In the first of a two-part series, Mind Games, sport reporter Bridget Tunnicliffe looks at how top sports men and women use mind techniques to gain an edge.
Twenty-seven-years ago former New Zealand cricket captain John Wright had a conversation with Australian rookie Justin Langer, which set the fledgling batsman on a transformational path.
Neither could have known at the time, how serendipitous that encounter would be.
Langer made his Test debut for Australia as a 22-year-old in 1993 but didn’t last long after picking up a pair in his fifth Test, which came against New Zealand in Auckland.
Having announced his retirement minutes before, Wright entered the Australian changing rooms at Eden Park and sidled up, beer in hand to Langer, who sat despondent on a bench.
While talking on the Lessons Learnt with the Greats podcast earlier this year, Langer recollected Wright’s suggestion of trying transcendental meditation or TM.
“John Wright, the legendary coach and the great New Zealand opening batsman, tough old hippie. After the third Test before I got dropped, he came up to me… he had a diary in one hand and a stubby in the other hand, and he goes, ‘I’ve been watching you son, you are trying too hard. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.’
“And then he says to me, ‘You know what you should do son? I think you should try transcendental meditation.’ And I started laughing… transcendental-what?!’ And he [again] said ‘transcendental meditation.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and I didn’t think [about it].”
Soon after, Langer was dropped from the Australian side and was sitting at home in Perth “thinking the world is about to end” when he opened a newspaper and saw an advertisement to learn TM. He thought he had nothing to lose.
Langer has meditated every single day since 1993.
He went on to become Australia’s highest ever first class run getter and formed one of the national side’s most successful ever Test opening partnerships with Matthew Hayden.
Langer was seen as the right man to clean up the image of the Australian team, when he was appointed coach of the national side in 2018 after the sandpaper scandal.
Meditation is a huge part of Langer’s life and he credits a lot of his success to it.
Wright said Langer often reminds him of that conversation when they catch up.
“At the time he was a very intense and tough player,” Wright said.
“I just said ‘well look I’ve used TM, I’ve found it really good, it helps me relax’.”
“I wasn’t as regular a devotee as what Justin became but I remember that conversation and when I was coaching India he was playing for Australia so we’ve come in contact over the years.
“He’s a great, great lad and we still keep in touch and I saw him this year in Derbyshire, he was coaching Australia and I spend a bit of time at Derbyshire, my old county club in England.”
Motivated to be better
Wright was an intense player himself with a huge desire to do well as he embarked on his international career in 1978, but it was a double-edged sword.
“You put a lot of pressure on yourself. And particularly when I first started playing for New Zealand, I was so determined to do well that I found myself being too intense when I was batting in Test matches.
“I found after I’d been playing about 20 odd Tests, I hadn’t got the results I wanted. I knew that I had enough ability, and I was motivated enough, and my first-class results were very good, but it was taking that final step to feel at home in the international arena.”
Wright felt that he needed to be more mentally organized.
His friend the late Bob Willis was captain of England at the time. One of England’s greatest fast bowlers, Willis turned to hypnotherapy in the late 70s to control his tension.
He put Wright in touch with Sydney based Dr Arthur Jackson, a leading sports psychologist who worked extensively with some of Australia’s top sportsmen.
“When we toured Australia, I’d go and have some sessions, or he’d send me tapes and things like that.”
Wright also did a lot of reading, which took him down the path of exploring meditation.
“I learnt the TM [transcendental meditation] technique. I used it and then sort of used it off and on and then once I became captain of New Zealand later in my career, I used it regularly again. I found that those techniques were helpful.”
Wright spent a lot of time working on getting more mentally resilient right throughout his career.
“Some people call it mental toughness, it wasn’t mental toughness, it was just being mentally organized, being able to get out there and express yourself in a way you knew you were capable of but you made it hard for yourself because of the pressure you put on yourself.
“I look at my results, and my last 60 Test matches for New Zealand were significantly better than the first 20. And that was really down to becoming better at the mental organization in batting.”
Ahead of his time
Wright mostly kept his meditation to himself in the early days. No one really talked about mind techniques back then.
“It wasn’t sort of something you threw out there because, I don’t think it was seen as a weakness, but it was sort of probably viewed a little bit suspiciously perhaps.
“I didn’t feel that I would tell the world or the team that I was sort of doing it because it wasn’t fashionable, put it that way.”
It was an era when athletes didn’t have much in the way of support staff or mental skills’ coaches.
Players did a lot of learning from their peers back then or they taught themselves.
Wright’s mental preparation started before getting to the ground. He built time in his day where he could be still and quiet.
“I found that ability to have a quiet period each day, before the match, or at some stage was helpful and you learn about routines.
“Meditation and mindfulness are where you’re quieting the mind so that you’re giving yourself the best chance to perform at your maximum really. And you can only control the present so there’s no point in thinking too much about the future or the past so in cricket, it’s this ball.
“You know instinct is swifter and more accurate than anything else in sport. So, the ability to be able to concentrate, but also to let go and trust yourself is very important.”
Wright saw it as part of his preparation to allow him to perform at his peak.
He said some cricketers were more natural at that because they didn’t over think things and that was something he envied.
“The more self-analysis or the more you think consciously sometimes gets in the way of the subconscious. That’s why you practice because it becomes instinctive and so the ability to create that environment in your mind to be able to let go on big occasions is very important.”
Quieting the mind
As a Test opener Wright had to face some of the best fast bowlers ever to have played the game.
There was Willis, West Indies paceman Michael Holding, and Australian quicks Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, to name a few.
When you have a fast bowler screaming down the pitch towards you about to deliver a ball in excess of 140 km/hr, you don’t want too much going on in your head.
“You face a ball in point something of a second, and then you’ve got several seconds to think about what’s going to happen with the next ball, which is the difficult time. The ability to switch off and switch on is really important and certain players whatever their technique were just good at that.
“They just let their instincts take over with two or three key thoughts and they play just trusting their instinct, they’ve got a very good pattern.”
Wright said to help cultivate a still mind and to do that consistently, you’ve got to have a routine. And that attention to detail is very important.
Wright said as a batter he learned a lot about the mental side of cricket, because there was so much time to think.
“You see these guys that just have that wonderful aptitude of going out and whatever happens on the day happens – Ian Botham was one of those players. The guys who go out there and say ‘well, I’m going to do my best and let the cards fall where they may’ – that’s the attitude you need really.”
Wright became India’s first foreign coach when he took over the national side from 2000 to 2005.
He’s still a highly respected coach in the subcontinent and has worked for IPL (Indian Premier League) side the Mumbai Indians for the last seven years.
India is the birthplace of four major world religions so it’s not surprising Wright found that spiritually, it was a different country from any others he’d worked in.
“A lot of the boys, they’re quite spiritual in their outlook. Individually, there was more of an awareness, particularly with their meditation and prayer associated with some of their religious beliefs you know, they’d visit temples before games and things like that.”
Foreigners will fly halfway across the world to visit some of India’s best-known yoga and meditation centres each year in a quest for finding some ‘inner peace’.
But for those who hail from that part of the world, it’s a way of life.
“If we had camps for instance, before breakfast we would have a yoga session. And we’d do that every day because there were good people available, experts in that field. And we all enjoyed it, I was sort of the stiffest there and there was an Aussie physio and a South African trainer. But the boys were very good at it; they had a natural aptitude for it.
“Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, I asked Sachin, ‘what do you think when you’re actually batting?’ He said ‘well, if I’m batting really well, I don’t think much at all, I just watch the ball’. It’s just that simplicity, and that trust that they have in their game.”
One of the other things Wright noticed about the Indian players was they were good sleepers, a trait which can’t be underestimated across a five-day Test.
“They could sleep very easily during games, a lot of them could just chill in the changing room, they seemed to be good at that sort of mindfulness where they could switch off a little bit better than I remember other teams that I’d been associated with.”
Staying in the moment
Wright lives on a lifestyle block in North Canterbury, and usually spends the last two to three months of the year in India for the last part of the IPL but that’s unlikely this year in light of Covid-19.
He still practices meditation but not as much as he used to. He admits his routine is probably not as disciplined as it once was.
He believes it’s a tool that can help people get along in life in general.
“It’s important being able to, through prayer or meditation or whatever it is, to take yourself out of the rigours of life or sport. I play guitar for instance, which I find same type of thing you know, it’s sort of soothing.”
Wright said for some people it’s a gift, while others have to work at it.
“But the thing that correlated and perhaps you know, I should have perhaps kept it going for a longer period of my career, I noticed that my performances were better when I was practising regular meditation, it seemed to help me a lot.
“It’s that old cliché isn’t it with a duck, and your feet are going like hell under the water and you look so serene on top of it, but it’s the ability to get everything really calm underneath.”