Pre Shot Routines And All That …

Pre Shot Routines might be the most common of the short routines used before closed sporting skills, but they’re not the only type of short routine.

A Good Pre Shot Routine can be half the battle with improving the mental side of target based sports.

One of the intentional exclusions from our self-guided Mental Toughness Training courses is any advice related to Pre Shot Routines.

The main reason for this that the Metuf program was created for all athletes and non-sporting performers and short routines – at least the way we do them – only apply to certain sports. In fact, they only apply to certain players or positions within some of these sports.

The work that my colleagues and I do at Condor Performance in this area is the most sports specific of anything we do. In fact, it’s so ‘sporty’ that some suggest it’s more technical than psychological and might be better left to a coach instead of a performance psychologist. But they would be wrong.

Although Pre Shot Routines are the most common of the short routines that we help our sporting clients with – due to this being the preferred name used by many of the target based sports such as golf and shooting – it’s not the only type.

Any closed motor skill that is required frequently during a sporting context could and should have a routine used beforehand. A closed motor skill is a skill which is typically ‘performed in a stationary environment, where the performer chooses when to start the skill’.

The basic premise is always the same.

Due to the skill being closed – and therefore far more predictable than open skills – the athletes will always have at least a few seconds before attempting the action. Left in the lap of the Gods these few seconds (or few minutes) can often become fertile grounds for “overthinking” which tends to lead to underperforming in high-pressure situations.

In our experience having delivered over 3000 months worth of tailored sport psychology services since 20o5, it is not usual for athletes of target based sports to think of the moment before one of these closed motor skills as a special opportunity.

But that’s exactly what they are.

With the construction or improvement of any Pre Shot Routine there is one main rule – only include easily repeatable actions. In other words, the only premeditated aspects of the routines are body movements of some kind. Thoughts and feelings are simply left to occur naturally at the time and should not be included in the official routine steps.

Why Is This?

Intended actions are far more reliable than thoughts and feelings. In fact, they are so reliable that we can – with a little practice – call them controllable or guaranteeable. Thoughts and feelings – on the other hand – regardless of how much we try and want them to – will never be controllable. At best, thoughts and feelings are influenceable at certain times.

We can never guarantee being able to think a certain way in certain situations and trying to is fraught with danger from a psychological point of view.

I will explain what I mean via a few examples. I apologise if your sport is not included in these, I have simply included a few of the more common target based sports that really lend themselves to this kind of mental method.

The Classic ‘Pre Shot Routine’

Applicable Sports; Golf, Shooting, Archery, Lawn Bowls, Table Sports such as Pool and Snooker, Darts and Ice Hockey

Your first decision here is ‘is one Pre Shot Routine enough or do I need several?’ For most of the sports listed above – one is normally enough. But having just one Pre Shot Routine across all golf shots can feel odd given the difference between putting and driving – for example.

The start of the Pre Shot Routine benefits from ‘a trigger action’ that helps us remember to switch on at that moment. For golf this can be something to do with your glove or maybe an action related to your club.

After this initial action then I would suggest adding around three to five other action steps that naturally leads up to the shot. Any more than five and you really are running the risk of over complicating it.

For a clay target shooter this might then turn out as follows:

  • Load gun
  • Looking up
  • Big breath 
  • Shout pull 

Of course, this is a very interesting sport whereby the shouting of the word “pull” is actually a requirement yet it can be included in the Pre Shot Routine. The third action is not the cue words “big breath” rather the action of taking a larger than normal breath at that moment.

Pre Point Routines, Pre Serve Routines, Pre Receive Routines

Applicable Sports; Squash, Tennis, Volleyball, Badminton, Table Tennis any other racquet sports
Rafa’s Pre Point Routines are amongst the many aspects of his tennis that make him so very hard to beat

Of course, we have all seen Rafa going through his pre-point rituals and to the untrained eye, it might seem more like a set of ticks. In fact, Rafa’s Pre Point Routines are amongst the many aspects of his tennis that make him so very hard to beat. 

Tennis is interesting as technically only the serve is a closed skill due to the fact that the receiver doesn’t decide when to receive the ball. But I have always found that in my work with tennis players – several whom are or were top 100 players – it’s a good idea to have both a Pre Serve Routine and a Pre Receive Routine – with the start of both being the same.

The good old face wipe with a towel is hard to beat as a starting trigger for both server and receiver. The rest of the routine needs – of course – to be aligned with what is required in a few seconds time. If you’re about to receive the ball then walking to the right spot and taking the right body position might want to be included. If you’re serving then bouncing the ball, pausing then slowly looking up can be great inclusions.

I often get asked if it’s important to decide exactly how many times to bounce the ball – for example. Also, if the decision of which serve (or where to serve) can be included as surely this is not an act but a thought.

If you can clearly de-prioritise feeling from your routines then the exact number of bounces or waggles or practice swings is preferred as you’re not likely to fall into the trap of doing this action over and over again until it feels right.

If decision making is taken seriously as part of the practice, then this will become as automatic as the skills being done around them. In other words, choosing where to serve only becomes cognitively demanding if you have excluded tactical preparation as part of your practice.

Pre Kick Routines

Applicable Sports; Soccer, Football, AFL (Australian Football), NFL (American Football), Rugby Union and Rugby League

Due to the fact that these actions tend to be part of fast flowing sports they are often not considered in the same group of closed skills as the previous examples. This is a huge missed opportunity for the kickers of these sports in my opinion.

In the 1-on-1 work I do with kickers I basically treat them like golfers but instead of a golf club, they have their leg and foot and instead of a golf ball they have some kinds of inflated ball.

First up, as with golfers, we agree on the ideal number of Pre Kick Routines after going through the pros and cons of one versus several. For example, a rugby union player might want one for set shots and another for kick offs.

After this, we follow the same rules as before – only using actions to build the Pre Kick Routine – but with a minor exception. I allow kickers to include one quick visualisation as part of their routine. As much as I try to convince my clients that “picking a spot” can be an action (looking at the spot) many will want to imagine the ball travelling to that sport.

This does often produce a small conflict with the beliefs we have about thoughts in that due to them not being controllable we can’t 100% depend on them in high pressure situations.

The solution to this conflict is two-fold. First, practice the visualisation part as part of your PKR in practice 100% of the time so it feels automatic (second nature). Second, don’t stress if it’s hard or not possible come game time. It’s not you that’s weak, it’s the thought that is weak.

If you’d like the assistance of our of sport/performance psychologists with your short routines then complete one our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires here and one of our team will be in touch with you to discuss options.

Performance Psychologists

Performance psychologists are highly qualified mental coaches who specialise in assisting performers with both their mental health and mental toughness.

Without giving away too many secrets about the Condor Performance business model it would be fair to say that we take a keen interest in the number of Google searches that occur for certain keywords. For those of you who have worked with one of us and are familiar with the concept of “monthly checks” these internet trends form part of our “monthly checks” (key performance indicators we measure once a month to a) track progress and b) ensure a certain level of comfort operating within the results-focused environment that we typically find ourselves in).

For example, the number of times the term “performance psychologist” is tapped into the Google search bar this month versus last month or this year compared with last year. This is very useful data from our point of view as it essentially tells us if the profession is on the up or on the slide.

It works the same way as a young trampolinist who measures her flexibility once a month by doing a stretch and reach test. As Bill Gates once said, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”.

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs I do believe that the word ‘performance’ does need to appear in there somewhere. In other words, both ‘performance psychologist’ and ‘sport and performance psychologists’ would get my vote but ‘sports psychologist’ or ‘sport and exercise psychologist’ are both misleading in my opinion.

With that in mind let us dive into the numbers!

Worldwide the “peak” for search enquiries for ‘performance psychologist’ was in 2004 and early 2005. In fact, as can be seen by the below graph the 100 searches per day that was taking place around the world in January 2005 has never come close to being beaten. After this month the number of times that athletes, coaches, students, journalists and bored teenagers typed in the words ‘performance psychologist’ into Google took a sudden nosedive.

Number of searches for the term “performance psychologists” since 2004 using Google.

What might have caused both the spike and decline? It’s impossible to really know but I would guess that maybe the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens had something to do with the spike. With such a massive international sporting event all that would have been required was a single story about the impact made by a performance psychologist and “boom”. But as The Games ended and these stories got lost in cyberspace then the return to the default searches alone returned.

Interestingly – again looking at the graph above – it does appear that an ever so slow recovery is taking place. More encouraging than the sudden increase that took place 15 years ago, this increase is happening steadily.

Why Is Steady Improvement Better Than Rapid Gains?

In the work that my colleagues and I do with athletes and coaches, I am often quick to point out the advantages of slow improvement over sudden gains. Slow improvements always feel more sustainable compared with overnight success. Take, for example, a young golfer trying to lower her handicap. A massive drop in her handicap of 15 to 5 over par in a month might feel like it’s better than the same improvement (in golf, the lower the handicap the better) that takes place over a year but not for me – not for this performance psychologist.

I often use the reality show “The Biggest Loser” as an example when explaining this to my monthly clients. This show, in case you missed it, was above getting overweight contestants to try and lose as much weight as fast as possible with the winner being rewarded with a huge cash prize.

From a psychological point of view, there is a lot wrong with the entire premise of the show – enough for at least a whole blog post on its own – but one of the “biggest issues” with “The Biggest Loser” is the speed that the weight loss of all the contestants took place. In many cases, it was commonplace for individuals to drop 20+ kgs in a single week!

Changes this fast are unsustainable so they really run the risk of having a negative impact on motivation in the future. For example, without some of the insights about the amount of influence people have on various aspects of performance (e.g. body weight – which is a result) from programs such as Metuf then it would be easy for a “Biggest Loser” contestant to become dejected by only losing a kilogram after the show when comparing it with the 5+ kgs they lost a week whilst ‘competing’.

Not too many people know this but shortly after Condor Performance was started in 2005 one of the main service offerings were group workshops for those struggling with their weight run by yours truly. These group interventions took place at the height of “The Biggest Loser” TV shows so even though the attendees were not taking part (thank goodness) I recall there were a lot of questions about “why are they losing weight so fast and I am not”?

The answer I gave to those questions is the same as the one I give to anyone frustrated when their progress is slow and steady.

Do It Once, Do It Properly And Make It Last Forever

So turning our attention back to the slow increase of the use of the title ‘performance psychologist’ then those of us who believe it will eventually replace the title of ‘sport psychologist’ would not want it any other way.

Performance Psychologists vs. Sports Psychologist

To finish I thought it would be interesting to show the same data since 2004 but for both the terms ‘performance psychologist’ (blue line) and ‘sports psychologist’ (red line).

Data since 2004 for search terms ‘performance psychologist’ (blue line) and ‘sports psychologist’ (red line) on Google around the world.

Guess what? Searches for ‘sport psychologist’ are also increasing slowly and steady and it looks like it’ll take some time before ‘performance psychologist’ catches up!

If you’d like to speak with one of our performance psychologists over the phone then shoot us a quick email with your phone number (including the international dialling code) and we’ll call you back.

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

Measuring Mental Toughness is hard but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt it.

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates

Okay, I’ll admit it – we’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility of various regions of the body and even the humble bathroom scales used in order to find out body weight simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt to measure anything with any real conviction – preferring to simply ask a series of questions at the start of the coaching journey.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business – so over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.

As the overwhelming majority of 5000+ readers of the Mental Toughness Digest are actual athletes, coaches and sporting parents rather than fellow psychologists then it’s worth quickly explaining that there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide” to one or more psychological variables.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.

With the luxury of time (something we rarely have in our consulting) the reliability of the information collected can be improved through asking the opinions of those close to the client (e.g. their family, coach) and/or via direct observation. Observing the athletes, official, coach or performer in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions.

But just because the answers and scores are being made up of the opinions of people doesn’t render these tool useless by any means. It’s just we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is normally a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires – typically taken before now well know “Kick Start Session” – is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have a pretty good idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.

For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long term goals

I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness – Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. This provides the sports psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.

Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires – all which start with the words Mental Toughness – have become misleading due to the fact that they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

The four questionnaires – which can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentions – are listed below. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

Time Management for Athletes and Coaches

Time management is one of the most useful starting points for athletes and coaches looking to take their performance to the next level.

168! With the exception of some Condor Performance clients, I suspect this number doesn’t mean much compared with other well known time numbers such as ’60’ or ‘24’ or ‘7’.

Yet it’s something we all have in common and acts as a great leveller in the pursuit of constant improvement. 168 hours is simply, and precisely, the number of hours in a week (24 multiplied by 7). Last week, this week and next week will all have this in common. Your week and my week contain exactly this number of hours each. The most successful athletes and the ones trying to knock them off their perch all are blessed with 168 hours per calendar week.

Let’s take a step back for a second and run through some of the Metuf basics that lead us to declare ‘168 hours’ as arguably one of the most useful improvement platforms available not only in sport but also performance and life in general.

To start with, what you’re probably most interested in – improving your results – is only something you can influence. You can not control (guarantee) your outcomes and achievements. Nor can anyone else.

In order to increase the chances of reaching our goals (be careful not to confuse ‘increase chances’ with ‘make sure’) we’d want to shift as much of our attention towards controllable elements of performance as possible, such as effort and actions.

Both of these concepts are fascinating for similar reasons. First, if we think about past effort and actions (for example, how hard we tried during this morning’s gym session) this has become a result now. It has become an outcome that can’t be changed unless you are the lucky owner of a time machine. Furthermore, future effort and actions (for example, what you plan to do by way of meditation when the season starts next month) are only influenceable. In other words, you can plan, research and practice now but this doesn’t guarantee anything for later.

So this leaves us with the conclusion that only our efforts and actions of the present moment are genuinely controllable. This makes complete sense if you think about it. Whilst you are reading this you could easily decide to do a couple of quick hand stretching exercises for example.

With this in mind, one of the best places to start from a time management point of view is to spend a whole week simply recording your actions. A basic 24 x 7 table is just fine. Ideally, leave judgment words off the page (or file) so that it purely states what you were doing during that time. For example, rather than recording the word ‘nothing’ during the time you were chilling out over the weekend you’d write ‘relaxing’ or ‘reading’ or whatever the observable action was. Also, try and record the start and end times of the actions and do so as you go rather than at the end of each day where your memory will limit you.

This exercise typically has a major benefit right off the bat. It will increase your awareness and therefore start to help you in becoming more purposeful.

Being more aware and purposeful might well be two of the most underrated secrets of performance excellence.

But you can use this data for a lot more than simply increasing the awareness and intentionality of your current time. You can use it to influence your future time too.

The best way to do this is via an analysis of the quantity and quality of your current time – the time you recorded. It is essential that you consider quantity and quality as separate – because they are. Start with quantity as it’s simpler. Using categories such as sleeping, physical preparation, mental preparation, for example, calculate the amount of time you spent on each according to your data collection (not memory).

If you do this properly then the total of this calculation will be exactly 168 hours. If the number comes out to less than 168 hours you have missed something. If it’s more than 168 hours then let me know as you’ve increased the amount of time available in a week and we’ll make a trillion dollars together!

Some of my sporting clients when I have asked them to do this have enjoyed converting these time tallies into percentages by dividing the number of hours by 1.68. For example, if there was a total of 52 hours of sleep across the seven days then this means that 31% of that week was spent asleep.

Next, it’s the turn of quality. The simplest way to question the quality of time is by considering how many things you were trying to do as once with one being the ideal (more than one being the biggest indicator of poor quality time).

Multitasking (or being a multitasker) is seriously overrated. The science is clear now, the best way to do a poor job of a task is to combine it with another task (or tasks). You can also have a think about how present you were during the activities. The more present and engaged the higher the quality is likely to be.

Multitasking (or being a multitasker) is seriously overrated.

Every parent will know this full and well. Being with your kids whilst also trying to reply to some emails is just never going to have the same quality as really being with them (with the laptop closed and out the way).

Finally, consider if the blocks of time were on purpose or by accident. For example, watching some television intentionally would be regarded as a much higher quality activity compared with doing the same thing by accident – because there was nothing else to do.

The final part is to really ask the hard question – do I want my time moving forward to be the same as it is at the moment in terms of quality and quantity?

And if not, try and adjust accordingly. For example, if you regard becoming mentally stronger as an important part of your goals and yet your mental preparation is only 1% of your time at the moment then you might like to try and see if you can boost this to 5% for future weeks.

If there is no real plan on how to spend an hour training the mind then shoot us an email at info@condorperformance.com and we’ll help out with that. For the subject of the email write “I’d like help improving the quality of my mental preparation”.

For many of my clients and myself included the future plan is enough. I don’t actually tally the time moving forward I just try to stick to the new regime as best I can. This typically prevents the ugly side of time management taking place whereby the plan becomes a major source of guilt and frustration.

I fondly remember many years ago one of my lawn bowls clients shouting at me ‘this feels like the bloody army, mate’. My reply was something like ‘unless one of your bowls explodes what we’re doing is nothing like the military’.

Remember, you can only influence your future effort and actions you can’t control them.