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Team India's mental coach Paddy Upton unplugged

Winning a game of cricket is more about brains than brawn. That’s what mental coach Paddy Upton says. He should know. After all, he taught Team India. Read on for an interesting conversation with the coach.

entertainment Updated: Apr 23, 2011 17:53 IST
Pranav Dixit

Winning a game of cricket is more about brains than brawn. That’s what mental coach Paddy Upton says. He should know. After all, he taught Team India.

Paddy, what exactly is your role as the team’s mental conditioning coach?
One of the main roles is supporting Gary (Kirsten, the cricket coach) and manning the management and strategic leadership of the team. While Gary talks to players, I watch what works, what doesn’t, if the players are attentive and things like that. While Gary focuses on cricket, I focus on the energy in the team. I talk to players and get individual responses and then give Gary detailed feedback. What I basically do is monitor the team environment, just get a feel of what feels right and good. It’s an intuitive role.

You talk to players on a personal basis?
Well, after we talk about the game, I do talk to them about what’s going on in their lives, anything at all – an argument with a friend, some tension in the family, anything that’s distracting them from cricket, really. It’s not uncommon for a player to go through a difficult time with his girlfriend (no, I’m not going to take names!). I try and give them focus and clarity so they can refocus on the game.

DhoniYou must know a lot of secrets I’m sure people would kill to know!

That’s true. Well, they only shared to the degree that they were comfortable, really.

What exactly is mental conditioning?
You know, it’s a title given to something that nobody knows what title to give to. Let me try and explain: Mental conditioning means helping to influence an environment of a team or individuals to allow natural motivation to flow as freely as possible, and to allow that team or that individual to explore their talent and potential with a minimum amount of pressure and inhibition that could be
reasonably expected.

In simple words, I help create a favourable performance environment for the team. I help remove distraction and make sure that the players are focused on preparation and strategy. I keep their focus on their performance rather than the outcome. It’s really like walking into an exam: you make sure you’ve done a certain amount of preparation so when you do sit down to write the exam, you have a certain amount of calmness and confidence. If a player has done all the preparation, he should be fine.

So it’s all about handling pressure.
Let’s look at pressure. It is one of the main causes of errors at the highest levels of the game. Pressure is placing high value on the result. You feel good about yourself only if you get a favourable result. Otherwise, you feel bad.

But the expectations of a billion people rest on these eleven men. How do you cope with that kind of pressure?
We had a conversation over a year ago, which went something like this: “Are we ready to win the World Cup if we were to play today?” The answer was an overwhelming no. The World Cup would undoubtedly be the highest amount of pressure that they had ever faced in their careers. Of course the pressure of national expectation was there. So here’s what we did to prepare them: In the first two years with the team, we placed very little attention on pressure. We downplayed it completely. For the last year, as the World Cup drew closer, we changed this to focus acutely on pressure on a game-by-game basis. By the time the Cup came around, we had had one year of simply talking about pressure. We embraced it, we looked for it in every game, we discussed it. We said, bring it on! What we knew was this: the team that wins the World Cup final is not that one that doesn’t panic. It’s the one that panics the least.

Did you keep the players away from newspapers and TV channels?
We suggested that players do not read newspapers, asking them if they were really going to find out something they did not know about their game by listening to a reporter or a newsman. In fact, on more crucial days, I did an early morning outing to remove all newspapers from outside their hotel doors (laughs).

Any exercises to handle pressure?
We didn’t really do any specific exercises to manage pressure. What we did was to raise awareness in a pressure situation. For example, if we saw that a certain players or players found themselves in a pressure situation, we talked about it with them freely – what happened, what was the player thinking, were they panicking, what was happening with their breathing, where did the mind go… things like that. What happens in a stressful situation is that people think too much into the future and they make rash decisions. I taught them to think calmly, to focus ball by ball and play smarter cricket than the opposition. We absorbed pressure rather than trying to run away from it. We also made a conscious decision right in the beginning about spreading the pressure across all the players.

In the India-Sri Lanka World Cup final, everyone was in shock when Malinga took Sachin’s wicket in the sixth over! It was like, oh s**t, now we’re screwed.
Exactly. As a player, the biggest mistake you can make is hoping somebody else does it rather than thinking about what you can do to turn things around. You hope Dhoni does it, you hope Sachin does it. What we really embraced this time around was genuine team performance. We made sure there was no individual pressure to perform.

What about when the game is actually unfolding? Is the atmosphere stressful in the changing room?
To calm nerves, we made sure soothing music was playing and that specifically Gary, Eric Simons (Team India’s bowling consultant) and myself were displaying a calm and unemotional body language. That said, the changing room atmosphere was mostly calm and was respectfully treated as our team sanctuary.

Everyone was going crazy about the India-Pakistan semi-final. Was that the most stressful part of the tournament?
Actually, by the time we got to that match, our preparation to perform under pressure was complete. We didn’t need to raise the team energy, we didn't need to practice. We just needed to do what we had been preparing to do. What I told the team at that time was this: This is like a movie. The script has already been written. The main actors have already been chosen. Now all that remains is for us to go out and play our roles according to the script… and we will cross the line. It was the same philosophy we followed for the finals. There was a deep, underlying confidence.

You were confident of winning, then.
Listen, it wasn’t brash overconfidence. It was a deep, quiet confidence that we were the best prepared team. What we discussed throughout the World Cup was this: you are not walking out on to the field with the nation’s expectations on your shoulders. You are walking out with the nation holding you by the hand.

And so, it paid off in the end.
It was surreal. What we felt was a mix of pride, gratitude, elation and a tiny bit of relief. Because we wouldn’t have been happy with anything less. It’s like if you start climbing a mountain unprepared and manage to reach the summit, you feel ecstasy. But when you reach the summit fully prepared, you feel relieved, because you’re supposed to get there. And we got there.

Paddy’s ‘stay stress free’ tip for YOU:
Whatever you do, be it business or sport, invest at least as much time in bettering yourself as a human being. “I like to get a little philosophical here,” says Paddy. “If you consider the notion that we are an instrument of God and God plays his music through us by playing cricket or doing business, what you want to do is spend time honing yourself as that instrument so that the melody you play is beautiful. If you are tired, stressed out or lethargic, you are not going to be your best. Whatever you do, be the best person you can and the best results will follow.”

The most important bit of advice Paddy gave to the Indian cricket team:
Spread the pressure and play for a cause greater than yourself. Pigeon Hole them!

Our very own list of the IPL players
Biggest sledger
Kochi Tuskers pacer S Sreesanth’s antics are well known. Too bad the Tuskers’ skipper Mahela Jayawardene asked him to “be himself”. Sreesanth has a well-worked sledging routine, but the results, somehow, aren’t that convincing. Instead of rattling the opposition, he loses his lid, and so do most of his team-mates after he starts spraying the ball all over the place.

Most superstitious
Cricketers are a superstitious lot, but in the IPL, team owners are no less. The owners of the Deccan Chargers felt that their losses from IPL 1 to this edition on their home turf, the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Hyderabad, was due to some problem with the vastu. This worried them so much that they were even willing to renovate the stadium. However, that plan was vetoed by the local cricket association.

Brilliant but erratic
Brendon McCullum (Kochi Tuskers) showed some of that leftover dash from IPL 1 against the Mumbai Indians last week with an 81. But he lost his wicket to a scoop shot that would make a novice cringe. With a 45 in the first outing and a duck in the second, the Kiwi surely keeps the debutants praying for the most part.

Text: Tomojit Basu and Rohit Bhaskar

- From HT Brunch, April 24

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