The news of England’s highest test run scorer retiring from international cricket was responded to with warm words and tributes from across the sport. Aside from reference to the multiple records he holds, there were two recurring themes of what his peers chose to say. There was much praise for his qualities as a team mate and his personality. His humility and decency struck a chord with players who spent a lot or even a little time with him. The other focus was on his mental strength and skills.
In a position as demanding as an opening batsman it is often taken as a given that the best performers in this area have mental strength. However, instead of just assuming Cook was randomly gifted there are some key lessons that can be learnt from how he trained his mind to be such an enduring and successful player.
As in physical health, there are examples of best practice that can be followed to optimise mental health. At Opening Up we refer to these via our ways to wellbeing. Alastair Cook’s mental fitness was worked on regularly across his twelve year test match career, particularly through four areas we will consider now.
“Put on your trainers”
Cook placed his physical fitness as a central part of his training. By the end of his England career he was unbeaten in the gruelling yo-yo test and this familiarity with driving himself through uncomfortable situations gave him valuable experience for getting through difficulties in the middle. The dedication to maintaining his peak levels of fitness were matched to his game.
“Don’t ask me for speed, ask me for endurance” he once said and as well as all the health and wellbeing benefits to exercising, he also found a way to use it to train specifically for his discipline. Hours and hours of batting prepared for by hours and hours of hard work.
A consistent feature of his career was the presence of a mentor to discuss his game with. From Graham Gooch
“Graham was my sounding board, especially in the early years of my career…. He made me realise you always need to keep improving whatever you are trying to achieve.”
to Gary Palmer ,Cook felt comfortable in admitting vulnerability and reaping the benefit of allowing someone else to provide perspective and ideas. Being able to honestly accept that he didn’t have all the answers and that he didn’t need to do it by himself, he was able to make use of resources others would shut out.
Critics would point to his comparatively narrow range of scoring shots and his relative lack of success in white ball cricket. Instead, Cook’s ability to completely understand and trust his areas of strength and weakness were key to excelling in test matches. At a time where T20 influenced risk taking seeped into the longer formats, the consistency of Cook’s approach was striking. His clarity of what he could do was aligned with an appreciation of what he wanted to do. Speaking about his rituals pre match he said
“The night before, I write stuff down. I always do it in bed and I always do it as the last thing I do that night. This is going to sound weird, but it’s the only place you’re really safe in that Test Match week is that night, before anything has happened. I write what I feel down and how I want to play.
Then in the morning I’ll read that paper again, when the nerves are there, and then put that paper away and go and play and see what happens. I wish I’d kept all the pieces of paper, because there would be some weird and wonderful stuff. The reason I do it is because I know this is what I’m going to try and achieve.”
He has also been self aware to know what experiences have helped form his powers of attention and concentration. He credits his time as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral as crucial in his rise to the top of world cricket.
“That instilled a lot of discipline in me. My five years at St Paul’s played a huge part in the person and the cricketer I have become.
“My dad reckons my time there is the only reason I have got so far in cricket. He reckons it hardened me up and made me prepared to put in the necessary effort required to reach the top.”
His acceptance of his strengths and weaknesses alongside a reflective approach led to a clear focus, essential for achievement in any walk of life.
We are much more tuned in to when we need a break physically than we are mentally. However, Cook has shown how being proactive in taking a break leads to a refreshed brain, ready to hit the next set of targets. The finest example of this approach is his retreat to the farm of his in-laws, giving space and time away from his day job.
“I have found something both time-consuming and that gets me going outside cricket. It gives me a release. In international cricket, you need to have a different bubble that you inhabit. I’m convinced of it.”