The book by one of the great white-ball all-rounders in men’s cricket presents several ‘models’ which help us figure out what we can improve upon, mentally

Shane Watson, one of the great white-ball all-rounders in men’s cricket, had an extremely fulfilling T20 career around the globe, especially in the Indian Premier League (IPL), which he ended up winning twice. The second of those victories came in the 2018 edition, where Watson played for Chennai Super Kings under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. During the final against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Chennai needed 179 to win and Watson made a very slow start as opener, scoring just 19 off his first 19 deliveries — a disastrous start by T20 standards.

However, something shifted visibly in his game at around the seven-over mark, when he started smashing Rashid Khan (arguably the greatest T20 bowler in the world) all around the park, plundering 98 runs off the next 38 balls he faced, ending up with an unbeaten 117 off 57, bagging the title for Chennai Super Kings.

Food for thought from a champion

When I was watching the innings live, I had a strong feeling that Watson had been at the receiving end of a serious pep talk, perhaps during the drinks break. As Watson’s recently released book, The Winner’s Mindset (HarperCollins), reveals, the pep talk was purely internal; nobody spoke to him during the match. Essentially, he unlocked a beast mode within himself through sheer willpower. And just like that, the ball started pinging off his bat like the crack of doom.

Hyderabad never had a chance once that happened, not really, because the tall and hefty-looking Watson was still one of the most fearsome ball-strikers on the planet. And with his mind no longer shackled to insecurities and the fear of failure, he played an awe-inspiring innings that brought the stadium to their feet — where just half an hour ago, he was struggling to get the ball off the square, if we’re being honest.

The Winner’s Mindset is all about Watson’s mental journey, about the lessons he has learned during his career, lessons that he is now passing on to the next generation as a highly sought-after coach. And for the most part, it is a highly astute primer on the mental aspect of not just cricket, but any discipline, any realm of life, really. As a rule, I am not fond of self-help books because the genre is just so cluttered with utterly rubbish work. The Winner’s Mindset, however, is the exception; it brings together well-thought-out, accessible and easily implementable set of doctrines from the mind of a proven champion. Whether you agree with these mental techniques or not, they will give you plenty of food for thought.

Overcoming the fear of failure

Cricket as a sport loves its buzzwords and catch-phrases. The former Aussie coach Justin Langer, for instance, spoke of inculcating “elite honest” in the Australian team he coached. I don’t know whether Langer meant it this way, but for me the phrase began and ended with self-awareness. Self-awareness is a simple yet elusive quality to have — it’s as simple as knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses. And then, modifying one’s professional conduct so as to give oneself the best possible chance at success. When it comes to adversarial, one-on-one contests (like cricket, but also, say, in-person litigation or business negotiations) what we so often describe as ‘luck’ is just opportunism meeting willpower.

Chennai Super Kings’ opener Shane Watson was the second to score a century in the IPL 2018 edition after Chris Gayle. Photo: BCCI

Chennai Super Kings’ opener Shane Watson was the second to score a century in the IPL 2018 edition after Chris Gayle. Photo: BCCI

To that end, Watson’s book presents several ‘models’ which help us figure out what we can improve upon, mentally. There are simple pen-and-paper exercises that help you improve your focus. There are two-person drills that can help you overcome your fear of failure. That last bit is actually one of the cornerstones of The Winner’s Mindset. As Watson points out during an especially insightful para, fear of failure is deadly because it shifts our attention from actions (good) to consequences (bad).

“When we start to doubt ourselves or fear that we might fail, our focus of attention shifts from what we are doing to the consequences of what we are doing and our performance usually suffers. For us to be at our best, we know our confidence needs to be high. But if we’re basing it around results only, are we building our confidence around the right thing? Because, if we know anything about cricket, it’s that outcomes go up and down, and the margins between success and failure are fine.”

I remember so many interviews featuring Watson’s former captain MS Dhoni where MSD emphasized this process-over-results philosophy. And Watson clearly swears by it, because nearly 60 out of 200-odd pages here are devoted to overcoming the fear of failure, attacking the problem from different angles.

Mental models to get the best of yourself

Where The Winner’s Mindset falters a little bit is the editing, which could have been much better. The book’s baggy midsection, comprising 100-odd pages, could have easily been trimmed down to about 50, even if one were to retain the many diagrams, charts and interactive exercises reproduced here. And on occasion, Watson devolves into cliché while talking about the impact of mental strength — at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for technical skills (something which Watson points out in the first chapter itself, but largely ignores for the rest of the book).

But these are minor complaints, to be honest. I can see 20-somethings taking to this book in particular because that is the phase in life when you figure out your working style, how well you work as part of a team and so on. Also, this is the age where one inevitably tastes failure and rejection for the first time as an adult. I think some of Watson’s mental models (especially the one where he asks the reader to imagine the subconscious mind as an iceberg) will really help young people figure out how to get the best out of themselves.

Especially this passage, which I predict will be quoted by cricket experts for many, many years to come — I dare say it has its applications beyond the field, too: “The thing about the IPL is that the players are already really good. Their skills are incredible. Their fitness, their power, their dedication are just about as good as they can be. So why coach them as though they’re bits of machinery? I strongly believe that the next step in cricket’s evolution will not be in coming up with new ramp shots or mystery balls, or crunching more data or making better plans. It will be training cricketers’ minds, so that they can reproduce their skills under pressure or execute team strategies more consistently.”

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