Q: I’ve heard that pre-competition rituals in any sport often help people find their focus and get in the zone. I’m up for anything that can improve my performance so do you have any ideas for helpful pre-competition rituals? What tends to be most helpful for athletes?
A: In 2010, I was lucky enough to see all of the dressage events at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. This was the Totilas era and like him or not, he won everything that year. As a sport psychologist, watching any kind of competition becomes a multivariate of brain function swapping from fan to judge to sport psychology analyst. One of the things that stuck out so strongly as I watched the best in the world on the biggest stage was Edward Gal and Totilas’ “pre-game” routine. If you timed it right, watching the warm-up became almost as exciting as the actual rides. We watched and noticed that without exception, ride after ride, they did exactly the same thing. I could still tell you in detail what the pair did each time. I could tell you the same kind of detail for tennis player Chris Everett’s serve, track and field athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and swimmer Michael Phelps in the starting blocks, and my Grammy Lill making chicken soup. All had routines, always the same, all creating excellent performances.
Pregame routines are one of my favorite sport psychology techniques and having one is beneficial in several ways. Our brains are wired for routine and habit, so a pregame routine helps you because it works like we do. It also is a fantastic way to conserve energy, and it can be incredibly grounding when nerves hit you hard. Emotions are what get us when nerves hit and designing a great routine creates this grounding in data and action, getting you “out of your head” so to speak.
Creating a routine takes some thought, some preparation and then some practice. Like any other habit, making your routine thoughtless will only happen over time and with repetition. Having a similar routine for your training rides will help create this habit. First, start with the thought part by sitting down with paper and pen or pencil and writing out what you currently do to get ready to ride at home and at a show. You have to do this work and tough it out because most people don’t like this part. Try not to judge it. Just try to get a clear picture of your current set of habits. Get all the way through it before looking back to assess it. Once you have a good idea of what you already do, then think about what is working and what isn’t. To define “working” and “not working,” think about three things: thoughts, feelings and energy. Does every action you take help support your thoughts, which lead to powerful feelings, and does it conserve energy? Be like a teacher and take a red marker to anything you do or think that is not supportive.
Next, the preparation part is a bit like a research project. You need to design a routine that is for you and supports you, and that takes some more thinking. There are a few places to collect data for this project. One is the writing exercise you just did. Another is to watch other competitors and see what you like about their routine. A third is simply trying different routines to see what feels good. Create a routine that is easy to remember, has logical flow and makes you feel prepared. It will have a foundation but know that some of the parts may change or upgrade.
The last step is practice. You have to turn this routine into muscle memory so that you know it so well, you don’t have to think about it. A good example is your morning routine. It is unlikely that you have to think about brushing your teeth or getting dressed anymore! You have done this routine so many times, you don’t have to think about it. That is what you are shooting for with your pre-game routine. It will take a month to make your routine mindless so hang in there and keep practicing.
Once your routine is set, you will notice that you feel more focused and more directed. It will be easier to get ready to ride because you have a system. And when you feel nervous or excited, you can deepen your focus on the things you want to be thinking about (technical, tactical or psychological) instead of where are my spurs? Stay focused, stay committed and most of all, be kind to yourself.
Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages—collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance.