and rituals like the pros
to achieve your personal best
Sheila King is an exercise physiologist
at UCLA with more than 15 years of experience. She is a certified
Program Director of the American College of Sports Medicine,
and a trainer of personal trainers at UCLA Extension.
tennis fans know that Steffi Graf stands at the baseline between
points and runs her finger from ear to chin, brushing away
perspiration. It's been part of her game for years. A subconscious
act or a practiced ritual? Either way, it seems to help Graf
wipe away the previous play and focus on the next point
you bounce a basketball the same number of times before each
free throw or always eat a bagel before a competition, you're
practicing sports rituals. Repetitious acts can help pro athletes
and weekend warriors alike achieve peak performance
and rack up numbers in the win column.
basketball champ, Stephanie White-McCarty of Purdue University,
drinks Mountain Dew and shares a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup
with a teammate before every meal. Superstition or mental
preparation? It works for White-McCarty and her winning team.
other sports professionals depend on rituals to prepare them
mentally for competition and enhance their performance. Olympic
athletes incorporate rituals into their training and hire
psychologists to teach them how to use and develop them.
most of us are not pro ball players or Olympic athletes, we
can adapt their winning techniques. Here are some ideas to
help you get the most out of your mental game:
- Think like a winner. Learn from your mistakes; don't succumb to
them. Develop a habit of using negative experiences for
positive change. Blaming yourself for every mistake is a
waste of energy and time. Use the knowledge gained from
your mistakes to adjust and improve your performance.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. Develop techniques to help you let go of distractions
and refocus your concentration during competition. Write
down situations that have distracted you in the past. Then
practice using techniques that help your mind focus and
concentrate. Pick a cue-word that is linked in your mind
with focusing. Or find a physical anchor, such as feeling
the touch of the leather on the ball. Cultivating several
quick techniques that you practice regularly will help you
refocus during competition, and make you a tougher opponent.
- Dress for success. Not psyched-up to exercise today? Put on your
athletic shoes or your favorite gym shorts and sweatshirt.
Sometimes the simple act of dressing is all you need to
motivate you. Besides, don't you look marvelous in your
- Make like Mike. Use your imagination. Before your weekend
basketball scrimmage, pretend you're Michael Jordan or some
other basketball star. You just might reach new heights
on the boards. One friend of mine trained for volleyball
under a very strict and demanding coach. When dressing for
games he visualized himself as a warrior putting on armor
and preparing for battle. He felt it made him stronger and
turned him into a winner.
- Develop a game face. Peak performance requires optimal arousal and
motivation, but you need to avoid turning into a bundle
of nerves. During practice, visualize situations that produce
anxiety, such as missing a free throw or striking out. Identify
your physical reactions and learn to control them. To minimize
muscle tightening and jaw clenching, practice deep breathing
or progressive muscle relaxation. The more you ritualize
these techniques in practice, the more likely they are to
help you keep your cool in game situations.
- Warm up your muscles and your mind. Develop rituals for the warm-up portion of
your workout. My father used to have a very specific stretching
routine that he performed before running. He did the same
stretches in the same sequence for the same length of time.
(It figures, because he was an engineer!) This helped to
motivate and relax him during the higher intensity portions
of his run. He always ran faster after engaging in this
- Set goals. Make goal setting a routine part of your exercise program. Keep
a fitness diary to track progress. Note how you feel physically
and mentally did you have an enjoyable experience?
Research shows that people who use goal setting effectively
perform better, are happier with their performances, concentrate
better, show more self-confidence and suffer less stress
exercise rituals can help ingrain the habit of regular exercise
in your daily life. Such triggers often allow the brain's
stored memory of pleasant sports and exercise experiences
to kick in. This guides you through your workout (or your
tennis match, ski competition or mini-marathon) on automatic
pilot. Practicing the familiar can be comforting and rewarding
in this dynamic world of change. And beyond peak performance,
the ritual of exercise itself can help you transcend the ordinary
and realize personal goals.