Cricket’s mind-body problem — and its resolution

Updated - May 16, 2017 10:27 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2017 04:17 pm IST

Rishabh Pant’s advice to Sanju Samson during a run chase in the IPL highlights sport’s mind-body problem. “He told me,” said Samson after the two youngsters had taken the Delhi Daredevils to a thrilling win, ‘don’t think too much, just keep hitting.’”

“Cricket is a game played in the mind”, goes the cliché. True, but can we ignore the body? Over-thinking leads to paralysis by analysis; emptying the mind of all thought is neither possible nor desirable. Top players throw a bridge across these extremes.

Is thought the enemy of action in sport? Does Roger Federer get on court and simply flick his auto-pilot switch, not giving a moment’s thought to the elements that make him special? Wouldn’t that make the greatest player in the game a robot?

Delhi Daredevils mentor, Rahul Dravid, once confessed how shorter format cricket had freed his game and allowed him to discover things he didn’t think existed. He tended to over-analyse, in sharp contrast to some of today’s T20 heroes who are biased towards the physical rather than the mental. Yet Dravid could not have been a success without striking a balance.

In his book on sport, Knowing the Score , the philosopher David Papineau quotes American baseball legend Yogi Berra as saying, “How the hell can you hit and think at the same time?” This, after his manager told him to “think, think, think”.

It is a popular myth in cricket that the big hitters don’t think about their game too much but somehow get bat to meet ball and send it on its way. There is something comforting in this for the less gifted, consolation that you might have been a better sportsman but you were too intelligent for that.

Commentators feed into this myth; even someone like Geoff Boycott was not immune. He once described Virender Sehwag as an unintelligent batsman even as the Indian was rewriting the textbook on opening batsmanship.

Perhaps what Pant was articulating, without being conscious of it was the yogic approach, what modern commentators call “being in the zone”, where oodles of practice and experience make it seem as if the player is performing on a plane where thought, planning and tactics seem irrelevant.

Papineau brings the two sides together in an interesting synthesis: “There are some things sportsmen must think about, and others that they must keep their minds away from.” If you think too much, you tend to trip up, but if you think too little or not at all, you cannot perform to the best of your ability.

I think what Pant meant was: don’t overload your mind with the kind of detail that will interfere with the way your body needs to move. Philosophers, Papineau informs us, distinguish between skills and their components. “A skill is something that you know how to do without having to think about how you do it. Its components are the more specific movements that you perform when you are exercising that skill.”

Psychologists have a name for it: the centipede’s dilemma, from the well-known story of the centipede. Asked which of its one hundred legs it placed and in what order while walking, the centipede got into a tangle and could not move, overcome by pressure and self-consciousness.

Top sportsmen cannot afford to pay conscious attention to a well-honed habit. Hence the advice: don’t think about it.

But equally, top sportsmen cannot afford to ignore the need to focus on the job. Athletic performance calls for precise focus, not an empty mind. While playing a cover drive, no batsman can keep telling himself where his front foot ought to be, where the bat swing begins and ends, in what direction the wrist ought to be facing. That has to come without conscious thought.

But not thinking will mean not working out the bowler’s pace or trajectory, not being able to retrieve from past experience the inevitable response to the bowling. You have to necessarily think about what to do, not so much about how to do it. You must have a plan.

Many old-timers look down on any advice that does not involve thought. Modern players tend to understand the concept of “emptying the mind” better. Yet both sets of players are only half right. Perhaps they are not aware that they are articulating only one part of it.

This may have to do with definitions: after all, “keep your mind free” could mean just keep your mind free of unnecessary thought. And “thinking is everything” could be merely another way of saying “if your mind thinks right, the body will do right.”

It is unlikely that either Rishabh Pant or Sanju Samson had all this in mind in the heat of the battle. At least, not consciously.

Yet, if you practise with purpose, working on your skills repeatedly, then under pressure, the mind and body are no longer split and working against each other. Balance is the key.

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