Wednesday, 11 May 2011

MIND GAMES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY SNAPE

By the end of the summer of 1998, a season in which he had failed to make a single first-class appearance, it is fair to say that Staffordshire-born cricketer Jeremy Snape was meandering through a modest, largely unfulfilling career at Northamptonshire. However, a timely move to equally unfashionable Gloucestershire gave his career take-off: he quickly became a vital, point-fielding, middle-order-scrapping, off-spinning cog in the well-oiled and highly successful limited-overs machine that was being assembled there by John Bracewell, as was later recognized by his selection for 10 England ODIs. In 2003, he took his considerable know-how to Leicestershire, where more unlikely team success followed in the shape of their victory in the the second Twenty20 Cup (2004). Snape’s innovative captaincy and development of a rhythm-disrupting ‘moon ball’ in their 2006 repeat triumph earned him another England call-up for the first Twenty20 World Cup in 2007.

For all that, Jeremy was, by his own admission, a fairly limited cricketer and it is really in retirement that his profile in the cricket world has taken off. Having attained a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology from Loughborough University, in 2005 he founded a consultancy, Sporting Edge, while still playing for the Foxes. The catalyst for this second career came with his recruitment by Leicester-based Jaipuri businessman, Manoj Bedale, to act as psychologist to the franchise he had just bought in the fledgling IPL: Rajasthan Royals. It is now well-known that, under the inspirational, imaginative captaincy of Shane Warne (a man previously known for his outspoken contempt for – or, being slightly kinder, scepticism of – the perceived need for support staff such as Snape, once describing the coach as “what you travel to the ground on”), the rank-outsider Royals were shock winners, and that Snape’s work impressed their other high-profile import, Graeme Smith, to such an extent that a job with the South African team was offered.

Late last year, I caught up with Jeremy – an old Staffs Juniors teammate off whom I once spilled 3 catches in an over-and-a-half against Shropshire at Lilleshall (I was keeping; he was bowling nippy inswingers) – and asked him not only about his experience with South Africa but also about some more general aspects of being a ‘performance coach’ with an elite sports team…



Can you pinpoint a precise moment when the desire to move into sports psychology first took hold?
I guess I always knew that the challenge in my own game was more mental than technical – sometimes even changing technique under pressure – and the fear of failure that came with that made it a very difficult place to be. So I knew that the mental game and my ability to change and adapt, take on different techniques, bat in different positions, and bowl in different styles was always going to be driven by that attitude. That’s what I found so fascinating through the twenty years that I played.
        Obviously, the highest position I got to was playing for England. In front of 120,000 people in India I managed to build a sort of psychological routine that helped me to cope with that and shut out the noise of the screaming locals. That was a big step forward for me. I realized that I could actually create my own zone, as it were, to perform in, and I think that was a good thing.
       I did see a few sports psychologists around that time but I never really felt that anyone had had the experience of playing in high-level pressure, so I took my learning mainly from the practical side, which were the players and the coaches, and their philosophy on things.

That was my next question, actually: whether there were any people from the cricketing world – players, captains, or coaches that you’ve either played with or against – who have been especially influential on your thinking as a cricketer or sports psychologist, be that directly, through advice, or indirectly, through example.
Well, someone like John Bracewell approached the game in a very much more scientific way than I’d seen before and that really appealed to me. I guess coaching is a blend of the science and the art and John Bracewell seemed to do that quite well, whereas a lot of coaches I’d worked with had got quite a haphazard way of doing it. There definitely seemed to be some kind of system [with Bracewell].
       Other influences would be players themselves, people like Nasser Hussain, and [other sportsmen like] Martin Johnson, who lives locally. People like that who lead by example, who just get on with it and lead from the front. That’s a great thing to learn from. But then there are also people like Michael Vaughan who are a bit more relaxed about it but who also have the same sort of steeliness under pressure. That also taught me that there wasn’t only one particular way of doing things and that you could find your own way. So that made it all the more exciting to try and find out what that blueprint was.

I noticed that your official title with the South African cricket squad was described as both “Performance Coach” and “Mental Conditioning Coach”. You’ve said that the role combined cricket coaching and psychological training. Perhaps you could explain a little about how flexible or circumscribed your role is in and around a group, how your role dovetailed with other leaders in the group…
This very much depends on the context that you’re working in, on the philosophy of the leader in the group. When I was working with South Africa under Mickey Arthur there was a lot of freedom to address a wide range of issues, whether it be at a team level, small groups, or one-on-one. Part of the job was to pre-empt situations down the line and help to put coping strategies in place for that, organizationally. Also to support him and Graeme [Smith] in their own decision-making, with selections and press conferences – not necessarily to pick the team, just to help them to have an objective sounding-board to keep them on track with their longer-term aspirations and things – and just linking in to the management team to make sure that everyone was being effective, really. So, I’d often get involved in various areas with other members of the management team where they were struggling to get a player on to the physiotherapist’s bench or in to the fitness schedules or whatever. 
       More recently, with Corrie van Zyl, there’s been a slightly different approach. Mickey’s English-South African, while Corrie’s Afrikaans-South African. With him it was more of a focussed psychological role looking at mental skills, psychometric profiling and one-on-one sessions that were targeted for specific changes rather than a perhaps more informal, counselling-style approach [under Arthur].
       So, yeah, the way you work within an organization would be dependent upon the brief, really, and the way the management sees your role. And that crosses over into business in the same way.

Talking of the ‘transferability’ of your techniques or method, it seems to me that your general principles are fairly straightforward (which is not to say that putting them into practice is quite as easy!!). For instance, you have continually stressed the importance of remaining focussed on processes rather than outcomes, of giving team members clarity over their roles, and of replicating hostile environments in training scenarios in order to make players accustomed to producing under pressure. Sporting Edge also works with businesses, which implies that your methods or techniques are applicable to any domain in which there’s a premium on high performance within a competitive environment. Is that fair enough? Are your principles so easily transferable from cricket to business, or between different sports?
Well, obviously there are some very generic principles in both leadership and team development. For example, in team development, the stages of change, or stages of development, are well known. There are various models but one of them is ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’. Teams go through various dynamic stages where there’s in-fighting and alignment and people moving towards their goals. So those can be linked very clearly to sports teams and business teams, because it’s just human interaction.
        And then the other thing is this idea of leadership where you’ve got to get a balance of the three main skills of a leader: challenging people, supporting people, and inspiring people. And again, they are generic enough to be understood by both coaches and business leaders but the way they use those in the practical sense is very much domain-specific.
       So that’s the key, really, I think: to understand the practical context that people are working in and to be able to fit those [principles] to the organization you’re working with. I think that’s been one of my strengths. Because I’ve come from a practical background and then moved into research, I’m able to look at problems from that angle, rather than being led by research and thinking how I could make that fit the environment. I think the ability to make things fit is crucial. Lots and lots of psychologists know lots and lots of information and lots and lots of theories, but unless you can make that real for the people that you’re working with and get them to adopt it as their new style, then you’re going to get a blockage.

I wanted to ask you about how you carry yourself when around a group with which you’re working – when you are in a dressing room environment, or even socialising with team members, do you have to be ‘on guard’ at all times?
It is difficult to manage that sometimes, especially when I’d probably be at a similar age to a lot of the guys that I was working with. But it’s something that you develop over time and, as I get older, I’m sure that sort of distance from the team will be created naturally as they’re in their twenties and I get into my forties.

By extension, then, does a conflict ever arise between telling the truth and what might be called an ‘emotional tactics’ or ‘psychological massaging’ that you have to perform in order to keep players’ moods positive? White lies.
I think the key thing is being authentic. Positive rhetoric doesn’t get you anywhere, really, especially in high-profile sports teams. They want the genuine belief that the players and team can progress. Sometimes you just have to be very honest and say “Guys, we’re struggling here”. But you’ve also got to be slightly more aspirational and slightly more positive than the group in general because you’re ultimately trying to lift them all the time. So whether you’re using something quite negative to motivate them or something quite shiny and bright to motivate them, that’s your job to work out what that is and move them forward.
        I think that knowledge and skills are very important to psychologists, but the relationships within the team are critical, and if the players know that you’re on their side and care very deeply about their individual performance and team performance then, to be honest, you’re half way there to being able to make an impact. That was a barrier that I faced early in the South African job – especially because it was a tour of England. They were trying to work out whether I was a spy in the camp. But after two years now I’ve got some strong relationships and I’ve been able to make some strong impacts.

On the subject of impacts, it seems to me that – in sport and in life – people may fail to realize their potential for a number of reasons: there are uncontrollable external events that derail a life (the death of a loved one, a car crash, financial ruination, illness, etc), events which might – as far as realizing one’s potential is concerned – be definitive, utterly beyond the scope of a psychological intervention. Then there are ‘natural’ barriers formed by someone’s levels of talent, which similarly cannot be radically altered by psychological means (let’s call this the ‘silk purse, sow’s ear’ theory…). Beyond these barriers, however, a psychologist must see a large sphere of potential intervention and influence. So, do you think there is an intrinsic limit to the scope or effectiveness of an ‘intervention’ by a sports psychologist, a barrier perhaps provided by either an individual player’s ‘character’ or by a culture? Or can these be eroded away?
Often, certain teams will have a particular mindset and a receptiveness to change, as do individuals. Again, that depends on the leadership – have people been talking about growth and development and learning and personal change? Or have they been talking about talent, intelligence, and skill (which are very much entities that you’ve either got or you haven’t)? I think the healthiest environments and the healthiest individuals believe in growth and development, and that’s something, obviously, that can bring in specialists and challenge people to move toward their potential.
        So, there is a case that teams have barriers or resistance to new information and psychology but, again, you’ve just got to back yourself to get to understand the people and, generally, after a period of time, you do get to know what drives the people individually and that’s when you can start to make change. But it’s better to be with people for longer periods of time, and longer contact time, because then you see them in work, outside work, on highs, in lows, and you get to know the behavioural profile of people so that you can start to pick your time. And that’s one of the biggest skills of a psychologist: to know when just to be a psychologist, and when to do psychology. Sometimes it’s actually best just to sit back and watch, and not say anything. When you feel like you’ve got a lot of passion and information that you want to give, it’s sometimes difficult to do that, but I think people respect you when you stay quiet, let the guys be, and sort of think through it a little bit.

Inevitably, I have to ask you something about the phenomenon of choking, a charge thrown at the South African team ever since the Klusener/Donald run out at the 1999 World Cup and then with the Duckworth/Lewis fiasco at the next that caused their elimination. Firstly, do you think it’s too simplistic – perhaps even malicious – to ascribe this trait to the South Africans, as though the label “choker” encapsulated some sort of national characteristic, particularly when there could be perfectly good cricketing (i.e. non-psychological) reasons for some of their high-profile defeats?
I actually don’t think it is a fair tag. I’ve looked into it and there’s no particular pattern, especially with the South African team. There are just so many different variables that you could look at, with tactics, selection, preparation, individual thought-processes at the time… And it’s also very difficult to say when a game was lost, you know. It might be that people say that somebody choked in the last over of the game, but actually the more ‘criminal’ mistakes might often be made earlier in the day in cricket. So, it’s very difficult to pinpoint whether that was choking or normal underperformance.
        But there’s no doubt that a finite tag like that has quite an impact on a team and it’s something that they have to shake off at some stage and, ultimately, the performance mindset of an individual and a team has to be very specific and optimistic. You’ve got to know your game, know your plan, be very aware of where the game context is at that moment and do what’s…not necessarily do what you planned, but do what’s effective at the time, and I think that if you can keep that mindset quite open and also commit to that plan once you’ve re-jigged it or stuck with it, then that’s probably the most important thing in terms of execution of your skills.
        Often we see people holding back because of a lack of commitment to the plans and that can quite simply be because people have started to look at the distractions and what might happen if they fail.

So, could the “choker” label become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’: the more it’s said (justifiably or otherwise) in the media, the more it penetrates the dressing room, the more it’s believed (privately or collectively), and thus the more it happens?
Again that just depends on the ability of an individual, first, but also of a team, to zone in on what’s important. And the ‘chokers’ tag isn’t important when the bowler’s running in to bowl, you know. The key processes of a player’s performance strategy and psychological routine are what’s important. And those processes make sure that you’re insulated against any distractions. It means that you probably deliver your best delivery, your best bowling. And if you do that then you’re more likely to win the situation. And if you’re more likely to win situation after situation, then you’re probably going to win the game.
        So, that’s the way you’d break down from the way the media talk about ‘choking’. You’d drill it down to an individual situation and you’d try and win the moments by people being focussed on what their job is and being aware of where the game is going.

You have said elsewhere that the last 15 years in cricket have been about working on players’ bodies and the next 15 will be about working on their minds. So, that should keep you busy…
Yeah, it’s an interesting field and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few years in it.

I have written in brief elsewhere on the chokers tag as being less to do with representing the truth of a situation as it is a pragmatic act designed to affect others behaviour: in short, a stick to beat them with...

[photo © Hannah Edwards]