Cricket has traditionally not been good at coaching independent decision making in players. Yet, as we have seen already, it’s a crucial part of the game for both mental skills and skill development. This section will offer a few ways to help coaches help players improve their decisions.
The traditional “command and control” style of coaching influences players to do what they are told rather than develop their own decision-making skills. The alternative is to embed decisions in as much of our training environment as possible, seeing the skill as another psychological underpinning.
With that rationale in mind, let’s look at the key level of decisions a cricketer has to make, and decide how to integrate such skills into cricket training.
Before we get into specifics, it’s worth taking a moment to regard the theory around decisions. This is a rich and well studied field and worth investigating yourself, especially the book The Chimp Paradox
To give a crude summary, cognitive research has found we make decisions in two ways: Fast and slow. Fast thinking is instinctive and takes less mental work, happening in the moment. It’s also prone to errors and bias as it takes so many shortcuts in the quest for instant delivery. Slow thinking is more rational and requires much more mental effort. As a result it makes fewer errors but takes much longer.
Both are essential. Fast thinking, for example, is needed for shot selection. Slow thinking can be used when deciding tactics like which ball to bowl to dismiss a certain batsman on a certain pitch.
Both are trainable, which is what we will look at in the following categories of decisions.
Cricket skill decisions
The most common decision making is skill based: What shot to play, what ball to bowl, which end to throw to, and so on. I would argue every ball in a cricket match contains multiple decisions. In addition, these decisions are taken by a mixture of fast and slow thinking. If that’s true, as coaches we need to ensure there are as many decisions being made by players in training, and those decisions are reflected upon regularly.
I often ask myself when designing a practice or session, “what decisions am I asking the players to make?” and if the answer is “nothing” then I rethink. For example, hitting a ball off a tee can be replaced by hitting a throw down.
This is where a constraints-led approach (CLA) approach to coaching is useful. One of the core ideas in CLA is the the game is a “dynamic system”. The game environment is constantly changing at multiple levels: Runs and wickets most obviously. We can drill down further to conditions, opposition (and our own) fatigue, confidence and motivation, the type of bowler, the style of batsman, and down further to perception of how the ball is moving (bowler to batsman, batsman to fielder, fielder to fielder or stumps).
If CLA - and the mantra of practice makes perfect - is right, the more players experience decision-making and “repetition without repetition” the more skilled they will become. This makes sense because we know fast decisions in a match require fast thinking, a function of our instinctive mind. We can’t use slow thinking to choose a shot as the ball goes past before we have decided. So instead, we force our fast thinking mind to learn what to do by making it do the work.
The implication for practice then, is to build our sessions around as many fast decisions as possible that are suitable for the level of players we coach, and critical outcomes. Batsmen will train up their decision-making far faster in middle practice, for example, than nets. Nets are faster than throw downs. Throw-downs are faster than static drills. Each rep is a way of checking how effective our decisions are, and training our decision making.
You’ll note the word “faster” was used rather than “better”. Speed of thinking is helpful when we get a decision that takes us closer to our critical outcome. However, a fast decision is not always better. It can go wrong if our instincts betray us.
A simple example is playing a short ball. If we follow instinct we have three possible reactions: We can fight and try and hit the ball, we can run away from it or we can freeze and do nothing. All are normal human instincts and whichever one emerges naturally when facing fast, short bowling is the fast brain doing its thing before the slow brain has time to argue. Naturally, fighting or dodging is a more effective response than freezing, but even fighting can lead to our demise at the hands of deep square leg.
In the short ball example, then, we can train player instincts by guiding them to learn how to respond with either attack or defence. Once this need is identified (say the batsman freezes and gets hit as their instinct response), we can work on decisions through the lens of technical drills with softer balls, then progress through faster feeds, more decisions (full or short ball) and harder balls as the player finds success. As we go through this process of removing constraints and adding decisions we are training the fast brain to understand the safest response is not, as it thought, to freeze. Instead it can either decide to smash it or duck it.
While this is one example, the wider point is simple; we can’t outthink fast thinking. As coaches we can coach player’s fast brains a more useful way, and use constraints to build up a new response. This works because of the way our brains work. A good read on this is The Talent Code, which explains how our brains are pliable to change - literally improving the strength and sped of connections in the physical brain - through deliberate training.
Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, goes even further, saying trusting the power of instincts allows experienced players to quiet the mind. By relaxing into the feel of the motion, and observing the environment, we don’t overthink things. We no longer have frustrations about form. There is certainly merit in this approach of “letting the serve serve itself”. That’s the fast mind doing its thing without the slow mind in the way.
That said, there is still a role for slow thinking in skill decisions. While slow thinking can’t be applied live, it can be applied in natural breaks in play using a fast review. As we have already discussed, a fast review may only take 10 seconds but is plenty of time to allow players to switch from fast thinking to slow thinking. The benefit of slowing down is as we might imagine; it’s much harder to make assumptions when we are forcing ourselves to really think about a problem. If we stick with the shortcut-taking autopilot of fast thinking, we risk “going through the motions”. While this might be the right thing to do - sticking with a tried and tested Plan A because it will eventually come off - it can also blind us to opportunities to do something different and more helpful. Knowing when to stick and when to change tactical plans is a skill that requires slow thinking. So review often, even if the final decision is to stick. Then, get back to the fast thinking in the moment.
As we already know, skills are built on behaviours. These behaviours are also subject to decisions at fast and slow levels. When we choose to act in a certain way we are using slow thinking. When we behave “without thinking” we are really using fast thinking. Both are possible.
I’m sure we can come up with dozens of examples of how both kinds of thinking are helpful and unhelpful. If we spend too much time slow thinking at training we get less practice done. But some slow thinking is useful to be mindful of our state and decide our success markers. If we purely use instincts to train and play we don’t learn from mistakes and are not self-aware until it’s too late. Yet, when we are running on helpful instincts, we play beautifully.
So, the trick is to find a balance in our decisions. Use the incredible speed of fast thinking and the more considered slow thinking. For example, a helpful behaviour is to go to the gym twice a week on top of cricket training. If players went to they gym out of fast thinking habit they don’t need much slow thinking beyond the occasional review of progress. However, fast thinking is failing if players want to go to the gym but rarely show up. Here, some slow thinking to adjust either the goal or the commitment is needed.
One could argue, from a positive psychology perspective, the ideal balance is flow: Being in the moment but also self-aware enough to adjust when needed. Flow is a delicate dance between fast and slow thinking. Flow is always available to players if they develop the ability to avoid thinking traps. While we know external factors can easily disrupt flow, the state is much more likely to happen if we have built an effective, safe and challenging environment. This environment is built particularly in both the Rule of Three and the fast review.
Additionally, behavioural decisions are not just on an individual level. We also act as a team, combining individual efforts to score runs and take wickets. Team culture is defined by our behaviour decisions in the moment, so we need to be clear on both our skill-based roles and tactics, and the cultural behaviours about “how we are” as a team.
This takes us back to the work we did about defining and enforcing purpose and principles. Players must be clear on both what they agreed to do while in the shirt, and why they agreed to do it. Then, they must enforce these behaviours relentlessly with themselves and each other. It’s in this enforcement that team spirit is built up, as players realise they will not allow each other to stray too far from the team path. Setting up this behaviour is a role of slow thinking. Being aware in the moment of how ourselves and others are acting is a function of fast thinking.
The most helpful outcome is to have a team who act instinctively in agreed ways, and also support each other when instincts fail. In other words, a strong embedded culture, or team spirit, can be “in flow” as well.
Decision-making is another plank in effective cricket in both skill execution and behaviours. Coaching can both hurt and help the decision-making process:
- Decisions can come quickly or slowly, both can be prone to error and both can be coached to be more effective.
- Coaching both fast and slow thinking is crucial, this is best achieved through athlete-centred coaching tools like Fast Review and the Rule of Three.
- Effective decision making is a combination of fast and slow thinking. Sometimes this is called flow.
- Removing decision making from the coaching environment (such as by telling players what to do) makes it difficult for players to know how to make helpful decisions in games.