Updated: Feb 18
By Melissa Thompson MS, LMHC, LPC
It’s the semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and Martin Alund at the Brazil Open 2013. Nadal is observed by a reporter for the Global Sports Times displaying a variety of ritualistic behaviors during the 1 hour, 56 minute heated match including: fixing his hair before serving (334 times), pulling his shorts up (172 times) cleaning the ball marks on the sidelines with his shoes (89 times) adjusting the position of his water bottle (28 times) never stepping on the sideline and touching his nose, left ear, nose again then right ear. His rituals have become the subject of much discussion and many videos.
Serena Williams has been known to bring her shower sandals to court, tie her shoelaces in a specific way, bounce the ball 5 times before the 1st serve, twice before the 2nd and wear the same pair of socks during a tournament. She’s blamed major losses on not following her
The sports world is full of stories about strange patterns of behaviors athletes use before competition in hopes of enhancing their performance. When you’re talking about sports greats like Nadal and Williams, it’s hard to argue against rituals. After all, if the best in the world do it, why shouldn’t you? But how much of that success is actually due to their rituals or in spite of them? In other words, is it due purely to their ability, not their rituals? It’s hard to say, but there’ve been some interesting studies to try to determine how useful competition compulsive behavior really is.
First, we have look at the most basic reason we as humans develop beliefs or superstitions; a common need to control or bring about good things in circumstances where we have limited control, but care very much about the outcome. When we feel like a random act takes on a special psychological value, it makes us feel better in the moment thinking it will translate into a better performance. That certainly isn’t a bad thing according behavioral scientist, teacher and expert on superstition and irrational thinking, Stuart Vyse, PhD, (Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition). Vyse says having anxiety, having time to fill before a performance when you can’t necessarily do practical things like practice but still have to fill the time, can give birth to rituals randomly associated with giving you some control over the events that are about to happen. Rituals can lower anxiety, regardless of whether they actually do affect the outcome of the performance, and that alone can improve performance to an extent. In his autobiography “Rafa”, Nadal said of his competition rituals, "It's a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head." Vyse points out rituals are often a low-cost, low-harm way to ease anxiety. He cautions though, that they become harmful when the concept of “luck” is used in a game that is purely mathematical. Like the poker player who thinks his pre-game rituals bring him good luck when really the game is based on mathematical probability, void of luck.
Delving even deeper into the psychology of the subject, a recent study entitled “Does Pre-Game Compulsive Behavior Truly Help Athletes?” Yun, D., Zhang, L., & Qui, Y. (2023) Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 12 (1), 9-28, looked at physical-based sports with higher demand for patience, endurance, physical strength, fitness and involving persistent self-control versus skills-based sports with more emphasis on high stability, accuracy and controllability of technical movement, and timeliness which uses more inhibitory self-control. What reasearchers found is that ritualized behaviors had greater importance for inhibitory self-control such as resistance to selfish impulses used by skills-based athletes and weaker importance to persistent self-control such as persistence in long-term tasks required by physical, endurance-based sports. The study concluded that in many cases, ritualized behavior is a pre-game booster rather than just a compulsive action. The enhancing effect is on self-control, but it varied according to the type of self-control needed.
But the study also indicated those behaviors should be based more on concrete, useful skills rather than random superstitions. Effective productive, pre-performance rituals are defined as “a sequence of tasks, relevant (not random) thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific skill.” (Moran 1996)
They're based in useful technique proven to actually aid performance beyond just creating an illusiuon of control. For example, a ritual of rehearsing a specific movement used in competition is far more effective and creates more of a feeling of control than tying your shoelaces a certain way which has no technical merit. It could be argued that rituals based in superstition end up controlling the athlete rather than the athlete gaining control by using the ritual. Serena herself has admitted that she's often controlled by her rituals. "I have too many superstitious rituals and it's annoying. It's like I have to do it and if I don't then I'll lose...it's totally ridiculous." There are also examples of Nadal becoming visibly frustrated and distracted if his water bottles aren't lined up perfectly. (There has been some debate about whether Nadal's behavior goes beyond rituals into Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but that's not a discussion for this forum. )
According to experts in the field, (Adams 1967 et al), tried and true pre-performance routines should be based in skills and technique instead of superstition and compulsion. They should have three main benefits:
1) Help to create an optimal mind-set to achieve the desired outcome. This can be achieved by using a consistent routine, often practiced before and after training to get in the right frame of mind and bring comfort and reassurance, especially before a big event or competition.
2) Assist the neuromuscular pathways which require stimulating the pathways to hone the desired skill. This is often seen with athletes rehearsing a shot before finally taking it as part of mental preparation and task-specific cues.
3) Assist in schema development or maintenance. These are ways of making sense of the world around us from learned behaviors. Reflection directly after a competition is a big part of this concept.
So, with all of this in mind, how effective are your pre and post-performance rituals? Are they based in skill or superstition? More importantly, are they helping you? As the name "Prime2Perform" implies, I'm here to help you get ready to perform. Part of that "priming" is developing comprehensive, fact-driven, effective pre and post-performance routines. What works for one person, doesn't necessarily work for another. Together with your coach, who knows your skills better than anyone, we can elevate you to your full performance potential, not to mention build self-confidence, emotional management and anxiety control. We can also adapt this approach to non-athletes such as performers, public speakers, etc..
The bottomline: when it comes to your pre and post-performance rituals, superstition may give you a temporary feeling of anxiety control, but a fact-based approach will net much more consistent results every time.
Reach out if you'd like more information!