Most elite-level athletes have developed some kid of pre-game routine, but why is such a ritual important as it applies to the level of success an athlete experiences? Is there something magical about the music an athlete listens to, the thoughts he or she thinks of, or the specific types of foods an athlete eats just before game time? Similarly, what risks do athletes run when they don’t develop a pre-game routine? Sport psychologists are interested in all of these questions, and continually examine not only the merits of having a pre-game routine, but also the consequences for athletes who dismiss the value of a pre-game routine.
Why pre-game routines work
There are a number of theories relating to the efficacy of pre-game routines, particularly with respect to how and why they work. From my own direct clinical experiences with athletes I have found the following as the most likely reasons why pre-game routines can have a positive effect on mental toughness, and as a result on-field success.
- Split thinking. Right now, try and think of two completely different thoughts a the same exact time. While this might seem like an easy thing to do, the reality is that we can only direct and sustain our attention at one focal point at any given moment. What this means is that when an athlete commits to a pre-game routine that involves prompting direct thoughts (i.e. using imagery to see perfect plays being executed), it’s impossible to simultaneously think of other distractions (i.e. thoughts of insecurity around losing, getting injured, etc.).
- Minimizes irrational thinking. By simply being proactive with a pre-game routine it minimizes “dead space” where athletes can sometimes worry themselves into anxiety, choking, and even long-term slumps. Similar to the last point, following a script or routine guards against mind wandering, irrational thinking, and even physiological consequences like vomiting from nerves.
- Placebo effect. Who knows, at the end of the day it’s quite possible that the greatest benefit of having a pre-game routine is that it provides a placebo effect to the user. What this means is that it is the belief about the routine, and not the routine itself, that actually provides a benefit.
How to get started
I find that a big sticking point for athletes when developing a pre-game routine is that they falsely think they need to find a perfect pre-game routine to follow. Interestingly, when developing a pre-game routine the most important part of the process is to do things that make you feel good — and that means that different people will do different things. For example, one athlete might find that listening to specific music helps him stay centered, another athlete might discover that she enjoys reading her journal and revisiting sport goals, and a third athlete might learn that completing a relaxation exercise helps build the confidence he needs to be successful. The key, therefore, is experimenting with different ideas until things feel right, and then replicating those behaviors regularly so that they become a normal part of your mental preparation.
Pre-game routines are very important and can ward off insecurities, anxiety, and irrational thinking. Try starting small and simple by just taking a few moments to deep breathe and direct thoughts to good places – you might be surprised by what just those two things can provide. Keep track of your progress and tweak when necessary, always being open to incorporating ideas that help you improve for the future.