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Rituals -- hype or harness? Problem solved.

Rituals -- hype or harness? Problem solved.

Do you have a go-to comfort — a ritual or object that sets your thoughts in place? Society tends to think something as simple as carrying a worry stone in your pocket may be hype – but if it puts your mind at ease or brings you into a state of laser-like focus – who are they to argue? 


Rituals have been a part of every culture throughout history. Often, we think of rituals as a ceremonial rite of passage, but they can be simple actions that do not have to involve larger groups or parties. Rituals are simply a way of making one’s desires more known, or to form consistent thinking patterns. 


Athletes often use rituals to get into the right mindset before performing. Specific routines or patterns of behaviors can place certain thoughts on automatic, allowing energy to be used for the more pressure-filled times of the competition. 


Many cognitive, behavioral, and sport psychologists agree that ritualistic behaviors, if used positively, create just the right amount of focus and comfort needed to perform at peak. Something symbolic like a stone or a sign can serve as a reminder to focus on patterned thinking to get into the zone, and keep our stress response in-check. But the reminder does not have to be an actual stone.  


As a gymnast I relied heavily on rituals to maintain consistency. For example, when I competed on the US national team, besides hitting my routines, one of my goals was to enjoy as much of the competition as possible. During the height of the season, several competitions were held in large arenas with Coco-cola advertisement signs sporadically placed in the stands. At the time, ENJOY was Coke’s catch-phrase. So, every time I entered an arena – I would scope the premises to see if I could find the word ENJOY as a reminder. This not only occupied my mind as we entered, but it also created a sense of consistency in the various places we competed. I always had a back-up plan to scope out other simple positive words if Pepsi happened to be a sponsor J


Even if you are not performing in an arena, you can still create your own ritualistic reminders to get into the game. Below are four key elements you can use to get started:



If you are a visual person, then take the time upon arrival to affiliate yourself with the scene of the competition; navigate people, places, and things that you may need. We call this broad-focus. This is also useful if anyone on your team needs help finding something. Once this is done, engage your narrow-focus by pinpointing the path and pattern you will follow during the competition. 



It is not a surprise to see athletes (THINK: Phelps) with ear-phones on, as they walk into an arena. This is a great ritual, and music has been research to have performance enhancing qualities – As Don Greene PhD. says, “Like no other medium, music can put you into the right mindset; a mood, a place, or time.” It is an added bonus to structure your thoughts after removing the HP too. Even if it is singing the same song in your head, then having sport-cues set-in place, this type of follow-through is beneficial.



Sometimes it does not matter how well you prepare; you may still struggle with focusing at the right time. In this case, a ritualistic script may be helpful as you “step-up to plate.” The most important ingredient of a successful sport script is to include action terms – ones that you can feel your body doing. (Details below).



If you are a natural athlete – you may “just do,” in practice. But when it comes time for competition, and the right-brain chatter invades, what naturally happens in practice does not happen in competition. These pressure points thinking cause common movements to shorten and plague your true potential. This is why forming a ritual to focus consistently on the feel of a technique, skill, or pattern of movement is beneficial. The goal is to make the movements of your sport ritualistic in nature, then the movement takes precedence in your mind and it is easy to translate into competition. Something symbolic like an image, thought, or note can serve as a reminder to focus on the feel, especially if you struggle with staying in the moment. 


“Create a place of your own – surround yourself with objects that invite desired behaviors – eventually, you will enhance your productivity on a deep neurological level.” – Brad Stulberg  

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