September 12, 2012

It's not the ego

Iain O'Brien
Cricketers often try to mask their diffidence and insecurities behind their sunglasses and strut

Early in my career, I remember walking past a bunch of Northern Districts players while playing for Wellington in Hamilton. I was feeling like I shouldn't be there. Uncomfortable. I was good enough to be there but I didn't know how to feel comfortable.

I had my shield up, sunglasses on, pretending not to notice them. I was noticing them, of course. I was looking their way from behind the tint. I was so uncomfortable. Trying to be staunch when all I was doing was appearing arrogant. Matthew Hart spoke in my direction, but past me, as if I wasn't there, and just loud enough for me to hear. "He's a strange one. Weird."

I was, probably. My own team-mates thought that too. Well, that's what I thought they thought. That lack of self-confidence emanating as perceived arrogance. All I had to do was say, "Hi lads" and I would have appeared "normal". But I couldn't. I just couldn't. I didn't know how to.

I'm pretty sure we all agree that physical sports and sporting competitions aren't always won by the biggest and strongest. There has to be, and there is, a large mental aspect to it too. Whether it is in pre-event preparation, in-game tactics, dealing with pressure, and then performance review.

But let's not stop there. What about the "mental" stuff off the park? How do sportsmen, and for the purpose of this article, cricketers, deal with themselves and those around them on a personal level?

In the last couple of weeks a certain player has captured a lot of headlines. There is a very easy image to conjure of an arrogant sportsman: sunglasses on, chest out, tattoos, and a "you can't touch me" strut. A strong, determined look, a million miles away, pondering his next contract, endorsement and on-field success, obviously.

Is that really what's going on behind the lenses, the strut, the tattoos, the lack of acknowledgement of others around? For me, and certainly for many others, it was the polar opposite of what was really going on.

Behind my sunglasses I was always analysing. Analysing how people were analysing and judging me. My eyes darted around nervously. Eyes that wanted to know what people thought. Eyes that saw people's reactions. Eyes that read body language. Eyes that tried to work out where I stood. Shy. Scared. Slowly drowning.

If you don't make eye contact, you don't have any awkward conversations. Don't have to remember people's names or acknowledge anyone. Not knowing what to say and how to react. Am I being judged? Am I being boring? Am I a shadow in the background?

If you shut yourself away, put the barrier up, you don't have to worry about all that. You can just analyse, be uncomfortable but safe in your own little world. I could see who I wanted to see, whether I was comfortable enough to say hi or pretend not to see them. Life with sunglasses on is easier.

The issue with shutting yourself away like that is that you end up looking arrogant. The exact opposite of how you feel. The exact opposite of how you want to be perceived. You've got your shield up and no one can get in. You become a shadow. You're the painting on the wall to be discussed but not approached. Even when I went back to playing club cricket from the pressure-cooker environment of Test cricket, I found it tough. I still didn't know how to be. Should I be the "Test cricketer" or should I just be one of the boys? It sounds silly to me now, but I didn't know who I was and how to act.

Often, though, instead of becoming this "shadow", the person would go the other way and become the clown, or as Mike Brearley called it in a piece for the Observer, "a joker", gaining attention for all the wrong reasons.

Behind my sunglasses I was always analysing. Analysing how people were analysing and judging me. My eyes darted around nervously. Eyes that wanted to know what people thought. Eyes that saw people's reactions. Eyes that read body language. Eyes that tried to work out where I stood. Shy. Scared. Slowly drowning

I remember the times I was the clown. I now realise I was - and still am - trying to work out what people thought of me. I'd be silly, annoying, say things that were too cutting or just plain wrong, to get a rise. This wasn't done intentionally; it was a subconscious reaction to feel involved. I couldn't control it as much as I wanted to. There are so many such people on Twitter now. You know the type.

This behaviour would confirm what I thought they thought of me. I thought everyone didn't like me. I was in a position where, as long as I knew what people thought of me - like me or not - I was more comfortable. It became easier to have and make people dislike me.

Self-sabotage, I now call it. Subconsciously you'd turn people against you, so at least you could control one part of the relationship. In one instance, I remember texting a mate something so thoughtless that it ended our friendship. I didn't mean to be harsh, I didn't mean to be rude, but I was, and weirdly, at the time I was okay with it. It meant I knew I didn't have to worry about how I was to this person anymore and how to fit them into my life. You become selfish, only you count. You say to yourself: "It's okay, I don't need them. I don't care what they think." When in reality, you do. You really do. No matter what we say to ourselves, we all want to be liked, to be loved, and be in a position to like and love in return.

It's the ego talking. The ego that shields and encases the soft and gooey centre. It doesn't allow us to think properly, and it means we say the wrong things.

I had no cricket pedigree when I first played first-class cricket. No age-grade cricket tournaments. I had only played a couple of Emerging Players matches. I knew some of the guys from playing club cricket but nothing more than that. They didn't know me, we had no shared experiences, we had no history. I didn't fit in. A horrible lack of confidence came across as arrogance, when all I was was a scared little mouse.

I didn't know how to have discussions and conversations in the changing room. This is where I was the least comfortable. Some players, I know, didn't like me. Some didn't talk to me. The "banter" and teasing in the changing room was tough and I didn't have the skills to deal with it. Instead of responding with reason and a level head, I reacted. I unintentionally became rude. Eventually team-mates told me, in a hotel conference room in Sydney in November 2008. And it came as a surprise. I really wanted to change. I needed to change.

Can you see any similarities?

It took a good few sit-downs with a counsellor and some work with a psychiatrist for me to start working out patterns of behaviour, why I behaved like I did. But I didn't do this until I had finished playing cricket. About a year ago, almost to the day. I worked out the cause and effect. I worked on how to try to be comfortable. How to at least try not to be rude. It's something that takes a lot of work, and I'll always be working on it. I still get it wrong, often.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there are so many others who just don't know how to handle themselves around their sport. They are good enough to play, and play for a long time. Some even get the Three Lions tattooed on themselves and strut around with egos, sometimes acting like they are bigger than the game. Or are they? Is there more to it than the simplistic "arrogant nob" label? Is it self-confidence? Is it pure arrogance? Or is it the exact opposite - a lack of self-confidence, a bluff, an "I just want to be liked but don't know how to get people to like me"? My meagre money is on the latter.

The inability to find the middle ground between a shadow and a clown - where you feel comfortable, where you're accepted, and where you can flourish as a person and player.

All I wanted to do was be myself. I wanted to be comfortable in my own skin. But in these situations, outside of my hotel room, I didn't know who I was. Everything I did was a bluff. All the confidence I showed was faked. Fake it until you make it. The problem with this, though, is that you're never comfortable. You spend so much time and energy pretending that it wears you down.

Physically, sport is tough. Mentally, it's harder. It's hard being me, it really is - living with my ego and the doubts it brings.

Iain O'Brien is a former New Zealand fast bowler who played 22 Tests

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on September 15, 2012, 22:32 GMT

    Iain, why don't you forward this article to our grand folks in the ECB ? A group of egoistic, self-inflated individuals who in the name of English cricket are putting the team at risk. Sure, it's not about the ego when it comes to KP BUT we all know it's always been about the ego isn't it ? Well written article by the way.

  • Jordan on September 15, 2012, 21:13 GMT

    This is quite an incredible article. I'm sure a lot of people can relate to it, as can I. I never quite feel comfortable in my schoolgirl team and tend to say stupid stuff... good to know I'm not the only one. Great insight. Write again Iain?

  • Dummy4 on September 15, 2012, 19:05 GMT

    An excellent piece of writing from an unexpected(?) corner...!! u made me to look forward for ur articles in the future..:)

  • Dummy4 on September 15, 2012, 17:38 GMT

    A brilliant and fascinating insight behind the headlines and behind the noise. Ian obrian is gifted and deep

  • Krishnadeep on September 15, 2012, 16:59 GMT

    This is indeed the most insightful article that I have read on cricinfo. For me the scope of this article is not restricted to cricket. In fact all of us face insecurities in our daily life and this article feels so real and connected to those. Iain, the quality of your writing in this article has earned you a very loyal fan following. If I may, I will request you to write such insightful stuff highlighting different facets in a athletes life. Trust me you are going to sell far more copies than the biographies of yesteryear's and current(latest trend) cricketers'

  • Mech on September 15, 2012, 16:15 GMT

    Fantastic article. Not just sportsmen but almost all professionals would have gone through similar circumstances. I could so very well relate to it as if I was reading my own story.

    Kudos Iain.

  • rao on September 15, 2012, 14:48 GMT

    Precise, incisive, meditative, piercing, ruthless, simple, clear, and violent all at the same time. These are what I feel when I read this bit of writing.

    I not only read your article three times already, I read all the comments above and I will continue to do so. As some one said above, even if you get roped-in, please maintain your clarity of mind. Don't let the "neutral and corporate speak" corrupt you.

    I now believe there is something called "clarity-in-language" and it is always simple, humble, and relatable.

  • Balakumar on September 15, 2012, 14:25 GMT

    Where have you been mate?Have always loved your posts.Truly profound one.Takes a brave man to bare his heart out like this in public.One of the best articles on cricinfo for a while now without a shadow of doubt.I can bravely now say that I am not much different from you..maybe, i don't have my sunglasses on but i behave as if I don't care about anybody around me.My biggest insecurity is that people might take advantage of me or whatever.Had been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and underwent some counselling for it.Better now but still a long way to go.Hope KP reads your article or you give me a call.It will certainly be worthwhile.

  • rao on September 15, 2012, 14:20 GMT

    "The inability to find the middle ground between a shadow and a clown - where you feel comfortable, where you're accepted, and where you can flourish as a person and player. "

    Incredible Line!

    Brilliant article overall. It is amazing how you have found a way to solve the KP conundrum with humanity and humility. It probably took a lot of probing and plumbing your depths to come up with an article as fascinating as this.

    Congratulations for showing us the way and having the courage to write the way you did.

    You are a superior human being.

  • alfred on September 15, 2012, 11:18 GMT

    @ tweets... totally agree about kp man, well said.

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