Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Performance Routines vs. Superstitions
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
“I have just one superstition. When I hit a home run, I make certain I touch all four bases”
– Babe Ruth.
Humans are creatures of habit. If you reflect on your own experiences, or even on what you have seen in others, there’s no doubt that you’ll be able to recall habitual behaviours you have engaged with prior to or during a match. You may believe these behaviours help you to perform to the best of your abilities, but when we examine them through the lens of sport and performance psychology, it becomes clear that there are two distinct forms of habitual behaviours that take place – routines and superstitions. And one of these, in our opinion, is far more useful than the other.
Superstitions can involve a range of behaviours that a person believes will help them perform better if done correctly. Famous examples include Michael Jordan wearing his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts while playing in the NBA, Steve Waugh carrying his famous red handkerchief in his pocket or Rafael Nadal’s need to have his drink bottle labels facing a certain way and letting his opponent rise from their chair first. If you reflect on some of your own superstitions, chances are you will say practicing these behaviours does helps you to feel more settled prior to a game, match or performance. But superstitions start to lose their value when we take into consideration focus, concentration and what factors we look to when we don’t meet our expectations.
Superstitions place a huge importance on things that are not controllable. If you have read previous Condor Performance MTDs, you will be familiar with the idea that the only things that are completely controllable within performance is your own effort and intended actions in the present moment. Superstitions draw our attention away from these key elements as we spend our time trying to ensure numerous things happening externally are in order. These superstitions are usually inflexible and have to be performed in an exact way to be believed helpful, such as needing to put your left sock on before your right to play well. When unable to carry out the actions of a superstition in the planned and precise way, people often begin to panic or lose confidence. Consequently, they can have a detrimental impact on the mental side of a performance.
So then, how do routines that are promoted by sport and performance psychologists differ from the superstitions? Routines combine both the mental and physical elements of performance to allow a person to execute their skills without needing to overcome any additional mental barriers that exist due to a lack of mental toughness. Essentially, these routines encourage people to control the controllables and focus attention in constructive ways so they can both ready themselves to perform and deal with difficult situations that may arise during a match. Why is that important? If we increase the chances that the thoughts running through an athlete’s mind are about their effort and how they intend to perform, it increases the likelihood of them playing in the manner they want, and prevents them from getting caught up in the uncontrollables – umpires’ decisions, opponents’ behaviour, the weather, a previous error etc. Through experience, this skill can promote mental toughness and is something all athletes and coaches can benefit from.
There are a variety of different routines athletes can use and a number of places they can be incorporated into their game, namely pre-performance routines, after-performance habits and switch-off periods. A combination of these provides an individual with a complete package of skills to help them remain mentally tough and focused throughout a match and combat the ups and downs people experience when training and competing.
Pre-performance routines are about helping an individual focus on the key elements of their performance for the upcoming play, point, delivery, etc. These routines incorporate positive self-talk to promote confidence and redirect attention towards effort, visualisation of skill execution and necessary elements of tactical wisdom to support decision making. All of these components work together to promote a readiness to compete and a confidence in doing so. Various physical actions specific to a sport or an individual can also take place here, such as the way a tennis player bounces the ball and holds their racquet before serving, or the way a basketball player moves their body and the ball before taking a free throw.
After-performance habits signal the end of the play, at which point individuals often experience emotion about their performance, whether that be joy, disappointment, anger, etc. A healthy and constructive expression of this emotion (which does not have to be overt) can be useful in processing the previous play. Expressing emotion as part of the after-performance habit can also allow the person to be able to move on and refocus when required. Another element of these routines can be some self-evaluation regarding how you want to adjust effort for the next element of performance, but we want to avoid self-criticism and defeatist mindsets during this process.
The time for a switch-off period is often dependant on the sport, as well as the pace of the match – obviously there is more time between golf shots than between points in volleyball or tennis. In saying this, if there is the opportunity for the switch off period to occur, employing strategies such as mindfulness and positive distractions can be very effective as a way of settling. Maintaining concentration for the entire match (often two plus hours in a majority of sports) is too great an expectation, so knowing when to switch off is critical in being able to reset for the next element of your performance. When the switch-off period comes to an end, the pre-performance routine kicks back in to assist in refocusing for the next play.