Sports rituals enable players to switch off distracting thoughts and focus on the present. Figure out your own to ace your game, advises a sport psychologist. 

All sports fans know about the idiosyncratic behaviour of their favourite players.  Take Sachin Tendulkar, who always wore his left pad first or Serena Williams, who ties her shoelaces in the same manner before every match. Some may regard these personal routines as whimsical, and even superstitious.

But there is a science behind the role of such rituals and routines in sports. They impart a sense of control to players, distracting them from thinking about other matters. The trick to excelling in sports is to be in the moment, and allow the skills developed through intensive practice, to come to the fore.

Rituals draw the focus to the present

Rituals are a great way to get into your “zone”. These familiar and repetitive patterns of behaviour enable players to tune out thoughts and concerns, and turn their focus on the game. For some, pre-game routines begin from the start of match day.

Others begin tuning in just a few minutes before entering the field. Similar to pre-game routines, players also have various pre-point routines that they follow to optimize focus prior to a point.

ISTANBUL TURKEY - MAY 03 2015: Swiss player Roger Federer celebrate the victory in TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Open 2015

Rituals impart a sense of control

The reason routines work is that they bring the player ‘out of their head’. They improve the concentration and focus, stopping the stream of counter-productive thoughts from distracting them. What will people think if I don’t play well… Is this the best way to hit the shot…maybe I didn’t practice enough..

Such negative thoughts distract players from the present moment. Since rituals involve repetitive behaviours, these stop the train of thoughts, and help players focus on the present.

Divya’s tips on how to find your mojo

  • Pre-game routines may include what time you wake up, what you eat prior to the match, how you warm up for the match or even music you listen to.
  • Routines may involve certain overt actions such as toweling down or tying one’s shoe-laces; it can also involve certain mental behaviours like visualizing a play or saying a catch-phrase that peps you up.
  • Different behaviours may increase or decrease arousal level; determine the level at which you play your best and create a routine that helps you reach that state.
  • Practice the routine every single time, so it becomes automatic and serves as a cue for your brain to respond the way you want it to.
  • Practice focusing on the routine behavior, and switching off your thoughts while engaging in it.
  • Different routines work for different people. Make a routine that is personal to you and works for your sport.

Divya Jain is a Sport & Counselling Psychologist, and the Head-Psychological Services, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis HealthCare.