Wyatt’s Words

SomersetNorth's very own former Somerset cricketer is back for another "Wyatt's Words". And it's fascinating piece as Julian delves deeply into the importance of mindset to elite cricketers drawing on his own experience as both player and coach

I’ve been involved in cricket coaching since the early 1980s. In fact, I recall helping Tony Corner (my first coach at Temple Cloud Cricket Club and a leading inspiration for my love of the game) with a coaching session at Wells Cathedral School way back in 1981. Paul Wickham, who used to look after Somerset schools representative cricket was also in attendance. After the session, Paul took me to one side. Bearing in mind, I was young and had aspirations to play cricket professionally, the following conversation was bitter-sweet. Paul suggested that coaching could be an area I should focus. I said that I was keen to pursue a professional career. Paul was very clear in his opinion that I wasn’t good enough. It was a tough few minutes. Fortunately, his view didn’t deter me, in fact it hardened my stance and gave me an even greater motivation – a hardened state of mind perhaps?

I watched a Devon U-18 cricketer that I am coaching walk out to bat for his school team last week. He is captain of the school team and has had a very good season for them, averaging in the mid 70s. He didn’t just walk out to bat, he owned the place. His every fibre bristling with enthusiasm and the sense of another opportunity to impress. And he did. Third ball, he despatched a Devon Premier League opening bowler back over his head for a one bounce four. Two balls later he pulled fiercely through mid-wicket for another boundary. And another seventy followed…

He is a talented young cricketer, of that there is no doubt and watching him play with such confidence and positivity was hugely enjoyable. Does he play in that manner everywhere? No. Why not? I guess that’s the sixty-four million dollar question. Is that his fault or the environment? Or a combination of both? If the environment is full of encouragement, enthusiasm and there is a no fear approach in the side then it may be that he needs to take  personal responsibility to deliver. If the environment is negative, restrictive and fearful, then maybe he is being subdued by external forces.

I have experienced this personally. Most of you will be aware that the 1980s was a difficult era as a Somerset supporter. I can assure you it was equally frustrating as a player. In 1983 the club won the Nat West trophy. This was my first season. I played the last five championship games of that year scoring 328 runs at an average of 41. I was at Lords for the final and thanks to Phil Slocombe, who loaned me a tie, was invited into the dressing room after the game. It was a huge thrill. The season before I had been dropped from Keynsham’s first eleven. And yet, just over twelve months later I had made my first-class debut and was mixing with elite cricketers of that era. Sadly, the game isn’t set up for such eventualities anymore. A mistake in my opinion, but another topic for another day… How was my state of mind at the end of the 1983 season though?

I started well in 1984. In fact, sharing a 250 run opening partnership on the first day of the season against Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it did mean that our new overseas signing, of whom there was great pressure filling in for Viv Richards and equally great expectation. Poor Martin Crowe had to sit and watch Wyatt and Roebuck for ninety-three overs on a damp April wicket with a slow outfield. It couldn’t have helped (he was dismissed for 1 in that innings!) and his early season form suffered. How was his state of mind? He was a great technician and he worked diligently. I can assure you, his failings had nothing to do with his technique. My state of mind was great in comparison…at least for a while.

Our paths took differing routes not long after the Bath festival, where Martin began to score heavily. After the Leicestershire game at Taunton, where Martin batted brilliantly for 190 to guide us to victory, I was dropped. I felt my game was coming together again after a rocky patch. I had scored 47 in the first innings, as Andy Roberts took 7/70. Only Martin had registered double figures as well. It hurt and it had come as a surprise. Ian Botham had been away on test match duty and the stand in captain (Peter Roebuck) had made the decision. How was my state of mind? 

I was young and inexperienced. I went off the rails. Confidence plummeted. I was angry. Did I score runs? No, of course not. It was claimed that I had technical deficiencies, particularly outside off stump. I went along with the theory, exposing even greater problems as I prodded and poked with doubt to any ball anywhere near off stump. Doubt. You place doubt into the mind of any sportsman and watch the outcome. I did score 146 v Gloucester for the twos late in the season. I remember being not out at lunch when Martin came and sat next to me. He simply said, “make it your day”. I looked at him slightly puzzled. He repeated, “MAKE IT YOUR DAY”. The penny dropped. A state of mind. A deep determination to capitalise. An attitude.  

That winter I went to Australia for the first time and set about re-building my game, but more than anything my confidence and self-belief. Confidence is transient. Self-belief has to flow through your veins irrespective of form. The best own self-belief. No doubt, whatever the situation, whatever their form. 

I returned to England with belief and set about regaining my place in the Somerset first team. It was a good season, despite missing a month with a broken thumb with some great memories against Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding particularly. As a team we struggled though and the dressing room could and should have been better. The environment? 

1986 and onwards. Well, that’s a very long story. A change of captain. No place for me. It can be as simple as that. I was determined to fight though. Sometimes it’s all we can do. I was reselected for a Sunday League match. Rumour has it I was going to bat at 6, until vice-captain Viv intervened. “You don’t pick an opener to bat at 6” and so I opened. We were chasing 200 and I shared a century opening stand, including a ‘hairs on the back of your neck moment’, when I helped a John Emburey delivery out of the ground, pleasing the home crowd! Sadly, on 48 I ducked into a delivery from Wayne Daniel which broke my arm, ended my day and led to another period in the wilderness with off stump technical issues. As easily as that from flying to crashing.

In the absence of the captain I was recalled for my only other Sunday League appearance of the season away to Gloucestershire. Unfortunately, on being joined by Viv and being advised that we needed to re-build I drove to mid off for 38. I can still feel his glares as I walked past him. What he didn’t see was the disappointment I felt at letting him down. Shortly afterwards, the club imploded with the news that Viv and Joel were to be sacked and Beefy vowed to leave also. It was an interesting couple of months and no fun at all. I can safely say mine and many others state of mind were pretty low. 

I returned to Australia hoping for a similar return to form and regaining my sense of belief. I played an entire winter without reaching fifty in an innings once. Imagine. An entire season. Admittedly, there aren’t that many games, but nevertheless it was an extraordinary challenge. Not only did I have off stump issues, but now my feet didn’t move either. My head fell to the offside and my top hand grip was too weak, or was it my bottom hand too strong. I also stopped breathing through my ears – fatal as an opening batsman. Technical issues? Nonsense…

Funnily enough, the day my technical issues evaporated was the same day that I opened the batting against Wayne Daniel at Bath in June 1987. My broken arm foe. Third ball he banged one in short, but slightly off-line. I cut hard through point for four. A years’ emotion literally flooded out of my body – a waterfall. My feet were now fine, so were my hands and my ears breathing returned to normal. Technique back on track.  

I am not a psychologist. What I do know though, is that if a player doesn’t have a sense of self-worth, a self-belief or sense of belonging the battle is harder than it needs to be. Identifying the reason why any of these may be missing is another matter. I have been guilty of not managing myself well enough, but I have also suffered the negativity of external forces.

As a coach, I spend a huge amount of my coaching time encouraging and trying to boost the player’s emotional state of mind. I was privileged to witness a private video recently where elite athletes and coaches share information. One of the key messages being ‘coaching emotion’. I cannot state how important this is. Technique will get you so far, but the internal strengths an individual possesses will take you so much further.

How many players have we seen with questionable techniques and yet they continue to succeed? Why? As a player, the key is to understand your skill set and your strengths and weaknesses and how to manage your technique within the game you are required to play. The strength of the individual’s character to challenge the fact that external forces will be critical and damning of their game has to be incredibly strong. Their state of mind will be challenged, as the technically gifted players will be also. Mark Ramprakash springs to mind. A fantastic player who scored over one hundred first class centuries, but he will always be regarded as falling short at Test level. Technique or a state of mind? Only he can answer for certain. On the flip side, Graeme Smith has a phenomenal Test record. Was his game easy on the eye? Was it a technical blueprint to share? And yet, he made it work.

In my view, there isn’t A technique, there ARE techniques. If you coached one hundred people the same content, you would see a variety of outcomes. Differing motor skills, levels of understanding, learning styles, emotion to name just a few factors. I prefer to focus on batting principles – use the bat / judgement of line and length / pad as second form of defence / hitting the ball on the ground or in the air as a controlled choice / value your wicket / score runs etc… By coaching principles the player as a person becomes central to the journey. And within that the players state of mind is paramount.

I have seen players have bad days and coaches focus on technical skills, decision making errors etc only to later find out the player has had a personal experience that is dictating their thoughts. Maybe they shouldn’t have played, but by playing they will have learned a new self-management skill for future reference, even if it isn’t obvious the first time. The coaches responsibility is to look beyond the ‘face value’ evidence. 

An environment must also be able to accommodate many differing types of character. The environment must have a standard, but it also must have a flexibility to cope with someone different. Someone who may not fit into a rigid environment, with inflexible guidelines. 

If the player struggles with the content their state of mind will be impacted. If the player struggles with the environment their state of mind will be impacted. If a players state of mind is impacted, their performances will be below the level required. That will not always be the players fault, but so often they will be the one left with identifying the solution to the problem.

In which case, as coaches, we need to address the importance of the player recognising the value of their state of mind and how much control can they impose. It’s a journey, just like all other factors. A coach once asked me how do we train players to score hundreds. I answered, “talk about the value of hundreds all of the time”. He didn’t believe that was enough. My view is that if you bring something to the forefront of our thinking, we will recognise its value. In the same way that if we introduce negativity into our thinking – what happens? Talk about the value of the state of mind and our behaviour being consistent, whatever the situation and maybe we will find ourselves controlling our emotions better, wherever we are.

As for the young lad I watched the other day. When I saw him next we discussed the value of personal consistency, believing heavily in himself wherever he is, whoever he plays against and learning to understand the state of mind and controlling his behaviour. Can he learn to be the same person in every environment he is involved in? Can he learn to believe he could own any game he is introduced into? Probably not… yet, but if the mind is willing? Can any of us? One thing is for certain, if we feel we belong, we will, so the least we can do is pay attention to the value that is our state of mind and the impression we create.

It’s certainly something I wish I had learned earlier in my career.