In a recent episode of my Mental Grit Podcast Expereince where I go one on one with other sports psychologists/consultants, I spoke with Amanda, owner and consultant at AGame Sport Psych to talk Pre Performance Routines.

An interesting nugget from our conversation was her approach to the pre-performance routine, a topic we have discussed in less detail in prior conversations.

This blog seeks to clarify the true purpose of pre-performance routines.

I will share Amanda’s expert perspective on pre-performance routines plus provide a detailed explanation so athletes and coaches can have a better understanding of the psychological makeup of the practice.

Pre-performance routines continue to be an appealing and widely accepted technique to enhance preparation for performance in sports.

Research has shown that performers who use routines in closed skill sports have enhanced performance in:

  • Basketball free throw shooting (Lonsdale & Tam, 2008)
  • Golf putting (Bell et al, 2010), diving (Bell et al, 2008)
  • Water polo penalty (Marlow et al 2001)
  • Rugby goal kicking (Jackson & Baker, 2001)
  • Volleyball serving (Lidor & Mayan, 2005)

However, at a fundamental level, it’s still not fully clear if athletes fully understand the purpose of routines, what they should consist of or the most effective way to teach them.

What is a pre-performance routine?

A pre-performance routine is a ‘sequence of tasks relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to performing in his or her specific activity.

The purpose of a pre-performance routine is to provide athletes with:

  •      The optimal mindset to achieve the desired outcome
  •      Assist the neuromuscular pathways
  •      Assist in schema development or maintenance

How Routines differ from Superstition

But what many do not realize, even those who practice it is that routines are very individualistic, it is really what works for you.

“I found that a lot of people liked the idea of pre-performance routine but they don’t really have an idea of how to go about it and really make it their own,” said Amanda, who has a Bachelors in Psychology from Texas A&M International University and a Masters (in) from Florida State University.

“One of the first questions I always ask athletes is what they are doing already. I do work with professionals, but most of my clients are in high school. So I ask them what their routine is before they go to school – they are like well, I wake up, I eat breakfast, I brush my teeth, I get dressed, I grab what I need to grab and I go to school, and I say okay cool.

So what if you forgot one of those stuff? Like, say you forgot to brush your teeth. And they are like, oh that would be horrible I’d be looking for a breath.”

“But the true purpose of a pre-performance routine is to get your mind right, whatever makes an athlete feel comfortable and confident. So you really should not be so conscious about your breath like if you didn’t brush your teeth the morning, it’s more that you go in and okay I’ve done everything I need to do now it’s my time to execute and perform.”

This is why a routine is different from a superstition. And it’s important to differentiate them because they are often categorized as the same thing.

A superstition is an athlete’s belief that certain actions will lead to certain outcomes, often in the form of backward chaining from previous success (Lahey, 1992; Moran, 2004). Superstitions are a restriction on a burden on an athlete’s performance with no scientific evidence to say they work.

It’s kind of funny because I remembered when I was a lacrosse player, I used to do the stupidest things before games, but interestingly enough those things helped me.

The true purpose of pre-performance routine

It prompted me to ask Amanda if she has ever encountered athletes doing strange things in order to get in ‘the ready state.’

“I wouldn’t call anything strange if it’s working for you. During my high school volleyball playing days, I had a pack of (name of the product) before every single game. I also always had my bag with iPad and cd player. It’s something I had to do a little bit before we start our team warm up just to get myself going and I had convinced myself I needed the sugar.”

“But when I got to college my coach had a rule where you can’t have any junk food, you can’t have any caffeine and I was like well coach, you just messed me up because my whole athlete crew has always revolved around what can I eat.”

The pre-performance routine is there to help athletes get where they need to be so it’s really about having a reason and a purpose behind it.

“In the case of a recent client it was just to clear her mind and get her ready to focus on performing because a lot of time, she was bringing in outside noise such as social media and worrying about past bad performances. She would always be checking her phone comparing herself to someone else and so, it was a way to get her away from the phone.”

Athletes just need to get to a place where they feel like they are ready. That ‘ready state’ and that pre-performance routine should really help athletes get ready to perform at their best.

Coaches can help their athletes develop or at least start putting together some kind of routine in order to help them get ready.

But according to Amanda, coaches themselves need their own pre-performance routine.

“I’ve been on the coaching side as well, I coach volleyball and it is so fresh because you know exactly what they (athletes) need to do but they are not doing it all you have to reward is your strategy.”

Understanding the components and process of developing a routine

Thanks to Amanda, we have an expert’s perspective on pre-performance routines. But a more detailed explanation is required to understand the psychological components of routines as well as understanding the process through which a routine is developed/taught.

There are three components to a pre-performance routine:

  •    Cognitions (thoughts)
  •    Behaviors (actions)
  •    Task-specific/systematic

How to establish a routine

There are two sections to an effective pre-performance routine:

Actions

  • Actions or behaviors which enable your task, for example, practice swings in golf before putting or driving the ball (Crews & Boutcher, 1986).
  • Use the same number of actions or behaviors before each skill execution (Cohn, 1990).

Thoughts

  • Self-talk is a common skill used by elite athletes (Cotterill, 2011), tell yourself what you are going to do or feel, for example, ‘relax’ as you breathe out or ‘smooth’ for the movements.

–    Be positive

–    Be relevant

–    Keep it short

  • Use imagery to visualize the skill you are going to execute from your point of view, for example imagining a line which the ball will travel on from the golf ball to the hole.
  • Relax and control you’re breathing, breathing should be slow and rhythmical.
  • Final phases you should focus on ‘feeling’ of the skill (this will enable you to not over think the movements).

Tips for establishing a routine:

  • Routines are very individual; it’s what works for you! – Cotterill, 2010; Singer, 2000.
  • Don’t worry about the duration of a routine, it doesn’t matter as long as it is right for you (unless rules dictate otherwise), but you should stay consistent with the duration of the routine – Mack (2001).
  • Make sure that the elements of your routine are task specific to the sporting skill being executed – Moran (1996).
  • Be flexible with the routine over time, as your skill develops your routine will need little changes along the way – Fitts & Posner (1967).
  • It takes time to establish a routine – Beauchamp et al (1996).
  • If you get distracted during your routine, if possible stop and start again.
  • Avoid deviating from the routine by adding in behavior or action this will result in a decrease in performance.

Note that as an athlete’s skill level improves, their routine will need developing over time.

Like Amanda, who mentioned how she had to change her routine due to her coach’s rules on food when she transitioned from high school to college, you will need to modify your routine as you go along. This is so because elite athletes can perform the skill without thinking about it.

When we are learning the skill we think about technique, therefore an elite performer’s routine will consist of emotional regulation where a novice will require more technique based routine for example use coaching tips as cue words.

Therefore, allow your routine to develop over time and don’t be afraid to make adjustments, don’t get restricted to the same routine.

I hope you find this useful and if you have any questions feel free to contact me!

And please go follow Amanda on social media to see the great things she is doing – Facebook: @agames sport psyche consulting, Instagram: @agamessportpsych, twitter: @agamessportpsych

Amanda Myhrberg, MS

Amanda Myhrberg moved to Sarasota, FL in 2013 from Tallahassee. She studied sport psychology at Florida State University, and proceeded to work in the fast-paced sports field as a sport performance consultant. Passionate about all things sports, Sarasota has been a natural fit for a sporting enthusiast. Amanda started A Game Sport Psychology Consulting in 2014 with the intent that mental training should be accessible to athletes of all ages and abilities. Since then her clients have included professional athletes, collegiate athletes, and high school athletes. In her free time, Amanda can be found training for her next marathon, watching movies with her husband Dan, or posting annoyingly cute pictures of her Australian Shepherd, Gizmo.

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