What cricket can teach us about experiencing mind time and coping with anxiety

Bowlers playing for England and Australia in the current Ashes cricket series are collectively set to deliver at least 540 balls each day (that’s 90 overs of six balls each plus if they bowl ballless or wide). If one side’s bowlers fail to capture all ten wickets in one day, they have to work hard for the next day.

Each of the five Test matches in the men’s series and one in the women’s series last a maximum of five days. To win, bowlers usually need to hit the other side twice as high. The Australian men’s team won their first Ashes Test with minutes left in the final day five session.

In many ways, this biennial series feels like a battle against time itself. Unlike most other sports such as football, where matches finish within a pre-set short period of time, Test cricket represents abstract, long-term, purposeful behaviour, something people actually do on a daily basis. In this sense, the protagonists of this Ashes series can teach us something about how the mind responds to time and how this is related to reward, threat and anxiety.

Just as these Test cricketers focus on winning a series weeks into the future, our day-to-day functioning is governed by the larger projects we aim at, be they career goals or family bliss. To achieve these general goals, we must experience brief periods of extreme pressure and anxiety. It is time, combined with an uncertain outcome, that leads us to experience this anxiety.

Think, for example, of an upcoming exam period in which you don’t know if you will excel. Or when your future love goal depends on what will happen tomorrow when you ask out your crush. How we deal with such anxiety, which occurs in part because of the short time frame of these key moments, can be of enormous importance to our quality of life.

The ABC of time

Research in psychology has shown that anxiety in humans comes in the form of negative and uncontrollable thoughts, rapid heartbeat, heavy and shallow breathing, unease and a sense of panic.

This is followed by our attention being wrenched away from us to focus on a real or imagined threat. In cognitive behavioral therapy, this is captured in the alarm-belief-coping (ABC) model of anxiety.

This pattern can be easily understood through cricket. When the batter waits for the pitcher, he is on alert (A). Their beliefs (B) about whether or not the incoming ball is a threat lead to an initial wave of anxiety. Then they need to use coping resources (C) to combat this and (hopefully) maintain their mental stability.

A similar process happens when we get anxious about an exam. If our belief is that we are unprepared, we experience increased anxiety. We must therefore engage with our coping resources, be it a study plan or an optimistic thought to manage these uncontrollable thoughts.

It may seem simple, but between A, B and C, our perception of time changes. Research indicates that when people experience anxiety, their perception of time lengthens, so this period appears to last much longer than it actually is. This means it can have a huge effect on us, ultimately affecting our sleep patterns, diet, and emotional stability.

Research has found that each ABC process literally activates a different part of the brain. To put it simply, during anxiety, our brain goes into an emergency threat mode and the neural circuits in our brain react differently.

A cricket batsman is constantly forced to experience heightened anxiety before any pitch is bowled. And unless they’re out, they have to handle it again, and again each time, another dubious outcome. To score a century, a batsman in Test cricket could typically face between 80 and 150 deliveries (although the world record is only 54). So how do the best performers in the world handle it and what can they teach us?

Take control of the weather

Sports and performance psychologists often work with high-performers to build their resilience to anxiety through cognitive reattribution training (CRT). While the specific strategy used varies, the principle remains the same by perceiving the situation as a whole rather than an isolated part.

Woman suffering from anxiety.
From time to time we get overwhelmed by anxiety.

This implies going beyond thinking that everything depends on a moment. In this way, the alarm response is attenuated and the moments of uncertainty that cause anxiety are reduced and therefore cause less damage.

We also try to help the athlete cope by figuring out what level of control they have over various actions. Bowlers, for example, are only in control until they release the ball. After that, there is no point in worrying about the direction of the ball.

Batsmen, meanwhile, have very little control as they have to react to bowling, ball after ball. If the athlete has an illusion of control, it leads to mistakes. The focus of attention should be on the elements they can control, such as the destination point. They should divert attention away from things they can’t control.

We can all learn from this. Take an example from everyday life: You need milk. Run to the supermarket but they are out. You have no control over this and now have an uncertain outcome of where to get the milk for your morning coffee. CRT allows us to isolate what we can control.

A CRT-based thought pattern would be: I can check that I need milk (X), but I cannot check the store’s milk stock (Y). This allows you to refocus mental resources to devote 80% of your attention and effort to finding other sources of milk, such as going to another store or asking your neighbor. This is much better than over-focusing on the scenario you can’t control, arguing with the store manager, getting angry, and so on.

Of course, many situations in life are much more complicated than this one. The most useful process here is to accept that you only have some control, then use the CRT to allocate effort accordingly. CRT ultimately allows the individual to break down a stream of thoughts into areas of what we can 0 to 100% control. Think of it as a sorting process.

A test match the beauty is that it seems almost undefined over time. Just like in life, all four outcomes are on the table: win, loss, draw and even draw. The trick is to understand our ABCs and, in doing so, manage how our minds react to the weather.

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