At the beginning of 2017 Shaun Martyn and Greg Wythes were invited by Cricket NSW to commence a pilot program to introduce mindfulness training to a group of their emerging elite players and to assess its influence on their performance. In the following article Greg outlines the progress of this program.
The program we outlined to Cricket NSW was an 8-week program focusing on Communication, Mindfulness and Movement, with a 2-hour session each week. Each of these components had a specific purpose but we also felt that the relationship between each of the components would form a basis to support the practice of Mindfulness.
Communication: The DISC program is a non-judgmental tool that helps to identify communication styles and behavioural differences, both in the individual and in others. DISC gives an insight into aspects of character and personality often revealing qualities that were previously hidden. It also allows the individual to identify the communication styles of others, and adapt their own style to suit these circumstances.
Mindfulness: The mindfulness techniques we chose were based in yogic and Buddhist meditation practices, but condensed to their essence, without most of their cultural or religious features.
Movement: Because we were working with athletes we wanted to introduce the concept of Mindfulness in Action and emphasise that one didn’t have to sit still to achieve a state of internal quiet. For this we drew on qigong, mobility training and somatic movement.
Cricket NSW had chosen 8 players from their Elite Pathway program: 4 men and 4 women. All of these players were close to national selection within their age groups. To our knowledge none of them had had any prior experience of Mindfulness training.
Early in March we met the players for the first time and spent the first 15 minutes outlining the program.
Shaun took them through the DISC approach and they filled out the questionnaires, which were assessed and then discussed. Their level of engagement lifted as this progressed. DISC has a cognitive element that is convincing and substantive, and the players recognised themselves in the profile it returned. This made it more personal and the ensuing discussion was open and lively. They were interested.
Later in this first session we introduced them to a body scan and a method of using the breath that allowed them to feel more deeply into the body. The aim here is to become more attuned to the natural sensations that are generally outside of awareness. We also looked at parts of the body that may hold tension and how this could be reduced using these techniques.
Towards the end of the session I took them through some mobility exercises, where the focus was on moving each of the joints through full range, and then through a short qigong session to finish.
What we began to recognise, both during and after the first session, was that these players were busy. Each had a slightly different schedule but everyone’s schedule was full. Some were studying, or some had other commitments during the day, but there seemed to be a number of training and practice sessions fitted in around these commitments. When the players came to us at 6pm, they seemed a bit tired, perhaps a little distracted, and we were the last item on their schedule for the day.
We decided to cut each session back to around 60 to 90 minutes and to drop the Movement component and, though we decided to continue with DISC through discussion, we would not develop it much further. Each session had a similar structure. A discussion of what they had practised since the previous session. A video, an episode from the ABC’s Catalyst or a TED lecture where a high profile athlete or coach outlined how mindfulness had transformed performance. A further discussion of each of these videos. And lots of questions. As we progressed variety in the presentations took into account the various communication styles by the DISC session.
One question that came up early was about thinking. We explained that there is a common misconception that the purpose of Mindfulness is to stop thinking, but that’s not what it’s really about. You can’t prevent thoughts but you can let them go. As well you can change your inner attention from thought to sensory experience – to the breath and the subtle sensations within the body – and feel them without thinking about them. This reduces the impact of thought and creates a quieter internal world. Once the players had some experience of applying this technique and more importantly, could feel it in themselves, we began to introduce some of the theory, the research and the background to its practice. We explained the neurological changes that came about through the practice; how mindfulness reduced the influence of the limbic system, – the older, more primitive part of the brain that initiated effects based on the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System; a system that prioritized survival and activated the fight/flight reaction in situations of threat; and how Mindfulness builds the capacity of the Pre-Frontal Cortex – the part of the brain that controls impulse and emotional reaction – to respond in a more measured way to external stimuli.
As we progressed from week to week our focus moved more and more to the practice of Mindfulness. After each session Shaun emailed them links to a variety of Apps, or articles, or YouTube videos, which either revised the last session or prepared for the next, and the players were pragmatic and down to earth in approaching this material. They watched the videos and read the handouts. They asked questions that grew in sensitivity week to week. Maybe it just crept up on them. I know it crept up on me. By week 4 they were all practising and they were feeling it. The guided practices in each session had given them a taste of what they were looking for and the group dynamic, along with the experience of mindfulness in the guided practice, had fostered enough confidence to practise alone.
At this stage one of the players asked how they would be able to assess their progress. Theory was one thing but how would they know if it was working for them. We advised them to examine any behavioural changes they might notice, but the key change would be a growing capacity to be able to respond calmly in a stressful situation, rather than reacting with any kind of emotive edge. That the key behavioural change was the difference between ‘response and ‘reaction’, and that this change was one that offered an opportunity to improve their sporting performance. This led to further discussion and engagement as these ideas were teased out and elaborated. They began to recognise and describe how this affected their mental state. Reaction or response was not just an external statement but more an expression of an internal state. The calm and the balance induced by mindfulness practice settled them into a mental state that suited the game of cricket. Their experience now allowed them to recognise that a reactive mind unsettled them and a responsive mind settled them.
An unplanned but beneficial aspect of the trial was the fluidity of the players’ schedules. All of this was beyond our control but it didn’t seem to matter. Most of them now had their own practice. They would catch up on material if they missed a session. The discussions were now about the merits of different Apps or voiced concerns about the contradictions between the force and dynamism of sport and the quietness of mindfulness.
I had the opportunity to speak to one of the players prior to a session. We hadn’t spoken one to one before and I can’t say that I knew her well. But she was very comfortable in opening up and talking about what was happening to her as her practice developed. She was a from a country town and had recently moved to Sydney where she had been overwhelmed by its size, complexity and speed. This brought on feelings of anxiety whenever she had to drive anywhere, and all made more difficult now living away from the support of family and friends for the first time. She had become very unsettled and finding it hard to cope. Now she had a mindfulness app for her car. She practised at home. Slowly her life settled back into its old rhythm. The anxiety diminished, then disappeared, and she began to feel positive about her future in Sydney. Especially her cricket future.
Our initial purpose had been to teach this group a set of skills, and they’d all learnt the same skillset, but what now began to emerge was a range of variations in the way they used and modified them. Two of the men had begun to apply the techniques to their playing and training, and when batting together, would use the change of overs as a time to check in with each other about their attention to the breath and their sensations, to help each other to stay mindful, calm and unburdened by the pressures of the game. Other players found ways to build a mindfulness practice into their daily routine, but the real test of the practice would be its application in situations of high pressure, particularly in matches at an international level.
Mikayla Hinkley is a member of the Australian Under 21 team and was selected for the tour to Sri Lanka. She left before we finished the program, but early in April she sent us an email recounting her experiences.’… I found being mindful over there quite difficult due to the continuous excitement of being overseas and also the heavy playing schedule. All up we played 6 games in which the first 4 I highly under-performed.
On the day of the 5th game my mind was completely unfocused and thoughts were going through my mind at a million miles per hour, I decided to meditate on the bus on the way to the ground, it was a 30 minute commute in which I found myself meditating for at least 20 of those minutes. That day I opened the batting in the t20 (keeping in mind this was the first time I had meditated before a game) things were amazingly different! Out in the middle it was a difficult day to bat as the wicket was sticky and our run rate was extremely low which was causing a lot of scoreboard pressure, however I felt so calm and collected. The pace of everything just seemed to slow down and I really felt as though I was in total control of my mind and focus.
The 6th and final game was very much the same as I went through the same routine of meditation on the way to the ground. Both days I opened and both days I was not out (I haven’t been not out for a very long time!!) and I top scored in both games. I was kicking myself by the end of the tour as I could clearly recognise the impact only 30 minutes of meditation had on my game. I wished I had done it from game one!’
Mikayla now practises daily. She says that her life is better, not just her cricket. She has grown in patience in and around the game, and feels she has more time and space around her, even in daily life. She feels mentally clear, things come at her at a slower pace and she is ready for anything. ‘Mindfulness was hard at the beginning,’ she says. ‘But you begin to see there’s no right or wrong. If there’s thought, you just accept it and then go back to the next breath.’
Jason Sangha is a member of the Under 19 Australian team. In the recent international series against Sri Lanka, played in Hobart, he was captain for one of the games. Early in this game Sri Lanka were batting and were well on top, scoring quickly and hitting to all parts of the ground. Jason’s thoughts were swirling as he looked for a solution. ‘I walked slowly to my slips position in the break between overs,’ he said. ‘I felt my contact with the ground through my feet and took my attention to my breath. I let thought drop away and felt this calm me and clear my mind. I didn’t think about the problem at hand and then the idea formed in this clearer mental space.’
Jason told the wicket keeper to get his helmet for the next over because he was bringing Param, a slow spin bowler, into the attack. The keeper complained that it was only the 7th over. The quicks were still fresh. It was too early. Jason remained composed and held to his decision, even in the face of a strong, negative reaction from the fast bowler he replaced. Param came on and took the wicket. The partnership and Sri Lanka’s ascendency was broken and this was the key moment that turned the game. Australia went on to win.
‘In those moments when everything is rushing and random thoughts are coming from all directions, I find I can now identify this much earlier and clear my mind,’ Jason says. ‘As captain I felt I could control the game a lot better, and decision making from this space was easier. I can certainly see a place for mindfulness in professional sport, and especially in cricket.’
Geoff Lawson is a former Test fast bowling great and currently coach, commentator and writer on cricket. As bowling coach at NSW Cricket he kept a close eye on the mindfulness trial. For some time he’d been been following the development of these players through the NSW Elite Pathway program and, as well, has a keen interest in the impact of new training strategies on performance. ‘A lot of stuff gets put in front of these players in terms of performance improvement,’ says Geoff. ‘And they’re smart, young and ambitious. They’ll try things out, but it has to work or they’ll let it go. In this mindfulness trial they found a practical application of something that had always been considered abstract and unusable. But the big surprise here is the immediate results. We thought we might see results slowly trickling in, maybe mid-season or end of season. The way it was used by the players in the under 19 International series in Hobart, when they had only just finished the trial, was entirely unexpected.’
And it’s not yet over. We feel there is much more to be achieved in working with this group of players as they mature. Both in their game and their practice. It also defines goals that seem more likely to be replicated with other groups of elite athletes. But, for Shaun and myself, what they were able to gain from the practice and achieve in their game so quickly, has become a clear starting point and a solid foundation for the future.