Updated: Aug 31, 2021
A ritual is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary (2021) as: "a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony."
It is safe to say I perform rituals almost daily. To name a few: every morning I have my cup of coffee one hour (minimum) after I wake up, I always have lunch at least 3 hours before a training session, I always listen to music (preferably gaming soundtracks) whilst studying/writing/learning, etc. These all help me throughout my day and have an influence on how I complete my tasks.
The same applies to me during a competition or any major race, however, I know that I am not alone. Many of you who are reading this, and are athletes, would also be in the same position. It could be self-talk, imaging the race in your head, listening to music. Some of us even have a pre-race routine to help us get ready for the competition ahead. A few might even have a daily, or weekly, routine that helps us get ready for races. These can all count as rituals, they fit the criteria for what is defined as a ritual.
You hear stories of athletes in all sports who have their rituals. One blog I came across by Anny Hunter (2016) discussed one of Mo Farah's rituals he does before a race... shave his head bald and wash it in cold water. You don't have to go as far as completely shaving your head, I know some people just cut their hair a certain way because they feel it is more "aerodynamic", but you can see how elite athletes use a ritual routine in the lead up for their races. We can use them as well!
So this blog is going to be about some of my rituals & what I do on race day, as well as including some other strategies to help you either get motivated or keep your cool!
First things first, why:
Before I share what I do, I think it is important, from a general perspective, that I write about why rituals can be beneficial for you: they can be good tools to help with stress and anxiety that can arise from really stressful situations (i.e. an important race).
Stress is defined as "external events or conditions that affect the organism" (Breznitz & Goldberger, 1993), which can easily be applied to an athletic performance scenario, particularly running. When we train we place our bodies through a lot of stress so we can allow our body to adapt to that stress and push ourselves further and faster, come race day. But other stresses in the race itself can be unexpected, unavoidable, and can easily put you off prior to even hitting the starting line. If you want to perform at your best you'll need to teach yourself how to deal with these unexpected stressful situations, an aspect that is deeply impacted by your levels of anxiety.
Anxiety is defined as "an unpleasant psychological state in reaction to perceived stress concerning the performance of a task under pressure" (Cheng, Hardy & Markland, 2009). This can further be classified as trait anxiety - where it is a part of one's personality; or state anxiety (more commonly seen during competition) - where it only occurs in certain situations & conditions (Ford et. al, 2007). This can manifest in multiple forms throughout the lead-up to the race or during the race itself. Butterflies in the stomach, self-doubt and not being able to sleep the night before a race are all common examples of how anxiety can appear. Although it is ok to have some levels of stress and anxiety, too much or too little can impact performance outcomes for you!
There are many theories that are out there on anxiety's impact on sports performance. The inverted U hypothesis is just one example, where there is an optimal amount of anxiety and arousal for an athlete to perform at their best (as shown in the graph) and any higher/lower levels of either lead to a decline in performance (Shih & Lin, 2017). Although with each theory there are inconsistencies with their results, in a general perspective they have these three characteristics in common: anxiety related to sports & competition affects performance, this effect can either bring out positive or negative outcomes, and these outcomes come from the person's physiological, mental and behavioral responses to the situation (Ford et. al, 2007).
A graph illustrating the inverted U hypothesis. Taken from Sportlyzer Academy (2021).
What my pre-race ritual looks like:
I'll use myself as an example to show you what a pre-race ritual routine can look like. I take the whole day as a lead-up, and (to some extent) classify it as a part of my pre-race routine. Also, since the vast majority of the races I compete in are on a Saturday in the afternoon (roughly ~3-4 pm), this ritual routine assumes this:
5:45 am - wake up for work
6:15 am - breakfast, get ready/leave for work
7-7:45 am - work (swimming coaching)
8:30/9 am - arrive home
9-12 pm - chill
12 pm - lunch (N.B: I always have lunch [or any major meal] at least 3hrs prior to the event)
1 pm drive out to competition
1:30/1:45pm - arrive at competition arena; check-in
2 pm - find an area to sit & place my gear, talk to friends & coach/es
2:10 pm - commence race warm-up jog, drills (walk back in between each) & strides. As I complete these strides I start wearing my racing gear (spikes go on after 2 strides)
3-3:20pm - race time!
3:40/3:45pm - commence warm down jog (~10')
Everything (aside from the race) that I have put in this I have at least one reason as to why. For example, I will always have my major meal (e.g. lunch) at least 3 hours before a race, so I make sure my food has been digested (and doesn't come up mid-race 🙂). This lunch will usually consist of 1-1 1/2 cup/s of rice & tuna with a cup of coffee - I try to have a consistent lunch plan before races as this has worked for me in the past.
I always like to leave home for my event at least 2 hours before the starting time (when in the afternoons) in case of Saturday traffic and gives me enough time to chill and check in for my event. Most competitions are held at SOPAC, which takes me half an hour to get there. This means I have more than enough time to get a parking spot, check-in, find myself a place to leave my bag, and find anyone else I know is racing to chill with them!
I also like to be relaxed before I commence the warm-up, I tend not to think too much about the race as I feel I get over-aroused if I do so. If I feel like I am too worried or thinking too much about the race I will listen to calming music or talk to friends at the competition about other things in life to get my mind off the race.
Other strategies that can be considered in a pre-race ritual:
In my routine, I mentioned pre-race diet plans, as well as music and finding others to talk to. Whilst these all have their benefits, there are other strategies anyone can easily implement into their pre-race ritual routine.
One popular ritual to help improve arousal is mental imagery, where you imagine how you are going to race, or potential hiccups that might happen in the race (Di Corrado et. al, 2020). You might imagine the weather, where you'll end up after the first lap, how you'll finish off the race, what time you want to see on the timer next to the finish line, etc. With relevance to sport, mental imagery helps when making decisions (e.g. how you race) and can help control emotion, as you've imagined these scenarios, and therefore know what to do in those situations (Pearson et. al, 2015).
Another strategy you can compete before a race is meditation, a very broad term that can be broken down into three categories: mental imagery, relaxation (through acem meditation strategies), and self-talk (Yoon & Hyun, 2021). However, for the purpose of this paragraph, I'll be talking about relaxation, as this is good to add if you tend to get over-excited before a race, as you'll be able to calm down and focus on your race compared to.
Relaxation, through ACEM meditation, is described by Yoon and Hyun (2021) as sitting calmly (eyes closed), focusing on a repeated meditation sound. Although there isn't too much evidence into relaxation for individual sports, there is promising evidence from a team sport perspective. Hashim, Hanafali and Yusof (2011) were able to show that relaxation was able to improve mood responses in young soccer players. Similarly, Neil, Mellalieu and Hanton (2006) found that elite rugby union players who used relaxation were able to improve mood and manage anxiety before the game.
These are just two examples out of the multiple strategies that can be added to a pre-race ritual routine. You need to find out what works for YOU and how/when to fit it in.
How to start practicing and incorporating these pre-race rituals:
To start incorporating these into your competitions, I'd recommend adding these rituals into your training sessions, or low-level competitions. I always like to mix and dabble with different strategies to try to find what works and what doesn't, and a low-level competition or practice race is a good way to find this out for yourself. You might find that some strategies could make you over-hyped for the race or make you too relaxed to race your best! Either way, you need to figure out how to implement this as best as possible.
One big piece of advice from me is to NOT try a new strategy or ritual routine before a major race/competition (e.g. state championships). By the time you run in any major competition, you should have already found out what your routine looks like. This can put you out of the race before it starts because you don't know how much of an effect this can have on a race.
Another tip from me is to not try every strategy under the sun all at once. Remember, all these strategies can over-hype or under-hype you for your race. Start off with one, and work your way through them to see where how you respond to different strategies as a part of your ritual routine!
I hope you guys have learned a thing or two about pre-race rituals/routines and how to put them into your race plan!
Keep up the running,
Breznitz, S., & Goldberger, L. (1993). Stress research at a crossroads. Handbook of stress: Theoretical and clinical aspects, 3-6.
Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71-85.
Cambridge University Press (2021). Ritual. Retrieved online from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/ritual
Cheng, W. N. K., Hardy, L., & Markland, D. (2009). Toward a three-dimensional conceptualization of performance anxiety: Rationale and initial measurement development. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(2), 271-278.
Di Corrado, D., Guarnera, M., Guerrera, C. S., Maldonato, N. M., Di Nuovo, S., Castellano, S., & Coco, M. (2020). Mental imagery skills in competitive young athletes and non-athletes. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 633.
Flanagan, E. (2013). Superstitious ritual in sport and the competitive anxiety response in elite and non-elite athletes.
Ford, J. L., Ildefonso, K., Jones, M. L., & Arvinen-Barrow, M. (2017). Sport-related anxiety: current insights. Open access journal of sports medicine, 8, 205.
Hashim, H. A., Hanafi, H., & Yusof, A. (2011). The effects of progressive muscle relaxation and autogenic relaxation on young soccer players’ mood states. Asian journal of sports medicine, 2(2), 99.
Hunter (2016, August 8). Rituals and Routines For Olympic Athletes [Web log post]. Retrieved online from https://www.getthegloss.com/article/rituals-and-routines-of-olympic-athletes
Malouff, J. M., McGee, J. A., Halford, H. T., & Rooke, S. E. (2008). Effects of Pre-Competition Positive Imagery and Self-Instructions on Accuracy of Serving in Tennis. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(3).
Neil, R., Mellalieu, S. D., & Hanton, S. (2006). Psychological skills usage and the competitive anxiety response as a function of skill level in rugby union. Journal of sports science & medicine, 5(3), 415.
Pearson, J., Naselaris, T., Holmes, E. A., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2015). Mental imagery: functional mechanisms and clinical applications. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 590-602.
Shih, H. H., & Lin, M. J. (2017). Does anxiety affect adolescent academic performance? The inverted-U hypothesis revisited. Journal of Labor Research, 38(1), 45-81.
Simonsmeier, B. A., Androniea, M., Buecker, S., & Frank, C. (2020). The effects of imagery interventions in sports: a meta-analysis. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-22.
Sportlyzer Academy (2021). Inverted U Hypothesis. Retrieved from https://academy.sportlyzer.com/wiki/arousal-and-performance/inverted-u-hypothesis/#:~:text=The Inverted U Hypothesis suggests, will result in impaired performance.&text=However%2C in general one could,over- or under-aroused.
Yoon, K. T., & Hyun, K. J. (2021). Performance Enhancement through Meditation in Athletes: Insights from A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. EXPLORE.