In the distant future, when cricket lovers look back at the game’s greatest players, two names will stand out; Australian Sir Donald Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman, and West Indian Sir Garfield Sobers, the world’s greatest all-rounder.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of talking to Sir Garfield at my home in Melbourne, Australia, about his game and the factors that were responsible for his enormous success. He was quite excited about the interview and confessed that it was the first time he was able to speak at length about some of those factors, particularly the ones that operated inside his head.
In view of the substandard performance of West Indies cricket in recent times, regional boards and cricketers would do well to pay close attention to the wise words of our greatest cricketer. Unfortunately, we in the Caribbean tend to belittle the performance and achievements of our own people while recognising and glorifying the accomplishments of other people.
Here is the first part of the Sobers interview. Other parts to follow will focus on concentration, confidence, slumps and pressure.
Webster: When we look at talent in cricket we often see it as just the ability to hit a ball or bowl a ball. But that ability can only take you so far.
Sir Garfield: There is more to cricket than fitness and technical skills. I have come across players who have had more physical talent then some of the great players. But they never made it, because they didn’t use their common sense to think clearly and simply about the game. The proper use of the mind is the one thing that separates champions from merely good players. This helps the players to identify the challenges in the situations they face and, the capacity to apply their skills in the best possible manner to address those situations.
No matter how good a player you think you are, you won’t make it to the top unless, you develop your mind. The best players know how to think, how to concentrate and what to do in tough situations.
Webster: I agree with you. Fitness and technique are very important but they should be the servants, not the master of your game. Good thinking and common sense are key. Sometimes when patients come into hospitals for investigations, they often leave their common sense on the doorsteps. And in cricket, some players leave their common sense in the pavilion when they go out on to the field.
Sir Garfield: Yes. Along with concentration, smart thinking is the key to your game. I have always approached the game with positive thoughts and a positive attitude. The way you approach the situations in the game is critical. You must assess the situation calmly and quickly and choose the approach you think most appropriate. Sometimes you have to attack the bowling, but you must know how, when and where to attack. You don’t throw the bat indiscriminately at everything. You play the percentages. A lot of players don’t understand this. At another time, you might have to defend and in some cases your main concern is survival. If you survive and get over the first hurdle, you can then go on to build your innings and take control of the situation.
I usually rate batsmen on how well they start and build their innings, and how effectively they take control and dominate.
Webster: Players often complain that negative thoughts interfere with their performance and that these thoughts are difficult to control. Did you get any negative thoughts?
Sir Garfield: Not very often. If they came, they didn’t stay with me for long. I got rid of them. They stack the odds against you, make your job harder and defeat you before you start. If you approach the game with a positive and sensible attitude, the odds will immediately be placed in your favour, at least 70% your way.
Webster: Did you ever get nervous during the game?
Sir Garfield: Tense not nervous. Players who get nervous become too keyed up and don’t think clearly. Sometimes they become too stiff and can’t get into position to play their shots. I think you must be a little tense. This tension focuses my attention and tells me that I am ready for action. If you are too relaxed, it is just as bad as being nervous because you become careless and sloppy and make easy mistakes.
Webster: Ability tells you what you are capable of doing but does not guarantee you will do it. Motivation on the other hand tells you why you will do it and how likely you are to do it. What motivated you when you were young?
Sir Garfield: Doing well for the team. I tried to help the team in every department. I practised very hard and tried to improve my batting, bowling and fielding. The bowling was quite exciting because I was able to bowl fast, medium pace and many varieties of spin bowling, Having a lot of strings to my bow, allowed me to make major contributions to the team effort. I was never interested in individual performance. The team came first.
Webster: What else motivated you?
Sir Garfield: Going out at nights to enjoy myself. People laugh when I tell them that. But it is true. Having to stay in the hotel used to drive me crazy. After a good night out, my body was relaxed and my mind was calm, clear and alert, ready for the game on the next day. I won’t prescribe this form of stress relief for everyone.
Webster: How did you motivate yourself after you had achieved everything in your game?
Sir Garfield: I couldn’t. That is why I gave the game away because I became mentally tired and mentally stale. If you lose your mental alertness you are finished. You know what you have to do and how to do it, but you just can’t do it.
Webster: You never had any formal coaching; you coached yourself to master most areas of your game, particularly the fundamentals.
The latter is an area of weakness in many of our players. The basics form the fabric of performance. If that fabric is weak, performance will be weak. How would you go about coaching young players?
Sir Garfield: I would focus on three areas. First, I would spend most of my time making sure that the players learn the basics of the game and I would train them to choose and execute them properly. Second, I would teach them to identify and deal with the different challenges and conditions they will face in the game.
I strongly believe this is one of the most valuable lessons you can teach the players. And third, I would motivate them to build self-belief, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline. A combination of these three areas would give the players the best chance of tapping into their inner potential and getting the best out of themselves.
In today’s fast changing cricket world, our coaches and regional boards should pay close attention to Sir Garfield’s old and proven development and performance module.
Conventional wisdom and conventional approaches still offer great value.
—Dr Rudi Webster is a former
West Indies team manager
and performance enhancer