Cricket Australia psychologist shares tips for mental strength

Cricket Australia sports psychologist Dr Michael Lloyd shares a few strategies for how to develop mental strength and resilience.

Dr Michael Lloyd is the Bupa Support Team sports psychologist for Cricket Australia. He helps the team keep their minds healthy and focussed on the job during tense circumstances like the Boxing Day Test. But, Dr Lloyd says these techniques can be used by everyone in their day-to-day lives.

He spoke with journalist Hamish Fitzsimmons.

How do you help players prepare for a big game?

It’s important to have a good understanding of each player’s individual plans and the team’s plans to help them manage themselves to the best of their ability to execute whatever their role is. I think that’s the beauty of the game of cricket, it’s a team sport but it also has that individual element to it.

Optimal performance relates to wellbeing, it doesn’t happen by coincidence. It’s about understanding what works for that player. From both a physical and a mental perspective, our wellbeing (or feeling good) takes work. It’s about understanding what contributes to that, and at the same time what detracts from that.

Leading into a big game can be quite stressful and people aren’t always great at monitoring their own stress. So the sooner that we can pick things up and manage their emotions, the better.

Some of the players will also have particular pre-game routines and performance routines and things like that.

How do you handle self-doubt?

Self-doubt is a natural phenomenon that we all experience, particularly in regard to a big performance. The brain is there to look after us and to keep us well and functioning effectively, so naturally in the lead up to a big event, it’ll have its own little way of saying, ‘are we ready?’. It’ll question, and it’ll run different scenarios through our heads. And that’s when you’ll hear people saying, ‘don’t play your game too early and cook yourself before the game even starts’.

It’s important to be able to recognise that and to be able to normalise that, and go, ‘okay, that’s a normal part of my preparation. The advice I often give is just be proactive in the way that you go about answering that little question. Go through your routine, set some time aside to think about how you want to execute your skills.

These days there is so much video analysis and footage around performance, some players like to watch footage of themselves performing well at a specific ground, against a specific team, or just executing particular skills. Understand that self-doubt is quite a normal thing, but it’s the ability to have self doubt and to not get too wrapped up in it that sets people apart. Try not to get too far down the rabbit hole of worry and find effective little strategies of catching it, answering the question, and being able to reinforce the thigs that you do really well.

In every aspect of our lives, we’re trending towards being able to control things. Whereas elite sport is still one of those ultimate realms of uncertainty. And that’s part of the appeal. Most doubt is underpinned by uncertainty and that’s why you’ll often see it in this kind of contest because we never 100 per cent know what’s going to happen on the first day when we walk out. Are we going to win the toss or not? What is the pitch is going to be like? How is the other team going to perform? We don’t know, so naturally there will be some doubt. So we just need to be ready for that, and to have the technique and skills to be able to catch it and manage our thoughts.

How do you get that resilience?

It’s very challenging. What’s really important for people to appreciate and understand about resilience is that it’s the ability to bounce. To be able to bounce back from hardship or challenge or adversity. It’s not about not getting knocked down. Life, like sport, is about challenge. It’s about getting knocked down. Resilience is the ability to dust yourself off and go again.

At this level, the players are playing in a big series in front of big audiences and it’s not an easy thing to do but there’s a reason why at any given time there’s only 13 on the field and probably 30 thousand in the grand stand. And that’s because they’re at the top of their game. When we push ourselves to be our best, we face challenges and sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we fail and that’s okay. It’s a learning and development process. That’s part of the perspective we need to maintain, that helps us to become more resilient. We’re not perfect, we can’t be perfect, and that’s okay.

Learn, modify, dust yourselves off and bounce back.

Are these tools people can use in their everyday lives as well?

Absolutely. Live brings us challenges, that’s just a reality of life. If we’re living a full life, it will bring some kind of pain. Be it physical pain or emotional pain. Life has its ups and downs and it’s important to know what your values are and your priorities are, and to try to be good to yourself. Strive to get the best out of yourself but understand you’ll have good days and not so good days, and that’s okay.

How important is balancing rest, nutrition and exercise?

When I’m talking to people about their wellbeing,if they’re struggling with something, I'll try to understand what has stopped. Usually when we’re going well, it’s not a coincidence, and we’re doing certain things. And usually when we struggle, we stop doing certain things. And that might be your physical activity, it might be your rest.

Sleep is massive. When I deal with people, be it in sport or life in general, if they’re struggling with something and I say, ‘when do you generally find that it’s at its worst?’ they say, ‘when I’m tired.’ It’s one of those things, when we’re getting good sleep, life’s pretty good. And when we’re not sleeping, life can be really challenging.

We need to prioritise sleep. Don’t have caffeine too late, don’t be on your phone in bed, and all of those little things..

The players in teams like this are at a bit of an advantage in that they’re regularly exerising, and the reason why that’s so important is from a stress perspective. When we’re stressed, we have certain hormonal responses and things in our system that impact us and generally the best way to metabolise that is through physical activity.

Elite players generally do that well, they’re encouraged to eat well, their hydration is important, they are encouraged to sleep well, and all of that contributes to physical performance and wellbeing. When talking to people about their emotional wellbeing, I often tell them, you need to start with a good foundation. A good foundation is your physical wellbeing.

So make sure you try to get some decent sleep, physical activity on a regular basis, a good general diet, good hydration, moderate alcohol consumption and other things like that, and you’re on the right track to achieving wellbeing and best performance.