Are you ready?

Do you feel in control before the race starts? Or do you get easily distracted by the crowd or intimidated by the opponent? Are you not really sure on how to get focused before taking that shot, or do a serve? If so, perhaps you can make use of the pre-performance routines for these types of scenarios.

A pre-performance routine is a sequence of behaviors aimed to make the athletes optimally ready for executing self-paced acts, by making them feel in control and preparing their neuromuscular system. This sport psychology technique helps making the performance more effective and can be used both during skill acquisition and in competitions. Without practicing a pre-performance routine the athlete may not pay attention to the relevant stimuli and may not be able to keep thoughts or emotions in control. 

Some of the situations where athletes can benefit from pre-performance routines are those in which they have the time to get ready to perform like:

  • Shots (e.g., archery, golf)
  • Throws(e.g., basketball free throws, penalties in football)
  • Serves (e.g., table tennis, tennis, badminton)
  • Starts (e.g., BMX racing, sprints, swimming)
  • Vaults (e.g., gymnastics)
  • Unexpected events! (e.g., false starts)

Pre-performance routines sometimes are confused with either superstitious rituals or those routines some athletes engage in to calm their pre-competition anxiety, by for instance tying their shoes in a particular order, or making themselves look good to feel confident. Those using superstitious rituals like entering the field with the right foot, or wearing lucky socks do so because they think that if they do not do them then their luck may be altered in some way. 

Pre-performance routines instead are those for JUST the moment before the actual skill is going to be executed. They are a sequence of steps in which athletes prepare physically (e.g., with the appropriate posture for the skill), and psychologically (e.g., controlling arousal levels) to perform at their best.  

When developing the sequence of behaviors for a pre-performance routine, the athlete’s preference needs to be taken into account, as it is very personal and what works for one athlete may not work for another. Here is an example of steps that can be included:

Prepare: adjusting to the appropriate posture embodying calmness and firmness, smiling if that helps, preparing the specific pre-movements of the action (e.g., bouncing the ball several times, grabbing the bicycle handlebar grips, adjusting feet on the pedals).

Create a quiet mind: by breathing to the preferred rhythm. Controlling the breath is the easiest way to calm down. A pattern could be the 7-11 by inspiring through the nose counting mentally until 7 and letting the air out through the nose for longer, counting mentally until 11. Positive key words to encourage confidence can also be useful.

Imagine: not just by visualising the [realistic] successful achievement of the skill in as much detail as possible but by including all the senses and environmental and emotional information (e.g., seeing the trajectory of the ball and where does it need to go, or feeling successful while going through the different stages of the route, recreating the touch of the racket, exploding when the start signal comes up). 

Focus: on the relevant visual field to block potential distractors. For instance not paying attention to the audience when about to do a serve, as the external and wide focus of attention is not what is needed.  

Do not overthink: the action needs to flow automatically, if the athlete thinks about all the steps while doing the task, then the performance is not going to be optimal and a breakdown may follow because the process of thinking about the task slows or interferes with the task.

Get feedback: from the performance to make adjustments next time (if possible). If the performance did not go well, there is no point to dwell on it, it is best to stay in the present moment and try again, Dwelling or criticize oneself is a waste of effort. If the performance goes well then it can be celebrated which in turn increases confidence. 

-Practice, practice, practice! Like with any other skill, the more they are practiced the better you get, and the same happens for pre-performance routines. Self-paced skills can definitely be improved by this technique. 

-For unexpected events like false starts: athletes can prepare a similar pre-performance routine for these kind of scenarios so they can try again with confidence, and are able to direct their attention after being distracted by something unexpected.

Photograph by Jules D on Unsplash

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