Lessons from England cricket star Sir Alastair Cook – performing under pressure

Tougher Minds Founder Dr. Jon Finn highlights valuable lessons we can all learn about performing under pressure.

He uses the example of the England cricket team and comments made by their former captain and record run scorer Sir Alastair Cook.

To perform to our potential under pressure, Dr. Jon explains why we need to begin by understanding how our brains work.

He also outlines why deliberate practice is vital to develop new helpful thinking habits for high-performance.

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Podcast Transcription
Welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. Today I want to speak about performing under pressure in relation to the England cricket team’s continued batting collapses. We saw another one at the weekend [against New Zealand]. And I found Alistair Cook’s commentary really interesting on this. He is England’s highest Test match run scorer and when he speaks I listen, because he’s so experienced, and he’s been there and done it and talked a lot about how he developed such a mentally robust game. Speaking about England’s current batting, or latest batting collapse, he said when the pressure comes on, mentally, they are not handling it.

And he talks about the difference in pressure between County Cricket, where these new England batsmen have been performing so well and how the pressure at Test match level cricket is so different. It’s so much more intense. Now, Alister Cook is a real habit mechanic. He’s a guy that’s worked on himself again and again and again. And it’s easy to look at him and think, well, no, you’re wrong Jon. He is just a natural, he was just talented. And it all came easy to him, which is why he became England’s best ever batsman.

Well, no, according to Alistair Cook – and here’s a quote from the great man himself – he says, or he said, “all the greats have hard work in common. I haven’t been given a talent that makes me better than anyone else. I have made the difference by working hard”. And, at the weekend, he was talking about how this current sequence of poor performances presents a great opportunity for young English batsmen to come through and shine and to show that they can learn how to get better at performing under pressure.

But as Alistair Cook said, they have to front up and they have to admit I’ve got a mental problem here, that when the pressure comes on, it affects thinking in a negative way. And that goes on to affect my batting performance. So I would say that the England batsmen need to be trained to become Habit Mechanics. And the first thing we need to train those young England batsmen to understand is how their brain works out. And just some things as simple as the Lighthouse Brain model, which is the simplest way we explain the brain, helping them to understand that there is almost a lighthouse in their brain. And there are two characters that live in the lighthouse. The first character is HUE, which stands for horribly unhelpful emotions. The other character is Willamina power, or Willpower whose main job is to use the beam of light from the lighthouse to search and scan for threats and problems.

And whereas I’m sure in the England batsman’s minds they are worrying about what’s going on in the past. And there may be past dismissals, worrying about the future, what happens if I don’t perform today. And just understanding that our brains are wired to do that is really, really helpful. And also understanding that you have this other character that lives in there called Willamina power or Willpower, and his or her job is to coach humans to help you to do better. And it’s really interesting that Alistair Cook actually had a good understanding of his brand, he actually called what we call HUE, he called it the GIMP. And he told us about how during the game would, you know, all these unhelpful thoughts come into his brain, often as the, as the bowler was running into bowl. And how he learned to manage that and that’s the second phase of training that the young England batsmen needs to learn. They need to learn how to manage and ultimately how to develop better thinking habits, which is quite a complex thing. And hopefully, in the England cricket team’s environments, they have very experienced psychology people who can help them to actually build better thinking habits.

This is an area that I’ve done an awful lot of work in. I’ve worked extensively in cricket from the most elite levels, but actually all the way through the age grades. And I created a tool called the Pre-Shot training system which is one of the tools that we used to actually help batsmen to think more effectively when they were batting and to build better thinking habits, essentially before and as they were hitting the cricket ball.

And I think there’s a couple of challenges for the young England batsman, I think one is that sports like cricket, and, and batting particularly in cricket, there’s a danger that people can become overly technical. And they can think too much about their technique. It’s just the way that we coach now, in cricket, in sports, like cricket and golf and the spine familiar? Well, we can have the technology to really break down the technique of people. And if that’s done in the wrong way, it can be really unhelpful, because if you’re trying to bark Well, you want your movement to be fluid and very automatic. And actually thinking too much about your technique…knowing too much about your technique, it de-automates the fluency of your shots. So your moving becomes clunkier, it is not as accurate, and slows down. And of course, just slowing down a cricket shot by a fraction of a second at the highest level can mean the difference between, you know, hitting it in the four other six or getting out. And I think this is a real problem, and one that some of the batsmen might need to address.

I think another problem they’re going to face is that often when we think about performing better under pressure, we think there’s a magic tool that’s called mental skills training. And that’s just not the case. Those of you who are Habit Mechanics, and have done our training programmes, will know about the Nine Action factors model. And this describes the behavioural science and who that describes the nine core things that we need to activate in order to help us to build better thinking habits. Now, mental skills are just one of those main factors.

In order to actually help the batsmen to build better thinking habits, they need to activate all the other factors as well. So I really hope that the people working with the new England batsmen have a good insight not only into neuroscience and how the brain works, but actually into behavioural science as well. So that they can not only help the batsman understand what they need to do, but they can actually help them to build better habits when the pressure is on. Because that’s ultimately the difference between the guys that make it in Test cricket. And the guys that don’t, the guys that make it have better thinking habits under pressure. And it’s difficult to develop those if you don’t understand neuroscience and behavioural science. And unfortunately, the way that we train our sport psychologists, you know, by and large, is that they don’t learn too much about those things. So hopefully, they will be deemed to have some people in their environment that do understand those things.

So I think this is just a really interesting part of the journey……we’re seeing some really young talented people that are at a really crunch point of their career. Where if they want to become successful Test players and play at the highest level of their sport, they have to now front up and recognise that they are not as good as they need to be at thinking under pressure. But the good news is, we can all learn to do that better. And I’ve seen this time and time again, where you teach people these insights, you teach them how their brain works in a simple, understandable way. And you teach them how to build better thinking habits, using that, in my case, using tools like the Pre-Shot training programme, and also using our Nine Action factor model to help them to move from knowing, to doing, to actually building habits and people can learn how to perform better under pressure.

So if the young batsmen are prepared to put the work in, but also they’ve got the people around them with the right knowledge, help them to learn the right things, then they’re going to be able to do better under pressure. And they’re going to be able to start fulfilling that potential. However, they need to have the people around them that actually know how to help them to do this. So that it’s not really in their control. I suppose you could argue it, I suppose you could argue it in their contracts, if they don’t feel the people around them are helping them in the right way they can go find an alternative person to help them. But all these guys can learn how to do better. That’s the exciting thing. And the challenge now is to put the kind of work in that they need to put in to actually learn the new thinking habits that they need to learn to help them to go into the India Test series. If they’re given the opportunity to ensure that they can perform under pressure, and that they have learned, you know how to do it.

So, the beauty of sport is that we don’t always win every single thing. We see performances across the spectrum, some that are fantastic, some that are not so good, but they all provide talking points. From my personal perspective, I’m just interested in helping people do better. And I’m really hoping that these young England cricketers are able to put the right type of training in to allow them to move towards fulfilling their potential and ultimately to become Habit Mechanics.

And if you’re wondering why having a mechanic is good, you can learn to be a Level One heavy mechanic for absolutely free. Just go to our website, and you can learn more about that. So it’s a free training programme that we offer. I want as many people to become Habit Mechanics as possible, because I think not only is it going to make your life easier, but you’re going to be able to help other people to do better as well. And that’s so important in the current situation. So anyway, these are just a few reflections on elite sport, performing under pressure. Learning from the greats but also learning from the neuroscience and the behavioural science, and hopefully, seeing some young people now go on to fulfil their potential. Thanks for listening guys. Lots more podcasts come in. So until then, take care and stay safe. Bye for now.

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