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Why Harmy bowled that wide

During the opening days of the Brisbane Test Steve Harmison - and his nerves - were centre of attention

Jeremy Snape
Steve Harmison grimaces in pain, Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, November 25, 2006

Getty Images

During the opening days of the Brisbane Test Steve Harmison - and his nerves - were centre of attention. "When it came to bowling the first ball, I froze," he said later. "I let the enormity of the situation get to me. It all seemed so alien to me. My whole body was nervous. I could not get my hands to stop sweating. The first ball slipped."
Generally stress, which is what Steve describes, comes from believing that we have fewer coping resources than a situation demands. Psychologists work on both parts of the confidence equation, helping athletes understand their strengths (often overlooked) and to think realistically about the challenge ahead - not making it a catastrophe waiting to happen. That is hard when a game is relentlessly billed as the most important ever.
Confidence remains one of the great enigmas of sports performance. The dictionary definition is: "The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing." But what is this "thing" we trust in?
Most players presume it is past performances, that confidence comes from their last good match. But if that's true, how do some people start the season with confidence? Have they stored away over the winter the joys of last year's boundaries, like a squirrel? Sadly nuts and acorns are easier to find than memories of our past emotions.
There has to be a firmer foundation for confidence because one poor innings doesn't destroy the best players' aura of calm. To find that foundation, we have to shift focus from outcomes to preparation. It is well known that if we prepare well (and, just as importantly, believe we have prepared well), then we will succeed more often. Jonny Wilkinson summed this up: "I can't always be the best but I can always deserve to be the best." Good planning and preparation gives us the confidence that we did everything we could. Worries and regrets do not gnaw at us.
Good preparation involves intimate knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses and a structured plan for improvement. In 2005 England felt confident facing Shane Warne because they worked out individual gameplans and practised them against Merlyn, the spin machine. This may not ultimately make your defence impenetrable to his flipper but it will allow you to enter the contest feeling very well equipped. In some ways, confidence is like a bank account, topped up by regular deposits in practice. We must invest wisely against inevitable rainy days. Only Steve can truly know how prepared he felt.
But there remains something elusive about confidence. Two people can do exactly the same training, but it fulfils one and leaves the other, who has different demands, under prepared and nervous. It is our perceived preparedness that counts. And, on the other side of the confidence equation, different players perceive the challenge ahead differently. That challenge doesn't always seem smaller with experience. A beginner often feels excited just to play against top players; a veteran feels pressure to provide a match-winning performance.
Steve may have felt under-prepared. But he could be forgiven for feeling the pressure of a match portrayed as the biggest ever. The only way to dry our palms and regain control is to ignore the distractions of uncontrollable and catastrophic consequences and to focus on the rhythms and tactics which will make us play at our best. When offered in a sentence this seems idealistic advice. But when built into a practice routine it becomes as second nature as shining the ball.
This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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Jeremy Snape is captain of Leicestershire. He also runs a sports psychology consultancy (