Mahendra Singh Dhoni has proved to be India’s most successful captain ever in Tests and limited overs cricket. He kicked off his captaincy by winning the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 and then went on to win the most coveted title — the ICC World Cup in 2011.
Renowned sports psychologist Rudi Webster, who has helped several teams and players to deal with the mental side of the game, interviewed Dhoni on some integral aspects of the game for his book Think Like a Champion.
How important is the mind in performance?
It is very important. In cricket there are many players with talent and good technique who never get the success they deserve. Some players with good technical skills sometimes do well for a while but then fail to carry on or perform consistently. I believe the missing ingredient is mental control. The mind plays a very big part in performance.
Cricket has changed over the years and is now a very demanding game. Mental and physical preparation are critical today. For instance, you can’t just turn up to training and decide not to dive at the ball during the practice session. At training you must consistently practise everything that you do in a match. You must do them every day and at every session to improve and maintain your skills. The mind then helps you to transfer the things you do at practice to the game.
Players often say that at the top level of sport there isn’t much difference between the teams in fitness and talent and that the mind is the thing that separates the teams...
At that level, the mind is the determining factor, but you still have to be fit and have good technique. If you rate fitness on a scale of one to ten you might feel you should get your level to seven or eight to perform well. You don’t have to be at ten. But if you make circles around the pillars of fitness, technique, strategy and mental skills, the circles would overlap each other, so you have to be good at all of them.
When you prepare yourself for a game you can’t just prepare your body, you must also prepare the mind to get 100 per cent out of yourself in the game. Both physical and the mental components are vital but the mind is the more important.
What motivated you when you were a young player to make the exciting and successful journey that has taken you to the pinnacle of your game and profession?
I love sports, not just cricket. During my teenage years I used to play several different sports and although I was not good at all of them I was nevertheless very competitive. When I played I wanted to win and I was very determined to win. But I knew that if I was just playing a game and if I lost, it wasn’t the end of the world or the end of my life.
I constantly tried to give 100 per cent to whatever I was doing. I also realised that my opponents might be more talented and better prepared than I was, so I never left any stone unturned if I thought it would help me to win. That will to win was strengthened by my love and passion for sports.
I love the challenge and the pressure. They have always pushed me to do well. People say a lot of negative things about pressure. Pressure to me is just added responsibility. That is how I look at it. It’s not pressure when God gives you an opportunity to be a hero for your team and country. Sometimes you get disappointed after a bad or a tough game. It is natural to feel let down after a bad performance but you should always learn something from your experience and your failure. You should identify the positives of your game and the lessons you learned and then use them to improve your planning, preparation and performance in the next game. You should also watch the other players to see the things they do well and spot the mistakes they make and the things that restrict them.
Every player should regard the journey to success as an exciting and challenging learning experience. Even for the very talented players performance is a learning process that takes time, effort and persistence. If you are motivated to learn you will learn something new every day.
What advice would you give to a young player who wants to improve his game?
First and foremost, I would tell him that he must love and enjoy his sport. If he does not enjoy it he would not learn to play the game as quickly or as well as he should. Second, I would tell him to keep things simple. The more he complicates the process the harder it will be for him to improve his game. For example, when he tells himself to watch the ball and play it on its merits, he might have other thoughts like scoring runs or not getting out in his mind.
Those thoughts can break his concentration and prevent him from watching the ball. If he knows that the bowler can bowl an out-swinger, an in-swinger and a good bouncer as well, he has three other things to think about. But the more he thinks about what the bowler might do the more complex and difficult batting becomes.
Third, I would tell him to capitalise on his strengths, improve his weaknesses and recognise his limitations.
A lot of people talk about the problems players face when they have to play in conditions that are foreign to them. For instance, when Indian batsmen who are brought up on slow flat wickets have to play on the fast and bouncy wickets in Australia and South Africa.
When I go to Australia or South Africa I try to be positive and see the visit as a challenge and an opportunity to explore, learn and improve my game. I try not to be negative or worry about the pace and bounce of the wickets or the things that could possibly go wrong.
Learning and improvement take time. When you leave nursery school you don’t expect to go straight into a graduate school. In the following years you slowly improve as a student and when you reach a certain standard you graduate and afterwards go on to higher levels. The same thing happens in sport.
The player should therefore be patient and persistent and he should keep things simple and enjoy his sport. Not only should he enjoy his own performance on the field but he should also get pleasure from sharing his experiences with other players and from creating an atmosphere that helps the guy sitting next to him in the dressing room to perform better.
This is one area where the Indian team is very blessed. The senior players in our team have helped the younger players to learn, develop and perform better. Your individual performance is important but how much better you help your teammate to play better is equally important.
How important are the basic skills?
God gives natural gifts to all of us. We need to realise that and work to strengthen them and to improve in those areas where our weaknesses lie.
Mastering the basics is a key to good performance. When a skyscraper is being built a lot of time and money are spent on constructing the foundation under the ground. In sport, investment in the foundation is also extremely important. The basics are the foundation on which performance is built. If that foundation is weak, performance will fall apart under pressure and intense competition. A strong foundation improves confidence, concentration and performance.
What motivates today’s cricketers?
Playing for your country should be your main motivating force. But today you need to have a good income and livelihood. Only a few players have a professional education or academic qualifications.
A good cricketer has seven to ten years to earn the money that will sustain him for life after cricket. So he must balance his love for the country with a good income and livelihood. Of course, love and passion for the game and the need for recognition are other powerful motivators. But, in today’s competitive and fast-changing world we cannot ignore the importance of money in the life of a cricketer.
Produced with permission from the book 'Think Like a Champion' by Dr Rudi Webster. Published by Harper Collins. Price Rs 450
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