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Seven ways to win
By Sheila King

tips 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.

Diehard 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 — and ultimately victory.

Whether 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. 

One 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.

Many 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. 

While 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 exercise gear? 
  • 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 ritual. 
  • 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 and anxiety. 

Developing 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.  

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