There is nothing that Ian Johnston loves more than an international cricket team photograph. Specifically he loves to count the number of “team members” that can be fitted into the group shot. It is normal that the group will consist of up to 35 members (remember it is an eleven a side game). Who are all these people? Well amongst the number these days you can be sure to find the Sports Psychologist and pretty high up the pecking order, I bet.

The Irish cricket team has a Sports Psychologist. Michael Caulfied (justcaulfield.com) fills that role. His website speaks of helping teams to fulfil their potential, revealing blind spots and helping to find the things that stops them from performing. His experience is vast, I genuinely hope that the team and individuals within that team are able to tap into his expertise to unlock some of the mental blockages that most if not all sportspeople suffer. Michael is not, of course, Ireland’s first Team Psychologist that honour goes to Craig Mahoney, an Australian who worked with the Irish team in the lead up to Kenya 1994. Take into consideration that Mike Hendrick became Ireland’s first full time and professional International coach, appointed in 1995 and you can see that this was a major step forward. Whether the team was ready for such a step is another matter. Paul McCrum, a member of the side, remembers that one of his goals was to have the team speak about concerns openly and not let matters fester. It cannot have been easy being the first professional to introduce these concepts into a still amateur arena unused to a high performance set up.

Cricket is, and likely always has been, a game played largely in the head. The time frame of your normal weekend game means that there is all too much scope for the negative mind to take control. The shortest game played, even by amateurs will probably last the guts of 4 hours (and getting slower it appears). A football game lasts about half of that (and also it seems getting slower, consider VAR). At least in football, once you are on the starting eleven, you are involved, constantly on the move and generally mentally engaged. A cricket game, well, it depends. Batting first? What number are you scheduled? Will you get in at all? Happy days if you are an opener, you are straight in although as JB Bunworth once informed his team mates, you are “facing the great unknown”. Personally, I always offered to take strike when I opened. There were a couple of pretty good reasons for this, at least I rationalised them as pretty good. Firstly, I always felt that the first couple of balls gave an opportunity to get off the mark (priority number 1 let’s face it). Secondly, I did not want to be standing at the non striker’s end and seeing the opening bowler had put on a yard of extra pace and was swinging it around corners. That would only start the doubts creeping. Taking strike, of course, leads to the ever present possibility of getting out first ball, never a nice thought and an even worse actuality. If you have opened for any period of time, the likelihood is that you have got a first baller and then had to sit around sullenly watching others bat for the guts of three and a half hours. And then you have to field. Some people love fielding, many accept it, quite a lot loath it. Peter Prendergast has an article on Fielding, you need to find a copy.

Of course you can bowl, these days, five of the team bowl, so a lot more opportunities exist, but the wicket might not suit, you are up the hill and into the wind, something is not right with the run up. Their batsmen are not finding the wicket as full of demons as your lot did. And people do this for fun.

So you might be beginning to see the problem with the game of cricket and the toll it can take on the mind. Unlike most games, cricket is a series of individual battles within a larger team battle. The problems keep coming. Honestly it would wreck your head.

As kids we learn the techniques of the games, drilled into us in the nets, 1000s of balls bowled and thrown over the years, 100s of overs bowled at all different types of batsmen. All to prepare us for the battles in the middle. But do they prepare us for the battle? Probably not, that is left up to the player to work out themselves actually in the middle. Slowly we work out a method that works, well sometimes we do anyway.

Routines help. A batsman might have a little dance that they act out before each ball. Gloves off, gloves on, velcro tightened, fix the front pad, walk to square leg, twirl the bat and back you come to the crease. Clontarf folk might recognise Vijay Gopal in that, every ball, every single ball and he can bat, that is a lot of routine to get through in an innings. But for most it starts much earlier in the day than when you present yourself at the wicket for service. Many have their spots in the changing rooms and not just in their home ground. Yep guilty as charged. Once I changed my spot in the changing room after a horrific run of low scores. I rationalised that because it was a rep game rather than a club game that this was acceptable, honestly when you are in bad form anything goes, the mind is frazzled. Anyway I got some runs and immediately headed back to my usual spot, the hex had been lifted. I was so relieved to get back to my seat. So routines and familiarity undoubtedly help calm the nerves. Even on the way to games, many drivers will have their favoured route to an opposition ground. Alan McClean was the driver in my group, neither Peter Prendergast not myself were trusted or trusted ourselves behind the wheel so Mighty with his big Red Opel was our designated driver. At some stage one of us was out of form and while we waited to collect Peter Prendergast to complete the posse, we took ourselves into the local newsagent and had an ice cream. Later that day, runs were scored and a new Saturday routine was born.

But let’s face it; routines are merely a psychological comfort blanket.

When I contacted him about Craig Mahoney, Paul McCrum made a very valid point. He felt that senior player and in particular professionals in the NCU were a huge influence on him in his formative years. Always a student of the game, Paul lapped up the conversations with these players. No doubt much of the advice will have been of a technical nature but within those nuggets, came thoughts and ideas, theories and strategies. Not all of this advice will have been relevant or perhaps considered relevant by the recipient but there is no doubt that the more the game is discussed the better the chance of understanding its nuances. He does not mention it but I have no doubt as his career developed that Paul was the one been sought out by his teammates, he the man being engaged in conversation.

Whatever about the pro, senior players and captains shares a responsibility for assisting younger and lesser players. They are after all a team, often only as strong as the weakest link so it is in everyone’s interests to bring on the player who might just be the one who sinks the boat. Undoubtedly many of these players and captains understand their responsibilities however just as often the ones who most need help are left to flounder. In and out of the team, the psychological damage takes its toll; the player begins to understand their situation. Some can hack, many cannot. Often they are left on their own. In club cricket, the captain is often the best player, that is the sum total of their qualification. Understanding the needs of their team mates is a little bit below their ambition to get some runs or make sure they bowl 10 overs, oh and if we can pick up the points on the way then all is fine. Yes I know, that is needlessly sarcastic and an insult to the hard working captains around the leagues and while it is cynical, there remains a certain truth. Captains tend to captain teams not players, the struggling off spinner is easier to take off and replace with the military medium seamer, than to work out just what it is that makes them freeze in the height of a battle. Here, senior players have their role but the advice doled out is almost always what it was that worked for them, and while it will often be a valid point it is not necessarily what actually might work for the wounded player. And of course, it might just be plain wrong. So much advise, which do I listen to?

While an industry has built up for Sports Psychologists in professional (or elite) sport, it is a bit more hit and miss at lower levels. It is 30 years since I completed the Cricket Coaching badges and psychology was not a part of the course in those days, though Vinny Savino and Brian Kelleher were not averse to going outside of the set curriculum to expose their students to the topic. Maybe it is an aspect of the current course, but I imagine it is just one element. So the player is still largely left on their own.

So what to do?

In the mid 1980s, a number of books on the topic hit the bookshelves. It was the height of the self help craze, a book to solve every woe, many based on the style of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking – personally didn’t think much of it. My first introduction to the topic came via my girlfriend (now wife happily) Fiona Manning, at the time an international hockey player. Her introduction to the topic had come via an Irish hockey coach, George Tracey, who also lectured in Psychology in Cork. During his time with the Irish team, he made audio tapes for the players, to help them relax and focus in advance of games. The first book she bought was one by Angela Patmore called Sportmen under Stress. The title alone spoke volumes. She also had 2 books by Terry Orlick Psyching for Sport and In pursuit of Excellenc. I did not find the language very accessible. One book that did strike a chord was Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy. This introduced elements of psychology into his thinking as a captain as well as dissecting the game with great precision. Read the book and it comes as no great surprise that he would later train and practise as a psychoanalyst when his cricket career ended.

But the first book to hit the mark for me was Syer and Connolly’s 1984 book Sporting Body Sporting Mind. It was 1989 when I purchased the book. I think that the main reason that I choose this book ahead of other options on the shelf was that the authors had worked with Spurs previously and there was a preface by Steve Perryman, something of a legend in the Vincent household. I am aware that it is probably not the best method of choosing a book. In any case I was in need of help, 1989 was a poor season for me at club level and since been capped in 1986 I had struggled to work out how to succeed at international level. The purchase was as much a cry for help. The book is strong on visualisation and initially I was drawn to that aspect. Despite poor form, I managed to get picked for the English tour that year. It was a tough week, a 3 day game, 2 x 2 day games and one 1 day version. Add in the travel and it was going to be a challenge for someone whose confidence was fragile to start. I decided it would be good to bring the book, to be there if I felt that I needed some help. First up was a 2 dayer v Gloucstershire. Batting second, late in the first day, I encountered fast bowling the like of which I had never experienced. Believe me; it is a shock to the system to face fast bowling when what you previously thought was fast was merely quickish. When David Lawrence delivered a ball that I honestly never saw, he did more than dismiss me for a duck. Later that night, still tramatised, I delved into the book to see if there was anything to help me, for after all I was likely to be heading out to bat a second time the next day. What I settled on was the advice to consider what the worst thing that could happen. Well clearly the worst thing that could happen was that I would end up with another duck to my name (and not strangely that I would be unable this time to deflect the ball before it smashed into head). Could I live with the duck? I rationalised that I probably could and sure enough when I plodded forward to the slow medium paced bowler at the other end to Mr. Lawrence the following day, that is precisely what I had to face. An international pair, I would not wish it on anyone. Faced with the humiliation, I put the book away and did not look at it again, until I started researching this article.

Clearing reading and understanding the concept are two completely different things.

For me, I found my psychological help in 1992, too late for my international cricket career, having retired, tired and disappointed in 1991. I found it via rugby actually. 1992/93 season saw my club Old Wesley bring in a professional coach for the first time. Ian Snook was a New Zealander, an experienced coach who in his playing days as an outhalf for Taranaki had been on the end of Dave Loveridge’s pass for his entire career. Lovers of Kiwi rugby will understand just what a privilege that must have been. He saw potential in the side but he saw major issues too. A team that did not trust itself or each other. Along with the captain, Dermot Strong (ex DUCC and Phoenix) they invited Sports Psychologist Felicity Heathcote to meet the team. Heathcote had, that summer, worked with the Irish team at the Barcelona Olympics, specifically she had worked with the Irish Olympic boxers, who had brought home gold (Michael Carruth) and silver (Wayne McCullough). Convincing a group of close to 30 rugby players was never going to be easy but once she began, I knew that this was “it” for me. I was immediately sold. I recognised the emotions and sensations that she described when things were going well and crucially knew intimately the other end of the scale when problems arose. Unfortunately due to personal circumstances I was unable to meet Felicity for the face to face meeting which had been arranged for each of the players. I still wonder if I would have been brave enough to face my own realities and insecurities which had held me back. No doubt, she would have seen them, but could I face them is another question.

A 1996 book set out in some detail her thoughts, techniques and case studies under the title Peak Performance, Zen and the Sporting Zone. Obviously the Zen reference sets her theory in Eastern culture but do not let that put you off. For me, her methods are by far the most accessible and relevant that I have encountered.

And that I suppose is the bigger issue, what makes perfect sense to me, might be incomprehensible to you. A player seeking help needs to find what works for them. It is not easy, there will be wrong turns but keep the mind open, the key is out there somewhere. Keep searching.