What makes Kohli, Smith and Stokes masters of their craft

Some players have the mental capacity to convert their biggest setbacks into incredible career transformations, says sports psychologist Jeremy Snape.

Reality check: Virat Kohli gets back on his feet after ducking a bouncer from England’s Chris Woakes third Test in Southampton in July, 2014. Kohli averaged 13.40 in the five Tests on that tour.   -  AP

The year is 2014. India’s Virat Kohli reaches the English shores as one of the most ferocious talents in world cricket, the kind that will become a role model for the next generation. Yet, after five Tests, a combination of technical deficiency and an “utter desperation” to succeed in England leads to India’s talismanic batsman totalling just 134 runs without a single half-century.

Take Steve Smith. The former Australian captain and arguably the world’s best Test batsman is banned for 12 months and risks getting his career derailed by the Newlands ball-tampering scandal in 2018. Or England all-rounder Ben Stokes’ fight outside a Bristol nightclub in September 2017, a brush with career oblivion.

In the last six years, three champion cricketers from across the world have found themselves teetering on the brink of varying kinds of crises, only to return as stronger, better versions of themselves. According to former England spinner turned psychologist Jeremy Snape, “some players seem to have the mental capacity to convert the shame and humiliation from their biggest setbacks into incredible career transformations.”

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Kohli assessed the flaws in his game and worked on them, which has resulted in an average of 61.19 in 94 innings since August 2014. Smith returned to Test cricket with a 774-run Ashes series in 2019, while Stokes emerged as England’s match-winner in both the World Cup final at Lord’s and last year’s incredible Ashes Test at Headingley.

‘Courage and resilience’

“It’s almost as if they come out from their rock-bottom situation with nothing to lose and everything to gain. It takes real courage and resilience to do this, but they harness the disappointment into a powerful motivational fuel which drives them through the adversity,” explains Snape, who is the founder of high-performance consultancy firm Sporting Edge.

“At the moment, players in a more ‘comfortable’ psychological position might get complacent or satisfied, mentally tough performers are never satisfied and stay focused to deliver their very best performances again and again,” he adds.

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In April 2020, Wisden named Stokes as its leading cricketer in the world, duly rewarding him for the heroics witnessed during the ODI World Cup final and the Headingley heist.

Earlier, on the one-year anniversary of England’s first World Cup win, skipper Eoin Morgan revealed how Stokes being caught at long-on – he was ruled not-out as New Zealand’s Trent Boult stepped on the boundary rope – with the target still in the distance made him feel “for a split second I thought we were dead and buried.”

Shutting distractions

Stokes remained unbeaten on 84 off 98 deliveries, eventually becoming the hero in a match that has entered cricket folklore. “Mental toughness is having the ability to shut all distractions out to get the job done,” says Snape. “Whether it’s what the press said yesterday or what the prize money might be tomorrow – great sports stars don’t let these emotions contaminate their ability to focus on the moment.

Ben Stokes celebrates during the World Cup final in July, 2019. - REUTERS

 

“Even though they may be in a World Cup final run chase in sweltering heat, their blood runs cold as they think about their strategy, how many balls [are] left and which bowlers to attack in which over. While the crowd are screaming and worrying about winning and losing, the players refocus on the W-I-N being ‘What’s Important Now?’ and it’s this ability to choose the right shot at the right time under intense pressure which defines the truly world-class performer.”

Indian cricket is one of the most passionate sporting cultures, Snape says. He was formerly Rajasthan Royals’ performance director and has even served as Delhi Daredevils’ performance coach. “Mental toughness helped the Rajasthan Royals to win the first IPL (Indian Premier League title) in 2008,” says Snape. “Even the youngest players learnt to take a ‘three-second chill’ before each ball so that they didn’t get caught up in the emotion.

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“They trusted themselves, stayed calm and confident, and did what their team needed. They were inspired to do this by their captain Shane Warne, who has an amazing ability to focus on one ball at a time, and they delivered close wins in very high-pressure situations.”

Snape likened the IPL to Premier League, the top flight of English football. “Both thrive on rivalries, individual stars and a massive focus on winning,” says Snape.

“The TV shows whip people up into a frenzy before the game and after the game in the debrief – the players in both these cultures need mental toughness – they need to think clearly under pressure, and if they do it, they will become a hero and not a villain!”

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