Over the years, sports psychology has continued to play a greater role in athletic performance training. It’s clear that this has assisted athletes cease their potential.
Successful athletes understand the importance of having a plan to help them compete. They understand that performance goes way beyond skills and into the realms of mental preparation. You could say it’s a complete marriage of mental and physical focus for peak performance readiness.
Pre-performance routines are part of this complex and vital component of training programmes. Equally, post-performance routines play an important role too, which we look at later on.
Simply put, a pre-performance routine can offer a competitive advantage, here we examine how.
What are pre-performance routines?
You may have been introduced to pre-performance routine techniques from your sports coach or fellow athletes. Indeed, you might have even seen it in action on Sky Sports, examining athlete’s behaviour prior to a large tournament. Every sports person from Tiger Woods to Mo Farah uses it to great effect.
It has been defined 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).
To avoid misinterpretation, this is not the same as having a superstition or compulsive behaviours. For instance, wearing a certain colour or performing a certain ritual before a game which is seen as ‘good luck’. These can be considered as having no proven purpose, and indeed rather than help assist control, they control you.
In comparison, pre-performance routines involve useful techniques that have been proven to aid performance.
The benefits of pre-performance routines
According to experts in the field (Adams 1967 et al), there are three main benefits of a pre-performance routine in sport:
- Helping to create an optimal mind-set to achieve the desired outcome. This can be achieved by using a consistent routine, often practiced before and after training to get in the right frame of mind and bring comfort and reassurance -especially before a big event or competition.
- Assisting the neuromuscular pathways. This requires stimulating the pathways to hone the desired skill. This is often seen with athletes almost ‘rehearsing’ a shot before finally taking it, this is part of mental preparation and task-specific cues.
- Assisting in schema development or maintenance. These are ways of making sense of the world around us from learned behaviours. Reflection plays its role in this during post-preparation.
Routines in practice
To understand how this can a pre-performance routine can help you, write a list of your requirements and hopeful outcomes down on paper.
Look at how these can be achieved with your current routine. If you don’t currently have a routine at the present time, think about how you can create one to support these objectives. Once agreed with your coach, these may need to be tweaked as you evolve, and possibly intensify. But they should not deviate from the focus in any significant way. Usually an athlete will work closely with their sports coach to hone and identify these together.
Two key elements
There are two key elements that make up a pre-performance routine; these are behaviour and thoughts. When combined and integrated into and athletic training programme, they can be extremely powerful for an athlete.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
Some techniques include:
Deep breathing and guided breathing are techniques that require practice and dedication to achieve. In doing so, they help get more oxygen into the body, which in turns relaxes muscles and brings a sense of calm to the mind. This has been found to help with anxiety and in controlling arousal levels, especially useful before a pressured moment.
It might be specific stretches or warm up routines, or it could be guided breathing techniques. With a focus on wellbeing, this really is about both body and mind connecting.
Use rehearsal to practice the performance you want to achieve. If you can, focus on task-relevant cues. This might be a very specific motion you want to hone. This for instance is often seen on Sky Sports during golf matches, when golfers rehearse their swing a few times before actually taking it. It’s seen in baseball, cricket, football and a whole host of other sports too.
Thoughts play an important role in mental preparation, by organising our mind in a constructive way. This can take the form of self-talk, imagery, goal setting and relaxation techniques, as follows:
The application of goal setting in pre-performance routines has been found to lead to better performance. Goals should include short-term goals, which feed into long-term goals. Feedback is another important part of this process.
So important is imagery, that we look at this in more detail in Chapter X. In simple terms however, this means using all our senses to visualise and mentally rehearse performance before an event. It is thought that in doing so, we set ourselves up for greater success.
We know that mental fatigue can take its toll on athletes before they’ve even stepped foot onto a sporting stage. Therefore, conserving energy prior to an event is important.
Relaxation is a wonderful tool in calibrating the body and mind. It should be practiced for wellbeing, as much as mental preparation. It can be employed through meditation, guided breathing, ensuring a good night’s sleep.
Key to mental preparation is keeping a positive mind-set. Having a pre-performance routine that involves focusing on positive thoughts will help block out external distraction and focus the mind. Importantly, it is a reminder to focus on the things we can control, letting go of the areas one cannot influence. In sports psychology, there’s an emphasis on replacing negative messages with positive affirmations through self-talk. One commonly used example is by reflecting back on past success, as an indicator to future ones.
How to implement a routine?
First and foremost, a pre-performance routine should be specific to the individual. What works for one person may not for another. It is useful to create this in partnership with your sports coach, who can offer guidance to ensure it is effective for you. This usually starts in practice.
Test it time and again to see if it works. This might take some honing, and over time it’s ok to tweak it accordingly.
The next step is to find a way to integrate the routine into your training programme.
Some athletes start their pre-performance routine an hour before an event, some as 24hrs in advance. It should cover everything from the warm-up process, how you deal with those around you before a game, kit preparation, food and drink, sleep and other elements.
This will help focus your mind before an event. If you suffer from anxiety in any way, this is a helpful wellbeing tool, since it offers comfort and familiarity.
Post-performance routines are all too easily forgotten, but should not be overlooked. Sports psychology suggest that each performance should contain an equivalent post-performance routine.
For instance, if you have a specific warm up ritual, then there should be an equivalent warm-down version. If you have a set ‘pre-game’ self-talk script, then what is the flipside of this, for post-event mental reflection?
Much like warming up before an event and then warming down, we need to do the same with our minds.
From building self-confidence to dealing with anxiety, from mental and physical preparation to post-event emotional management. The importance of having routines in sport has untold benefits. It is indeed no surprise that most, if not all, professional athletes use pre and post-performance routines as part of their daily training and competitive techniques.
Each routine should be specific to the individual and the best routines are those enable athletes to access performance cues. Used correctly, they can help focus the mind, avoid distractions, reduce anxiety and build self-confidence. Ahead of a big game, these may be the very tools that help an athlete outperform their competitor.
Acknowledging that these should work around each individual, build a personal and effective routine for daily use. With time and dedication, it is just one way that sports psychology can help give you a competitive edge.
Finally, to conclude, here’s a few take-away tips for success:
- Create a pre-performance routine that will help you to perform to your potential.
- A routine should be specific to your needs.
- Consistency is key – you need to remain disciplined to use it regularly.
- Perform your routine before every race, it should become automatic.
- Consider a post-performance routine and how this complements your overall mental preparation and strategy.