When it comes to the highest level of most sports, there is a popular assumption that success lies 80 percent in the mind, in the six inches between the ears. Although nobody seems to be able to trace the origin of this 80 percent urban myth, almost every expert I’ve spoken to in cricket agrees with it, barring the odd outlier who feels that success lies 50 percent in the mind and 50 percent in the physical skills of batting and bowling.
I’m not convinced about this figure of 80 percent, but what I do know is that most sportspeople fall short of achieving their highest potential, and one of the biggest reasons is that they lack the courage to speak their minds.
I have run mental game workshops for nearly two decades now, attended by over 500 professional cricketers, and more than 250 pro athletes from nine other sports, including international rugby, hockey, football and individual sports such as tennis, golf and surfing. I mention this diversity because in all of these different sports and environments, I continue to ask the same series of questions that reveal fascinating insights.
First, I ask what percentage of their errors are a result of their own doing, meaning unforced errors that are the athletes fault rather than the opponent or situation getting the better of them. Batsmen in cricket estimate that they are responsible for getting themselves out between 80-95 percent of the time. Bowlers, and in fact, all athletes from the different team and individual sports report that approximately 70-90 percent of errors are of their own doing.
Next, I ask them to list the actual causes are of these self-inflicted errors. In almost every instance the list comprises the same things, including pressure, fear of failure/injury/being dropped/letting others down, lack of confidence, over-confidence, loss of concentration, over-trying, doubt, premeditation, worrying about what happened previously and/or worrying about what might happen next. Common amongst these is that few are technical errors, and almost all are errors in thinking.
But, here’s where it gets even more interesting. The next question is, ‘who of you uses these same words, such as pressure, etc., when debriefing the error with your coach?” Of those 750 plus athletes, I could count on one hand the number who admit this to their coach.
The answer to the final question is most revealing. When asked, ‘why do you not tell your coach?”, regardless of the sport, the answers are the same, ‘because of what the coach will think, because they will probably judge me as being mentally weak, and because of the consequences of that judgement, which is probably getting dropped.”
So, elite level athletes from multiple different sports are responsible for the majority of their own errors, they know the cause of these errors, yet hardly any speak to their coach about them. The reason they keep their errors to themselves is the fear of judgement and the repercussion of that judgement. As a result, they continue to repeat the same mental errors and their game suffers as they hold themselves back from reaching their full potential. All this, because they are too scared to speak their minds.
I’ve often said that sport mirrors life, and cricket does so possibly more than any sport. If so, I wonder, for example, how many relationships might suffer because one of both parties don’t have the courage to speak their minds, to reveal their insecurities, fragilities or concerns? How many employees continue to make the same mistakes due to things like pressure, fear, doubts, insecurities or so-called errors in their thinking, that out of fear of judgement and the repercussion from their bosses, they keep a secret, which in turn undermines their effectiveness?
Is it a step too far to suggest that, like those athletes, that many of today’s youth also suffer from keeping their mental ‘weaknesses’ to themselves? Maybe also because of the fear of what others will think?
In India, suicide is the leading cause of death for those between the age of 15-39, with a reported 630 suicides occurring each day; a number which represents a rate much higher than global averages. If Indian states were countries, apparently Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and West Bengal would have the third, fourth and fifth worst rates of female suicide in the world (only Greenland and Lesotho are worse). For every suicide, it is estimated that 30 times that number attempt to take their lives. Globally, seven kids commit suicide every day due to failure in exams. One wonders how many of these could have been averted by having the courage to speak up?
Athletes, employees, kids… it’s normal to have doubts, insecurities, negative thoughts and mental struggles. All of the best athletes in the world have them! This is not a problem, it is normal! The problem is the lack of courage to speak about these issues – many of which hold us back from living or performing optimally.
Finally, I’m not saying that everyone should share everything about their insecurities or mental struggles, but I do suggest that athletes, employees, couples and kids might dig a little deeper into their courage reserves to share just a little more openly about their (perfectly normal) mental battles. I suggested to all those athletes mentioned above that they find someone to speak to who can help them work through those 70-90 percent of their errors in thinking. And in most cases, it does not need to be a trained psychologist, but rather a coach, boss, parent, team mate or friend who has the compassion to suspend judgement, who takes the time to ask, ‘are you ok’, and who then really listens.