12 March 2015

GOOD FORM, BAD FORM: NOTHING BUT AN ILLUSION

Daniel Gallan

Every player wants to be in it, but stay out of it too long and your place in the team will be at risk. Form is something that every sports star, coach and fan can relate to but few know what it is or how to measure it. Its symptoms can be seen such as a batsman scoring runs or a striker scoring goals, but the notion of form remains open to interpretation. Paddy Upton, head coach of the Sydney Thunder (BBL) and the Rajasthan Royals (IPL) discusses the ideology of form and whether or not there is a method to ensuring one stays in it.

 Quinton de Kock throws his bat as he walks off the field after being dismissed by West Indies bowler Jason Holder for twelve runs during the Cricket World Cup match at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Image suplied by Action Images/ Jason Reed.

Quinton de Kock throws his bat as he walks off the field after being dismissed by West Indies bowler Jason Holder for twelve runs during the Cricket World Cup match at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Image suplied by Action Images/ Jason Reed.

When Amjad Javed of the United Arab Emirates ran in to deliver Quinton de Kock’s 45th ball of his innings in South Africa’s final pool match of the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the young opener was on 26. Not exactly a strike rate that he have come to associate with the free flowing maverick but he has been out of touch lately and needed a solid innings to rebuild his campaign. Unfortunately for the 22 year old, an all too familiar scenario played out.

A modest 122km/h ball pitched on a relatively good length just outside off stump and carried on with the angle across the left hander. Not moving his feet and playing away from his body, de Kock only managed to get a fine edge on the ball and was caught by a grateful wicketkeeper. He went out the same way to Pakistan. He’s been going out like this quite a lot recently.

This is de Kock’s leanest spell of his fledgling career. Not since his 107 against Australia in November last year has de Kock gone above 30. In fact, this knock of 26 is his first one past 20 in 7 innings.

What has happened to de Kocks’s game? This is the same player that scored 3 consecutive hundreds against India in December 2013.  Why has he suddenly hit such a bad run of form? For Paddy Upton, the answer is simple.

“Form is nothing more than an abstract concept of the mind,” he says. “Form is lost when the body’s natural intelligence is forgotten or blocked.”

Upton has worked with some of the top cricketers on the planet in a number of different roles. He is currently the head coach of both the Sydney Thunder Cricket Team as well as the Rajasthan Royals that competes in the 20 over Big Bash League (BBL) in Australia and the Indian Premier League (IPL) respectively. His work with Gary Kirsten as high performance manager for both the South African and Indian national sides helped both nations reach the number one Test ranking during his stints there and became a World Cup winner with India in 2011.

Upton has realised that with any sportsman’s performance over a set period of time there will be peaks and valleys. No player in any sport has sustained a level of consistent success over his or her entire career. At face value, this is nothing but form. Every player goes through dips of “good form” and “bad form”. Upton, however, says that form is an illusion:

“When you play roulette, you have the choice of red or black. If the ball repeatedly lands on black, there is an unfounded belief that the ball will land on red the next time the wheel spins. The truth is for every new spin of the wheel, the ball has a 50-50 chance of landing on either red or black. What came before is irrelevant. It’s the same with a sports star. As long as the player has prepared his own game to the best of his ability, he has an equal chance of failure or success whether in so called “good form”or “bad form”. The only reason his chance of failure increases is if he focuses on his downward spiralling in to poor form.”

Individual perception is a good place to start when discussing form. Let’s take two players who are both struggling to score runs; the player who believes that his poor run is down to bad luck and that a big score is around the corner will be able to focus on the procedures that have made him successful in the past and trust that will bring back success. The player who buys in to the concept of poor form will look to rectify the situation by tackling the problem; in this case not making enough runs. Upton is clear that it is not about the popular psychology concept of ‘thinking positively'. Rather it is about not feeding the monster that is the abstract concept of poor form.

“Whatever you focus on grows,” says Upton. “If a player truly believes that nothing is wrong and that he is only going out to good bowling, bad shots, bad luck or whatever else, and not the result of poor form, he will continue to prepare his game in the same way that made him successful. If he believes that his poor form is real, he will try and fix the problem by preparing differently, often by focusing on perceived technical errors. Coaches add to this by the allure of getting overly technical. In reality, the problem is seldom physical. It’s more deeply rooted in the mental.”

The reason many coaches do this is because they do not fully understand or are not able to deal with the mental obstacles that the player has constructed for himself. Coaches are often inclined to be seen as technical gurus. By solving a mechanical problem in the player’s game, the coach is seen as an all-knowing saviour. In addition to this, being known as a player with a mental weakness rather than a technical one can be a career ender. Choking in cricket is perhaps the most contagious and feared abstract concept there is.

During South Africa’s reign as the number one Test team under Kirsten, Graeme Smith went through a lean patch in terms of runs. Coaches and experts credited this dry spell to a poor technique. They rightly pointed out that Smith was falling over his front leg and playing across his body and getting trapped lbw, or his front foot cemented itself in the crease and he played away from his body getting caught behind the wicket. However, Smith had always played this way. A split-screen of Smith the runs machine and Smith the easy wicket showed that his technique hadn’t changed. What had changed was the perception of where the problem was – the position of his front foot. The problem threatened to spiral out of control until Kirsten and Smith both came to the conclusion that the problem was not physical. Smith didn’t allow his focus to shift to a minute part of his game and was able to naturally feel his way to “good form” by cutting out shots that exposed this weakness such as driving through the offside and focussing on what suited his game such as playing through the on side.

“When a player has bought in to the idea of bad form, I’ll get him to take a step back from cricket,” Upton explains. “It’s like being in a helicopter flying at 10m above the ground. The small details seem big but you don’t see the whole picture. I’ll take them up to 10 000m to look at their family, their financial situation, their health, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. It gives them perspective. Then we’ll come down to 1 000m and look at the last few years. There have probably been periods of good and bad results. It gets the player to understand that this current run is all part of a natural cycle. He can then mentally go back and remember the things that made him successful and focus on that.”

Understanding that form is abstract does not detract from the need to prepare well. Success comes from a combination of preparation plus belief. It is realistic confidence that comes from knowing you have done all that is within your control and accepting that it still might not go your way. Not overthinking is crucial.

Upton explains how when a player’s game is flowing naturally, his body movements are being governed by body intelligence which is controlled by the basal ganglia found at the base of the forebrain. Players are able to perform complex tasks such as playing a cricket shot without thinking about it because the motor functions involved are so ingrained in the athlete’s body. When the athlete starts to overthink things and focuses on a perceived technical weakness, the pre-frontal cortex takes over and what was once instinctive becomes clumsy and uncoordinated. When AB de Villiers pulls a 150km/h Mitchell Johnson bouncer, he is not thinking about it, his body just does it. De Kock scored those hundreds against India with the same technical issues he has now such as playing away from his body and not moving his feet. However, back then, they weren’t perceived as flaws as he was crunching most deliveries from the middle of his bat.

In his book, “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, Malcom Gladwell refers to the ‘story-telling problem’; suggesting people are too quick to come up with explanations for things that they really can’t explain. How many times have we watched a sports star give a post-match conference and fail to fully explain his or her match winning performance? They’ll use words and phrases such as “in the zone” or “trusted my instinct”. Athletes only get overly technical when things start to go wrong.

There are a few measures that Upton suggests when trying to get back in to “form”. The first step is to focus on strengths (he suggests 80% of your focus should be on your strengths). Whatever you focus on grows so by focusing on what made you successful as opposed to what you perceive to be a problem is vital. The next step is preparation. Confidence and “form” are related and confidence comes from backing your own game. Sure, it won’t always guarantee positive results, but knowing you have prepared as best you can for the opposition, match conditions and your specific skills and talents ensures you approach the game with as much confidence as possible.

Once the physical preparation has been done, the mental side of things becomes important. Know that this lapse in “form” is temporary and part of a natural cycle. See the bigger picture and remember what made you successful in the first place. Quinton de Kock has not become a bad player. He has just returned from injury and so his body intelligence is perhaps a little rusty. Perhaps pressures both external and internal are hindering his ability to feel his natural game. There are a myriad of reasons why this supremely gifted sportsman is struggling. Let’s hope that someone is putting an arm around his shoulder and giving him the support he needs. An in-form de Kock is one of the most destructive forces on a cricket field and will go a long way in helping South Africa win the World Cup. A big score is surely around the corner. Let's hope the selectors see it that way.

Paddy Upton will be speaking at our Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town in September. His understanding of what makes a sports star successful has seen him inspire and motivate people around the world. His record speaks for itself and his views and insights will no doubt prove invaluable. You can follow him on Twitter or keep up to date with all his work on his website.

Comment