In mental skills training we talk a lot about pre-performance routines. And it's for good reason: routines put in an athlete in a consistent state of mind by creating a "sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions" (Moran, 1996), A routine allows an athlete to keep consistency in the turbulent and ever-changing world of sport. There are many factors that change regarding your performance: location, venue, weather, time of day, opponent - just to name a few. By maintaining a strong pre-performance routine you are able to stabilize some of the factors going into your competition.
That doesn't mean things won't change! Sports are in large part about being able to adapt to the changing forces around us. Take your routine with you, but be willing, ready, and almost expecting to change it up as needed.
Routines can be done within the context of your performance (think FT line routine), or prior to the game itself. A strong routine can start anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours before your competition. Think: what am I eating? How much rest will I get? What time do I need to wake up to maximize rest/recovery and time to prime myself and get ready pre-game? All of these elements factor into your pre-performance routine.
So, how can you build a pre-performance routine. Let's start with Free Throws. It's important to keep a few things in mind: what are you doing from the moment you are fouled to the moment you are shooting your Free Throw? All of that is part of your routine. Do you high five teammates? Do you look up or down? What do you focus your attention on? At what point do you take a centering breath? Notice I didn't ask you whether or not you take a centering breath but rather, at what point? It is critical to add a deep diaphragmatic breath to your routine at some point so as to slow your system down from the dizzying pace of the game to the closed-skill portion of the game that is a Free Throw. By taking an intentional belly breath you are focusing your attention on a very different aspect of the game in which there is no defense, and all you have to do is repeat an act you've done thousands of times in your life as a player. By slowing down and breathing, you're bringing oxygen to your muscles and you are tuning your focus. This allows your mind and body to work together to create what we know as "muscle memory."
Then, ask yourself: what simple actions do I take at the line that I will do every time, practice, training or game? Do I dribble the ball? How many times? How do I bend my knees? Where do I fix my gaze? Whatever your routine, it's critical that you keep it simple and that you keep the same routine every time out. Some players take more time than others, and some routines are more elaborate, but whatever you do, do the same thing every time! This stable routine will allow you to hone in on the physical execution of your shot.
A larger pre-performance routine to consider is how you sequence your actions and set your mind prior to games. Working with a mental performance coach can help you figure out how to do this. For now, I'll give you a sense of something I do in my work with athletes, using an acronym "PREP" to help guide their pre-performance routine. This is based on the work of Tom Hanson (2012), who co-wrote the Sport Psychology classic "Heads Up Baseball" with the legendary Ken Ravizza (may he rest in peace).
Pick a quality
1. Pick a quality
How do you want to show up? What thought or quality represents the way you intend to play that game? Come up with 1-2 qualities that are meaningful for you and which will set your mind for how you're coming to play.
2. Release Distractions
Consider: what's distracting me from competing today? We all have a lot going on! Figure out what internal and external distractions are coming up for you and then how you can release them. Perhaps you're thinking of an argument you had with someone or about plans you have after the game. Maybe you're feeling nervous and it's giving you a physiological response, like sweaty palms. These are distractions. Work on releasing them by training your ability to be present-moment focused, using mindfulness as your guide. This takes a lot of practice! This doesn't happen because we snap our fingers and say it is so. Releasing counterproductive thoughts and feelings is several sessions (and a separate blog post) worth of work, but start by finding your own means to release that which is distracting you.
3. Energy management
First, you have to know how you play your best. Think about your energy as a spectrum from 1-10, with 1 being asleep and 10 being fully pumped up. Many athletes say they play best at a 7, not tired but not so hyped that they are out of control. However, others feel they need to be more relaxed or energized. This is an individualized level that you have to learn from repeatedly checking in with yourself and reflecting back on your energy level when you played well or poorly.
Then, figure out where you are at when you arrive at the gym, while you're warming up, and at game time. How do you relax if you're at a 9 and you want to be at a 7 come game time? How do you pump yourself up if you're at a 5? Again, there are more words to be written about this as there are a number of techniques that can be used. Many athletes use music and a strong physical warm-up to energize themselves, and others use breathing exercises and meditation to bring their energy levels down when needed. Short, positive phrases that anchor you to a certain energy level can help as well.
4. Preview Situations
Finally, spend some time previewing situations that will arise during the game. This can be done in a more formal manner by doing regular imagery practice. Imagery is a proven technique for mental practice that allows you to "get the reps" without putting physical demands on your body. By previewing before your arrive at the venue or at your locker, you are running your mind through a functionally equivalent enactment of what is to follow. So spend some time seeing yourself assisting a teammate, nailing a corner 3, leading the break or responding with great 'next play speed' when a ref's call doesn't go your way.
Pre-game routines can help you perform your best! In this unpredictable world of sports performance it is critical that you stabilize the mental and physical actions you take going into your competition. By using "PREP" as a guide, you can set your mind to be at your best when your best is needed.
Hanson, T. (2012). Play Big Mental Toughness Manual. The Play Big Academy: Tampa, FL.
Moran, A. (1996). The psychology of concentration in sports performers: A cognitive analysis. Psychology Press, New York, USA.