Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Cricket Series - Process of Player Preparation

I am reminded of the quote which more or less goes like this - luck is what you get when preparation meets opportunity. The importance of preparation cannot be over-emphasised for a player or a professional with high aspirations.

This is for the benefit of players (cricket or any game or sport), their support systems (coach, parents) and other stakeholders. One thing that we must understand is that the process of player preparation is the most important key in the way he shapes up finally. What shows up as performance in the end is a result of the how the player has 'prepared' and understood the 'process'. Let us first understand what this process is - be it for a young player or an International player or for that matter any professional - sports or otherwise.

Player preparation process
Typically the 'preparation' aspect includes the teaching or the coaching part of the game. All preparation focuses is on three aspects - skill, physical fitness and the mental strength. This holds true for all levels from the basic to the highest level, in games and sports and in all competition.

For the younger lot, coaches impart the basics of the game( be it in batting, bowling or fielding) and some amount of physical fitness. At this stage there is not much emphasis on anything else but drills and constant correction of the drill which can then be reproduced in the correct manner in the games. From grips to stance, defence, to shots, run up to follow through - all techniques are taught and drilled. The right drills produce the right results. The wrong drills produce wrong results.

For the older lot, skill issues do crop up and show up in the outcome i.e. performances. For them, minor modifications are made. This can be done only by experienced coaches (and not merely players who have played high grades of cricket). One must learn to differentiate between a great coach and a great player. Few players can become great coaches. It is also not necessary that great coaches are great players. In fact many great coaches are failed players who have then analysed and understood the game thoroughly.

Skill, when worked on completely, practised well and hard, becomes an automatic extension of the player's instinct. When fully addressed, the player reacts instinctively to all situations, be it batting, bowling or fielding and adapts faster to changes in environment, much as a student of mathematics who has practised long and hard adapts to questions that demand an application and a thorough understanding of the right basics.

Physical fitness
Physical fitness involves a correct training schedule for strength, flexibility, endurance and speed. Apart from a well- thought of regimen, correct nutrition, and guidance in all these aspects is most important. Obviously if the body breaks down or is unable to cope with the workload, it will show in the final performance. The player must fully gear up well before the season for all eventualities and be totally prepared and fit through the season. Fitness needs expert advise and again, from someone who knows his job well. If the player is not fit, he is a non-starter. All the skill in the world is useless if the player is unfit. It requires hard work and commitment.

Mental toughness
This is the most important part of the game and some say is almost 90% of the game itself. Players become mentally tough over a period of time. Mental toughness comes from (1) long hours of practice which builds confidence and belief (2) playing and exposing oneself to higher levels of the game constantly (and also exposing oneself to adverse situations and failure which happens when competition is high) and (3) constant desire to achieve higher standards. One way of developing mental toughness is to play more and more games against tough opponents and not be satisfied with average or mediocre performances.

Looking at it from the angle of preparation, a simple method of achieving all of the above is by preparing for the next level. Players who prepare for the next level of the game are generally tougher in the mind because they have already taken ownership for their careers. They take adversity or failure positively and go back to the drawing table and come back harder and stronger. They are the players who do not crib about the process or give up or be satisfied with average performances - they will work harder, perform at much higher levels and force their way in on the strength of top level performances that cannot be ignored. Typically these players have also figured out the process in one way or another, are hungry for success and are a great asset to the team.

Creation of Self- Belief
Also this hardship and frustration is where players form 'self-belief' which is the most important weapon in one's quiver as one goes on to play higher grades of the game. By making the process simpler for the player through dishonest, unethical methods many parents, coaches and stakeholders actually take away their wards most important weapon unknowingly. On the day of the judgment the player finds himself without his biggest weapon which has been taken away from him by his very supporters. Never make the path easy with the mistaken notion that it will help. It is temporary and too transient to last. If you truly love your ward, teach him how to come back stronger in the face of all adversity, make it tougher and make his preparation complete so he is fully equipped for all eventualities. Much like parents who have to let their children fall and learn to walk, so too must you allow the failures. You cannot carry the child forever and expect him to walk.

Giving Up Is a Bad Sign
A highly talented player who if dropped gives up after being dropped is displaying no mental resilience. Giving up is an attitude and one can find a million excuses for giving up. The one who goes back to training and prepares even harder and comes back is the one who will go a long way and fulfills his potential. That is the process that will make him tougher, more honest and aware of the process. This time, the player will leave little to chance or luck. Good and long term players always bounce back strongly from failures or temporary setbacks.

A player who is fully prepared on skill, physical fitness and mental strength, needs very little luck to perform. he will succeed anyway. Just look at all the champions around you and you will know.

Two important things - Coach and Regular Practice Under the Coach
Two things become most important here - the quality of the coach and the regularity of the student (from the basic to International level) at the camp under the eyes of the coach. The quality of the coach (or teacher) is important. He can set the basics right at the very beginning and the student is not learning the wrong things and practising the wrong things. Regularity at the nets is important because small errors do creep in when you are away from the coach and those then get magnified with faulty practice. The time spent on the game thus gets nullified by doing the wrong things. By practising the right things, the performances are bound to show up much better.  Timing gets better, bowling has more penetration and overall confidence is high.

As players go up the levels there is still no guarantee that errors do not creep in. The coach becomes important because he is one who can quickly spot and correct the issue before it magnifies or shows up as a bad patch in performance. It is thus advisable for all players to spend long hours under a good coach when performances are going awry (and even otherwise so they do not go awry).

Performance - An indicator of preparation
The way the player plays in the nets and how he performs in matches are different. Player performance in matches is a clear indicator of the completeness of the preparation process. The player's preparation and correctness of technique will be tested in matches, especially against quality opposition. Poor performance indicates a lacuna in preparation and nothing else. This can happen to anyone at any time and all players must see performance as a sure shot feedback. If the runs are drying up, wickets are harder to get by, there is no timing, no sting in the bowling, even if things just don't feel right from your top performances - rush back to the drawing board i.e. a visit to the nets under the watchful eye of a coach quickly.

Gladwell and the 10,000 hours - Preparation
Here one must draw a comparison to Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful 10,000 hours of practice to becoming a genius theory. Someone like Tendulkar would have practiced the right things over and over again in his childhood and reproduced them in many matches that his coach Ramakant Achrekar had the foresight to make him and Kambli play, that much of those 10, 000 hours would have been exhausted by the time he was 16 and made his debut!

Poor performance? - Educate the players about the process
I have heard several cricketers even at first class level say that they do not have any coach. I am appalled that the system does not educate them on the importance of having a coach to check back on any errors that creep into the game. It is a must. Also, players must realise the importance of personal coaches in this era where competition is high. Careers can get snipped before one realises what happened with one error!All great professional sportsmen - tennis, golf, athletics - you name it, have a team of coaches that travel with them. Here we do not even have the concept of a coach. Even in business, CEOs and professionals of companies large and small are now relying on a personal coach or mentor.

Ask one question - Are you fully prepared?
Performance is never about luck. It is always about preparation. Just ask yourself one question. Have I fully prepared on all fronts, on all angles, on all three aspects of skill, physical and mental, on all things that are within my control for the next level? If yes, you will know all the answers yourself. No one can stop you then.
The only one who can stop you is yourself.

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