February 23, 2013

'Mental strength is about not being afraid to make mistakes'

Kumar Sangakkara talks about Sri Lanka's problems performing in finals of big tournaments

Over the past six years Sri Lanka have been the most consistent team in major world tournaments, reaching the World Cup and World Twenty20 finals twice each. But despite their form during the tournaments, they have lost all those finals comfortably. Kumar Sangakkara, who played in all four matches and was captain in two, talks about the pressure and emotion of playing a major final and suggests a solution for Sri Lanka.

What was the mood like in the dressing room before all the finals, and especially the last one?
The mood has always been very good. We've always been motivated for finals. We haven't made a big deal about talking about the finals, but I've gone in with the approach to the final that we have with the rest of the tournament, so the mood in the camp has always been the same. But in a way you do feel tense, more nervous - you have butterflies in your stomach a bit more that day.

Was there a sense of fear?
No, it's not a sense of fear. We've never had a fear of playing a final. That's what we train for. The one thing we haven't done is express our fears, or whatever our feelings are, fully before a final - especially the day before and the two or three days leading up to the final.

What do you put that down to - not talking about those feelings?
I think there are lots of aspects to it. We're not a very expressive people when it comes to our fears. We express a lot of joy. We express various other emotions, but talking about insecurities, fears or personal issues out in the open is not something that we're very used to. It's not something we intentionally do, especially in an environment like sport, where you're supposed to be tough.

It's also not something that we like to talk about because I think sometimes we have that fear that if you talk about it, you might jinx it, or if you talk about it being a final you might change your attitude or the way you think. You've done so well to reach the final, so why do anything differently?

But you know it's a final…
At the back of your head you know it's a final. You know what winning it means. You know what it means for yourself and the team and the people supporting you. Having lost World Cup finals, you know what it is like.

I think one of the most important things that we've got to do is work on better, clearer communication, especially before big games - about exactly how we feel, because how we feel has an impact on what we do on the field and how we approach a game. Before any game or any tournament starts I think we should make it a habit of talking about what it feels for you to play a final, and what it means to the country. What are the fears you have, how happy you feel, what expectations you have. All these emotions that are in turmoil within you, I think that it's good to express them. And talk about the crowd's impressions, the way people have spoken about the team and about the opposition.

I think you need someone to work with the team so they can teach us to channel those emotions and talk about them in a positive way to better performance on the field.

What is the preparation like mentally at the moment?
I think mentally it's always been about practice, and then getting on with the job.

"We're not a very expressive people when it comes to our fears. We express a lot of joy. We express various other emotions, but talking about insecurities, fears or personal issues out in the open is not something that we're very used to"

Playing cricket is a risk and without balanced risk we can't score runs, take wickets or win games. You've got to get a lot of things in place, but if you are not prepared to accept mistakes or criticisms, you don't have a part in the team.

I think mental strength is about being unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to take that little risk. It's being unafraid to accept the situation for what it is, it's being unafraid to talk about the future, to talk about fear, failure and success. But you need a good professional to guide you to doing that.

Have you talked about that with management?
It's an ongoing discussion. One of the key issues is finding people who are able to communicate fully with the team and who the team can communicate fully with. So it's important to have someone who can speak Sinhalese and Tamil fully. All the boys converse in English and they can get their point across, but when they talk about emotions they have to be comfortable with the language they speak. It is something that we've spoken to management about and they are looking at. Hopefully by the next series.

What's difficult for fans to understand is that the team seems in complete control throughout a campaign - including high-pressure games like semi-finals. But there seems to be a meltdown in finals.
Yeah, I guess it could be the fact that you're so afraid of losing the final that it can actually contribute to you doing badly.

You know, a lot of people in Sri Lanka might say, "Oh the boys should be tough, it's supposed to be like this." We are tough without a doubt, but there are certain ways and certain things we have to do mentally to fully prepare for a big occasion. It could be one reason we look at as to why we haven't won a final.

Before last year's World Twenty20 final, did you feel like the mental baggage from three previous finals played a part?
No, I don't think we spoke about our previous finals. When I was playing I wasn't thinking about the final before. Actually, to be honest with you, I did think it was an opportunity. "We've had three, so maybe this was a great opportunity for us, so let's grab it." You can't be too eager at times so you need to balance that out. We really need to talk about it being a final. The more you try to ignore it, the more you think about it. We need to find a way to deal with it.

When youngsters come into the team, for example, do you and Mahela Jayawardene tell them to think of it as just another game, a club game?
I think the process for them is the same as a club game. If you're good enough to get here, let's spend your first tour really being comfortable with what you're doing, knowing that you've done the hard yards. Don't be too eager but also don't be too scared. You've got to strike that balance mentally, just thinking about what you've got to do.

It's not about getting a hundred. It's about the first 10, 20, 30, and getting those building blocks right. A lot of mistakes young guys make coming into the team are because they're too eager to get a hundred in a game. You need to really understand the game, and how the opposition plays, and what it is you have to do to get to that hundred, and it takes some people six months, a year to do it.

But I think the longer you're in the game, the harder your job becomes, because you're so well known, your game is so well known with your opposition that scoring runs becomes a whole lot harder.

Going back to the finals, have you talked about and debriefed the last final or the previous finals?
We've talked about it among ourselves but never as an exercise of shedding the baggage and moving on. Again, there are professionals who can lead you down that path effectively. It's not something that you learn how to do naturally. You need to do this with big kinds of failures in a way that will help you grow. We need to have a post-final environment where whether you win or lose, there needs to be a debrief at the end of the game.

What does that disappointment feel like?
You feel inadequate, you feel ashamed, you feel like you've let so many people down - not just yourself but your family. And you always think about the people who've watched you play. You feel disappointed, you don't feel any motivation for a while. There are so many feelings that are within you and it's really hard to express all of it. You have a period of introspection where you think, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with us? Why can't we convert?" We try to find answers and then at one point you reach a stage where [even] if you don't find an answer, you are able to go on in a manner that helps you to perform afterwards. But you know the baggage remains and next time you approach a final, that baggage can make a difference between winning or losing. They are problems we need to address very, very strongly.

Has there been a change in the way you felt in the weeks after the final and the way you think about it now?
No, it feels the same. When you revisit the finals, the feelings always come rushing back and you feel exactly how you felt after the final. You remember and think, "What if? What if you'd done that?" So you keep it, something you'll never forget. It doesn't matter even 20 years after - those emotions will still run through you exactly in that fresh manner that you experienced.

Do you think it may have been better if you had exited earlier in the tournament?
Hope is a very dangerous thing, but it's a very important thing. When you're playing in a final it's not really hope, it's almost a delivered certainty at times, where you think, "This is our game and we are going to win it." When you've done all of that and you lose, it's a much worse feeling than going out earlier in the tournament. When we went out in the first T20 World Cup that we played, we went out in the second round and disappointment was huge but still not as huge as losing a final. There's no comparison between the stages of the tournament. There's a huge difference between the semi-final and the final. It's a very tough place to be, not just for players but even for spectators. The fact that you've come this far. You've won every game so far, so why couldn't you win the most important game?

Mentally, will big tournaments be tougher to approach now?
No, I think the approach is the same. It's a slow build-up. You build momentum throughout the tournament. We just have to wait and see if we will get to a final and see how we feel then.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here