Cricket and Psychology with Adrian McInman

Fri, May 15, '20


Media Watch

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘do what you love’? And there are few instances, rare but indeed true, where you come across the embodiment of that saying. Well, there’s this one gentleman… cricket, football and rugby Psychologist, Adrian McInman, a Kiwi Sports Psychologist who is currently employed by the Zimbabwe Cricket Board.  Having also worked with a number of other cricketing nations, for both male and female national teams, McInman was an ideal choice to have this conversation on the field of Psychology and its place in the world of sports, more specifically, cricket. So when he agreed to speak with me on the topic, I was grateful for the opportunity.

With 12 years as a researcher, over 15 years of applied work in the field and with the aid of technology, he stresses, from all the way in Sri Lanka, the distinction between therapy or counselling and his methods, he shares some experienced-based thoughts and expresses his desire to work with the West Indies team in the future.

Who exactly is a Sports Psychologist?

There are many types of sport psychologists. Perhaps you can artificially split them up into two camps. There are some who are based primarily in universities that focus on research and teaching. Their work is invaluable. Without them, we are just guessing what we think works and what doesn’t. Without them, we might just be suggesting a placebo and wasting clients’ times. So, we need their research findings. Then there are those, like myself, in the applied “real” world, helping athletes, coaches, managers, sporting staff, and administrators. Sports psychologists often fall into both camps. In my case, I completed 10 years of university study, then worked as a researcher for 12 years (while completing 4 more full-time years at university), before switching in 2005 to the applied world.

Your question sounds simple, but in fact, it’s a good and complex question, that I could answer in so many ways. Sometimes I use the word Cricket Psychologist because, at the end of the day, that is exactly what I am. However, in most countries, people run when they hear the word “psychologist”. As athletes (and some coaches) are fitter, they sprint!  And it’s not always towards me! So, to reduce that problem, administrators have hired me using a whole bunch of other words. For instance, Zimbabwe Cricket hired me this year as a “Mental Strength Coach”. Sri Lanka Cricket, however, hired me as a “Sport Psychologist” and Afghanistan Cricket hired me last year as a “Psychologist”.

I personally like to think of myself as a “Personal Trainer for your Brain”!  If you want to improve your physical fitness, then you can hire a Fitness Trainer.  Well, I am the same: I train you, but I train your brain, not your body.  I use an educational and training approach. I focus primarily on two things: information and highly effective techniques, based on research.  I don’t need to know about any of your problems and weaknesses. In fact, I don’t usually want to know about your problems. That’s correct, I don’t want to know about your problems. That probably surprises you, as you may have the idea that all I do is help with peoples’ problems. However, I have found that everyone has problems, almost everyone knows the solutions for their problems, but usually, they don’t want to change. So, I have no interest in listening to someone talk about how tough their life is if they don’t want to change. If you truly want to remove your problems and think I can help, then I am more than willing to help you, but if you are not ready to change, let alone admit your failings, then I don’t need to know anything about you. I will help you become a far more successful athlete, coach, staff member, and/or administrator by helping you become mentally tougher and happier. To do that, I don’t need to know anything about you. Hence, I don’t usually use a counselling or therapy approach. Whereas there are some psychologists working peripherally in the sports world who only do counselling/therapy.

Then what exactly do you need to know?

Two or three things. First, the name you'd like to be called, your email address and WhatsApp number, so I can communicate things to you. And a photo, so I can remember [your face].

If you don't usually use counselling or therapy, what’s the main difference between helping sportsmen and women, as opposed to helping men and women from all other walks of life?

Nothing and everything!  By nothing I mean, at the end of the day most of the keys to a successful life are the same regardless of your profession, or lack of profession.  For instance, we know that a real key to success, according to research, is to be happy.  We also know that beyond not partaking in clearly detrimental behaviours such as smoking, there are five behaviours that have a big impact on whether you are both happy and healthy.  They can be summarised with my acronym “NESTS”, which stands for Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, Thoughts, and Social Support.  Ensure that you attend to all of them effectively and you are well on the way to success, however you define it.  That applies equally to whether you are a cricketer, a cricket coach, a cricket administrator, a drug rehab client, or a journalist.

By everything, I mean the demands of athletes in a specific sport, especially at the international level, which are quite unique. For instance, the concentration demands of a Test opening batter are different from that of a discus thrower. Likewise, some sports are highly public with huge followings of fans and substantial media attention, whereas if you are a recreation therapist in a hospital you are unlikely to see fans or the media. So athletes need help with a variety of situations that people in other professions can’t even imagine. The biggest difference, however, is usually the egos. There are some difficult non-athletes in the world.  For instance, there are too many Machiavellian and grandiose narcissistic leaders, let alone psychopathic ones.  However, due to fame and fortune getting to the heads of some athletes, some think they are above the need for help and know it all.  So, if a cricketer doesn’t know me, then I have to spend time demonstrating the need for my existence in their life. Whereas if you are a psychologist working in a drug rehabilitation centre, the clients already know why you matter, because their past choices have not worked out for them!  So, going back to your first question, I am really a salesman.  I am offering athletes, coaches, managers, staff, and administrators knowledge and techniques, which according to research, are more effective.  The more the cricketer trusts and likes me, the more likely they will give some of the knowledge and techniques I teach a go.  In my early days that was quite hard, as no one knew me and I was learning my craft.  But having now been in the psychology field since 1982, I have a much better understanding of how to sell cricket psychology knowledge and techniques.  But I certainly wouldn’t say that I have nailed it.  Each culture, each team, and each organisation require different salesmanship and it takes time to work out what works and what doesn’t in the current culture, team, and organisation.

How ‘present’ is any psychologist in any particular team? How ‘present’ do you recommend they should be?

That is dependent upon the contract you sign and, more importantly, the education and testicles of the Head Coach, Director of Cricket, and CEO. If all three people truly believe that a cricket psychologist is mandatory, well you can do amazing things. Usually, however, one or more of them are not on board, and so, sadly the cricket psychologist won’t be as present.  I’ll give you one example.  I was in Zimbabwe just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic due to Hamilton Masakadza’s insistence that a cricket psychologist was massively needed for the national team.  As the Director of Cricket, he acted very courageously by making my training compulsory for every cricketer in the national squad. He even made the franchise coaches have to accept that I would train the national cricketers during franchise matches.  Hence, it was relatively easy for me to impact many players in a short period of time.  However, at another international cricket association, the Head Coach refused to even speak in English with me, or other staff members, when he could, and hence we were all less present.  If you ask Mahendra Singh Dhoni, he will tell you that a cricket psychologist should be an integral member of the coaching staff.  He does not like cricket psychologists coming in and out for 15-day stints.  Instead, he favours the mental conditioning expert being constantly with the players.

I agree with Dhoni 100%.  The best way I can explain that is to ask you some questions that I ask all cricketers.  What percentage of success in cricket comes from psychological things, such as concentration, confidence, happiness, and mental toughness?  And what percentage of success in cricket comes from everything else, such as nutrition, training on the field, and training in the gym?  All athletes tell me the psychological things account for an absolute minimum of 50% of whether they succeed or not.  Elite cricketers, however, tell me that once an athlete has been training and competing for a substantial number of years, the non-psychological factors, such as training on the field, hardly ever improve their performance, but rather just maintain performance levels. Instead, they tell me that psychological factors, such as how they have been feeling recently and on the competition day, have a far bigger impact on whether they succeed or not.  So now I ask: How many hours per day do you train?  Most cricketers tell me a number between 1-6 hours.  Then the more useful question is asked: How many minutes of that training is psychological training with a trained mental skills expert?  By expert, I mean someone who has at least two relevant university qualifications?  Most athletes tell me, “None. Zero minutes”!  So, there is an obvious and huge problem!  Most athletes are training a substantial number of hours, doing things they say, have little impact on whether they succeed or not!  It’s quite bizarre when you think about it.  Said another way, they spend next to no time whatsoever, on the thing they say has the biggest impact on whether they succeed or not!

So, the teams you’ve been employed to, it's not mandatory for all players to seek your assistance?

It should be!  Hamilton Masakadza believes it should be.  M. S. Dhoni believes it should be.  I believe it.  Let’s be honest, I am always the most educated member of any cricket association.  After all, it’s hard to pay for more than seven university qualifications as I have.  So why would you make fielding training compulsory, but not make training with the most educated trainer the organisation has compulsory, especially when everyone says the mental side of cricket is the most important component for success?

Speaking generally now, in the field of sports psychology, is it mandatory for players to speak to a psychologist once one is employed to a team?

The cricketers should be training with the cricket psychologist just like the fitness trainer.  The mental skills training needs to be highly impacting and state of the art.  It also needs to be conducted and prioritised appropriately.  It should be given appropriate time and conducted in an appropriate setting, not when the boys are eating after a tiring nets session. If Shane Warne came over to train your bowlers, you wouldn’t say to him, “Mate, please train them while they are eating in the cafeteria!”  If mental skills training is both state-of-the-art and highly impacting, eventually word of mouth will cause cricketers to come seek the trainer out.  But it takes time to win their trust and respect.

Then, how often have you seen players volunteer themselves to see you?

Zimbabwe Cricket is the best example. I went there in 2016 and I was so surprised. I had never had so many athletes in any sport come up to me and ask to train with me. In fact, this year one of the male cricketers in the squad, begged me to train him and asked one of the coaches to ask me as well on his behalf. Zimbabwe people are lovely and so easy to work with. They live in deplorable conditions. There are ridiculously high unemployment and inflation, a shortage of petrol, but not a shortage of electricity cuts.  They have done amazing to survive. The cricketers have done amazing to even keep playing bearing in mind the previous issues with the administrators. And yet they still wanted to improve.

You’ve worked in other sports apart from cricket, how do your methods differ across sports?

I train athletes to improve the frequency with which they perform phenomenally by increasing two things: their mental toughness and their happiness.  After working with both Sri Lanka Cricket and Malaysia Cricket, I sat in a hotel room for 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, for 21 weeks and created a 66-session mental skills training programme that has 14,258 PowerPoint slides. Athletes from any sport can use it, but I purposely had cricket most in mind and so provided more examples from cricket than other sport. We discuss research studies focusing on mental toughness and happiness, and learn practical relaxation, thought-changing, and lifestyle techniques. Then we’ll progress to training in the nets, on the oval, in the gym, running together, in the supermarket, at your home etc. Other sports have different education levels. Most cricketers are thinkers, to one extent or another, so once I have won over their trust, they are almost all easy to work with.  However, other sports attract athletes who are not as cerebral, and hence you use different words, use more case studies, train less, and let them talk more. I like working with cricketers the most as the demands are very psychological and cricketers know that. Let’s be honest, compared with some sports, cricket is relatively simple.  Where does the ball come from? One direction. But where does it come from in soccer?  360 degrees.  How many body parts are involved on contact in cricket? Approximately the same for every shot.  But how many body parts are involved on contact in soccer?  It could be your head, or your chest, or your knee, or your foot, or almost anywhere on your body.  And which is physically the most demanding of the two sports.  You would be hard-pressed to get some elite cricketers lasting 90 minutes of elite soccer!  But which is the more psychologically challenging?  Without a doubt, cricket.  What makes cricket so hard is the time.  In between balls bowled, there’s time to mess up your thinking.  Then there’s more time to think negative between overs.  Then there are drink breaks – more time to screw up your thinking, let alone a lunch period or over-night in test matches.  That’s why you should train mentally consistently and effectively.

What’s the most common issue you’ve come across in your career with sports professionals?

Cricketers are humans.  They are like everyone else.  They want relationships, family-time, sex, relaxation, leisure, and downtime to be “normal”.  Getting a work-life balance is hard, especially with all the training and time away from home.  It may seem glamorous travelling all over the world and living in five-star hotels.  And sure, not having to go through the check-in counter at an airport, and relaxing in a jacuzzi at a five-star hotel is nice, but the travel in cattle-class, for sometimes as much as 24 hours, is far from fun after you have done it a few times. They struggle to prioritise NESTS, especially sleep at times, and the most successful cricketers have the added issues that surround captaincy, leadership, media presentations, sponsorship responsibilities, and the like. Trying to have some semblance of a normal life along with that, is challenging to say the least.

Then, how important is stability in a professional athlete’s personal life, in regards to their on-field performance?

It’s immensely important.  I told you before how I focus on mental toughness and happiness.  Mental toughness is made up of hardiness and confidence and these can be increased by many ways.  However, once you have got your mental toughness to the level you want it, you need three underlying mechanisms to maintain it.  You can remember these three mechanisms with my acronym SAM, which stands for Support network, Advanced psychological skills, and Motivation to succeed.  I see the need for a fantastic Support network, such as friends, family, neighbours, teammates, and colleagues as akin to your “stability” word.  If you are drinking too much, getting into fights, not supported by your spouse, then you aren’t likely to perform well.

Given that, how important are team psychologists in a dressing room on game day?

I’ll answer that in a totally different way.  Once upon a time, there were no coaches in cricket.  Then coaches were considered important.  Then some bright spark decided that fitness coaches were important.  So today we have no problems accepting coaches and fitness coaches in the dressing room, even though how much of an impact they will have beyond that of a placebo is not truly known by research.  So, if a cricket psychologist can improve the performance of a cricketer more than either a coach or a fitness trainer, then you know the answer to your question.

Do you often witness personal issues preventing a player from executing their duties?

Of course.  Every match!  Most people don’t get enough sleep.  And athletes are no different.  Sometimes it’s not their fault.  I remember being housed in a 5-star hotel with an extremely noisy wedding reception going on way after midnight.  How my team was going to concentrate the next day was obvious: sub-par.  The only consolation was that the opposition was staying in the same hotel on the same floor.  Then, of course, there are the problems some athletes have to interact with the media.  Relationships with boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives are a really big detractor of performance.  It doesn’t matter how mentally tough a person is, if their home-life is not good, then they are likely to not sleep as well.  And remember, if you get an hour less sleep than you need on any one night, then your ability to concentrate the next day goes down by as much as one-third.

So how do you tackle that?

Not by counselling and therapy.  I train cricketers to increase their mental toughness and happiness so that they make better choices.  They don’t always get it right.  No one is perfect, but if I can help them to learn relaxation techniques, thinking techniques, and especially help them create routines, then personal issues impact their performances less.

Have you ever assisted female cricketers?

With regards to the international scene, I have had the pleasure of training the captains of three of the top ten women’s teams on the planet and I must say, all three of them were lovely – relaxed, intelligent, and positive.  I have trained Zimbabwe Women’s team (in two different years), Sri Lanka women’ team, and a host of less high-ranking international teams and provincial teams in South Africa, India, Namibia etc.

How receptive were the female cricketers to your methods compared to their male counterparts?

They are no different from the men. Some know it all before you see them and some can’t wait to train with you.  Take Chamari Atapattu, the captain of Sri Lanka.  I rang her up at 8 pm and said, “I know it’s late, but if you have time, I can see you now.”  “I’ll be there in 10 minutes” was her unhesitating response. She was so fun to train.  The best she had done was bat the first 35 overs of a 50-over match, but after training with me for only 6 weeks, she got up to batting all 50 overs on two occasions.  That’s a 30 per cent improvement in only 6 weeks.  She was so cool.

Is it possible for you to share the level of disparity, if any, between the issues male and female cricketers face?

I have travelled with Afghanistan Cricket’s men’s team to countries like UAE and Bangladesh and stayed in 5-star hotels, but when I worked with the Sri Lanka women’s team, we stayed in, I guess, a 3-star guesthouse, with 3 women in at least one room.  The Afghani men enjoyed the jacuzzi, whereas the Sri Lankan women got sick and someone was so badly sick she missed out on touring New Zealand.  Finances are surely the biggest problem for women cricketers!  Time after time, I have seen the following: when the men’s team need the nets, they get it, and the women have to go somewhere else.  Women do not get the respect the men get by Boards, CEOs, and cricket associations.  The women in Zimbabwe’s national team go through hell and yet they keep smiling.  I recently went to a camp in Bulawayo with the women’s team.  They had nine women sleeping in one room and when the power cuts came, so did the mosquitos!  Furthermore, they would have to stay up later to cook and thus didn’t always get enough sleep.  I have a lot of respect for what those women go through.  They get paid peanuts but do it for the love of the game.

Have you observed any relationship between a sports professional’s nationality and their receptiveness to therapy and the field of psychology?

Absolutely!  Are you kidding me?  I have trained people in 26 countries.  There are massive differences.  Let’s take the difference between Jamaica and Sri Lanka.  I was in Jamaica when Sri Lanka Cricket hired me.  I remember vividly two separate instances.  When I was with the Jamaican national female hockey team, they would hug me often, but when a female Sri Lankan cricketer started to cry, I offered a hug and boy that was frozenly accepted.  Displays of public affection are massively frowned upon in Sri Lanka.  Hence, forgetting about the language barriers, it’s pretty obvious which of the two countries are going to be initially more receptive to mental skills training.  But that’s only initially.  With enough time you can break down anyone’s barriers and resistance to change and help them change massively.  It just takes longer in some cultures than others.  I have trained people in 25 organisations in 7 Caribbean countries.  Caribbean people, once they get to you, are very, very easy to train.  Probably the easiest people on the planet to train, because they give you a chance.  But what is hard is getting access to them.  The Caribbean guys in the suits and tracksuits (coaches) are so non-proactive and stubborn, that it’s so hard to get a go there.  And yet the funny thing is when the suits and tracksuits give someone like me a go, they then usually say something like, “Wow, why didn’t we use you years ago!”  The answer is obvious!

Having worked with various cricketing nations, can you confirm that there is indeed a relationship between national cultures and a team’s level of performance. As well as, any relationship between national culture and team culture?

Why are the mighty All Blacks so dominant in rugby union?  It’s not genetics.  It’s not brains.  It’s more about creating a winning philosophy and a winning culture.  They want to put that jumper on.  If they get sent off the field, they are not only letting their team down, their country down, and themselves down, but arguably they are letting the most important thing down: the jumper.  The jumper has been worn by many great ex-players and will be worn by many more great players.  To wear that All Black Jumper just seems to mean more to Kiwis than some other jumpers do in other sports.

A cricketing nation such as the West Indies with admittedly, similar, but ultimately different cultures, being asked to play as one team… in the context of modern international cricket, what would you see any possible side effects of this being?

That’s funny.  I just mentioned “the ultimate!”  For me, the ultimate two teams I want to train would be to train the West Indies Cricket team to become the Number One team on the ICC website and the French Rugby Union team to win the World Cup.  The French, because I have been learning French for so long, mon francais n’est pas bon (“my French is not good”), so to help them in a language I can’t speak would be such a personal achievement.  But the West Indies would be the ultimate.  They were the World Leaders in the 70s when I was a kid.  Cricketers around the world were scared of them.  I know that for a fact, as my childhood coach faced their quicks and was terrified of them.  No, I can’t tell you his name!  But the West Indies have never gotten back to their glory days and the staff don’t appear to believe they can.

I don’t know what the situation is at the moment, but I did hear that in the past, some guys in the West Indies team cared more about representing their country than the West Indies.  I don’t know if that is the case or not now, but regardless, a state-of-the-art cricket psychologist can help change that.  That’s the beauty of the challenge – anything is possible with the West Indies teams for a gifted cricket psychologist, both male and female.  You have phenomenal players in both the women and men, but you keep doing the same thing year after year.  If you want to be the best in the world, then you need great staff, including a great cricket psychologist.  Last I heard a month or two ago, there was still no cricket psychologist with the men’s team!  In 2020 you can’t just keep throwing balls at cricketers and expect them to be World Champions.  Take a look at the top 4 teams in every dimension of the sport, both male and female, and then see if they have a cricket psychologist.  Then have a look at the bottom 4 in the top 10 countries.  The top teams have a cricket psychologist, the bottom teams don’t!

Looking back at the history of West Indies cricket, we are reminded of a team, in the glory days, which had one cause. Now the evolution of the game and the world, as a whole, have effectively erased that common goal. As an outsider looking in, (but also as an expert) what have you observed on the current state of West Indies cricket from the point of view of a psychologist, given all this?

Contrast the way the Bangladesh men fielded in one of the recent World Cups.  They attacked the ball with a passion.  But as a spectator watching the West Indies men, it appeared to me to be more like, “Here you go man!”  The intensity was not there.  Caribbean people are lovely.  I could marry a Jamaican woman any day, but you’re (Caribbean people) not the most proactive.  You stick to the tried, tested, and safe.  If I can be brutally honest, there is a lack of testicles.  To even get many people in powerful positions in the Caribbean to even respond to an email or WhatsApp message is like asking for a Herculean effort.  There is little desire for a growth mindset by many in power.  Instead, they desire others to “fit in” with the current ways things are done.  But guess what, the world has progressed.  If the West Indies want to become Number 1 in the world, which they definitely can do in less than 3 years, then upper management needs testicles.  They need to say to themselves, “Damn it.  Enough is enough.  We know that the mental side is the most important part of cricket, so we need to train the men and women mentally consistently, compulsorily, intensely, and with the best of the best psychology can provide!”

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