May 2005 April 27, 2005

Form is temporary …

What exactly is form? How do you acquire it? And how do you keep it?

Or is it? But what exactly is form? How do you acquire it? And how do you keep it? Edward Craig investigates

When the Australian opener Matthew Hayden was in the middle of his three-year run glut, some questioned whether he was a talented individual on an extended run of supreme form or an all-time great. There is something about his batting, his style, his history and past record that nudges towards the former. He does not appear to have the innate ball-striking ability of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar or his own captain Ricky Ponting. He scores runs through hard work, hard hitting and a tough personality. But his statistics are up there with the best. So what is the truth? Hayden's last 22 innings have yielded 662 runs at 33.10. Perhaps the sceptics were right.

If it was "good form", what exactly is that? A simple definition might be "the fitness of an athlete, at a particular time, to perform". Good form and bad form come and go, measurable in the mind but also in the record books. As far as the spectator is concerned, batsmen perform one day or one season, then not the next. Bowlers take wickets galore for three successive games, then are off target on the fourth. Great players are more consistent but even they suffer troughs between their peaks.

Understanding this inconsistency can be difficult. Being in or out of touch is a strange feeling - it is emotional and intangible - you have to experience it to know it. Ed Smith, selected for England on the back of superlative county form describes it as being "relaxed and smooth in movements. You wait for the ball; you don't guess". Other players describe it as being on auto-pilot, playing instinctively, without thought or fear. Being in the zone. Even umpires slip in and out of form. Simon Taufel, one of the world's best says: "There are times when I feel I am in the zone, everything happens, it is second nature, you are able to concentrate on the things in front of you and ignore the distractions. The peripheral things take care of themselves." For Paul Collingwood, good fielding form changes his perspective . "The ball seems to be coming in slow motion. You always have a chance to stop it, wherever it is. You are very clear with what you are doing." Science finds it difficult to define such a fluid, loose experience. Steve Bull, England's team psychologist, says the textbooks do not talk about form but about "optimal performance".

Through talking to players and officials one constant emerges: instinct. The more instinctively you are playing, the better your form. When you are thinking about every individual muscle movement, complicating your brain with fear and doubt, good performances are harder to come by. The trick is to walk to the crease or back to the bowling mark with enough control in your actions to perform accurately, while being instinctive enough to perform naturally. And that is another key word: control. To find good form and retain it is about control: trained instinct not a wild and untamed instinct. Coaches, batsmen, bowlers, umpires want to control as much as they can - and this control comes from preparation. Modern players think less and less about form as a mysterious, ungovernable feeling that comes and goes as fate dictates, though there is no arguing that fate can affect it - whether it is the batsman thrown off kilter by cheap dismissals to a sequence of unplayable balls and bad umpiring decisions, or the bowler who loses confidence after facing a supreme batsman on a flat pitch.

Few work harder on their game than Collingwood. His practice regimes are lengthy and ferocious, especially when fielding: "I do drills, reaction stuff from a couple of yards away. You drop a lot but you also catch them. I go through three stages from two yards away then four or five yards, having them hit harder. Then I go to the backward point position, where I'd be playing in a match and the ball does not feel as if it is coming as quick; you have a lot of time." He drills himself towards form through relentless practice and preparation, giving him the greatest chance of success.

Similarly Taufel puts himself through rigorous training, watches what he eats, monitors when he sleeps, just to ensure he is as ready as he can be, mentally and physically, once the bails go on. That this works for him does not mean it works for others. He explains: "I find that having a fairly strong fitness and diet routine works for me, to get me in the right state of mind for a match ... Someone like Shep [David Shepherd] has his own methods and own routines of staying calm and in control to the point where he feels confident about a good performance." The same goes for batsmen and, in a team context, that can cause problems. Remember the clashes of Graham Gooch and David Gower over training.

But Bull knows the power of preparation. It is what he preaches to the England team. "We talk about quality preparation and trying to get players to develop a sense of control over what they are doing." It is from this angle that he aims to keep the players firing on all cylinders. Understanding their own game is essential, working out what makes them tick, whether it is diet, sleep patterns, technical reminders or triggers. This goes some way to solving a common difficulty with top sportsmen when they lose their touch. "A problem in all elite sports is that players have a high level of natural talent, where the sport comes easy to them, they perform well with low levels of self-awareness, they don't know what they are doing as it is so natural."

He explains that this is great when things go well - just look at Herschelle Gibbs or Virender Sehwag when they get going - but the problem comes when things go wrong because they do not know how they do what they do well. "When they lose form, because they have this low level of self-awareness, they don't actually know how to get it back, whereas players who have to work harder at their game and figure their game out may find it easier. Steve Waugh is probably the best example of that. His talent was not the same as that of his brother Mark but he had a high level of self-awareness, he figured out the strengths and weaknesses in his own game and played to them."

The solution to regaining touch, for Bull, lies when you are in form. He makes the players take notes, picture in their minds how they felt, what they saw, what they thought when they were taking eight wickets or scoring a hundred. When form deserts them, they can revisit this bank of memories, work out what they did and reignite the spark. But there is a word of warning: "What I am not suggesting is players think too much when they are performing."

So it comes back to a kind of mindlessness: you do the preparation and then let your trained instinct take hold. The zone is a thoughtless place. A recent book on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, draws a thought-provoking analogy with driving a car: "The car becomes you. You can only drive it when you don't know the rules any more, when you forget everything they taught you. Every time you turn a corner, you don't get out of the car to measure the curves and then get back in the car. You do everything blind ... And that's the moment when you are `in form'."

But the instinct has to be trained. David Gower looked like he didn't have to try but he had to work hard at making the most of his gifts. For him the preparation was mental as well as technical: "The good players train their instincts so that when the bowling gets quicker and the spinners loopier your instinct is able to deal with it. As soon as you have to think, you've run out of time."

So learning to control -- and then trust -- your instincts is important in maintaining good form. But what else? "Form is temporary, class is permanent" is one of cricket's oldest clichés. What is that something extra that improves consistency of performance? As far as the psychologists are concerned, it is largely confidence. Bull explains that everyone has personality traits and personality states. If you are an aggressive person, you will be aggressive regularly in many situations; this is a trait. A placid person may become angry occasionally but this anger is transitory; it is a state.

Apply this to sport and you have state and trait confidence. Players with high trait confidence will perform more consistently as they believe in themselves all the time rather than simply when they have performed well. To increase someone's consistency, Bull tries to transfer state confidence, a transitory experience, to trait - making it permanent. Viv Richards, for example, was rarely short of self-belief, which psychologists would tell you is one major reason why he excelled for long periods. For certain characters, often young players, good form has its own hazard: suffering vertigo when at the peak of performance. A good first season when the pressure is off, expectations are low and the player relaxes, often precedes a weak second term. Similarly there are certain players and types of characters who are so self-analytical that when they are performing at their peak they are concerned about losing form. Bull explains: "They can have the view that they are in form and playing well, so it won't last too long. They think `I hope it doesn't leave me tomorrow'. When they are out of form they think they'll never get it back." Bull makes players think that when they are in good form and playing well they can control and keep it, extend it for a prolonged period. Then, when they lose touch, they know it will not last long as they know how to get it back. He is sceptical about form being in the lap of the gods as it may be used as an excuse for a poor run and an excuse not to prepare diligently.

Whatever the fates dictate, players can give themselves the best chance of performing at their peak through controlling what they can control. There is no definitive solution, though. Form is a feeling, sometimes endorsed by figures, nebulous not scientific. If you have never felt it, then it is difficult to imagine. Coaches help players start matches in as close to peak form as possible - but different techniques work for different characters. When it comes to it, what we know of form is intuitive guesswork, not hard fact. If you lose your form and want help, you need a psychologist or philosopher, not a doctor or mechanic. So is form temporary? It does not have to be. Hayden had it for years.