Is there anyone lonelier than the dismissed batsman walking back to the pavilion? What does he or she say to themselves to ease the disappointment? In a new study of the self-talk used by elite batsmen this is just one of six critical phases of a batting innings that were examined.
“What I said to myself helped me to stay positive, knowing that [my] game plan was a good one,” said one player about a recent dismissal. He was one of five players who participated in the research, all based at a county cricket club in England. Two of the others described how they called themselves names and criticised their own shot selection. A recurring theme throughout the study was for this kind of negativity to be followed by motivational self-talk.
A big problem with research into self-talk in sport is finding a way to access what athletes really say to themselves. To help this process, the researchers, Adam Miles (himself an elite cricketer) and Rich Neil, used video footage of their participants’ recent batting innings from a week earlier. The batsmen watched these short clips of critical junctures in their innings and were asked to reminisce and reflect on what they’d said to themselves at the time.
After watching footage of himself defending the first ball of his innings, “Player D” said that he used the cue word “ball” at that time and throughout his batting performance to help focus his attention. “It’s a routine that enabled me to switch back on between deliveries,” he said. This was another theme to emerge from the interviews – using self-talk to shift attention from a broad to narrow focus and back again. To shift their focus outwards, the players described assessing the layout of the fielders and looking for gaps. “By vocalising the fielding positions it allows me to play shots on instinct,” said Player B.
Poor shot execution meanwhile was often followed by reassuring self-talk: “stay cool,” “hang in there,” and sometimes also utterances designed to simplify the batting challenge. Player B told himself to “watch the ball”. Players D and E told themselves to “play straight”. “If I am telling myself to play straight when I bat, I’ll pretty much play straight and that decreases the chances of me getting out,” said D. The researchers said such utterances are holistic, in the sense that they reduce players’ focus on the minutiae of technique. This helps counter the regression to excessive self-focus that is often associated with choking.
Miles and Neil said the insights from their study highlight “the importance of athlete education surrounding the use of self-talk, and more specifically, the type of processes that athletes’ self-talk attends to.” Unfortunately, there are serious limitations around players reflecting on their self-talk a week after the event, albeit with the aid of video clips. It’s not clear how much insight we have into our self-talk in the present moment, let alone when trying to remember days later.
Moreover, the findings of this study are highly subjective, so we can’t really know if the players’ use of self-talk was beneficial in the ways they described. For that we need more experimental tests of different self-talk strategies. Nonetheless, this study makes a valuable contribution to a neglected topic and the use of elite players and video clips is to be commended.
Adam Miles, and Rich Neil (2013). The Use of Self-Talk During Elite Cricket Batting Performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.07.005