Athletes across all sports swear by rituals – many often bizarre – before major events to bring them luck. Serena Williams reportedly ties her shoelaces the same way, bounces the ball five time before the first serve, and twice before her second.
The study found humans are flawed, and the human mind has a sophisticated but flawed way of connecting two unrelated events – such as winning a sporting game twice with the shower gel used before both games, and then assumes the two events are related. In reality, they are not, but we don’t think that way.
Rituals can also help reduce anxiety before a big race by giving athletes a feeling of control over their race preparation and ultimately their destiny.
Running coach Mel Cook says whilst rituals are limited in their ability to enhance performance, they can involve positive self-talk which is crucial.
“Positive self-talk is a strategy I encourage all my clients/runners to participate in on a daily basis, but especially during training. When clients realise their results are connected to their thoughts, they are better able to commit and work towards them,” she says.
Registered and Endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist Jeff Bond says a more effective approach is for athletes to take responsibility for their performance and focus on being in the moment.
With years of experience working with elite athletes and their coaches to develop performance routines, Bond says this logic-based approach is far more effective than superstitious rituals based on luck. “Superstitions can be a significant distraction in situations where the core component of the superstition is not available and the athlete becomes quite negative, nervous and distracted,” he says.
In contrast, “pre-performance and during performance routines are typically based on logic and the need for athletes to achieve and maintain their ideal levels of mental and physiological arousal or composure”.
Examples of pre-performance routines could include warm up routines, stretching routines, routines and warm-up runs. Some performance routines are designed to increase arousal, if for example they include loud music as is the case for some triathletes and team players.
Other routines are the opposite – and designed to calm athletes down pre-race, and may include meditation, yoga and positive self-talk.
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