Mike Brearley’s new book began as at talk he gave at the London School of Economics in 2012 on what it means to be “in the zone” – the mental state of intense focus and absorption in the task at hand, experienced by athletes and other performers at moments of peak performance. Afterwards, encouraged by friends, he wrote up his thoughts, and the more he wrote, the more he thought. The result is a book that roams far beyond its starting point, without getting anywhere in particular.
Brearley is a psychoanalyst, a career for which he prepared by captaining the England cricket team. Between 1977 and 1981 he led England in 31 Test matches, of which only four were lost. Brearley was a very good though not outstanding batsman. His success as captain was down to his astute tactical brain, and above all to his ability to bring the best out of an England team which included brilliant, sometimes headstrong talents such as David Gower and Ian Botham.
Brearley read classics and moral sciences at Cambridge, and pursued a career as a philosophy lecturer before giving it up for cricket (he was a late developer, in sporting terms, first selected for England at the age of 34). Silver haired, softly spoken and undemonstrative on the field, he provided an alternative to the Churchillian archetype of a leader. On retiring from cricket in 1983 he trained in psychoanalysis and became a professional therapist, while maintaining his interest in sport. In On Form, Brearley combines sport, psychology and philosophy to draw some lessons for life. This is his second book: his first, The Art of Captaincy, was published in 1985.
A prerequisite for being on your game seems to be a freedom from deliberation. Brearley quotes Australian cricketer Greg Chappell, who wrote that a batsman at the crease should simply watch the ball and respond to what he sees: “The conscious mind can be involved with the big picture stuff such as strategy, but once the bowler approaches, one must trust the subconscious and the years of training to do the rest.”