Pre-performance rituals… are you normal or neurotic?

Have you ever watched a football player pull out a tuft of grass before they kick for a goal? How about a gymnast close her eyes and visualize her routine for a few seconds before presenting to the judges? Or do you have a mate who wears the same pair of socks for a week long tournament – without washing them – despite the protests of his team mates?

Everyone has these little rituals, habits and quirks. But does making sure you only wear a particular brand of underwear on competition day actually serve a purpose, or does it just make you somewhat neurotic?

Rafael Nadal is probably just as famous for his long list of rituals as he is for his tennis playing. His habits include:

  • Always taking a cold shower 45 minutes before a match
  • Wearing both socks at exactly the same height
  • Sipping from recovery drink, then water bottle. And then placing both bottles to the left of his chair on the ground, diagonally facing the court
  • Using the towel after every single point. Left side of his face first, then right, then left arm, then right.
  • Bouncing the ball at least 10 times before serving
  • Never walking on the sidelines, and being sure to step over lines with his right foot first
  • Adjusting the left, then the right, shoulder of his shirt. Wiping his nose. Putting his hair behind his ears. And then…
  • …picking his wedgie.

It seems extreme, and it sometimes is. But sports psychologists have discovered plenty of evidence that personal rituals can help your performance. There are 3 main ways in which they work.


1) Quiet the mind

Pre-performance rituals can help to quiet the mind and enhance your focus. When you go through a series of familiar actions that don’t require thought, it can help reduce the internal ‘chatter’ many athletes experience before games. The often repeated actions are soothing and give you a sense of control and certainty – which leads to less worry and internal noise.

Nadal puts it like this: “Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.”

As a beach volleyball player I always take a deep breath and let it out before I serve. It helps to calm me and relax my mind. As a trampolinist I used to count the jumps before I began my routine – counting focuses my mind on the numbers and doesn’t give me the opportunity to be distracted or fearful. When I do Olympic lifting in the CrossFit gym there is a preparation routine of chalking up, aligning the bar with the floor, giving it a testing tug, and then lifting. All of these small habits quieten your thoughts, and prepare you mind and body to perform.


2) Creating positive emotional states

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) teaches us that physical actions can become triggers for certain emotions and mental states. For instance someone patting you on the head makes you feel small because when you were a child you got touched on the head. But being pat on the back can make you feel camaraderie because that’s how team-mates and friends show affection.

Similarly, doing the same action over and over again when in a heightened emotional state can link that action to the mental state. If you pump your fist in the air every time you score a goal, then pumping your fist at another time can bring on the same feelings as scoring the goal did. If you celebrate a point with your team mates by high-fiving, then high-fiving before the whistle even blows can help put you in the same celebratory state of mind.

Personally, I have many emotional states that are linked to actions I’ve repeated over and over. When I pack my backpack for a tournament I am filled with a sense of anticipation. When I put my headphones in and start my warm-up stretching my mind automatically starts to enter a state of relaxed focus. When I clench my fist to do the rock-scissors-paper showdown at the beginning of a match I’m filled with tension. When I celebrate with my arms above my head I automatically feel joy. The actions are inextricable linked to the emotional state.


3) Building belief

Rituals can also create a belief in the athlete that they will be successful. In fact this is how most pre-game habits start out. The athlete remembers that when they were wearing a particular outfit and ate gummy bears before their previous game – they won. Even knowing rationally that these are not the true reasons for winning a game, the thought pattern goes that ‘it can’t hurt’ to do the same next match. If you win again the pattern is reinforced. And so a ritual is born.

Studies have shown that athletes that believe a ritual will help them be successful, actually perform better. A 1986 study found that basketballers who believed that tugging on their ear before a free throw was lucky performed better after completing the ritual. But for players that didn’t believe that the ear tug was lucky, there was no effect on performance. The key here is the belief that it will help – not the ritual itself.


When rituals become neurotic

It seems that rituals are beneficial – and normal. Everyone seems to have at least a couple. They help up quieten our minds and prepare for our performance, help us achieve certain emotional states, and even build up our belief in our ability to win. But sometimes these harmless rituals can tip over from normal to neurotic. How does it happen?

When your rituals start to become crutches – that is your performance begins to depend on them – that’s when they become unhealthy. Think of a gymnast who can only perform a certain trick when her coach is watching – this dependency definitely limits her ability to train and compete. Or what about a football player who can only kick goals when he has enough time to go through a mental routine – it means he can’t kick goals during running plays. Or a swimmer who listens to a certain song before racing, and then their iPod malfunctions before an important meet.

A belief that a ritual will help performance can actually improve performance. Conversely if the athlete is unable to complete a ritual, and they believe that not completing it will harm their performance, then their performance will suffer. The belief that the ritual is essential to perform well, can be the downfall for the athlete. 

A study by psychologists at University of Cologne in Germany asked participants to bring a lucky charm with them and then to sink golf putts. Half the participants got to keep their charms, and half had them removed. Those who had them removed performed significantly worse. The belief in the efficacy of the lucky charms directly impacted the participants ability to sink the golf ball in the hole.

It can be a vicious cycle. The athlete stresses about not being able to perform the ritual properly, because they are stressed and unfocused they then don’t perform well, and finally their belief that the need the ritual to succeed is reinforced. Next time around they put even more pressure on themselves to complete the rituals.


Walking the line

There is a fine line to walk between simple rituals that can help an athlete perform, and becoming dependent on actions, things, or routines that don’t relate to performance.

Perhaps the best approach to take is the one espoused by Australian Olympic gold medalist diver Matthew Mitcham. He says “I’m superstitious about having any superstitions. I do my best to quash any that start creeping up on me.”

After much experimentation, I’ve tried to eliminate all rituals that don’t directly relate to my performance. For instance, it’s ok to keep your warm-up routine the same since it is actually necessary for your body, but it’s not ok to need the same food, or lucky bathing suit, or complicated celebration routine.

The easiest way to crush a pre-performance ritual that is becoming neurotic is to deliberately do the opposite. On purpose wear something different for your next game. Eat something different. Run a different route in your warmup. Listen to different music. Pack your bag at a different time. Use different equipment. Train at a different location. And so on.


From now on…

Take some comfort in the fact that your small rituals and habits actually help your performance most of the time. It’s completely normal to have these routines. But perhaps it’s time for you to throw out that smelly pair of ‘lucky’ socks (your team mates will thank you at least) and for Nadal to do away with the wedgie picking. From now on keep your pre-performance rituals on the normal side of the line… not the neurotic side.

May 19, 2017