Routines are one of the most important aspects of sports that athletes can develop to improve their training and competitive performances. The fundamental value of routines is that they ensure total preparation in athletes’ efforts. Routines enable athletes to be completely physically, technically, tactically, and mentally ready to perform their best. I don’t know a world-class athlete in any sport who does not use routines in some part of his or her competitive preparations.
Routines are most often used before competitions to make sure that athletes are prepared to perform their best. They can also be valuable in two other areas. Routines can be developed in training to ensure that athletes get the most out of their practice time. Routines are also important between performances of a competition to help athletes get ready for subsequent performances (for sports comprised of a series of short performances; to be discussed in a future post).
There are a lot of things in sport that athletes can’t control such as weather conditions and their opponent. Ultimately, the only thing athletes can control is themselves. Sport routines can increase control over their performances by enabling them to directly prepare every area that impacts their sport. Those areas athletes can control include their equipment (is your gear in optimal condition?), their body (are you physically and technically warmed up?), and their mind (are you at prime focus and intensity?).
Routines also allow athletes to make their preparation more predictable by knowing they’re systematically covering every area that will influence performance. Athletes can also expect the unexpected. In other words, they can plan for every eventuality that could arise during a competition. If athletes can reduce the things that can go wrong and be prepared for those things that do, they’ll be better able to stayed focused and relaxed before and during the competition.
Routines vs. Rituals
Some sport psychologists use the term "ritual" in place of routine. I don’t like this term because it has connotations that go against what routines are trying to accomplish. Remember, the goal of routines is to totally prepare athletes for training or competition. Everything done in a routine serves a specific and practical function in that readiness process. For example, a physical and technical warm-up and a review of tactics for an upcoming competition are all essential for total preparation.
In contrast, a ritual is associated with superstitions and is often made up of things that have no practical impact on performance, for instance, wearing lucky socks or following a specific route to the competition site. Routines can also be adjusted should the need arise; for example, if you arrive late to the competition, you can shorten your routine and still get prepared. Rituals, though, are rigid and ceremonial. Athletes can believe that rituals must be done or they will not perform well. You control routines, but rituals control you.
Developing sport routines should begin in practice. For you to get the most out of your training, you should develop a brief training routine that will ensure that you’re totally prepared for every drill. The first step in your training routine is getting your body ready. This involves checking and adjusting your intensity as needed. This might mean taking deep breaths to calm yourself down or using intense breaths to raise your intensity. I recommend that before every drill you get your body going in preparation for the start of the drill.
Second, you need to focus on what you want to work on in the drill. If you have an internal focus style, you should already be narrowly focused on a particular cue. If you have an external focus style, this would be the time to narrow your focus onto the cue. To narrow your focus, you can remind yourself what the purpose is of the drill. Then, you can repeat your keyword.
Your training routine need only last a few seconds, but will completely prepare you to get the most out of your training. It will also lay the foundation for using sport routines before and during competitions. Remember, for your training routine to become effective, you must use it every time you begin a drill.
The next step in developing effective sport routines is to create a pre-competitive routine that is an extended version of the training routine. The goal is the same, to be totally prepared to perform your best. The difference is that a pre-competitive routine will dictate how you perform in your upcoming competition and it can take up to several hours to complete.
There is no one ideal routine for everyone. Pre-competitive routines are individual. For every great athlete, you’ll see a different routine, but all will have common elements. You have to decide what exactly to put into your routine and how to structure it. Developing an effective pre-competitive routine is a progressive process that will take time before you have one that really works for you.
Focus and intensity are two areas that you must consider in developing your pre-competitive routine. From my previous Prime Sport Alert! newsletters, you should know whether you have an internal or external focus style and you know what level of intensity at which you perform best. With that in mind, you want to plan your pre-competitive routine so that when you begin a competition, you have prime focus and intensity.
Focus needs. The goal in your pre-competitive routine if you have an internal focus style is to put yourself in a place where there are few external distractions and where you can focus on your pre-competitive preparation. To maintain that narrow focus, you want to go through your pre-competitive routine away from other people and activities that could distract you.
An external focus style means that you need to keep your focus wide during your preparations so you can keep your mind off the upcoming competition and away from thinking too much. The goal in your pre-competitive routine if you have an external focus style is to put yourself in a place where you’re unable to become focused internally and think about the competition. Your pre-competitive routine should be done where there is enough activity to draw your focus away from inside your head. To widen your focus, you want to go through your pre-competitive routine around people and activities that can draw your focus outward.
Intensity needs. You’ll also want to build your pre-competitive routine around your intensity needs. The intensity component of your pre-competitive routine should include checking your intensity periodically before the approaching competition and using psych-up or psych-down techniques to adjust it as needed. You’ll need to set aside time in your routine when you can do these techniques. As you approach the competition, you’ll want to move closer to your prime intensity. The short period just before the competition should be devoted to a final check and adjustment of your intensity.
If you perform best at a lower level of intensity, you want your pre-competitive routine to be done at an easy pace and have plenty of opportunities take a break to slow down and relax. You’ll want to be around people who are relaxed and low-key as well. If you’re around anxious people, they’ll make you nervous too.
If you perform best at a higher level of intensity, you want your pre-competitive routine to be done at a faster pace with more energy put into the components of your routine. You will want to make sure that you are constantly doing something. There should be little time during which you are just standing around and waiting. You’ll also want to be around people who are energetic and outgoing.
Designing a pre-competitive routine. The first step in designing a pre-competitive routine is to make a list of everything you need to do before a competition to be prepared. Some of the common elements you should include are meals, review of competitive tactics, physical warm-up, technical warm-up, equipment check, and mental preparation. Other more personal things that might go into a pre-competitive routine include going to the bathroom, changing into your competition clothing, and using mental imagery.
Then, decide in what order you want to do the components of your list as you approach the start of the competition. In doing this, consider competition activities that might need to be taken into account. For instance, availability of a warm-up area or a place where you can eat your pre-competitive meal can influence when you accomplish different parts of your pre-competitive routine.
Next, specify where each step of your routine can best be completed. You should use your knowledge of competitive sites at which you often perform to figure this part out. For example, if you like to be alone before a competition, is there a quiet place you can get away from people?
Finally, establish a time frame and a schedule for completing your routine. In other words, how much time do you need to get totally prepared? Some athletes like to get to the competition site only a short time before they begin. Others like to arrive hours before. All of these decisions are personal. You need to find out what works best for you.
Once your pre-competitive routine is organized, try it out at competitions. Some things may work and others may not. In time, you’ll be able to fine-tune your routine until you find the one that’s most comfortable and best prepares you for competition. Lastly, remember, pre-competitive routines only have value if they’re used consistently. If you use your routine before every competition, in a short time, you won’t even have to think about doing it. Your pre-competitive routine will simply be what you do before each competition and it will ensure that you are totally prepared to perform your best and achieve Prime Sport.