Don’t keep your eye on the ball but prime your intuition
17.20, Friday 1 Jul 2022 Link to this post
I watch a bunch of cricket (and read about it too). I ran across a counterintuitive method which is to not keep your eye on the ball. It turns out this is how elite batters operate, and it has made me think about the way I structure my own work.
Greg Chappell has the idea that there are ascending levels of concentration, with the peak, “fierce focus”, being a state that has a max budget over the day.
Chappell is one of the cricketing greats, a hugely successful Australian batter from the 1970s known for big scores.
His origin story: he was great sometimes but other times just ok. Then he received a letter that made him think about his game. In a meditative fugue, sitting in the dark:
He thinks about every single game of cricket that he has ever played, from his very first in the backyard with his brother Ian … to Test cricket for Australia.
Then an epiphany:
Hours later - it is difficult for him to tell how many - he emerges with a stunning realisation: by playing cricket since the age of four, he had, without realising it, developed a systemic process of concentration and a precise method of watching the ball; but he had only been using them consistently on his good days.
Here is a deep dive into Greg Chappell’s method, and the psychology behind it: What does a batsman see? (2018) by SB Tang in The Cricket Monthly.
Brief cricket overview, because I’m a fan and you may not be.
Two teams. One team bats, aiming to hit as many balls as possible and build a big score (runs). The other team bowls, aiming to get batters out (by catching or knocking over the wicket behind the batter). Then the teams switch.
There are multiple formats of cricket. One is T20 which lasts 3.5 hours. Each team bowls a fixed number of balls: 120 each. A second format is Test cricket which lasts 5 days. The number of balls is unlimited and the batters stay batting as long as they can. Greg Chappell played Test cricket.
Everything about life can be seen in Test cricket.
Bowlers run up and bowl the ball overarm, with a straight arm, 22 yards from the batter. The ball bounces once, and the goal is to trick the batter so that the ball leaps off their bat in an unintended way so it can be caught, or it sneaks past them and smashes the wicket.
A cricket ball is leather, rock hard and the size of a tennis ball. For Test cricket it is shiny and deep red. It has stitching which stands proud of the ball.
The ball can be bowled at up to 90 mph, and spun up to 2,000 rpm. It swings in the air and changes direction off the ground, both from its own motion, and the position of the seam, and the quality of the ground where it bounces. Its height, when it reaches the batter, is determined by where it bounces. All of which is in control of the bowler.
So batting is hard.
Chappell’s key point:
mental energy is a finite resource that a batsman must conserve if he is to achieve his ultimate objective of scoring as many runs as possible, which will require him to spend hours, if not days, out in the middle.
Chappell realised that he had three ascending levels of mental concentration: awareness, fine focus and fierce focus. In order to conserve his finite quantum of mental energy, he would have to use fierce focus as little as possible, so that it was always available when he really needed it.
- Awareness. Standing waiting for the ball, Chappell would mark his guard (tap his bat on the ground), look around and count all ten fielders, gaze at the crowd, etc.
- Fine focus. As the bowler ran in, Chappell would maintain
his central vision on the bowler’s face and his peripheral vision on the bowler’s body. He believed that a bowler’s facial expression and the bodily movements in his run-up and load-up offered the batsman valuable predictive clues as to what ball would be bowled.He did not keep his eye on the ball.
- Fierce focus. At the bowler’s last stride, he would
shift his central vision the short distance from the bowler’s face to the window just above and next to his head from where he would release the ball. Once the ball appeared in that window, Chappell would watch the ball itself for the first time. He could see everything. He could see the seam of the ball and the shiny and rough side of the ball, even when he was facing a genuine fast bowler.
After playing the ball, a deliberate step down in focus level:
Chappell cycled his concentration back down to its minimum level of awareness.
(This resonates with me because attention is the feeling of our brain allocating scarce realtime processing capacity, and it forms a kind of attentional pyramid, as previously discussed, but I haven’t run across the pyramid being extended and described and used in such a way before.)
The rest of the article is incredible, by the way, a real dive into the science and psychology of what’s going on. Read the whole thing.
Why You Should Care About Cricket (2011) by Wright Thompson.
ESPN sent their baseball correspondent to India to cover the cricket World Cup in 2011, without him knowing anything about it.
Back home, an Alabama fan had killed the trees at Toomer’s Corner, and I was trying to explain the significance to him. This was big news to me. I’m a Southern boy, and I tend to believe that SEC football is the most important thing in the world. Only, Sambit has never heard of Auburn, or Alabama, doesn’t know that they play college football, or that they are rivals. I fumble around. This is perhaps America’s most intense rivalry. A fan just poisoned two 130-year-old oak trees. It’s serious. I need an analogy.
My first thought: It’s like India-Pakistan in cricket.
Except, you know, for the four wars since 1947 and the constant threat of nuclear holocaust. Other than that, Auburn-Alabama is just like India-Pakistan.
hashtag brilliant cricket long-reads for people who aren’t necessary into cricket
Don’t watch the ball!
The regular advice in sport is to watch the ball. Greg Chappell says: watch the ball as little as possible. Glance at the ball. Take it in, all at once, only at the microsecond you need to.
I GET THE IMPRESSION, reading about his method, that what he’s doing with all the “awareness” and “fine focus” activities is pre-loading information into his unconscious mind so that, at the critical moment, he can respond automatically.
It is not possible to “decide” what to do about a ball coming at you at 90mph. What you can do is make sure your mind is pump-primed with all the available context cues, with the highest signal to noise possible, and then act.
This gives me clues about how to organise my own work?
(Not thinking about cricket now.)
I’m building software rn, so I spend most of my time working on product. There’s a lot of sketching, designing, roll-my-sleeves-up building work, and planning.
One way of describing this work is: design and build. But that doesn’t sit right with me. These two activities aren’t sequenced like that.
Now I can think of my sketching and designs in a different way: I am training my intuition. I am not deciding what to do. I am priming myself such that, when a decision needs to be made (when I’m building or somebody asks me for feedback or when I’m putting together the plan for what to build next), I automatically respond the right way in the instant.
This seems like a small twist in framing but actually I find the difference quite freeing: I can see now that I’m no longer meant to be right with my sketches. I’m not supposed to be straight to the point. What I’m doing is scouting the field; I’m loading up my unconscious with everything it needs to make the right choice later, intuitively.
It’s not about being logical. It’s not about making a rational decision.
The remaining question is: how to take lessons from Greg Chappell’s central concept of fierce focus. How can I build my working day around a number of critical decision points, exerting my intuition and reflexes intensely and totally for the absolute minimum amount of time, and otherwise not keeping my eye on the ball at all.