How much importance do you place on psychology in top level sport?

8 January 2014 Comments 6

When an athlete thinks they’re good at something, is their potential success wrapped up in just the physical and the technical or how much can mental strength swing the pendulum in their favour – even if their opponent’s skill levels might be slightly higher?

It’s simple. Psychology can be massively decisive in any outcome and you only have to look at the recent Ashes series to realise that. By the way, for the English readers amongst you, I promise this isn’t going to turn into a thinly veiled boast and for those of you who don’t follow cricket, you may think this blog will be of little interest. However, I’d like to think the debate it prompts about the psychology of sport is worth persevering with!

So, for those who don’t know, (or don’t really care) Australia thumped England 5-0 in a five-match cricket series. As a proud Aussie, I am of course delighted. But 5-0…. Really?

Casting all allegiance aside, I believe there wasn’t a lot between the two sides, but in winning so decisively, Australia answered my question for me. A strong mental approach can clearly make all the difference. For example, is Mitchell Johnson, the greatest Australian fast bowler there’s ever been? In my opinion, no he’s not. But in the last couple of months he clearly believed he was and he played like he was.

Equally, is England captain Alastair Cook or summer saviour Ian Bell suddenly incapable of hitting the ball off the square? The answer’s no, but during the Ashes, they appeared to believe they were beaten before they even took guard.

The turnaround after England won the summer series on home soil was enormous. Before England’s 3-0 victory, Australia were in complete disarray. Back stabbing, in-fighting and general anarchy was the prelude to the Australians firing the head coach and replacing him with another just a couple of weeks before the matches started. It was a massive gamble and the expert opinion that suggested England would consequently dominate in England AND Australia was hard to refute in terms of its logic.

As it turned out, the gamble of making a change so close to the biggest head-to-head in world cricket was a long-term masterstroke. Sure, England won the series at home, but the competition was a lot closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests, or that some had predicted. Mickey Arthur’s analytical approach had been replaced by the blood and guts style of Darren Lehmann and while the players were the same, it was just the coach who was (very) different.

You may recall Arthur’s methods included ‘homework’ for the players which some rebelled against during a tour of India and were punished for not completing. Arthur’s rotation policy didn’t sit well with the squad either and a style described as being ‘paralysis by analysis’ was replaced by the rather more traditional ways of Lehmann.

Lehmann’s methods may have made a subtle difference to the closeness of competition in England, if not the series outcome, but it now appears during that tour, the mental building blocks were actually being laid for the return in Australia. He clearly knew which buttons to press to get the best out of his players and within 6 months, a squad of what appeared to be average no-hopers was inspired, committed and fired up to the point where they intimidated the opposition into whimpering submission. That’s not an Aussie fan saying it for effect, it’s a fact acknowledged by most English fans and pundits too.

England have been labeled as ‘pathetic’ by their own fans and former players and they were, in a sporting sense, terrorised. Australia’s eleven isn’t that much better than England’s but the capitulation made Australia look world-beaters. In truth, this was two slightly better than average teams separated by one example of supreme leadership.

England lost 100 wickets in the series – a ‘feat’ that’s never been done before. The Australian batsmen mustered 10 centuries during the Aussie series, England managed only 1 and that from rookie Ben Stokes. Lehmann promoted stability and security within the Australian dressing room with the remarkable stat that the same 11 players played in all 5 tests. That in turn, promoted confidence and belief and a return of the long-lost, abrasive Aussie culture.

For England, Jonathan Trott was forced home in unfortunate circumstances which clearly didn’t help their cause but then, when the series was lost with two of the five Tests still to play, Graham Swann announced his immediate retirement. That was one of the most obvious example of sporting surrender I think I’ve ever seen. The phrase, ‘guys, we’re in this together, I’ll wait for another couple of weeks’ was clearly not an option. It said everything about the respective mindsets. Australia were invincible and unstoppable, England were broken and ready for home.

In hindsight, the difference was also apparent in the mentality of the teams as they won their respective series. When England won in England, their approach was to do just enough for a victory. When Australia dominated the return, ‘just winning’ was simply not enough. Total humiliation was the next obvious step and they went for it. England meekly complied by rolling over and waiting for the killer blows – which were delivered predictably, repeatedly and without any element of sympathy.

From an English perspective, there’s a longer-term and deeper debate to be had as to whether the schools system which generally repels the competitive ethos, will ever produce future teams with that sort of grit but as I’ve said at the outset, this is absolutely not a gloat. It’s a genuine observation about how the mental side of sport can make such a monumental difference.

In wider sport, there are of course other ways to motivate and the blood and guts theory might not work every time, but for Australia on this occasion, it did. Psychology proved decisive and the difference between two closely matched sides was probably Darren Lehmann. The man who recognised its importance and used it to maximum effect.

PS. Mitchell Johnson did a fabulous job over the series but the real Man of the Series was Brad Haddin. He was Australia’s savior on countless occasions. Without him we were goooooooooooooooooone.

6 comments on "How much importance do you place on psychology in top level sport?"

  1. Peter Frawley on 8 January 2014

    Fair piece Jamie. Where does the professional sports psychologist fit into this scenario though?

    I also wonder if the second half of a ten match Ashes series being played in Aus mounted extra mental pressure on the Eng team.

    • Jaimie Fuller SKINS Chairman on 8 January 2014

      Thanks Peter. More and more the professional psychologist is critical for the athletes. We saw how important some were for Team GB for the Olympics. I don’t see any particular pressure for the English before Australia any more than usual. They should have come into the second series under less pressure frankly than the Aussies. As many people have said, the nature of the crushing defeat in Brisbane in the first test was critical for the rest of the series.
      It’s an interesting balance between psychology and culture. I’m a huge believer in culture in any organisation, whether sporting or business and this was the missing piece for the Aussies prior to the Ashes.
      The interesting thing will now be to see how the Aussies go in South Africa next month. I reckon the South Africans will be licking their lips in anticipation (they should be)

  2. Alan Martin on 8 January 2014

    Good and fair analysis. Botham before the series predicted 5-0, he was right with the score, just got one tiny detail wrong re who. But he has the mindset of a winner, no matter what the situation, that with technical skill makes a winner.
    Hope all is well Jamie
    Kind regards

  3. Matilda Raynolds on 9 January 2014

    Great article Jaimie and couldn’t agree more. Something that I certainly have to work on in triathlon – the body will always follow the head, so if you think you are going to lose, get out, not stay on peoples feet in the swim, well then that is exactly what will happen. With the Austrailan Open Tennis about to start I always watch Samantha Stosur closely and there continues to be nothing more evident than when she doubts herself that her game goes to shite. The pain of watching her unravel as she was playing China’s Zheng Jie at the 2013 Australian Open, leading 5-2 in the third and deciding set before unravelling at a disastrous pace losing the set 7-5 and the match with the icing on the cake double-faulting on match point. I pray she has a new sports psychologist.

  4. Jeff Barnes on 12 January 2014

    Great article and a very restrained one given the open goal you had to stick it to us Poms! Whilst you guys did the right thing and changed coach we look like we are going to keep with the same one who also favours the over analytical approach. Geoff Boycott’s rant against the 84 page booklet about the food being a classic; even though he is a complete pr*ck (Boycott that is!) I also think that a new captain wouldn’t be a bad thing as Cook looked like a rabbit in the headlights too often.
    Anyway let’s hope we can do better in the ODI’s. Whoops – we just got stuffed in the first one of those as well. Maybe the 20/20’s? Darts? Snooker?

  5. Mike on 20 January 2014

    There is no debate, as far as I can see: ask any amateur golfer about the stress on an important four foot putt, when they missed the last one, compared to made it. That becomes self reinforcing both ways. Interestingly it is more stressful when on a team, than by yourself, the feeling of letting down.

    The question is less whether it matters, it is more how to control it. Hypnotherapy seems to work, whether more as a placebo or a fact is hard to tell.