marketing & HR roles before pursuing the counselling profession. Over the last 6 years, she has trained & coached over 4500 organization leaders in Fortune 500 companies across India on people management, diversity & inclusion, leadership development and emotional intelligence. She was awarded the university medal for outstanding performance in academic excellence in M.Sc Counselling Psychology and outstanding management student at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. She enjoys travelling, photography, cooking, baking, reading and dancing in her free time.