Are Pre-Performance Rituals Helpful or Harmful?
Have you ever watched a football player pull out a tuft of grass before they kick for a goal? Or gymnast close her eyes and visualise 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?
Rafael Nadal is probably just as famous for his long list of rituals and habits as he is for his tennis playing. These 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 ten 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.
Everyone has these rituals and quirks. But does making sure you only wear a particular piece of underwear on competition day actually serve a purpose, or does it just mean you’re somewhat neurotic? Sports psychologists have discovered plenty of evidence that personal rituals can help your performance.
Rituals can be used to align your physical and mental state.
Rituals Can Quiet the Mind
Pre-performance rituals can help 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 or during games.
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.”
Rituals Can Trigger Positive Emotional States
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) teaches that 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. Conversely, being pat on the back makes you feel camaraderie because that’s how team-mates and friends show affection.
Similarly, performing 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. This can be useful when you want to recreate a particular emotional state.
Rituals Can Aid Performance
Rituals can help athletes believe they will be successful. In fact this is how most pre-game habits start out. The athlete remembers when they were wearing a particular outfit and ate gummy bears before their previous game, they won. Even though we may know 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. And so a ritual is born.
Studies have shown that athletes who 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.1 But for players who didn’t believe 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 Harmful
So it seems that rituals are beneficial in a few ways:
- They help quiet the mind before performances
- They help athletes achieve a particular emotional state by acting as triggers.
- The belief that rituals help can actually lead to better performances.
So beyond having to put up with your team mate’s smelly unchanged socks, it doesn’t seem like rituals could possibly hurt, right? Not quite. Sometimes these harmless rituals can tip over from normal to neurotic. When your rituals become crutches – that is, your performance begins to depend on them – 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 a football player who can only kick goals when he has enough time to go through a mental routine, which 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.
Case in point: 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.2 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.
Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt in the final round of a tournament.
Believing that a ritual will help performance can actually improve performance. But as the study shows, 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.
A Fine Line
There is a fine line to walk between using harmless rituals to help you 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:
I'm superstitious about having any superstitions. I do my best to quash any that start creeping up on me.
1. Schippers.M, et al "The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons." CiteSeerX
2. Begley, S. "Olympics-Mind games of the victorious." Reuters
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