‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’ – Aristotle
Novices and experts alike are all, or at least should be, aware of the vital physiological benefits of a warm up. They are crucial to performance by preparing the body for action, whilst minimizing the risk of injury. What many athletes across the sporting spectrum seem to forget however, are the essential psychological benefits also displayed within a warm up. Ever heard your coach tell you to ‘practice” your warm-up routine and wondered why? This article will highlight three key strategies in which the mind is prepared for action within the duration of a warm up whilst competing under pressure: reducing the risk of choking, controlling self-awareness and focusing attention correctly.
‘Choking’ is a maladaptive response to perceived performance pressure; a concept that is undoubtedly familiar to athletes far and wide. Choking occurs when a strongly motivated athlete consciously processes task execution, due to an increase in anxiety, leading to a rapid deterioration in the execution of habitual processes, and therefore, substandard performance (Hall, 2004). The basis of all disadvantages concerned with consciously processing task execution, is that it is detrimentally disruptive of general motor skills. By becoming habit, athletes can ensure effective preparation and execution of these general, but all-important, motor skills whilst maintaining concentration on relevant, related cues, rather than becoming ‘caught up’ in any distractions and applying attention elsewhere. A warm-up, or Pre-Performance Routine (PPR), ultimately provides an athlete with a built-in coping strategy by (providing) familiarity and control through repetitive and sequential behavior, which subsequently, internally, regulates arousal (Cohn, 1990), allowing no mind-space for choking. The result of this is optimal psychological – and thus, physiological- states.
The concept of increased self-awareness (SA), forces athletes to monitor step-by-step procedures, that, as we have just learnt, lead to choking and the ruination of performance. State-anxiety, a result of increased SA, disrupts the automatic processing of well-learned motor skills, increasing the likelihood of making mistakes, which not only leads to impaired performance, but also to heightened stress, frustration and worry – a very dangerous and unsuccessful mixture of emotions for anyone, let alone athletes under pressure. SA therefore, unsurprisingly, is considered a maladaptive state, with it’s intensified distracting thoughts, shifting attention from task-relevant to irrelevant cues. This subsequent lack of focus causes an athlete to regress to using a knowledge base and modes of control associated with earlier stages of learning, with catastrophic results for performance. Anxiety-related cognitions (e.g. worry) and increased self-awareness do not individually diminish performance, but together they may deplete the attentional resources available, and required, to maintain performance at a certain level (Hardy et al., 2001). A PPR presents athletes with a method of subconsciously controlling their personal levels of SA, by increasing fluidity of the vital motor skills, so that no monitoring is required.
PPRs make athletes psychologically resilient; extensive practice leads to the development of focused and efficient organization of task-related networks, that ‘mediate’ performance by providing an automatic sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions that the athlete fully engages in (Moran, 1996). The intention of a pre-performance routine is for the performer to maintain appropriate attention control whilst under pressure, and this psychological strength ensures (as research has proven) that performance is facilitated under pressure, through the decrease in negative self-talk/thought. In order to focus attention correctly, an athlete with a PPR learns to adapt their reactions to pressure and efficiently focuses their attention on task-related cues, whilst ignoring irrelevant ones (e.g. what other competitors may be doing in the warm-up areas) that could become detrimental to their state of mind and subsequently, their performance (Marchant et al., 2008). Applying attention to the correct components involved within a warm-up allows the athlete to maintain control over behavior and emotions, whilst remaining clear-headed in the run up to performance; those that do not follow, or fail to apply an effective PPR, will find themselves distracted and caught up in cues irrelevant to them, increasing anxiety and stress and decreasing attention to the task in hand, which, yes you guessed it, minimizes the chance of a positive performance.
The mind of expert performance remains cool and focused throughout all components of a performance; the motor skills required for any athletic performance require long-established and thorough practicing leading to two indispensable skills: a level of maximal performance and a degree of privileged focus on motor performance that excludes intrusion. PPRs diminish choking effects by curtailing both self-awareness and conscious processing, while enhancing adaptive and relevant, task-focused attention, therefore improving performance. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea developing and abiding by a strong PPR after all!