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I was once scared to play the short ball; then I retrained my mind: Shane Watson

The former Aussie World Cup-winning allrounder, who's recently authored a book on mental skills in cricket, speaks about how he put mind over matter and why the Australian team comes up trumps in clutch matches

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Dec 2, 2023 09:30:00 AM IST
Updated: Nov 30, 2023 06:06:38 PM IST

Shane Watson has two World Cups and as many Champions Trophy titles to his name. Image: GLYN KIRK / AFPShane Watson has two World Cups and as many Champions Trophy titles to his name. Image: GLYN KIRK / AFP
2014, the year Phil Hughes passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage after being struck by a bouncer, was a watershed moment for former cricketer Shane Watson. Following Hughes' death, the Australian allrounder began to fear fast bowling for the first time in his life. Watson knew furious pace could leave him injured, with bruises, fractures, what have you. "But after Phil's death, I thought the next ball from a fast bowler had the chance to have that impact on my life as well," he says. "From that moment on, my performances against fast bowling just spiralled and brought me to a point where I was going to retire."
As he continued to struggle with his mental demons, Watson had a chance meeting with IndyCar champion Will Power, who connected him with Dr Jacques Dallaire, a performance specialist in the US. Dallaire knew zilch about cricket but was proficient in handholding elite athletes through pressure situations. "I spent two days with him, and things changed significantly from then. Just by implementing those mental skills he taught me, I became confident I was going to turn things around," says Watson, who has two World Cups and as many Champions Trophy titles to his name. He continued to play international cricket for another year, captaining the T20 team and franchise cricket for another five, picking up the player of the tournament in IPL 2018.  
Last year, he compiled his learnings, weaving them with his own experiences of international cricket for nearly two decades, and authored Winning The Inner Battle: Bringing The Best Version Of You, To Cricket. Early next year, the book will be republished in India by HarperCollins.  
In an exclusive interview with Forbes India, Watson breaks down the techniques of putting mind over matter and the secrets of high performance in clutch moments. Edited excerpts: 

'It was always going to be cricket'

I got into cricket primarily because of my dad, who worked in the Air Force and was a cricket tragic. As long as I can remember, I was always sitting with him on the couch watching cricket. He would also take me to Test matches, or Sheffield Shield matches when I was a kid. So, while I played all sports, cricket was the one I loved the most, and it was also my way of connecting with him. And I still remember the day—probably a Sunday because mum was ironing clothes—that I was watching a Test match and I told her, "I want to do that." Like all parents go, my mum also turned around and said: "That's great. If you work hard, you never know what's possible." When I was 16, I had to pick my sport, and the number of bad injuries I saw in rugby had an impact on my decision. Hence, I just focussed on cricket. I was very fortunate that, when I came through, there were huge opportunities for fast-bowling allrounders in Australian cricket. 

Also read: Forbes India's World Cup XI: From Rohit Sharma, as captain, to Rachin Ravindra, Glenn Maxwell, and more

'You have to go full throttle if you want to succeed'

The first person to impact my career was a teacher at school, who just knew how to break down technique and simplify it for schoolboys to understand. He would throw me balls through my teenage years and explain batting techniques in a way that I could groom those fundamentals. There was another teacher who I spoke to when I offloaded rugby and chose cricket. He was a superb athlete but was injured playing rugby. He advised me I was better off just going full at one instead of playing a few different sports. And that confirmed my decision to stick to cricket. Then, as a mentor, came Rodney Marsh, who built a veritable "nursery of international cricketers" with the coaching structure he put in place for the cricket academy. Dennis Lillee mentored me from 18 through 29 with my bowling, especially at a time I was dealing with back injuries. He's the best fast-bowling coach that there has ever been. 

'I was scared to play; that's when I sought help'

During my cricket career, I had the right people around me to guide me skill-wise. But I'd never found anyone who could help me with mental skills performance. And this became especially urgent in 2014 when Phil Hughes tragically died after being hit by a bouncer on the head. Because, Phil's death put in me the fear of playing fast bowling. Before that, I knew I could get hurt if I got into a wrong position, facing some of the fastest bowlers. Broken arms, broken fingers, broken ribs, I'd seen those. But never did I think you would actually get hit and killed instantly. From then on, I thought the next ball from a fast bowler had the chance to have that impact on my life. And that's when my performances and game against fast bowling spiralled to a point where I was going to retire. It was the second half of 2015, and I just couldn't perform anywhere near as well as I knew I could.

Also read: To not get carried away is a lesson I learnt from the 2003 World Cup loss, and it set me up for the 2011 final: Zaheer Khan
It was around that time I had a random meeting with IndyCar driver Will Power, who told me he went through a similar tragedy when one of his best mates got killed in a race. He then connected me to Dr Jacques Dallaire, who's been doing mental skills training with high-performance people. I flew to the US, where he's based and spent two days with him. And things changed significantly from then on. 

'I didn't re-learn how to play the short ball, just retrained my mind'

Dallaire knew nothing about cricket. He just educated me on how the mind works. One simple thing that I immediately understood was that your mind can only process one thought at a time. From a performance perspective, when a fast bowler came on, I was allowing space in my mind for the thought' short ball' to come in. As a batter, that's the last thing you want because you'll be out of position to play the short ball. The right thing for me, as the ball came on, would be to be aggressive and go with my instincts of playing the short ball, and if I focused on that, my mind wouldn't have the space to let the wrong thought come in. It sounded so simple that I knew I could do it. So, as the bowler would run in, I'd be filling my mind with the technical checklist for batting. As the ball came out, I was facing it aggressively. And, as the bowler would be walking back to his mark for the next ball, I'd try to troubleshoot the last ball. And finally, once again, I was back to marking the checklist as the next ball was being bowled. This means I was filling my mind with the right thoughts all the time, keeping fear at bay. 

'You are in control of your mind's chatter'

The other thing he taught me was that we are in control of our conscious mind, and the internal dialogue that we all have is a function of the conscious mind. So, we can fully take control of that mind chatter if we want to. From a performance perspective, if your mind chatter is filled with wrong thoughts, you can redirect it to the right thoughts or put your mind on neutral so that you aren't digging a deeper hole. With every little lesson, I realised that if I had access to this information in my teens, I would have handled pressure a lot better. That's why I decided to write Winning The Inner Battle: Bringing The Best Version Of You, To Cricket, so aspiring cricketers can access information that can help them control my mind. Jacques and I worked with corporate houses, sporting teams and clubs in Australia, and then he trained me on how to coach it. And now I've got rights to his IP to get this information out to as many people as possible. 

Also read: Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win

'I worried a lot, but worrying never helped'

Cricket is a performance-oriented sport. People look at your numbers to judge your successes. It's incredibly challenging not to get bogged down by that. It makes you obsessed with results because they are the most important thing. And with that comes your selection, bigger contracts, and endorsements, and the stakes get higher. That was something I wrestled with throughout my career. I worried a lot because the results meant so much to me. And the worrying put more pressure on me, especially when things didn't go as planned. But then Jacques asked me a question that changed my life: When has worrying about results ever made the results better? The thing is, never. So, focus on your preparation, which you can control, and move on. 

'Australia believed in sticking to the basics in crunch games'

I've been part of Australian team setups that have won two World Cups and two Champions Trophy titles. The two things I learnt from those teams were their belief in themselves and understanding what they needed to do to be at their best. There was one thing my first international captain, Ricky Ponting, would say: The team that does the basics right for longer under pressure will be the team that comes out on top. You'd see the examples in front you of—the Pontings, the Matthew Haydens, the Adam Gilchrists, guys who were so skilled, would continue to do the basics right ball after ball. That's what made them perform incredibly well in World Cup knockout games. You see a lot of teams start to look at the enormity of the situation and tell themselves, "We need to win this game". This is where they start to feel overwhelmed. Australia never faced that urgency in themselves. All they did was set a benchmark for themselves, and the beauty of the team was that there was never really a game they went into without expecting the individuals to hit the benchmark. And that's why Ricky Ponting was such a great leader: If he knew that people weren't up for it, he would get onto them and get them to step up. And the rest just took care of itself.