Many athletes talk about superstitions that they have in the build up to matches, races or competitions. These superstitions are compulsive actions that don’t necessarily serve a purpose and can be irrational. Often athletes believe that ‘certain actions’ will lead to ‘certain results’ and can be a restriction and burden on your performance. Therefore, it is recommended that athletes focus on the development of a pre-performance routine to prepare for a sporting event or skill execution.

What is a pre-performance routine?

Pre-performance routines are functional as they help athletes to calm their nerves and concentrate on factors that are within their control. On a wider scale they can include the preparation steps you take the night before a competition right down to the final few seconds before the competition starts. They can also be a more specific process carried out prior to the execution of a skill. Moran (1996) 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 sports skill’. More recently Foster, Weigand and Baines (2006) suggested that pre-performance routines involve ‘cognitive and behavioural elements that intentionally regulate arousal and concentration’.

Looking at the breakdown of a pre-performance routine the behavioural and cognitive elements are often broken down to develop the right process for the individual. Behavioural components can include practice swings in golf, bouncing the ball before a table tennis serve, glancing at the rugby post before kicking and using breathing techniques before a race or gymnastics routine. Cognitive components can include the development of skills such as mental imagery, focus self-talk, motivational self-talk, focusing on the target.

Why have a pre-performance routine?

Throughout years of research in this area there have been many benefits identified for the development and use of a consistent pre-performance routine in different sports and in the execution of various skills.

In golf the process of a pre-performance routine has suggested improvements in:

  • Concentration – by encouraging individuals to focus their thoughts on task-relevant cues
  • Moving on – by helping golfers overcome the tendency to dwell on previous negative experiences, holes or shots
  • Attention – by preventing ‘warm up’ decrements and the devotion of excessive attention to the mechanics of their automatic skill

More generally, the process of routines has shown improvements in the following areas:

  • Reducing the impact of distractions
  • Triggering well learnt movement patterns
  • Diverting attention to task relevant thoughts
  • Improving concentration
  • Enhancing the recall of physiological and psychological states
  • Achieving behavioural and temporal consistency in performances
  • Moving away from a focus on the mechanics of skills and increase automaticity
  • Allow performers to evaluate conditions and calibrate their responses

Singer (2002) more generally suggested that the purpose of pre-performance routines is to “put oneself in an optimal emotional, high self-expectant, confident, and focused state immediately prior to execution, and to remain that way during the act” (p.6).

How can I develop my pre-performance routine?

  • Start by identifying what you currently do so you can start to apply meaning and focus to your actions and thoughts
  • Identify what you want to achieve from your routine
  • Understand that routines are individual processes, make it right for you
  • The duration of your routine is not important (unless your sport includes time limits), just be aware that the timing should be consistent.
  • Identify elements to your routine that are specific to the sport skill that you are executing
  • You will need to be flexible with your routine over time, as you develop, you will need to adapt your routine
  • Your routine will take time to establish – so be patient
  • Establish whether you can stop and restart your routine if you get distracted

Do you have any superstitions linked to your sport? Have you ever thought about how these may help or hinder you? Take some time to think about how a pre-performance routine may help you. Some sports will allow for breaks in play or clear opportunities to develop a process that will help you to compose and find the focus you require while taking control of how you prepare for what you are about to do.