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Page last updated at 17:05 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 18:05 UK

The Ashes mind game

Fifth Ashes Test, The Oval: England v Australia
Dates: Thursday, 20 August to Monday, 24 August Start time: 1100 BST
Coverage: Live Test Match Special commentary (from 1025 BST on day one, 1045 BST on remaining days) on BBC Radio 4 LW, 5 Live sports extra, the Red Button and BBC Sport website. Live text commentary on BBC Sport website and mobile phones. Also live on Sky Sports.

Steve Bull is a consultant psychologist for the England and Wales Cricket Board and has worked with the national team since the 1990s.

He spoke to Radio 5 live's Pat Murphy about his role before the crucial deciding Ashes Test, which starts on Thursday at The Oval.

PM: What is your role before this vital Test match?

England's players take a breather from training
When a player is under pressure, they can forget how good they are and forget the great accomplishments in the past

SB: The role wouldn't be any different from a normal Test match. I have an informal role, I'm here to observe, help out when needed and working quite closely with the coaches.

I work quite closely with the coaches about what sort of environment they are trying to create, what sort of message they are trying to get across to the players.

But my role is nothing overly formal and certainly nothing different from any other game.

Given the magnitude of this match, are you trying to release the pressure off the players' shoulders?

You have to get a balance. It is a big game, the climax of a very exciting Test series. You can't hide from that, so players have to be geared up to a high-pressure situation.

But at the same time, it's best if the players are consistent in their normal routines and not hype it up too much in their minds. They need to go out and execute their skills to the best of their abilities - like in any other game.

When is your work done?

I leave on the morning of a game. I'm around to contribute in the preparation phase, but once the game starts, I leave.

I'm contactable on phone or email and I always keep a dialogue with [England coach] Andy Flower.

Once the game has started, I would encourage the players to focus on the game. If there are things to be discussed, then we'll do that after the game. But during the game the players need to focus on the processes.

What advice would give a player who is struggling with the pressure?

You need to help the player to stay connected with what they are good at, to stay connected with previous accomplishments, successes they have had that can fuel self belief and confidence.

England psychologist Steve Bull
We don't recommend that players pay much attention to what's written in newspapers, even when things are going well

When a player is under pressure, they can forget how good they are and forget the great accomplishments in the past.

So I try to help them reconnect with those successes. Also, I would encourage the player to enjoy this pressure of a climax of a massive Test series, it's part of top-level sport. If you can get into that mindset, that's often a pretty effective way of overcoming nerves.

Would you maximise their potential to be part of an Ashes-winning squad?

We wouldn't be having conversations with the players about the outcome and how it's going to feel at the end.

It's more about what are we doing today, what do we need to execute today to put us in the strongest position possible to win this game, rather than the romantic dreams of what might be happening next Monday or Tuesday.

Would you say that the Australians have the psychological advantage after the Headingley defeat?

Despite what you have read in the papers in the last week, the score is 1-1.

We believe we can win this series. Any conversation about the Australians and their momentum is not really relevant to what we are trying to do.

Our focus is about us, about what we need to do, what we can control, how we can prepare and how we can position ourselves to start this game strongly.

Have you been helping to get the players mind turned around in time for The Oval?


The players didn't really need reminding they had a bad performance, the challenge is making sure the environment is such that the players can reflect, review and understand why they didn't perform to the best of their abilities.

Once you've learned those lessons you move on as quickly as possible and get into the next phase of preparing for the next match.

What we don't want after a match like we had at Headingley is catastrophising, making a big issue of it.

What advice would you give to players on the receiving end of criticism following their last performance?

We try to avoid getting absorbed in all of that. We don't recommend that players pay much attention to what's written in newspapers, even when things are going well. The danger of getting carried away with the hype.

Inevitably there will be views from those former players on TV - those are for TV viewers, not for the coaches and players.

The players and coaches do their own analysis and are quite capable of forming their own views. Sometimes they might be in agreement, sometimes not.

The knack of managing pressure is keeping things simple. The more views you hear generally confuses minds.

When Mike Atherton was a player, one of the bits of advice he would give the younger players when they came into the England side was filtering out the glut of advice they would inevitably receive.

He suggested they politely listen, but go away and do their own thing. It's about controlling the controllables and focusing on what your can do in our environment.

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see also
Ponting piles pressure on England
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Ashes bookmaker allegation probed
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Flintoff focused on Ashes decider
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SA too strong for Trott - Arthur
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Flintoff named in England squads
17 Aug 09 |  England
England gamble on uncapped Trott
16 Aug 09 |  England
Flintoff cleared for Ashes finale
10 Aug 09 |  England
Aussies win to level Ashes series
09 Aug 09 |  England
Pietersen named in Trophy squad
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Flintoff quits Tests after Ashes
15 Jul 09 |  Cricket
ICC Champions Trophy 2009 squads
25 Aug 09 |  Cricket
ICC Champions Trophy 2009
05 Oct 09 |  Cricket
Australia in England 2009
20 Sep 09 |  England

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