We know training harder improves our success in cricket. This is another piece of evidence that psychology underpins our skill because attitude to work is a personality trait.
Another word for this is “conscientiousness”, which is one of the Big Five personality traits in psychological theory. Conscientiousness is the only one of the five traits that predicts improved performance in sport. This makes logical sense. Conscientious people strive for achievement, are self-organised, disciplined, productive, and tend to engage in deliberate practice more often. Those low in conscientiousness show less motivation to work and are less organised. We can easily see how personality - displayed as behaviours like training harder and more deliberately - has an impact on skill levels in the long term.
The next question, then, is how do coaches help players improve conscientiousness?
One popular theory uses a different word; grit.
Grit and conscientiousness
Grit has become a popular term due to research by Angela Duckworth into the trait, and its effect on school performance in children. She discovered grit better predicts success than IQ. Although there is much academic debate about the differences between terms like grit, conscientiousness and perseverance, as coaches were are just concerned with helping players display these helpful behaviours. We want players to stick with their cricket goals over the long term, often in the face of difficulties because we know it makes a difference. For this reason, I’ll use grit and conscientiousness interchangeably.
Grit is a personality trait, so some people are more naturally inclined to it. However, it does change over time. People in their 30s tend to be more conscientious than teenagers for example. This shows the trait is flexible. We can coach more grit into players, especially those who are still developing.
Players can learn more grit like they can learn to bowl an away swinger or hit a cover drive. However, it is much more difficult because the results can’t be seen easily, or even guaranteed to work.
Nevertheless, there are several ways we can build an environment that allows determination to flourish. Much of it we have already discussed:
Focus on behaviours as performance.
Encourage a growth mindset.
Tied to this are some additional practical solutions for players who are low in conscientiousness.
We all know the type; they say they want to work hard but their behaviours don’t match their statements. Chances are they are low in grit - possibly born that way - but the following techniques can develop more helpful behaviour in even the most tardy and slovenly!
Make a plan
The first solution is to have a plan. This sounds straightforward, but it’s tough for everyone and even tougher for those not inclined to planning. Coaches help with this process. We can establish motivations and agree expectations with players. We can also help enforce these behaviours with the Rule of Three. These are simple and effective measures.
Often this does not work efficiently because we are fighting ingrained habits so it could take more work for the players. Of course, those low in grit are also the least likely to work a more systematic programme of habit change, so this is not easy. Most players who struggle to maintain helpful behaviours are happy to admit they need to change. We can easily find this out by asking questions like,
Do you make decisions that you regret?
Do you want to do something to help your game but never seem to get to it?
Is your current plan failing?
Do you feel unsatisfied or anxious about your plan failing?
If the player wants to solve these kind of problems - and most do - then the most common response is to use willpower to break the bad habit. Despite overwhelming evidence, many people think they can tough it out. They will assure you they just need to try harder, or blame something out of their control. This time, they say to themselves (and anyone else), things will be different.
In fact, players in this position need to accept the only way out is to make a realistic plan. A plan that doesn’t rely on willpower. If we can convince players this is true, we can help them by asking them to,
Make a list of everything on their mind
Decide about each item; is it actionable or otherwise?
If there’s no action needed, put it away or throw it away.
If there is action needed, decide the next physical action.
Keep those actions in a list.
Check the list and do the actions regularly.
This is a simplified version of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system of planning and managing plans. I highly recommend it for players (and coaches) low in grit. It provides a clear, rules-based system to put a plan into action. And those people who are not naturally conscientious need rules. While you can apply GTD to your whole life - as author David Allen recommends - some find they only need it for their cricket. Either way, it helps to go through this process with someone supportive, like a coach. If for no other reason than it is more likely to build a helpful habit.
The second solution to low grit is an extension of the first: Now we have a to do list, we can also use a calendar. A calendar is really just another list, only this one is based on time. Making sure games and training are down on paper (or in a phone) helps significantly because it creates a firmer commitment that is harder to forget.
Calendars also lock down other useful habits: The gym, doing daily drills, even doing food shopping and prep, which leads to healthier eating. Combining set times for these things with a habit tracker is very useful. It might all seem like a lot of work planning, writing and being beholden to external calendars, but for those low in grit, we could easily argue about how the alternative has failed so far. Why wouldn’t you try?
The final way to boost grit is to use support. Even the most introverted person needs help from and connection with, others, especially if a positive change is to be established. That means, as coaches, we can have a role in helping players admit they need a plan, come up with one and stick to it. This might be;
Directly by becoming a sounding board. There is great power in simply listening.
Indirectly by finding someone neutral to speak to. A disinterested third party is helpful because players can admit things they might be nervous saying to the coach.
However, many players still struggle with seeking support because it’s weak minded or embarrassing to “admit fault”: A thinking trap, of course, but one that seems very real to a player with low conscientiousness.
With players at this stage, it’s best to reframe emotional support as “brotherhood”. This has parallels with the military, which helps players realise support is a crucial tool. It also allows those with grit in the team to develop those without it. The brotherhood understand each other’s challenges and focus on,
Clearly defined expectations.
Accountability for each others actions.
Behaviours not value judgements.
The brotherhood have a robust review system. The brotherhood use the Rule of Three to say “that’s not how we do things” in a non-judgemental way. For a player lacking grit, and wanting to change, this culture is a powerful motivator: Especially when combined with a practical plan and calendar.
The negative side of grit
If the above techniques help the players we coach become more conscientious, we will see more effective cricketers. However, there are down sides to applying grit in a cricket team. In general, the more grit player have, the more they are likely to be,
Risk adverse. Conscientious cricketers work hard to a clear plan. They try to minimise risks. Often this is an incredibly successful strategy, especially for batsmen. However it can have a negative side, as adaptability in the moment becomes more difficult.
Perfectionist. The obvious end point for hard work is perfection. We know this is impossible, yet many players don’t enjoy their successes because they are so focused on the things they did wrong. They end up chasing an impossible perfection which could increase anxiety and reduce performance.
Low in creativity. Don’t ask player with a lot of grit to come up with something different in the moment. A medium pace bowler who relies on swing and seam will likely be reluctant to try a bouncer unless they have practiced it for hours to perfection.
Of course, these are extremes. It would be foolish to suggest players fit into such neat categories. Nevertheless, understanding how conscientious people think generally helps us to understand behaviours, and influence change where appropriate.
Conscientiousness is a personality trait linked to success in sport. It’s trainable and can increase or decrease over time. Sometimes this is referred to as grit.
Coaching grit is simple but not easy because players need to admit they need to improve. If they do so, players who need more grit can benefit from:
A clear plan with clearly defined rules.
A “brotherhood” or other support system.