Try to imagine the following scene: Picture a tennis match on a clay court. The main character of this scene is preparing to serve. It is his first serve. He starts by cleaning the baseline; then he shakes off the clay from his left foot and then his right foot. Afterwards, he checks for an uncomfortable tightening in his underpants (if you regularly watch tennis, you know by now who I am talking about). Next, he starts a sequence of touches in the following order: he touches his left shoulder, his right shoulder, his nose, his left ear, his nose again, and finally his right ear (all of these while he is bouncing the ball with his racquet). He bounces the ball a couple of times and THEN he serves! But wait, it was a fault… So, he prepares for his second serve. He shakes the clay from his left shoe and then his right shoe. He checks, once again, for that uncomfortable wedgie. He touches his nose, the left ear, the nose, and the right ear. A couple of bounces and he is ready to serve…
If you think this is awkward, you will be even more surprised by the fact that he does this on each and every serve on a tennis game on a clay court.
No, I am not talking about a tennis player who suffers from a strange case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or a player with odd behaviors. I am talking about (if you do not know it by now) one of the world’s greatest male tennis player and probably the best clay court player in tennis history. I am talking about Rafael Nadal.
So, what the hell is Nadal doing? He went nuts and now he is displaying some bizarre behavior on court?
The answer is no, he is not crazy. He is just displaying one of the most notorious cases of what sports psychologist call Pre-performance Routines. The pre-performance routines were defined by Morgan as “a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sport skill”. These awkward-to-the-viewer behaviors are pretty common in sports, especially in closed skills like serving in tennis (e.g. Rafael Nadal, as I described), free throwing in basketball (e.g. Jason Kidd sending a kiss to his wife and children), free kicking in football (e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo with his four steps back and wide stance) or a drive in golf (e.g. practice swing, reading the line, placing the ball, viewing the shot, setting the grip and setting the stance).
But besides being popular and funny to watch, are they effective?
In 2010, Cotterill and colleagues carried out a research where they asked male international golfers about their experience with pre-performance routines. The results showed three explanations of why the pre-performance routines might be an effective way to execute a complex set of skills in a near perfect way.
The first effect and probably the key point of the pre-performance routines is the ability to allocate the attention to relevant cues. When athletes are getting ready to execute the skill, being able to allocate their attention is of paramount importance for two main reasons. First, it is important for them to switch on and off the attention to certain cues. They should “forget” about the crowd and the scoreboard; and focus on crucial cues like the position of the opponent, external elements like wind, or simply the specific place where they want to put the ball. Second, by doing the routines, athletes are able to focus on the present and not dwell about previous failures or possible future complications of the game.
The second explanation is related to the use of psychological skills. The pre-performance routines are the perfect moment to start applying psychological skills in their games. While the athletes are doing their routine her or she might use imagery to “picture in their mind¨ where they want the ball to go. Athletes could also incorporate into their routines trigger or rhythm words that could be used as self-talk, allowing them to gain self-confidence and to execute their skill in a rhythmical way.
Finally, the pre-performance routines are helpful for decision-making processes like shot selection. It is during those moments of absolute control that the athlete starts thinking and planning what his or her next movement would be or how he or she will perform the next game situation. Critical decisions like club selection in golf or where to kick the ball on a penalty-kick in football are decisions that could be easily analyzed during the pre-performance routine.
Therefore it looks like those awkward behaviors not only are not only funny to watch, but they serve a purpose and probably are an important part of the mental and physical readiness of an athlete to perform a skill in a perfect or near perfect way. Under these circumstances, it would be good to start using pre-performance routines in a systematical way (if your sport requires closed skills) in order to enhance your overall performance.
Here are some points to take into account to develop an effective pre-performance routine:
- Try to be spontaneous on the behaviors you use. Do not try to force yourself to do certain movements or actions. Remember, first and foremost these routines should help you be more focused on the task at hand and not make you wonder if you are doing it right or wrong.
- Ask someone else to watch you while you do the performance skill, since probably you are by now doing some sort of routine. Try to stick with what you are doing and implement some psychological skills (breathing, self-talk, imagery, etc.) and try to make them more systematic.
- Although you can watch videos or pictures of your favorite athletes doing the skill to get some ideas or to copy some elements, remember that the routine should be built around your personality and personal way of playing.
- Incorporate routines that you know you will employ regardless of the situation. No matter if you are loosing or winning, tired or in great shape.
- Build routines around your needs and requirements. If what you need is to keep focus on one point before you serve, develop a routine that is based on the gaze and the spot you should be focusing on.
- Practice, practice, practice. Routines are like tics for athletes. They are so used to them that they do not think about them. And this could only be accomplished by a regular practice and automaticity of the routines.
Be creative and don’t mind about being odd. After all, what could be worse than checking your underpants on worldwide live television during the final match of Roland Garros?