Master of the human mind

IT is such a pleasure meeting Dr. Sandy Gordon from the University of Western Australia. A sports psychologist from this renowned school of learning, Dr. Gordon has worked with the Australian and Indian cricket teams in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups.


Sandy Gordon... precise, sharp and analytical in his views. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

IT is such a pleasure meeting Dr. Sandy Gordon from the University of Western Australia. A sports psychologist from this renowned school of learning, Dr. Gordon has worked with the Australian and Indian cricket teams in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups.

This remarkable man of Scottish origin understands the mind of a sportsperson better than most, and if there is a problem, you can trust him to fix it. Dr. Gordon was in Chennai for the MRF Coaches seminar when The Sportstar caught up with him.

Not surprisingly, he wasted little time in putting across his points, being precise, sharp and analytical. Dr. Gordon believes a cricketer has to be decisive. "This indecision is a killer in sports, whether you are frightened about getting out or frightened of success, all I am saying is be decisive. Play what you see, use your instinct. And just play. I think Steve Waugh is a good example."

But then, this `decisiveness' is often likened to the mental attributes of a cricketer. Does he have it in him to take the knocks and bounce back? Dr. Gordon is quick with his answer. "Mental toughness has been researched and it comes down to four facts. One is motivation, which means an insatiable drive to succeed. It is also resilience. Motivating yourself to come back from a failure. Then we have focus. Pay attention to the right things, at the right time. And at times of distraction, to recover from that, like being surprised and then getting back on track. Another factor is handling pressure. In fact, thriving under pressure, loving pressure. Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden they love it. That's the attitude you got to have. You also have to have an unshakable belief in yourself. Your own ability to perform and those around you to perform."

While there has been so much talk about the Indian cricketers lacking in aggression on the field of play, Dr. Gordon, actually believes this emotion, especially if the line is crossed, can have a negative influence. "Aggression, if you look at its definition, is not something that you want the players to have. Zaheer Khan might have been in the World Cup final, but he was too aggressive, too full on in his bowling. He was yelling, screaming at people. It was disastrous for him. He was just not being himself. If he had only bowled line and length, like he had been doing before, he would have been far more successful."

In the worst case scenario, an aggressive cricketer actually ends up becoming angry. "Aggression can be a negative thing, you can be overly aroused physically and mentally, to the point of being angry. And anger really is an unwanted emotion in cricket. Anger in weightlifting is fine, or in tennis, where you want to belt the ball hard, it may be okay. But in cricket and golf, it is counterproductive."

Dr. Gordon found working with the Indian team while preparing for the World Cup, an enjoyable as well as a fulfilling experience. He recalls his time with Ganguly's men. "My work was done primarily through the senior players group, which John Wright and I created, and in March 2002, John and I worked on a plan to improve India's performances away from home. Part of that plan was creating a management team, setting up goals and focussing on results. Part of that was to develop a leadership system within the team, not only to improve performances on the field but to improve relationships off it. I did everything through John. Sourav (Ganguly) was fantastic. He was the one who drove the process. Anil (Kumble) was great. Rahul (Dravid) and Sachin (Tendulkar), they were all brought into it. They all knew, they could get better playing away from home. When I met the team, and each player individually in South Africa, they were all keen."

The Indian team had a disastrous time on the seaming and bouncing pitches of New Zealand going into the World Cup, and the challenges before Dr. Gordon must have been enormous. A self-effacing man, he plays down his role in India's transformation into a mighty force in Southern Africa. " I don't think there was a remarkable turnaround. We just had different and better conditions to play in. India always had immensely talented people. There is a mix of talent in batting, pace and spin bowling. You also had, I have to say John Wright has to take credit for this, a very good trainer, and a very good physio. That part of the senior players group produced a fit, mentally tough group of players, coming to the World Cup. Their performance did not surprise me. They deserved to get to the final. It was disappointing the way they played the final but, they got to be pleased about getting there. Some of the games, like the one against Pakistan, were really tough ones. They came through and I hope those kind of results would continue."

He admits though that there was some difference in his handling of Steve Waugh's men during the '99 World Cup, as compared to his methods with the Indians. There is a key reason as well. "A lot of the Australians already have an inbuilt bloody mindedness, it is a part of their culture. They are tough. The socio historical facts that the Australians make up is much coveted by others in sports. It had an attitude and toughness that were already there. Basically, all I had to do there was to channel it in the right direction. With the Indian players, at first, there was a lack of belief that they could actually do it. They even admitted that they were not as tough as the other teams. I helped in creating a belief, a belief about the team pulling together."

The topic shifted to "the huddle" that became a symbol of the Men in Blue's togetherness and drive. Dr. Gordon reveals there was more to this than just the `feel good factor.' "The huddle came up. You are playing together as a team, give it your best shot, look around the room and promise the guys, that you are going to put in an hundred per cent effort both in training and the game. The huddle is an obvious thing to do in cricket. You have the next batsman coming in. They weren't huddling and just saying `well done, well done.' They were also talking strategy — `how do we bowl to this batsman.' So there was a meaning to it. The purpose was to get ready for the next batsman."

Though many might have regarded the duel as an insignificant one, Dr. Gordon is of the opinion that India's opening encounter of the World Cup, against Holland, was extremely crucial. "The Holland match was interesting. There was a team that was the champion of Europe (among the non-Test playing nations) and ready to fire. They did, but India came through. When you fall behind your toughness manifests. How do you respond to adversity? How do you react? A lot of emotional intelligence came from the Indians in that game. I saw the Pakistan game. There was not much love lost there but they coped well with the hostile conditions and maintained a very good task awareness, maintained composure. And ultimately prevailed."

In other words, as the competition progressed, the Indians displayed self-belief. Over to Dr. Gordon. "Self belief is confidence. It comes from a theory of Albert Banduras called Self Ecstasy. Basically it is a belief that you can accomplish whatever it is that you might be doing. It comes from four sources. One is actually being able to do it."

There is a common thread link<147,2,7>ing self-belief, success and confidence, according to Gordon. "Confidence comes from success. A confident player is successful or a successful player is confident. Self belief comes from having done it before. The other way of doing it is watching people who can't be successful. Another method is visualising, seeing yourself, and recreating successful experiences. We do a lot of that. The players who are going through slumps can regain confidence by mentally going back to times when they had been successful. You can talk yourself into playing a good game. Steve Waugh is a sort of player who motivates himself. And it works for him. I wouldn't recommend it as a long-term strategy because you start to fight with yourself."

He warns against self-doubts and the fear of failure. "If you are not sure, and think `how am I going to fare today' then you are in trouble. When you are tentative, you are not going to follow through correctly, and you will think whether `I should play the cut shot or not.' You will never be criticised for being decisive."

Dr. Gordon also dwells on his role in the University of Western Australia. "I am involved with the school of human movement. What we do is look at sports from a scientific perspective. We know this is very significant for the Australians. One of the reasons Australia has done better in sports than countries that have vastly larger populations is that Australia has embraced sports science. You see areas like biomechanics have greatly reduced injuries among fast bowlers, apart from rehabilitating those who are injured. It is a wonderful place of learning in Perth."

Dr. Gordon is among those, who are `eminently unforgettable.' This Master of the human mind means business and his words of advice to the Indian team are: "They have to maintain an attitude towards the game that is modern and contemporary, that is based on physical fitness, mental toughness, as well as technical growth." Well said, Dr. Gordon.