A new batsman comes to the wicket. He surveys the field, making a careful note of the fielders’ positions. After blocking a few deliveries, he starts to play some more expansive shots, and hits them, unerringly, straight to the fielders.
From a ruck, the ball is passed to the first receiver who runs forward a couple of steps before being driven back in the tackle by two defenders.
A succession of crosses and corners fail to beat the first defender. When the winger does finally manage to locate his centre forward, the latter isn’t able to generate enough power in his header to trouble the goalkeeper.
What’s going on? The answer is that each player is telling his subconscious brain to pay attention to the position of the opposing players (or his own player in the last example). The brain is then told what skill to execute. The task is then carried out using those visual cues as targets.
Even if you told your brain something like “Don’t hit the ball to the fielder”, the subconscious brain, which doesn’t understand spoken language very well, just hears “hit – ball – fielder”.
The answer, if you’re a coach, is not to tell your players to look for where the fielders/defenders are, but to look for where the gaps are. So a new batsman would survey the field looking for those gaps, and maybe start visualising hitting the ball into those gaps. In net practice, you can put markers on the net to indicate fielding positions. But if the batsman doesn’t seem good at avoiding them, you might want to highlight the gaps between them using coloured markers.
You might also want to remind your players that cricket, rugby and football pitches are pretty large compared to the size of even adults. If they were a bird flying over the ground they would see lots of gaps. So in cricket, if there are few gaps in a ring of close fielders, they need to think about how they could safely hit the ball over them into those gaps. Imagining they were high above the ground looking down might help them.
In sports such as football and rugby, the task for coaches is to get their players to think of themselves as “space invaders”.