I had a bad dream last night. One of the reasons that I am so invested in looking after other people’s mindsets is that I was, once, pretty beset by anxiety dreams. One returned last night. I now know what to do; how to deal with the subsequent feelings and thoughts I experience. Within a few moments, it was gone, dwindling like a match to its charred end.
The imagery is crucial here. Thoughts are very much like matches. If they are used in certain ways, they can start fires. Incredible, powerful, life-changing fires. Every great idea in the world started as a thought. These thoughts can propel you to achieve almost anything; feats of endurance, strength, ingenuity, passion, love and peace, all owe their existence to thought.
The Sky Sports Commentary team are waxing lyrical about Joe Root; England’s premier batter is showing his class once more. He has notched up his 10,000th run, in what seems like record time, and, relieved of the captaincy and under the new test match stewardship of Ben Stokes and Brendan McCullum, appears to be playing some of his best cricket.
But then something is said in commentary that really piques my interest: “Joe Root always seems to play well at this ground. And that’s definitely ‘a thing’: you turn up at a ground and you just know you’re going to play well.”
The ground in question is Trent Bridge. The scene of Root’s most recent test match century, against New Zealand in the June of 2022. And while this is an idea that is not new or unusual, whatever sport you are playing, it is worth examining more closely.
Is this an actual thing? Does Trent Bridge have some sort of inherent power over Joe Root’s batting ability? For a mind coach working with the performance of sportspeople, the answer is simple and complex; it is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
Let’s deal with the most logical and obvious answer: ‘No’. Of course it doesn’t; that is preposterous. Trent Bridge, like any other international cricket ground in the world, has no inherent power at all. It’s an inanimate venue with no magic or mysticism ingrained in any part of it. Trent Bridge has no idea whom Joe Root is because Trent Bridge doesn’t have the capability of thought, cognisance or basic recognition of anything. It is a passive entity. It is powerless.
And yet, and yet, many of you will have read those comments from the commentary box, or heard them at the time, and nodded to yourself. Many of us have played sport, some of us may well have played sport to a very good level, and all of us will have recognised the concept that is being put forward. In a way, Trent Bridge does have a power, because Joe Root feels good playing at that ground, and when he feels good, he plays well. But, and this is the most crucial part, the power does not exist at Trent Bridge, it exists in Joe Root’s mind.
Joe Root is a brilliant batter. Capable of scoring lots of runs at any cricket ground in the world. But on some days, at some venues, he bats better. And understanding why (or how) is the nirvana all sportspeople are trying to work out the route to.
The problem with sport is that it’s not easy. And the reason it’s not easy is that most sports have tricky technical aspects, which require many layers of skill and judgement. Sportspeople practice for years before getting to the levels we see on TV: Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal book ‘Outliers’ put forward the idea of 10,000 hours of practice before expertise is achieved in a particular skill. Many sports have numerous skills within them, and being professionally good at any sport takes a great deal of applied effort and time. Rising to international level, the skill level is almost incomprehensible.
Through years of practice, once you have conquered these particular skills, you are looking to ingrain that skill into your body so that you can perform them ‘under pressure’. Now, pressure is an interesting concept because, as we were alluding to earlier, pressure only exists in the mind. It is an internal force: yes, it is definitely a thing capable of ruining performances, but is only produced by the mind of the person attempting the skill.
But let’s park that particular idea and return to the idea of your body being so practised to do something, it can produce it on demand. In Joe Root’s case, hitting a bowled cricket ball through the covers for four. He needs to be able to recognise the delivery from the bowler, move all the different parts of his body (feet, body, legs, arms, hands) in coordination with each other to get into position, at exactly the right moment, to allow the centre of his bat to meet the moving cricket ball; with the perfect angle and timing, so that maximum energy is transferred into the ball to exert it, at speed, through the gap in the field, with enough momentum to cross the boundary rope 85 yards away. To do all this, is, without question, a physiological masterstroke. And to complete this, he needs his mind to be completely in tune. In fact, he probably needs his mind to get out of the way; allow the right physiological neurons to fire and let his body do what he has ingrained into the ‘memory’ of every muscle he possesses.
We need to agree something before we go any further: we perform at our best when we are free of internal tension. When I talk to musicians, dancers, sportspeople, speakers, business executives, parents, school children, they all agree that they are at their best when they aren’t tense. They achieve their potential when they move freely, almost without thought. A tense, braced, strained body will not move as quickly, as fluidly, as purposefully as a relaxed body. This is why we see athletes shaking their bodies down ahead of a race or event. They are trying to stay loose. So that they can react to any and all eventualities.
Tension in the body comes from thought. Pretty much every physiological response we have comes from a thought in the mind. Danger signals emanate from the amygdala and trigger a physiological reply. The only way around this issue is to not have those thoughts. And one of the best places to be to avoid those thoughts is in a place of comfort and confidence. Trent Bridge has become, in Root’s mind, a place of comfort and confidence. In opposition, another ground may hold for him a memory of a bad dismissal or poor shot and so, danger is present in the mind of Joe Root; it interferes with his body by producing unwanted tension, and he doesn’t play as well, adding substance to the idea that that ground holds some sort of inherent power over his ability.
Don Macpherson’s background in Formula One would see this phenomenon at particular circuits. “This is my favourite track,” the driver would say, “I always perform well round here.” And of course, they invariably would. Free from any tension, their body, trained over years of expert practice, would perform at its peak, allowing the fallacy to continue.
In conclusion, I can understand why commentators, sportspeople and members of the watching public believe this is a thing: that there are certain spaces, venues, stadia, courses, grounds where you perform better. But it’s not a power inherent in something else. It exists in your mind. The trick is identifying the concept, removing the thought, and recognising that your skill or technical prowess is yours to control. That your talent is performed best when you get your mind and its invasive thoughts out of the way. You are brilliant and can be brilliant wherever and whenever you need to be, you just have to recognise that it is all in your control.
You have the power, don’t give it to the powerless.
When working with sportspeople, our talk often gravitates towards how they can be at their best. For elite performers, being ‘in the zone’ is a place they always want to be. However, no human can be at their best at all times. And however good your mindset coaching, and however diligent you are at applying the tools and principles, nothing is guaranteed.
But like many other areas of their game, good mindset coaching will make their best more accessible. Practising the skills and concepts that allow your mind to be in the best possible place when you perform will increase the chances of things going well. A bit like a bigger racket or goal to aim for, mindset coaching will make success more likely.
It can also help the other end. There is a golfing idiom about how you should rate your playing ability: “It’s not how good your good shots are, it’s about how good your bad shots are.” Everyone can have a purple patch but how rotten is your game when things go wrong? How do you respond to a moment that lacked the requisite skill? Is one mistake compounded by another? Good Mindset work is as important for you when things are going badly, as when things are going well.
The above is one of my favourite pictures in sport, as it embodies a nirvana often sought by top athletes. Serena Williams is totally and utterly focused on the ball. She is not considering anything other than the task at hand. She is free of any extraneous thought and allowing her body to do what she has trained it to do. Rod Laver had a phrase when asked what he was thinking about out on the tennis court: “Nothing but the ball.” This picture is that phrase personified.
Our minds will often get in our way. The thoughts our minds produce will often produce physiological responses and, in turn, will make us feel and perform differently.
I know that from my work in sports commentary: my best is when I don’t think; I just react to what I am watching. I don’t try and force lines, I stay open and relaxed, and use the words that come to me to describe what we are watching. I plan and prepare thoroughly but I recognise that having done that, the best thing I can do is let the skill come to the fore and get any predisposed thinking or erroneous thoughts out the way. Just be present and happy. Immerse myself in the action and allow everything to happen naturally. I know that things won’t go as well when I try and force phrases or ideas. If I push, then the work becomes artificial and inauthentic. It is passable but it isn’t the best of me.
When things go wrong in commentary – and they invariably do: I’ll incorrectly name-check a player or misinterpret a law – I know I can’t spend any time worrying about it. The game moves quickly and I need to be ready to react to what is coming next. If I agonise over something I got wrong then I won’t be in the best possible place for the next piece of action. It is tricky, but I have to push away that feeling or emotion connected to the mistake, leave it, smile, (that’s a great way of resetting my mind), and stay present.
It’s the same for everyone, in any role where they find themselves under pressure. Trust the preparation and training. If you’ve worked hard up to that point and put in the requisite time and effort in practice, get your mind and its thoughts out of the way. Let your body do its thing. Stay in the present, not the past or the future; just remain happy and content in the now. It’s your gift. The present of the present.