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    The lessons cricket can offer about the mind's perception of time and effective strategies for managing anxiety
The lessons cricket can offer about the mind's perception of time and effective strategies for managing anxiety
Cricket player at library. Source: Midjourney

The lessons cricket can offer about the mind's perception of time and effective strategies for managing anxiety

The bowlers representing England and Australia in the ongoing Ashes cricket series are expected to collectively deliver a minimum of 540 balls per day (equivalent to 90 overs, with each over consisting of six balls), possibly more if there are any no-balls or wides. If one team's bowlers fail to take all ten wickets in a day, they must continue their efforts into the next day.

Each of the five Test matches in the men's series, as well as one match in the women's series, lasts a maximum of five days. To emerge victorious, the bowlers typically need to dismiss the opposing team twice. Australia's men's team won their first Ashes Test in the final session of the fifth day, with only minutes remaining.

In many ways, this biennial series seems like a race against time itself. Unlike most other sports such as football, which have a defined and relatively short duration, Test cricket represents a form of prolonged and strategic behaviour—something that individuals engage in daily. In this regard, the players in the Ashes series can offer insights into how the human mind reacts to the passage of time and how it connects to feelings of reward, threat, and anxiety.

Just as these Test cricketers focus on winning a series weeks in advance, our daily lives are shaped by the larger goals we strive for, such as career aspirations or personal happiness. To achieve these overarching objectives, we often encounter brief periods of intense pressure and anxiety. It is the combination of time and an uncertain outcome that leads to such anxiety.

Consider, for instance, the upcoming exam period, when you need clarification on your performance. Or think about how your prospects of finding love depend on what will unfold tomorrow when you ask your crush out. How we manage and cope with this anxiety, which arises partly due to the limited timeframe surrounding these pivotal moments, can greatly impact our overall well-being.

Cricket player with laptop. Source: Midjourney
Cricket player with laptop. Source: Midjourney

The ABC method

Psychological research has demonstrated that anxiety in humans manifests as negative and uncontrollable thoughts, accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, uneasiness, and a sense of panic. This is followed by a shift in our attention towards a perceived threat, whether real or imagined. In the context of cognitive behavioural therapy, this phenomenon is captured by the alarm-beliefs-coping (ABC) model of anxiety.

To better understand this model, we can draw parallels with the game of cricket. When a batter awaits the bowler's delivery, they experience a state of alarm (A). Their beliefs (B) regarding whether the upcoming ball poses a threat or not trigger an initial wave of anxiety. Subsequently, the batter must employ coping mechanisms (C) to effectively manage this anxiety and strive to maintain mental composure.

A similar process occurs when we feel anxious about an examination. If we believe that we are ill-prepared, our anxiety levels rise. In order to address these uncontrollable thoughts, we must utilise our coping resources, such as implementing a study plan or cultivating optimistic thinking.

Although the ABC model appears straightforward, the interplay between the alarm, beliefs, and coping stages alters our perception of time. Research suggests that individuals experiencing anxiety perceive time as elongated, making the duration of the anxious period feel much longer than it actually is. Consequently, anxiety can significantly impact various aspects of our lives, including sleep, diet, and emotional stability.

Studies have revealed that each stage of the ABC process activates distinct regions of the brain. In essence, during anxiety, our brain shifts into an emergency threat mode, prompting different neural circuits to react.

In the game of cricket, batters continually undergo high levels of anxiety before each delivery. Unless they are dismissed, they must repeatedly manage this anxiety, facing uncertain outcomes time and again. Achieving a century in Test cricket typically involves facing between 80 and 150 deliveries (although the world record stands at just 54). Hence, we can learn valuable lessons from the strategies employed by the world's best performers in managing anxiety.

Cricket player reading a book. Source: Midjourney
Cricket player reading a book. Source: Midjourney

Mastering the Art of Time Management

Sport and performance psychologists often assist high performers in developing their ability to handle anxiety through a technique called "cognitive reattribution training" (CRT). While the specific approach may vary, the underlying principle remains consistent: perceiving the situation as a whole rather than focusing on isolated aspects. This involves moving away from the belief that everything depends on a single moment. By adopting this mindset, the alarm response diminishes, and the moments of uncertainty that trigger anxiety feel shorter and less detrimental.

In addition, we help athletes cope by determining the level of control they have over different actions. For instance, bowlers only have control until they release the ball, so worrying about the ball's trajectory after that point is pointless. On the other hand, batters have limited control since they must react to each ball bowled. If athletes mistakenly believe they have more control than they actually do, it can lead to errors. Therefore, the focus should be on the elements they can control, such as the target point, while diverting attention from elements they cannot control.

This approach can be applied to various aspects of life. Consider a situation where you need milk, but the grocery store has run out. You have no control over this circumstance, and now you face uncertainty about where to get milk for your morning coffee. CRT allows you to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot. A CRT-based thought process would be: "I can control the fact that I need milk (X), but I cannot control the shop's milk stock (Y)." This enables you to redirect your mental resources, allocating 80% of your attention and effort to finding alternative sources of milk, such as going to another store or asking your neighbour. This approach is far more effective than fixating on the uncontrollable scenario, arguing with the store manager, or becoming angry.

Of course, many situations in life are more complex than this example. The most beneficial approach is to accept that you only have a certain degree of control and then use CRT to allocate your efforts accordingly. Ultimately, CRT allows individuals to break down their thoughts into areas of control ranging from 0% to 100%. Think of it as a process of sorting.

A Test match embodies the beauty of seeming almost endless in time. Like life, all four outcomes are possible: win, loss, draw, and even a tie. The key is to understand the ABCs (Acceptance, Balance, and Control) and, by doing so, manage how our minds react to the passage of time.

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