On form: Mike Brearley reveals the thinking behind his new book

Former England cricket captain and psychoanalyst Mike Brearley (1960) discusses the roots of On Form — a book with Applied Psychoanalysis at its heart which examines the nature of being on or off form, in the sports world and beyond

When I was nine, my mother said: ‘If you go on like this, you’ll do nothing but play football and cricket for the rest of your life’. Not long after I started working as a psychoanalyst, a patient pronounced: ‘How can a boy like you, stuck at a latency level playing games with other little latency boys, have anything to offer to a mature woman like me?’ Yet I’ve also felt something of what Albert Camus referred to when he said: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football’.

The world I was brought up in shared this dichotomy about the values of mind and of body. I have had these arguments also in my own head. I might divide my life up into 40 years of playing cricket (intermittently) and 40 in the field of psychoanalysis as patient, student and analyst, though this is not entirely accurate. They’re not so separate.

Writing On Form, then, has been in part an attempt to bring these two sides together. I have been very lucky to have both careers, each of them difficult and rewarding. And though one might at first sight think that, one being public, team-based and overtly competitive, the other being private, one-to-one, and a matter of cooperation (apparently), there would be little overlap. In fact there are surprising links. And being on or off form is one locus for finding them.

The eminent Australian batsman and coach, Greg Chappell, wrote: ‘Premeditation is the graveyard of batsmen’. And Freud urged the analyst to avoid ‘inclination and expectation: if the analyst follows his expectations he is in danger of not finding anything but what he already knows, and if he follows his inclinations he will certainly falsify what he may perceive’.

‘One has to dig in, wait for things to get more manageable without losing one’s self- belief, or not losing it too far or for too long’

So, in both fields, sport and psychoanalysis, one has to find a balance between letting go conscious control, and the need for monitoring. Finding form in any field is a matter of training, practice and conscious hard work, grooving our techniques, and on the other hand allowing spontaneity.

Form may also be a matter of enduring, in the consulting room or at the crease. One has to dig in, wait for things to get more manageable without losing one’s self- belief, or not losing it too far or for too long.

‘form may be thought of as a matter of balance between formlessness — losing one’s shape, being overwhelmed by feelings — and oppressive form — being pressured by others or oneself to deaden one’s feelings’

There is a story about the man who kept on complaining to God, imploring him to let him at least win the lottery. God, fed up at last with all this, retorted: ‘Do me a favour: at least buy a ticket’. We have to get involved in the problems of life. We have to get stuck in and struggle. There is a lot of luck in our lives, and in our form, but we also make the best or the worst of a bad job — or indeed of a good one.

In my book, I suggest that being on form may be thought of as a matter of balance between formlessness — losing one’s shape, being overwhelmed by feelings — and oppressive form — being pressured by others or oneself to deaden one’s feelings. One side of this dilemma is expressed in a short poem by Roy Campbell writing about some novelists of his day:

You praise the great restraint with which they write. I’m with you there of course. They use the snaffle and the curb alright, but where’s the bloody horse?’

Discover more about On Form and Mike’s career at littlebrown.co.uk