You’ve seen it on TV, in the locker rooms on Sky Sports and on a world-stage at the Olympics. That crucial brief period before taking part in a big sporting event, where athletes get ‘in the zone’ offers a brief insight into a pre-performance routine.
This ritualistic behaviour is sometimes thought of as superstitious, or even obsessive-compulsive. However, those who have studied sports psychology will appreciate it as an extension of a training programme and essential mental preparation ahead of an important competition.
Importantly, unlike superstitious behaviour, a pre-performance routine serves a purpose; to aid your overall performance.
What is a pre-performance routine?
Experts have defined a pre-performance routine as; “A sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sport skill.‘ (Moran, 1996).
It helps to create an optimal mindset as part of sports preparation, in order to achieve the desired outcome. The consistency of the routine, often practiced in athlete training programmes, can also offer familiarity and comfort just before a big event, as well as focus the mind.
It has a growing body of supporters, as it becomes widely acknowledged as beneficial. In fact, studies into pre-performance routines have shown them to be effective in enhancing performance. This has been found by researchers in basketball free throwing and a number of other ‘closed skill’ sports.
Two parts of a routine
In any given pre-performance routine, there are two important parts; behaviour and thoughts.
Behaviours are the actions that consist of the routine. These might be deep guided breathing, or certain stretches and moves, that influence both the body and mind.
Meanwhile, thoughts are internalised ways of focusing our mind. This can include self-talk techniques, and imagery, which form important parts of mental preparation.
Here we now examine a few of elements of a pre-performance routine and how to hone your way to excellence:
Short and simple
A pre-performance routine needs to be remembered. Therefore, it is best to keep it short and simple.
In some ways, you want it to feel natural and second-nature, even though you are acutely focused on the moment. To keep it memorable, try and integrate into your daily sport schedule.
Since your routine needs to be beneficial to you, find out what works best for you. It is a very personal thing, and as such should be designed around your mental and physical state in the run up to a big event.
Sure, take inspiration from other athletes, but avoid copying them. This needs to remain authentic and true to your goals.
The power of imagery
Imagery is a tool used in sports psychology to help athletes actualise their ambitions. This is something you too can adopt in training, and then can incorporate into your pre-performance routine.
In rehearsing your routine and visualising a successful performance, you are entering the right mindset for optimum performance. It’s all part of the mental preparation.
Employed for many benefits, controlled breathing is a great way to calm your nerves before a competition, and can centre your energy.
Helping to get more oxygen into the body with deep breaths, relaxing the muscles, and clearing the mind, it allows you to control your arousal levels and alleviate some of the symptoms associated with anxiety.
It is one of the ways in which athletes can focus on their behavioural preparation.
It may sound obvious, but the key to a successful pre-performance routine is consistency.
Take time to hone your routine, don’t deviate from the flow and especially not before a big event. This is a routine that needs to be used in training, in competitions and for any situation where it may benefit you as an athlete.
That said, routines occasionally need to be tweaked and fine-tuned over time. However, if small changes are made, be sure not to do this before a big event, when you need to be focused.
Focus on what you can control
Even the best prepared athletes suffer nerves and anxiety before a big event. This is perfectly normal.
Your routine should serve to remind you to focus on the things that you are in control of. And to let go of the areas you cannot control or influence.
For instance, you can control your own behaviour, your physical state, your thoughts and your mental state. Implementing all the above techniques, reminds you that you are completely in control of your destiny.
At the same time, let go of the things you cannot influence. Your competitors, the weather, the crowd for instance. Focus on the things you can do and achieve.
In your mental preparation, your sports coach will remind you to keep a positive attitude. This is essential for your own performance and ability to perform at your peak.
Staying positive means focusing on your routine, and your self-talk motivation. This should remind you of your successes to date, reinforcing your self-belief that you can achieve success again.
Your pre-performance routine should be task-specific, systematic and engaging. This simply means, more than going through the motions. It’s about how to be mindful of your actions and thoughts, and using them to full effect.
For instance, you often see golfers in the moments before teeing off repeatedly following an action, like swinging. This intense focus and preparation is what makes a good athlete, a great athlete.
Finally, if you find your mind wandering or you get distracted during the routine, stop and start over again.
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