By Dr Rebecca Hill
Take a moment to reflect on your best performance. Just before stepping on the mats, what were you thinking? How did you feel physically and emotionally? What did you do? Chances are you felt confident, ready for action and focused on the task at hand. And do you always feel like this? If you’re anything like the rest of us…probably not.
You may already realise that your thoughts, emotions and behaviours in the run up to a performance influence your outcomes. And that’s a great start. But the challenge comes in consistently achieving the right physical and psychological state. One of the most common concerns athletes have is how to prepare for competition. This is where a pre-performance routine can be very useful. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was on to something when he said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
So what is a pre-performance routine?
At the heart of it, a pre-performance routine is a series of task-relevant actions accompanied by thoughts and emotions, all of which are designed to promote optimal performance. Researchers have found that pre-performance routines are commonly used by the most successful Olympians.
Such a routine can help you to focus on the things you can control: yourself, your training, your physical preparation, your mental preparation.
Why use a pre-performance routine?
Before developing the content of a routine, you need to figure out what you are trying to achieve with it. Pre-performance routines can have a direct impact on performance by allowing you to practise well-learnt techniques or to warm up, ensuring you are physiologically ready. They can also indirectly impact on your performance by influencing psychological mechanisms. Knowing what you are going to do in the run up to a tournament can help you to concentrate on the right elements of the performance, minimise distractions, deal with anxiety, psych yourself up or respond to the demands of the environment. You can even feel more confident just by virtue of having a pre-performance routine, since there is something reassuring about knowing what to expect.
What should I put in my routine?
No two routines will look the same. Your pre-performance routine needs to be individual to you. Do you get really nervous before a tournament? Then consider incorporating a relaxation strategy such as quick breathing technique. Do you struggle to refocus after being distracted by a negative thought? Investigate ways to recognise the distraction, and reframe the self-talk into something more positive.
The key here is consistency. Build up your routine over time. It will take practice to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Developing one is a process and it will need refinement, just like any other jiu jitsu technique. Research has typically focused on athletes’ actions immediately before executing a sport skill. Brazilian jiu jitsu, however, is arguably more complex than a golf putt or a tennis serve. You might find it is useful to think about your tournament preparation in segments. Plan what you will do to prepare physically and mentally the day before the event, when getting ready to leave for the venue, arriving at the site, warming up and in the final minutes, and during the competition (especially between fights). The segments each involve a sequence of goals which focus on the process of performing what you have already practised. You want the routine to be familiar. Now is not the time to introduce some crazy warm up that you’ve never done in training!
A note about your lucky underpants…
Sorry to be the one to break it to you – your undergarments are not the cause of your ‘luck’. There’s a difference between pre-performance routines and superstitious rituals. If wearing a particular pair of underpants helps you to feel more comfortable and ensures you have one less distraction, by all means make them part of your pre-performance routine. This decision comes from the understanding that your attire influences the way you feel, and consequently your performance.
On the other hand, superstition grows from a ‘backwards’ process – from being successful then incorrectly identifying something as the cause of a positive outcome. These rituals have little practical impact on performance. Granted, they may have a placebo effect, giving you a confidence boost or a sense of control just because you believe they will. But what happens when you are prevented from doing your ritual? Say you travel to fight abroad and find on the morning of the competition that you’ve forgotten your lucky underpants? What was once a useful behaviour is now a cause of anxiety. Rigidly sticking to rituals can problematic. Instead, competition preparation plans should be flexible, helping you to respond to the situation along the way.
We’re in the midst of the competition season. There’s no time like the present to improve your pre- performance routine. Before you turn the page, think of just one action which will help your competition preparation, and put it to the test in your next training session. Remember to let us know how you get on!
Dr Rebecca Hill is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist chartered by the British Psychological Society, and an Education Adviser at the University of Exeter. She is also a BJJ black belt competitor under Professor Victor Estima.