It’s the night before a big track meet, and I’m feeling pumped but a bit nervous. As I toss and turn in bed, I think through a mental checklist of everything I’ve done to get ready. Carbo-load with pasta and bread? Check. Uniform and track spikes all laid out? Check. Lucky shorts and a baguette at the ready? Check, and the list goes on. I’m not alone in my complicated and at times silly pre-race routine that helps soothe my nerves and makes me feel like I'm at peak performance level. In fact, anyone from the neophyte who’s just about to compete in their first race to the seasoned pro has some sort of pre-race ritual.
Research into pre-race rituals is a relatively new field, but what’s been found so far is fascinating. According to Justin Ross, a sports psychologist, “Pre-race rituals can help give athletes a sense of control in a highly unpredictable environment.” Given the many shifting factors such as weather, start time, and fatigue, it makes sense that even the simple ritual of laying everything out the night before a race helps inspire a sense of confidence and normalcy. In a study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, “Nearly half of [the] participants (46.5%) reported performing a ritual in a specific anxiety-inducing situation.” Pre-race anxiety can be intense, and I’ve found that consistent but small rituals such as taking my socks off and going barefoot in my spikes significantly lower my anxiety levels.
Regardless of what sport Rowland Hall students play, pre-competition rituals take an important role. Anthony Sanchez, a soccer player and junior at Rowland Hall, says that before a game he “lays down on the ground, closes his eyes, and visualizes.” Visualization is a great way to help calm the body and mind while also signaling to yourself that it's go time. Zach Selzman, a competitive nordic skier, says that the night before a race he “eats a big meal, stretches, strategizes, and checks his equipment.” The checklist routine that Selzman describes helps calm his nerves when conditions are unpredictable. Nick Hobson, a behavioral scientist, confirms the benefits of pre-competition routines, stating that routines “may help the brain find the anxiety sweet spot.” For those wondering, the “anxiety sweet spot” is a mix of excitement paired with moderate anxiety. The reason a little anxiety helps is because it sends a signal to your brain to get ready for your competition and also gives an adrenaline boost that helps keep you energized for longer.
Anthony’s use of visualization is backed by science. Visualization involves imagining an entire performance or sections of a performance and the intended outcome. The beauty of visualization is that it can be done at any time, whether it’s in the middle of a hard workout or an hour before a high-stakes game or race. The benefits of visualization are impressive and include enhanced motivation, lower performance anxiety, faster healing from injuries, and stronger muscles. While I haven’t experienced all of these effects, I have noticed that when I visualize an hour before a race I typically gain an increased sense of confidence as well as a lower anxiety level.
In contrast to the effectiveness of visualization is the ineffectiveness of superstition. While an element of superstition can be helpful—for instance, Zach has a pair of lucky socks he wears each race, which lowers his anxiety—it has the potential to backfire. If Zach were to forget his pair of socks, he says that it would probably “make him a lot more anxious.” Stephen Graef, Ph.D, sports psychologist, confirms this: “Those behaviors have control over us, instead of us having control over them.” This control superstition exerts on you can show up at the worst of times. I’ve had it happen to me when I forgot to pack a baguette before my race, because I believed a baguette would help me perform better, my mental outlook was terrible which made for a rough race. If there’s a specific item that you rely on before games then it’s probably a good idea to either have a backup or simply work on your mental game.
As the starting gun goes off, I feel a sense of confidence thanks to the lucky baguette I’ve consumed and the lucky shorts I’m wearing. The race turns out to be a personal best for me and I certainly attribute some of that success to my borderline ridiculous pre-competition ritual. Whether it’s my lucky baguette or a specific number of gummy bears, pre-competition rituals run the gamut of all things wild and unique. Regardless of how crazy someone’s pre-competition ritual may seem, the benefits of reduced anxiety and higher motivation are critical for that extra edge out on the track or the field.