Self-awareness is crucial to better cricket because without it we are guessing and hoping at performance. Everything we have discussed so far is enhanced by being self-aware, and managing behaviours as a result.
This awareness has been given many names; mindful, in flow, game face, engaged, “in the zone”, role clarity and “knowing their game”. It’s all of these things because self-awareness is the ability to make the most helpful decisions in the moment based on our true values.
For example, one aspect of awareness the ability to “be in the moment”: A place where players are so engaged in the present that past failures are gone and fears for the future don’t exist. This state allows batsmen to play each ball on its merits and bowlers to focus purely on delivering the ball without feeling distracted or fearful. This is often called flow. We are in flow when the challenge of the game or activity matches our ability. This state is useful in training to learn skills because we can manage our environment to push players against their current ability level without making it too hard or too easy.
A simple rule of thumb for skill development is this: If a player is successful between 40-80% of the time in activity, they are in a learning flow. Less and it’s too hard, more and it’s too easy. This also ties into growth mindset coaching and learning through failure.
Red head, blue head
In games, flow is harder to come by. First, players need to be aware of their level of skill (technically, tactically, physically). Without this it’s hard to know if the challenge can be met. Second, there are external factors, most notably the skill of the opposition. I’m sure most players - when speaking with total honesty - would say they spend more time feeling anxious and worried, or controlled and relaxed, than in flow. This is because flow is just one state. So is being worried, or feeling in control.
The performance-boosting states are often referred to as “blue head”, the unhelpful states are “red head”. Awareness allows you to know where you are and how to deal with it. The shorthand term for this is mindfulness. This is also the Rule of One in the Rule of Three.
As we know from earlier, our state (both thoughts and feelings) influences action. From deciding which shot to play or ball to deliver, to going to the gym or listening when the coach is explaining, our state is a powerful influence. When we are aware of our state we can choose how to act. When we are not aware, we tend to drop into red head. This, at best, leads to inconsistent behaviour. At worst it can be harmful to our game. If you ever walked off the pitch thinking “why did I play that shot, what was I thinking?!” you have experienced red head controlling your actions.
We also know two other things:
Events don’t control your state.
You actions do not have to come from your state.
Some people argue a third point: we are still able to perform whatever our state. You can be stressed and score a hundred, you can be in the zone and get a duck. This argument suggests we ignore our mindset altogether as it is irrelevant. I’m not as convinced of this approach. I argue still need to act to perform. If we are aware of our state we can choose useful actions in the moment, even if that action is to ignore our state rather than try to change it. Awareness is important, specific state less so.
In other words, we can’t stop having thoughts and feelings but we can decide how we react.
At its simplest level, this mindfulness is being consciously aware of what is happening in the world and reacting to it appropriately. An analogy for this is imagining you are a pond. When a pebble gets thrown into the pond, the pond sends out exactly the right ripples. The pond doesn’t brace itself before impact, or worry how it will look to other ponds if it’s got a pebble in it.
Bruce Lee used a slightly different water analogy which is equally as powerful. Water, he said, has no form. If you put water in a cup it becomes the cup. It responds in perfection. We can be like water.
Of course, we are not Bruce Lee.
We all have had moments where we are not water. We blame events for our feelings and feelings for our actions. This is called a “thinking trap” and there are many others. These traps keep us locked into assuming they are reality. They stop players behaving in ways that are likely to boost performance.
Another example of a thinking trap is when a player gets out to a loose shot and excuses it by saying “it’s the way I play” as if they had no choice in the matter. This player is labelling themselves based on their thoughts and feelings.
In fact, had that player taken a moment to observe the thought and let it pass (like a ripple in a pond), we can tell ourselves we don’t have to react from first emotion or thought.
And this is the secret of dealing with all thinking traps: We have a choice, we are not dictated to by our thoughts or emotions. We can let it pass then make an appropriate decision. It only takes a second or two of conscious brain work.
Two books which examine this idea in greater detail are Thinking Fast and Slow and The Chimp Paradox. These are both excellent primers in the idea we have two minds (subconsciously instinctive and consciously rational) and how they effect our behaviour, and therefore performance.
All this said, the technique to become aware is surprisingly simple.
In the moment, when we start running on emotional or thinking trap autopilot, we can surf the urge. Imagine the urge as a giant wave heading towards you. You can let it hit you and succumb to its obvious power. Or, you can imagine jumping on your surf board and riding the giant urge wave to the shore, before calmly stepping onto the beach.
This takes three deep, slow breaths. Then a physical “trigger” to turn off the red head and snap back to self aware blue. The trigger could be clapping, saying “surf the urge”, twiddling your bat or anything quick. The whole process takes seconds.
The benefits are incredible.
Being aware in training helps with skill development. Being mindful in games helps you perform with better decision making. If you know your game well, you can make decisions based on your strengths and commit to those decisions.
Here, again, the Rule of Three (R3) is our friend. Rule One works when we are aware of our state. If we are not, and our behaviours display it, Rules Two and Three are there to provide instant feedback. When done effectively, R3 is a consistent reminder to be self-aware.
Although this process is simple, it’s far from easy. It takes focus and practice. We will all fail at it often.
Persevere, use R3 as support and players will start better noticing their state.
We all make these mistakes. The answer is not to try and fix them, but to remember they are just one interpretation of events and our interpretation is our choice.
There are two other tools to develop self-aware cricketers. They are both review based. The first we have covered in the fast review section here. The second is a reflective practice between training and games.
Regular reflection allows players to look at performance again and decide how to move forward. It’s one of the key indicators of a growth mindset. Typically, it is not done well, with long lectures from coaches or players getting more and more anxious about their errors.
However, the science behind reviewing is clear. When done consistently and free of thinking traps, reviewing improves performance because it builds awareness and allows you to develop a plan based on the mistakes made and the successes had.
So, at the end of a an important time (a game, a phase of training), get together with all the people involved in the team for a review. Ideally, not just the coach and players but everyone who has an influence on the team’s performance. Parents, scorer, tea-maker, coaches, club chairman and so on. This “all hands” approach is important because everyone has a different insight. While practically difficult, gather together as many people as possible in the time available.
In my mind, the most effective review process is:
Notice your state and change it if necessary.
Ask the “stop, start continue” questions.
Agree your actions.
If the review is immediately after a game, emotions will be high. There is a strong chance some will not be aware of their state and be stuck in a thinking trap. This means the first step is to give people the chance to get back to a more helpful frame of mind.
So, before we get practical, ask players to become aware in this moment. Take a few seconds to focus on those three breaths, quiet red head thinking and return to blue head. We can’t be reflective if we’re being driven by emotion.
If the state is low due to losing, often you can break it with a joke or a bit of banter. You don’t have to sit in monk-like silence.
This takes practice and not everyone will get it. Teenagers are especially driven by red head and thinking traps. You will see some, for example, continue to stew furiously. Do your best to break the state and remember, the more you practice the better you get. It shouldn’t take more than one minute.
Stop, start, continue
Once you have reset your awareness: Are focused and in the moment, it’s time to review. Get everyone’s attention and ask,
Were we 100% committed today?
What do we need to stop doing?
What do we need to start doing?
What do we need to continue doing?
This works because it’s a discussion between everyone on behaviours, not a lecture or an ego-bashing blame session. It does pick out negative points to deal with, but it also focuses on the positive areas. No team ever won with zero negatives, no team ever lost with zero positives. So discuss both. Win or lose.
We can do this review quickly if we answer the questions as written, or we can take longer - if there is time - to also think about why you gave the answers you gave. This can get very detailed and include pre-prepared analysis such as statistical elements and video analysis. Post-game is probably not the time for this, but it’s appropriate for a preseason or mid season squad meeting, or a one to one meeting with a player.
A useful technique to ensure everyone gets their say in a group is to ask pairs to discuss each question before answering. This shortcuts the tendency for louder players to dominate and quieter players to say nothing.
It’s here knowing our players is very helpful. For example, fixed mindset players will see defeat as failure and victory as success. In defeat, they will encourage more conservative cricket, “going back to basics” and hard work at nets. Growth mindset players see the result as an opportunity to learn and will focus on doing things differently if the plan failed. It’s not that one mindset is worse or better at this moment, but it does help us to know motivations, as this influences solutions.
The final two steps are to note down and take action. The important points here are:
Use verbs. “Learn ways to improve strike rotation” is more useful than “Teamwork”.
Focus on realistic behaviours, not outcomes. “Bowl 50 balls in training with a new ball this week” is more useful than “knock over three wickets in the first 10 overs”.
Have everyone agree to the actions.
This final point is another nod to R3. The Rule of Two is simple on the surface in that players hold each other accountable to their behaviours. It is working on a deeper level too, building a culture of helping each other reach their agreed goals rather than striving for (and often not reaching) goals alone.
For example, Corinthians might come away with very little learning to do - they like it that way - but they can use R3 to focus on helping Warriors learn by holding them accountable to their behaviours. It’s a crucial job that allows both mindsets to coexist in one team.
If you are doing a longer review - for example at the end of the season - you can also add a further question after deciding your actions: “What would it look like if everything went wrong?”. This technique is called a premortem and it allows us to look at things from a different angle before heading down a path with commitment.
Players, coaches and other stake-holders can go away from the review with two things:
A list of actions to take.
An idea of others actions, and what they can do to help.
We then go and do them, while also holding each other accountable to our agreements.
If someone doesn’t do what they say they will do, it’s just as much on the coach and teammates as it is on the player. That’s another R3 principle (and also a successful avoidance of the blaming thinking trap).
Awareness has many names and roles, but they all are important and all take effort, because knowing yourself is tough. We have looked at some of the simple ways of becoming more aware including,
Breathing and focusing.
Reflective practice, both in the moment and between matches.
Building on this base, we will next go on to look at how awareness ties to resilience and - ultimately - self-sufficient growth in players.