Athletes and Their Habits: How to Create Positive Mental Habits

Can the outcome of a performance hinge on what colour undies an athlete choses to wear, or what they had for breakfast, the song they listened to or how many times they bounced the ball?

I have lost count of the number of times I have stood on a sideline, sat in a dugout, wandered up and down a poolside and heard coaches and parents criticise, cringe and even cry at the sight of their athletes conducting superstitious rituals before, during and sometimes even after they compete.

(One parent-coach once pleaded me to tell him what was mentally wrong with his daughter as she completed a complex sequence of foot movements before she competed her Gymnastics floor routine).

This is a scenario that is played out in every sport at every level. Some people perceive these unique rituals as something taboo, or something to be trained or beaten out of the athlete to discourage them from conducting this potluck performance behaviour.

A general armchair theorist may believe these athletes are just superstitious, or leaving their performance to luck, or perhaps appealing to a higher being to ‘bless’ them with a good performance.

So why would any athlete consciously choose to place their professional careers in the laps of the performance gods, rely on blind luck or even chance?

Would they truly allow their superstitious behaviours to determine the outcome of their performance that day?

If, like some, you buy into the theory of ‘luck’ then what is the point of conducting these rituals anyway? What are athletes training for if it is purely a game of chance?

A study recently released by Prof. David Eilam from Tel Aviv University found these rituals have a far greater importance than buying ‘luck’ credits from the performance gods! They instead allowed the athlete to ‘create’ their environment.

So the reality may not be OCD or leaving it to chance. Rather an attempt to follow a tried and trusted pattern, to create continuity and more importantly to gain a sense of control.

How to Make Habits Our Best FriendOne of the factors that makes a champion is the continuity and sustainability in their performance. This is the ability to create and follow a winning formula irrespective of the circumstances, the opponent or even their competition.

One of the factors that brings an athlete or coach undone is the initiation of their own self-crafted anxiety. Anxiety is an emotional response based on ‘what could happen’ not necessarily what has, or will, happen. So it is a purely manufactured worse-case outcome.

When working with an athlete and coach, the first step is to meticulously build a pragmatic, practical and replicable structure to their training, preparation and competition. Building a tried and trusted personalised formula gives them a higher percentage of preferred outcome probability. This uniquely manufactured structure takes much of the ‘unknown’ out of their performance, removing a huge amount of anxiety and destructive imagination that could affect the performance, thus allowing the athlete to do what they do best – and that is perform.

When an athlete creates a ritual they are in effect doing the same thing: building a predetermined performance structure, a pattern, something they know, trust and can rely on and know intimately. This in turn has the same effect of lowering the athlete’s anxiety, reducing the amount of defocused thinking and curbs an over-stimulated imagination.

It also allows an athlete a perceptual sense of personal control, often within situations where they have very little or no control at all outside of their own skill-set. Athletes are often placed into a situation where the coach has probably selected the play, the strategy, the team. The individuals in the team may have been selected to complete a certain dynamic or depending upon the sport, based on reaction rather than creation. A sense of control gives the athlete an edge over their competitors.

So as a mind coach, do I encourage rituals? Absolutely I do.

I actively encourage athletes and coaches to build specific positive behavioural patterns, or Neurological Points of Reference (NPRs) in their pre-game plan:

  • If they know what works for them and why, then repeat it habitually (ensuring, of course, they are not inhibiting performance or it being too intrusive on their life or sport).
  • Anchor positive emotion to that pattern and allow the athlete to build on confidence, focus and sustainability – all the signs of a champion!

So the next time you see an athlete jump and touch the crossbar or tie their bootlaces multiple times or touch the ball a specific number of times, just know you are probably looking at an athlete who is taking control of their outcome.

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