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Do pre-game rituals actually help you perform better?

Do pre-game rituals actually help you perform better?

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

“The anticipation and ritual before the game are almost as crucial as the game itself” – Alyssa Milano

Many athletes use pre-game rituals or routines before they execute a skill. But why do athletes behave this way?

Do pre-game rituals have a positive effect on athletic performance or is it just a just a strict belief system that doesn’t make a difference? Can pre-game rituals encourage self-control?

Questions like these sparked our curiosity – here’s what research says about them…

What are pre-game rituals?

Pre-game rituals are behaviours that many athletes perform before an event, that often seem illogical and unexplained. It is a sequence of actions often identified through high rigidity and repetition.

French defender Laurent Blanc used to kiss the perfectly shined head of the goalkeeper before every game during the 1998 World Cup as he believed it would improve his playing skills. While some said it was absolutely ludicrous, others thought it was the reason France won the World Cup!

Different types of self-control

Self-control refers to an athlete’s attempt to consciously control their thoughts, feelings and behaviours through overcoming impulses and habitual responses. This could look like a footballer holding back the urge to take off their shirt after scoring a goal. This is a key characteristic for athletes to obtain as it can impact performance.

Benefits of self-control include:

According to research, pre-game rituals have a huge impact on self-control allowing athletes to enhance performance and reach their goals. There are two types of self-control that can impact an athlete’s performance:

1. Inhibitory self-control 

    This is an athlete’s ability to restrain dominant responses to achieve their goals. This is often required in skill-based sports such as netball and relates to decision-making, accuracy and high controllability of technical movements. Inhibitory self-control could look like an athlete’s resistance to unhealthy foods to help maintain a balanced and healthy diet.

    2. Persistent self-control 

      This is an athlete’s ability to persistently endure and overcome difficulties to achieve their goals. This usually happens under difficult circumstances and is related to physical-based sports that require persistent and patience, such as the last couple of laps of a 10,000m race.

      The strength model of self-control

      A social psychologist named Baumeister proposed the strength model of self-control. This model relates to how individuals control their automatic behaviour and natural desires to achieve their goals. It has had a great impact in the world of sport psychology as it affects how athletes engage in sporting behaviours such as eating and training. According to the model, athletes with higher self-control are more likely to reach their sporting goals than those with poor self-control.

      The model also explains that even though athletes may have high levels of self-control, this does not mean they are able to resist temptation. This is due to something called ego-depletion. This depletion happens because self-control is seen as a limited resource – and the more it is exercised, the more tired it gets. This eventually makes the athlete vulnerable to future temptations and can weaken performance where self-control is required. 

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      Does ritualised behaviour impact self-control?

      So, how can athletes get past this self-control barrier? Pre-game rituals.

      This interesting study found that pre-game ritualised behaviour had a positive impact on inhibitory self-control – but not persistent self-control. The results shows that this type of behaviour helps athletes complete tasks more efficiently but also resist impulse-driven, inappropriate responses that differ from their long-term goals.

      Athletes who performed pre-game rituals before their sporting task had less difficulty completing their task and did so with higher motivation and effort. This, of course, further explains why this behaviour enhances inhibitory self-control. 

      3 tips to enhance your pre-game ritual

      Pre-game rituals promote familiarity even in different environments and situations. This helps an athlete to remain comfortable and calm before competing, enhancing their self-control and allowing for better performance under pressure.

      Here are a few tips you can use when creating your own pre-game ritual:

      1. Allow for adaptation – It’s not easy to find a routine that works for you right away, so be flexible. Allow yourself to adapt your routine especially when in different environments and game situations.
      2. Try different routines – It’s okay to start off with trial and error before finding what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to try a different routine to determine what makes you feel best before competing.
      3. Stick to it – Once you’ve eventually found what works for you, try to stay consistent build your familiarity with the actions. This will allow you to feel more comfortable when performing and help you remain calm even in different environments. 

      Final thoughts

      So, it looks like ritualised behaviour is a real “pre-game booster”. These rituals are an important part of an athlete’s routine, helping them perform at their best in different situations.

      Finding the routine that works best for you and sticking to it can boost your self-control, improve your concentration and reduce your anxiety levels. Ultimately, this can help boost your performance and helping you improve in your sport – and, who knows, maybe even win a World Cup…


      About the editor

      Bradley Busch

      Bradley Busch

      Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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