Alastair Cook's guide to mental toughness
Written by Simon Austin — September 11, 2018
ALASTAIR COOK, who retired from international cricket with his 33rd Test century yesterday, has long been renowned for his powers of concentration and resilience.
Former skipper Nasser Hussain has gone so far as to describe the 33-year-old as the most mentally tough player England have ever had. So how does he do it? Are the skills inherent, or has he been able to develop them? The Essex player gave a fascinating insight to Sky Sports for their Mind Games series.
(Cook was part of the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir from 1994 to 1999)
Alastair Cook: “The one thing I go back to is my music at an early age, which made me very disciplined at performing under pressure. You had to perform in the choir. At eight to 13 I learnt to sing under pressure and not make mistakes. If you’re training your brain at an early age it definitely helps. I don’t know if I was born a mentally tough player, but that mental discipline from a very early age has helped."
2. RECOGNISING THE POWER OF THE MIND
(The batsman started working with sports psychologist Mark Bawden in 2009).
AC: “Certainly as a batter, it is a tough game because of the time you spend away from it. Say you only get four or five in the first innings, you may have to wait until day four to have another bat. You have three days of going over and over what you did in your head and what you want to do in the second innings. You have a lot of thinking time in the game.
Quite a few people ask me about my mental toughness and I find it quite a hard answer to give, because I don’t know if I am mentally tough. How can you compare yourself to anyone else? The only true definition of mental toughness is do you get the best out of your ability on the big stage?
People said I was a mentally tough player when I was young. But up until about 2009 when I went out to bat I was nervous. This bloke on my shoulder was always beating me up and I couldn’t control him as well as I would like.
It took me until 2009/10 to realise the power of the mind. That was just the era we played in. If you were seeing a psychologist, the comment would be, 'what’s wrong with you?' 'Are you feeling alright?' Now people are realising, quite rightly, that it’s a massive benefit if you can be right mentally.”
3. NOT BEING OVERAWED
AC: “I have had the ability to concentrate and play my way. The situation hasn’t overawed me on many occasions. It was the same amount of nerves whether I was playing for Maldon or Essex as England. I wouldn’t say I like the nerves though.
That’s the one thing I probably won’t miss from playing - when you wake up on the morning of the game and that feeling’s there before you even get out of bed. It’s uncomfortable, because you’re putting yourself under pressure and are about to see whether you fail or succeed.”
4. WRITE TARGETS DOWN
AC: “The night before, I write stuff down. I always do it in bed and I always do it as the last thing I do that night. This is going to sound weird, but it’s the only place you’re really safe in that Test Match week is that night, before anything has happened. I write what I feel down and how I want to play.
Then in the morning I’ll read that paper again, when the nerves are there, and then put that paper away and go and play and see what happens. I wish I’d kept all the pieces of paper, because there would be some weird and wonderful stuff. The reason I do it is because I know this is what I’m going to try and achieve."
5. STAY FIT
AC: "I’ve always run and done longer distance running. To me that is very important. If you’re not physically struggling you can concentrate more on the batting stuff. Physical fitness is so important."
6. PARKING THE CRICKET
AC: "You can speak to my wife about it. I’m pretty good at parking it at the cricket and trying to get on with my life. You fail more than you succeed, which is why it can take you into some pretty dark places.
I’m more philosophical than other players. Perhaps my record behind me makes it easier."
7. DO NOT DIE WONDERING
(After scoring seven in the first innings of the third Test against Pakistan in 2010, Cook was braced for being dropped. He went on to score 110 in the second innings).
AC: "I remember being four not out at the end of day three and going down for a drink in the bar. I couldn’t see Bawds (psychologist Mark Bawden) at first, but when I walked past him I said, ‘I’m going to bed, it’s my last time as an England player’. He was shocked but I honestly thought I was gone.
The next morning I woke up and said to myself, ‘just don’t die wondering. Do not die wondering. If you’re going to nick off make sure it’s a big drive’. It’s amazing how that carefree attitude, ‘well it can’t get any worse’, could work so well. Soon I was 80 not out at lunch."
AC: "When I think our three-year-old should apologise and I’m not giving in, then its World War 3. I’m sure my wife will tell you there’s that element of stubbornness which you’re not going to knock out of me. At times it’s not great, but it’s what’s made me as a cricketer.
Certainly growing up I thought I knew what was best for my game and stuck to my principles. I wasn’t influenced by too many people and that served me well."