Friday, 9 January 2009

Science, Psychology and Cricket

To listen to the experts consulted for this story - Dr Rob Duffield from the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University, and Dr Alistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University - check out the story and podcast I put out in 2007.


Every cricket season, the TV coverage of cricket becomes more spectacular and technological, with the introduction of microphones to detect the finest of edges through to the keeper, improved abilities to determine the trajectory of a ball once it has left the bowler’s hand, and now even heat sensors to see how the batsman sweats.

But the scientific aspects of cricket are not limited to TV companies, with science playing an increasing role in shaping the performance of players, from their general fitness to specific training techniques for both their physical, and possibly more importantly mental, well-being.

It is with science that countries are aiming to find the competitive edge.

Are cricketers fit?

If you’ve watched the likes of Ian Botham, David Boon and Darren Lehmann strut the international cricket stage, you might believe that you really do not need to be that fit to play cricket.

Studies conducted by Dr Rob Duffield at the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University, and Dr Marc Portus, the Sports Science Manager of Cricket Australia, have found that indeed you really do not need to be as physically fit to play cricket as you do other sports such as football.

However, you do need to be psychologically strong, have a level of endurance and recovery, and plenty of natural talent.

During a test century, which takes on average three and a half hours, a batsman will stand still for two hours, walk for an hour, jog for ten minutes, spend only five minutes running hard, and about a minute and a half sprinting.

“Physical conditioning and muscle training is not going to necessarily improve your performance in cricket,” Dr Duffield said. “Having a high oxygen consumption or a faster twenty metre sprint time doesn’t mean you are going to be able to bowl better, or get more wickets, or score a century.”

This does not mean, however, that you can be completely unfit and compete at the highest level. The fitter you are, the less likely you are to succumb to injury, and the quicker you recover from fatigue.

Dr Portus said that this work would feed into the coaching regime for Cricket Australia,

“We need to understand the requirements of elite international cricket a whole lot better, particularly with our fitness training program.”

It seems the key to being a good cricketer is lots of net practice to keep the skill base high, natural talent – something perhaps with which you are born – and the ability to tackle the psychological aspects of the game.

How do world-class cricket batsmen anticipate a bowler's intention?

According to folklore, cricket is 90% a mental game.

Independent studies by Alistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and Dr Sean Müller from RMIT University in Australia, have both concluded that the very best batsmen can predict the sort of ball they will receive even before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand.

The research programs were conducted in parallel without feeding into each other, suggesting that it is with such scientific studies that countries are looking to find the edge.

The programs, conducted for the ECB by McRobert and published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by Müller, state that mediocre batsmen do not pick up on the subtle clues given off by a bowler, showing that perhaps the importance of psychology in cricket is even deeper than we might have first thought.

Whilst a lesser batsman will only make his decision about where the ball will land once it is in flight, or will perhaps make an early faulty call, an experienced player can start this decision-making process earlier, giving him more time for shot selection – very important if you’re facing Steve Harmison or Brett Lee.

McRobert’s study found that skilled batsmen pick up information from the bowlers “central body features (head-shoulders, trunk-hip)” and less skilled batsmen rely on clues in the bowler’s hand and ball position. The Australian study found that “highly skilled players demonstrated the …unique capability to pick up advance information from some specific early cues to which the less skilled players were not attuned.”

Both experiments were conducted on elite players – in Müller’s case, the Australian cricket team – and then repeated on intermediate and novice cricketers.

One test involved showing the participants a video of a bowler running in from the batsman’s perspective, and stopped the video at various points so that the batsman could make a prediction about what might happen next. McRobert’s tests also focused on the eye-movements of the batsmen using head mounted optics and high speed cameras to try and understand the subconscious decision making of the batsman.

The research has the potential to allow coaches to understand how body language is communicated. McRobert’s study suggests that experience against all types of bowlers is also important.

“Our research revealed that a batsman uses different search strategies when facing fast and spin bowlers… It is important that information relating to potential visual cues is specific to the type of bowler.”

The work also suggests that match context determines how a batsman makes his decisions, and so coaching sessions could be designed to focus on the aspects of the game that play with the mind, rather than aspects of a batsman’s technique.


Psychology on the field

According to Justin Langer’s blog, sports psychology is “the least studied of all cricket skills, even if it is widely accepted as being the most important ingredient of success.”

But this is starting to change, with most teams having associated psychologists. The ECB is currently in the process of appointing a National Lead Psychologist, and have used psychologists Dr Wil James and Dr Steve Bull on a part time basis.

Dr James, who provides psychological services for the ECB up to the Academy and England-A levels, as well as for overseas touring age sides, says that his role is to help players develop their mental game so to deal with setbacks, and also to help players raise their mental games.

The aim is to work with coaches to “foster development of a strong mental game by consulting upon, rather than taking over, player development.”

“The aim is to develop the coaching environment.”

This developing coaching environment is gradually starting to take effect, not just at the elite level, but also at lower levels, with each county academy having an associated part-time sports psychologist. Dr James says that eventually the aim is to have sports psychologists associated with teams on a more full-time basis with a strategic outlook on player development.

“Psychology is not a quick fix.”

Dr James thinks psychology has a strong role to play in allowing the coach to “coach in a way that asks questions of players, not just answers them. We want to challenge players, and take them out of their comfort zones.”

This is important when viewing the way that many junior players find their way to the top, with many unprepared for the mental game.

“Sports psychology helps coaches select players, not just on technical ability, but also mental characteristics. It helps the coach nurture natural talent. Some players may have tonnes of natural talent but never have been challenged, whilst others might have shown that they can bounce back from a setback.”

Research is being conducted within the ECB to develop an assessment tool to categorise different types of “mental toughness”. This research looks at factors such as emotional intelligence, and again helps coaches identify players that have the mental edge. Some players have the ability to maintain their confidence throughout a period of misfortune, and being able to identify this helps coaches work with those that may not have this ability.

“The aim is to make players focus on what they can do, not what is affecting them.”

Warren Frost, Sports Science and Medical Coordinator for New Zealand Cricket (NZC) said that NZC has psychological programs in place, although he admits that “there has not been a lot of publication on the psychological demands of cricket.” New players go through psychological “programmes of development in the same way that skills or fitness are developed.”

“(Psychological coaching) is individualised and run by our sport psychologist in one on one situations as required”

When asked if New Zealand had come up with a way tackling performance momentum – for instance, getting a team “up” for a dead rubber in a series – he commented:

“One of the eternal questions of any sport!”

It may take some time before science answers that one.

Psychology off the field

Promoting the visualisation of positive scenes, such as run-scoring or wicket-taking moments, has become part of the coaching manual thanks in part to scientific research. Notably, Langer’s long-time batting partner Matthew Hayden sits on the pitch before each innings visualising how he will bat.

The understanding of positive visualisation has arisen from scientific work into depression, and apart from on the field, wear and tear on the mind can have an effect off the field. English opening batsman Marcus Trescothick is the most recent example of a high profile cricketer struck down with a stress-related illness. The frenetic and grinding itinerary and lifestyle of an international cricketer is often incompatible with their personal make-up or home life.

There is a growing realisation within society that depression and mental illness are serious problems that cannot be glossed over. It poses the question then, how do coaching staff and team management best nurture players who may be vulnerable to this type of illness?

One promising acknowledgement of the problem is from the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), which offers free counselling sessions to all current cricketing professionals from any phone in the world. The hotline is manned 24-hours by experienced, professional counsellors. They have also set up the Benevolent Fund, to help cricketers adjust to life beyond cricket.

This is a positive development by the ECB, as it is often difficult for players to adjust to life after cricket having had their identity tied to it for many years. Silence of the Heart, by David Frith, details over 150 professional cricketers who committed suicide, mostly after their retirement.

The ECB has also set up the “Performance Lifestyle Service” to help players throughout their careers, and prepares them for life after cricket. A network of clinical psychologists is maintained for cricketers who face problems such as addiction or depression.

Science and Medicine in Cricket Conferences

The psychological aspects of the game are now making up part of various sports science conferences. The increasing role of science in cricket has been highlighted in the last decade through the four-yearly World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket, held in conjunction with each World Cup. The first congress in 1999 had 50 attendees, with representatives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the West Indies and the UK. In 2003, the congress reflected the growing stature of science in the game with 119 attendees, including representatives from Canada, India and Pakistan. Barbados played host to the 2007 version, with the majority of presentations coming from Australia, the UK and South Africa.

Craig Ranson, England Cricket Board Lead Physiotherapist at the National Cricket Academy, said that the programme was wide ranging, including fields such as Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, Injury Surveillance and Prevention, Sports Biomechanics, Exercise Physiology, Nutrition and Hydration, Thermoregulation and Motor Learning.

“It was clear that although there was some good science presented the overall goal was to produce research that resulted in a performance advantage.”

Recently, the 2007 Cricket Australia Sport Medicine Conference was held, with presentations from the then Australian coach and noted cricket analyser John Buchanan, and papers ranging from the effects of alcohol, heat and humidity on athletic performance, to evidence from baseball that umpiring decisions are influenced by game context, kinematic analysis of the doosra and off-break, and why fast bowlers bowl no-balls.
National Programs

A number of countries now have dedicated centres for scientific input into cricket. The ECB has set up the Science and Medicine Management Group to “continually review the best strategic approach for the delivery of all science and medicine support for cricket,” whilst Cricket Australia has set up the Sports Science Program to leverage off the expertise of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

Carl Petersen works with the AIS to track the workload of cricketers using GPS technology, and says that Cricket Australia has recently offered two PhD scholarships in Physiology and Performance Analysis:

“The first scholarship focuses on utilising in-house developed GPS devices combined with micro-sensors to accurately define workload in cricketers. With a better understanding of cricket workload and demands, our strength and conditioning coaches will be able to design more effective training programmes, and monitor recovery more precisely to have the cricket athletes peaking on game day(s),” said Petersen

“The second PhD is focusing on the developmental training pathways of fast bowlers.”

Additionally, Cricket Australia has a research programme investigating the biomechanics of cricketing skills. Wayne Spratford runs a number of tests for Cricket Australia:

“Over the last two years we have developed skill based tests for batsmen, bowlers and fielders which we have implemented on all levels of cricketers in Australia from the Test team to State Under 17 level.”

Both commented that much of their work is kept in-house to maintain a “competitive advantage”.

The competitive edge comes not from what is done on the field, but what research is done off it.

Future

So where to now for science and cricket? Whilst some countries are embracing the concept, developing cricketing countries do not have the resources for scientific cricket analysis.

One recent development has been the Nike Air Zoom Yorker shoe, developed for New Zealand cricketers by the University of Auckland alongside clothing company Nike.

And it has been suggested by Shri. V. Srivata, former Chief Sports Editor for The Times of India, that courses in the science of cricket become mandatory for all cricket coaches.

Whoever said cricket was a simple game?