Pre Shot Routines Are The Number One Mental Skill for Most Target Sports
One of the intentional exclusions from our self-guided Mental Toughness Training courses is advice on Pre Shot Routines. This is because the first Metuf programs were created for all sport and performance areas in mind. In other words we only included mental skills that would apply to all types of performer. Pre Shot Routines only apply to certain sports and in some sports they are only needed by certain players. More on that later.
Pre Shot Routines are the most common of the short routines, but they are not the only type.
Any closed motor skill that is required frequently during a sporting context could and should have a routine 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’.
With this in mind I suggest there are actually 5 types of short routine:
- Golf, shooting sports, table sports. lawn bowls: Pre Shot Routines
- All racket sports: Pre Point Routines (or you can have Pre Serve Routines and Pre Receive Routines)
- AFL, soccer (set shot takers), rugby league, rugby union, American football (kickers): Pre Kick Routine or Pre Throw Routine (shot put, javelin, basketball)
- Racing sports: Pre Start Routines
- All other sports (e.g. curling): Pre Attempt Routines
Pre Attempt Routines (PARs)?
In fact, if we are looking for a single term that might include all of the above it would be Pre Attempt Routines (PARs). In discussions with my clients and colleagues the word ‘attempt’ has received a bit of push-back. The thinking is that the word ‘attempt’ doesn’t exude the kind of confidence that many are looking for at these key moments. I get that. But the fact is that all of the above are in fact attempts.
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. Some say pre shot routines are better left to a coach instead of a performance psychologist. But they would be wrong. I am more than happy to work with (alongside) coaches on this mental skill. But to say my skill set as a sport psychologist is not relevant here is insulting.
Pre Shot Routines / Pre Attempt Routines Before Closed Motor Skills
For all closed motor 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”. This tends to lead to underperforming in high-pressure situations.
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. You have far too little influence on them in order to ensure you can “do them” when it counts.
Intended actions are far more reliable than thoughts and feelings. In fact, they are so reliable that we can (with a lot of practice) virtually guarantee them. We can never guarantee being able to think a certain way in certain situations. So trying to do so is fraught with danger from a psychological point of view.
Let’s run through some examples.
The Classic ‘Pre Shot Routine’
Your first decision here is ‘is one Pre Shot Routine enough or do I need several?’ For most of sports, one is normally enough. But sports such as golf, which has some very different types of shots, might benefit from various PSRs.
The start of the Pre Shot Routine benefits from ‘a trigger action’. This helps us 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 add 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.
You can these steps to your sport and preferences of course. For example, in clay target shooting one of these steps wants to be shouting the word ‘pull’. I will resist the temptation to add some example of actual pre shot routines. Why not? Because you might copy them and that defeats the purpose.
Pre Point Routines
Of course, we have all seen Rafa going through his pre-point rituals. 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 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 it’s a good idea to have both a Pre Serve Routine and a Pre Receive Routine.
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 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.
Ball bouncing (waggling the golf club, same same) is a double edged sword. Most players do it “until they feel right” but this assumes you’ll always feel right at some point. I am in favour of picking a range of bounces. For example, 2 or 3 and then sticking to this 100% of the time. Yes, even in practice and when you’re do it as part of your visualisation.
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. If you must have a decision making step in there, add it before the trigger.
Pre Kick and Throw Routines
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 and free throwers of these sports in my opinion.
In the 1-on-1 work we do with kickers and throwers I basically treat them like golfers. But instead of a golf club and ball, they have their leg and foot or arms and hands and some kind of inflated ball.
First up, as with golfers, we agree on the ideal number of routines after going through the pros and cons of one versus several. For example, a rugby union player will need one for set shots and another for kick offs.
After this, we follow the same rules as before. Only use actions to build the Pre Kick/Throw Routine. If you must include a thought, try to keep them as simple as possible.
Is It A Good Idea To Visualise As Part Of My Routine?
I have received a fair bit of criticism for my lack of enthusiasm about including imagery in routines. Some of this comes from the famous Jack Nicklaus quote about visualisation. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head,” Nicklaus said.
Here is the issue Jack. We can’t guarantee cognitive processes such as imagining the path of a ball. Even with repetition, it will be very vulnerable under pressure or high levels of distraction.
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 that you are weak, it’s the thoughts are weak. Your action based Pre Attempt Routine will get the job done regardless of what you’re thinking or feeling.
If you’d like the assistance of one of psychologists with your short routines then complete one our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. A member of our team will be in touch with you to discuss options.