Love them or hate them, trial matches are used the world over to decide the fate of young cricketers. They are the exams of the cricket world: Do well and you could be on your way to a professional contract. Mess up and... well, let's not think about messing up.
That's pressure however you cut it. The worst thing about pressure is that it tends to make you look silly. The tension in your body stops you performing well. But if you want to be a success you have to get used to playing under pressure.
How do you deal with it?
Action vs. Intent
I recently got an email from the father of James, a player who will be trailing soon. He has every intention of becoming a professional cricketer and his statistics back up his claims: 22 wickets in 7 Premier League 1st XI league games so far this season at an average of just over eleven.
He father emailed me for some trial advice because James was busy: He was in the gym at 10pm making the most of a rare day off playing (he plays school, club and representative cricket).
How many players who want to trial can say they are putting in the action to match the intent like this?
Some people are lucky and can sail through on talent without hard work, but those are the very rare people. Most of us normal human beings have to put in long hours of committed practice to be as good.
That's why the first step to performing well is to make your actions match you intentions.
Good preparation has the added benefit of allowing you to rely on your skills. The more you hone your technique the stronger loads into your muscle memory. That means you don't have to think consciously about things and can perform without overthinking.
But that take practice and lots of it, especially of basic skills under pressure situations. Work harder than everyone else and you will play better too.
Don't go changing
All that said, in the run up to a trial the worst thing you can do is make dramatic changes to what you are doing. Chances are that if you have got a trial you have had some success with your method. Any change now could upset that. Let's say you are an opening bat who plays in a conservative manner. You hear the team you are trialling for is looking for an aggressive player. To go to the trial and try to blast it would be less likely to succeed.
A well paced hundred would be far more impressive than an ugly twenty five, even if your style doesn't match the selector's current aims.
The same goes for your practice. Do what you always did. You may get what you always got (as the cliché goes) but in this circumstance that is what you want.
Learn to relax
The final preparation element is to be able to deal with the tension of a big game like a trial.
As you know, when we feel tense mentally we respond physically; our shoulders hunch, we narrow our eyes and grit our teeth. None of these physical responses are needed to bat, bowl or field and so we end up wasting energy on tensing up.
Most of the time players don't even realise they are doing it. Take right now as an example; if you are sat at your PC you are probably tensing your shoulders. Relax them now. Did you even realise they were tense?
Here is a simple trick to learn to recognise that tension and release it. You can do it for 20 minutes a day for a week:
- Sit in a comfortable chair and keep still. Without moving, become aware of whatever is making contact with your body: the chair, something in your hand, the feel of the breeze, etc.
- Take in the feel of your clothes, the movement of your ribs as your breath, the things you see and the things you can hear. Don't try to make sense of it, just take it in.
- Check your body, especially the jaw and shoulders, for tension. Relax the muscles if you feel any.
- Sit for a moment just breathing and relaxing, trying not to consciously think or react.
This can be hard to do at first and takes some practice. The idea is to be very aware of the moment, not thinking forward or back, so you can relax and focus.
By the end of the week you will be able to recognise tension on the field. Take a moment to let it out, breathe and focus again on the next ball.
Review your performance
Once the trial is over you may have done well or badly. Either way, review your performance with a critical eye. It helps to have a coach to talk you through it but you can do it alone. Look at:
- Your performance on the day: what you did well, what went badly.
- Your preparation in the run up to the trial.
Look at what worked and what didn't. Even if you did well, you will no doubt be in a pressure situation again soon. If you did badly you can learn from the experience for the next trial. Either way, reflecting on things is an important step not to be missed.