Pre-Performance Rituals For Better Performance At Work

 

When we aim to improve a specific task or function, we usually focus on the task itself. Nothing wrong with that line of reasoning.

However, if we only focus on the task at hand, we are then leaving money on the table so to speak.

Pre-performance rituals have long been studied for their ability to help athletes perform better on the field. You might have seen the swings golfers take before teeing off, the haka as performed by the New Zealand rugby team or a goal kicker shuffling about before kicking and merely chalking it up for entertainment or tradition. These rituals, however, have a more profound impact that you might imagine.

So, let’s look at how you can use a pre-performance ritual to help you perform better.

What it is and why you should care

It is always a good idea to start with a definition. Moran (1996) defined pre-performance routines (PPR) as “a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sports skill”.

This definition teaches us three important things about a PPR, namely: it consists of task relevant thoughts and actions performed systematically.

Think again of golfers taking a few swings before teeing off. They are likely thinking the same thought every time and going through the same routine, without actively thinking about what they are doing.

PPR has been shown to have many performance-enhancing attributes (Boutcher, 1992), such as:

  • improving concentration by encouraging the athlete to focus their thoughts on the task-relevant cues;
  • helping the athlete overcome a natural tendency to dwell on negatives;
  • allowing the athlete to select the appropriate performance behaviours; and
  • preventing ‘warm-up’ decrements and the devotion of excessive attention to the mechanics of their automatic skill.

In an interesting experiment, Mesagno, Marchant and Morris (2008) showed that a PPR was able to improve performance by 29% for tenpin bowlers, even when they were put under pressure.

Boutcher and Zinsser (1990) analysed the pre-putt behavioural patterns of golfers and found that pros used their PPR for 62% of their putts and beginners for only 35%.

So, a PPR can have a significant impact for sportspeople.

But why should you care about a PPR when sitting down to write, or before a talk, or before any other stressful situation?

Well, for two major reasons:

  1. It helps to control and manage anxiety (Jackson, 2003).
  2. Emotion (feeling) determines actions which determine results (Rathschlag & Memmert, 2013).

Managing anxiety

We have all heard of sportspeople choking, a phrase we use when the pressure gets the better of an athlete or team. However, it can also happen to you. Rising anxiety levels is one of the main culprits for choking. Two theories on choking have been posited:

  • The self-focus model – because of an increase in anxiety and self-awareness, the person becomes overly focused on tasks which should be auto-regulated. Trying to monitor and control movement then leads to disaster. In other words, if you want to throw a golfer off his game, ask him whether he breathes in or out on his downswing. The unnecessary focus on minute details might just lead to disaster.
  • The distraction model – increased anxiety leads to a focus on cues that are unrelated to the task at hand. (See Procrastination)

So, anxiety in both cases leads to either an over or under focus on the task at hand.

A PPR can help manage anxiety as it allows you to get out of your head and into your body. Additionally, it allows you to self-select the thoughts that occupy your mind going into the actual action. Which leads us to the second very important feature of PPRs.

The reduction in anxiety can also be attributed to enhanced self-efficacy prior to skill execution (Hazell, Cotterill & Hill, 2014). You are reminded that you have the skill and ability to perform, as summed up by the old adage: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war”. The PPR in this case reinforces the fact that you have prepared for what you are about to do.

Self-generated emotion

I love the phrase “self-generated emotion”. We often fall into the trap of thinking that emotions are merely something we experience as a result of what happens to us, and not something we can generate.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of self-generated emotions even if we have not labelled it as such. At some point you might have watched a video clip, listened to a song, or read a specific motivational piece to get you into the right state of mind.

There was a time when I listened to the video clip below every morning at 5am while driving to the gym.

Rathschlag and Memmert (2013) tested the impact of five different emotions – happiness, anger, anxiety, sadness and emotion neutral. They found that happiness and anger produced superior results to other emotions. Not difficult to imagine.

Now, before you start stomping angrily around the office announcing that it’s to help you improve your performance, it seems that anger mainly works in activities where exertion is required, such as boxing and weightlifting. And even then, there would need to be a certain level of control.

The Stoics often spoke of the importance of distinguishing between the things that we can and cannot control. Emotions fall into both categories. Even though we can choose how to react in any situation, often our emotions happen automatically. Self-generated emotions, on the other hand, equip you with a tool to instantly change your mood and enter a task with a greater degree of openness.

How can you use a Pre-performance ritual to improve your performance?

Induce emotion

Recall that happiness, and in some cases anger, helps us to perform better.

The best way to induce emotions?

Well, apart from the techniques mentioned above, the most reliable way is to recall past experiences – times when you were happy, when you felt content, or productive, or successful.

It is worth your time to create an emotional bank filled with two or three memories that help you to elicit strong emotions. The stronger the emotion the better.

Bonus points for using memories that are related to the task at hand.

Power poses

Amy Cuddy has researched how body language affects hormone levels. Hormones such as cortisol get released when we are anxious. If we could therefore decrease the production of this hormone our performance would be better.

In her famous Ted Talk, she speaks about the influence of certain poses on body chemistry.

Her team of researchers found that high power poses decreased cortisol levels by 25%. The only ‘catch’ is that you have to remain in the pose for two minutes. Here is a link to her incredible Ted Talk for more info.

Trigger words

Trigger words can help you to instantly move into a certain state of mind. It requires you to tie a word to a specific emotion or outcome.

You could for example use the trigger word “relaxed” to help you get into a more calm state of mind before doing work that is cognitively challenging.

Create a trigger word by thinking of the outcome or state of mind that you want to elicit. Tie that trigger word to the feeling through repetition.

Actions (assign meaning)

Similar to the power poses from Amy Cuddy, this is a specific action you will take that helps you to get into the zone.

You have two options here:

1. As we know from the research, it helps if the action is task-specific. Hence, you could take components from the actual task and incorporate these into your PPR. For instance, before speaking on stage, you might rehearse specific vocal drills.

2. Since much of what we do is related to thinking rather than movement, you can also use a movement that has a specific meaning to you. Before going on stage, Tony Robbins jumps on a trampoline. It primes his body and raises his energy levels, delivering the exact state of mind that he wants in order to perform at his best.

Another example of this: Before I sit down to write, I remove my watch from my wrist. It allows me to write without restriction.

Be creative with your expression. Choose something that you can assign meaning to and which creates the perfect environment for action.

Practice

As with most things in life, you need to spend time perfecting your PPR. The more you do it, the greater the net result and the more ingrained the emotion that comes with it.

Through repetition, you strengthen the bond between the emotions and the actions that you perform.

Your morning routine as PPR

I am sure that by now you can appreciate the role that PPRs play in helping us to perform better. There is one PPR though that I think we all need to pay more attention to. The one that precedes your entire day – your morning routine.

The question that should guide how you construct your morning PPR is: “What state of mind do I wish to achieve before going into the day?” Then go about combining elements such as learning, reflection, exercise and meditation to create the desired outcome.

Your morning routine is uniquely yours, so do not simply copy the routines of others. Use the elements described above and mould them into a routine that helps you enter the day with enthusiasm, ready to excel at every challenge you encounter.

Conclusion

A pre-performance ritual gets you into the right state of mind before attempting an activity. Thanks to anxiety however, we often end up choking when it matters most. Using a PPR, you can effectively minimise your anxiety, generate emotions that will help you perform better, and get out of your mind and into your body.

References

  • Hazell, J., Cotterill, S. T., & Hill, D. M. (2014). An exploration of pre-performance routines, self-efficacy, anxiety and performance in semi-professional soccer. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(6), 603-610.
  • Jackson, R. C. (2003). Pre-performance routine consistency: temporal analysis of goal kicking in the Rugby Union World Cup. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21(10), 803-814.
  • Mesagno, C., Marchant, D., & Morris, T. (2008). A pre-performance routine to alleviate choking in “choking-susceptible” athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 22(4), 439-457.
  • Rathschlag, M., & Memmert, D. (2013). The influence of self-generated emotions on physical performance: an investigation of happiness, anger, anxiety, and sadness. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35(2), 197-210.

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Erik Kruger

Personal Development and Leadership Coach. Professional Speaker. To get in touch with me -> coach@erikkruger.com

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