Can Specific Rituals Before An Event Impact Our Performance?
Celebrities and athletes alike believe in the power of repeated rituals.
Posted Oct 09, 2017
Should you have a warm-up routine for work? According to Dan McGinn, author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, what you do before a performance makes all the difference to that performance. Find out how you can manipulate your environment to reduce anxiety, use mental visualizations to increase your confidence, and choose songs that get you in “the zone.” Listen here.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Daniel McGinn is on the podcast today. He is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. His writing has appeared in Wire, The Boston Globe, Newsweek. He lives in Boston and the book that we are here to talk about is “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.” Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Daniel: Hi, Peter.
Peter: The premise of this is that what you do immediately before a performance makes all the difference to performance. Am I thinking about this right?
Daniel: Yes. You are. If you watch sports on the weekends, whether it’s a professional football game or if you watch the Olympics every few summers, you’ll see the athletes in the moments before they take the field or jump into the pool or get onto the track involved in a routine. You’ll see that “locked-in” their eyes. They often will have headphones on. They’re listening to a certain playlist. They’ve been taught what to do in those final few moments in order to try to optimize and perform their best. The argument in the book is that you and I are not Tom Brady or Michael Phelps, but we would do our jobs better if we learn to develop the same kind of routine for those final few minutes before we do the activities where we’re adding the most value in our lives.
Peter: I definitely have that image of Michael Phelps walking out to swim with his earphones on, his iPod on. I resonate with that. There was an underlying question I had as I was reading through the book, which is can being so deliberate about a pregame ritual also stress us out?
Daniel: It can if you’re so inflexible and the routine calls for a lot of rigid things and it goes wrong, that could be a downside. Here’s an example of that. There was a famous baseball player for the Red Sox years ago named Wade Boggs and he was unbelievably ritualistic. He wanted to do all these things before a game in order to feel like he was getting in the groove and one of those routines was he wanted to do sprints across the outfield every night at exactly 17 minutes before the first pitch. The opposing teams caught onto this and they would actually manipulate the clocks in the stadium so that they would skip the 17th minute. They would actually adjust the clocks forward and backwards just to mess with him. That’s an example of yeah, if you get too rigid about it, you can set yourself up for a problem, but in general, if your choice is to do nothing, but just sit there and be nervous. Or have something that boosts your confidence, reduces your anxiety and gets your energy at the right level, you’re probably better off doing the something.
Peter: That’s interesting. Talk to us about adrenaline because that’s what you’re talking about, which is you got some energy flowing through you and what’s the best way to handle it or manage it. I know you wrote about this in the book, but I only really just got it now that you said that, which is something’s gonna happen pregame. This is a matter of how you manage it and how you master it and what you do with it. I think that all flows back to adrenaline, right?
Daniel: Yeah. It does. People ask me where I came up with idea for this book and I come from a variety of places, but one of them was way back in high school. I played high school football and high school basketball. I wasn’t very good at either of them, but I became fascinated by the things that the coaches would do and the things the players would do to get ready in those final few moments. Back then, I thought getting psyched up was all about adrenaline. I thought it was like a light switch. You would switch it on and your body would suddenly get this nervous energy and you’d be jumping around and up.
Once I started looking into the research and talking to psychologist, talking to high-performers, adrenaline is definitely part of it, but I think it’s more about emotions than it is about hormones. I think it’s about dealing with that rush of adrenaline so it becomes additive and not subtractive. It’s really about anxiety, confidence and energy. Those are the three things that I think about are more important than adrenaline.
Peter: You talk about in terms of emotion regulation: situation selection, situation modification, and attentional deployment. Do you want to give us a sentence on each?
Daniel: Yeah. I think you can do things to manipulate your environment to try to reduce that sense of anxiety. One of the examples in the book … Carly Simon is a performer who’s had a lot of problems with stage fright. She actually stopped performing for eight years because she would get so nervous on the stage. She’s tried all sorts of things to prevent that from happening. One of the things she experimented with was changing the lighting at her shows so that instead of the crowd being in the dark and she being the focal point on the stage in a spotlight, she would actually light the house. People could still see her on the stage, but this made her feel like a little bit less the center of attention. It made her a little bit less stressed, a little bit more comfortable. That’s a great example of how to try to manipulate your environment and the situation to help the odds that you’re gonna give a good performance.
Peter: I think it is a great example. When I think about leaders who listen to this podcast and people who are in all sorts of situations, we often walk into a room and just do what is expected of us without a sense that actually we can manipulate this environment a little bit to suit us better. It’s a great lesson that says you have some power in this situation. I mean we’re not all Carly Simon, but you can choose to use PowerPoint or not, depending on whether it works for you. You can choose to ask questions or involve people in a conversation that makes you less the focal point. There’s a number of things that we could do like Carly that allows us to take control of the environment.
Daniel: Yeah. While most of the use cases that naturally come to mind when you think about a book like this are those big public presentations. You’re giving a TED Talk or you’re talking to your board of directors. There’s a lot of quieter environments where some of us are performing that we can do the same sort of things. I’m an example of that. I do have to talk about my work in settings like this or in a public setting, but a lot of the most highly important moments for me are when I’m writing by myself in my office. I try to manipulate that environment. It’s not very nerve-wracking to be sitting in an office alone writing, but if you look around my desk, you’ll see framed photos of things I wrote in years past.
Sometimes before I sit down to write, I’ll take two minutes and read something I wrote five or 10 years ago that I thought was really good because I wanna have that success in my mind before I sit down to do it again. You can manipulate even your office environment to put those reminders of your best self in front of you so that when you look up from your desk, you’ll just be reminded, hey, I’m a pretty accomplished performer here. I’m gonna sit down and do it again.
Peter: Well, I can’t let you say that without throwing in this quirky little detail that you emailed Malcolm Gladwell and used his keyboard for some period of time to see if that impacted your writing.
Daniel: I did. Yeah. There’s research. I actually wrote about it in Harvard Business Review a bunch of years ago. There’s research studies that have been done that look at how people perform if they’re using just an ordinary object or tool versus if they’re using an object or tool that they think was used by a celebrity or a high performer. One study involved golf clubs. Another study involved study guides for exams.
I tried to harness this power of a physical lucky object. I emailed Malcolm. I told him what I was doing. I showed him the study. I mailed him off a brand new keyboard in the box. He typed on it for three months. He shipped it back to me. I wrote the book on it. I have it. I don’t use it every day. I try to like not overuse its magic powers. I try to only pull it out for assignments that feel particularly high-stakes or that have some … that I’m feeling a little bit anxious about. I don’t overuse it, but it’s my lucky keyboard. I pull it out when I need to.
Peter: You talk about rituals and superstition, which maybe this is one. Maybe this isn’t, but you describe Colbert’s pre-show ritual in a lot of detail. I have to admit, it’s kind of strange. It sounds kind of OCD and there’s a lot of recommendations in the book that feel a little bit like they might be OCD. You’re talking about the player who was out at exactly 17 minutes before the hour isn’t so different then flipping the light switch on five times before you leave the room. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the distinction from OCD or whether OCD is actually just another version of rituals and superstitions that allow us to perform.
Daniel: Yeah. I think you’re right that OCD exists on a continuum. When does a habit go from being a productive and useful thing to being a neurotic behavior that is detrimental to your happiness? In Colbert’s case, Colbert does have a very complex backstage routine. It involves … he rings a hotel bell. He’s doing hand gestures with various backstage crew members. He’s chewing on a Bic pen and putting it back into the box. He’s staring at a spot on the wall; super elaborate and complicated. The question is okay, why does he think this works?
The origins of it are hard to say, but when they’ve done studies on this stuff the conclusions they reach are that number one, there’s something about these rituals that function like the on switch. It sort of reminds your body of the practice you’ve done. It can help get you into the groove. It’s like the starting sequence in any kind of activity.
Number two, there’s a distractive element to it. Even if you’re Stephen Colbert and you’ve done a zillion shows, you’re probably gonna be a little bit nervous before the show and if your choice is to sit there being nervous and that can be a negative thing, having something to keep yourself busy and occupied, that can be one of the things that rituals serve.
Peter: On the one hand, all of these rituals might be good for any of us and I know that some of them are, and we’re going to talk through each of them in a minute, and I think a lot of performers and people who are in high-stake, high-performance environments might be a little OCD. In order to be the best swimmer in the world, maybe you need to be a little OCD. In order to be Colbert, maybe you need to be a little OCD. I wonder the extent to which some of these rituals are particularly powerful for people who have a little bit of that characteristic.
Daniel: That’s an interesting observation. That’s one I haven’t heard, but it does make sense to me. I draw a distinction between what I would consider practice, which is the 10,000 hours of substantive preparation for whatever the activity it is you’re about to do, whether it’s making a sales call. If you’re gonna give a TED Talk, you better have written and practiced the heck out of a really good speech. The things I’m talking about in the book are more like psychological hacks.
They don’t substitute for that preparation. I think the point you’re making to that some of the best performers are really, really disciplined about having done that practice over and over and over and over and over the same way. There’s an OCD’ish like characteristic to that. It makes sense that warming up the same way mentally might make sense, too. It’s an interesting observation.
Peter: It reminds me also of this story. This is less OCD and more ritualistic of the story that I heard a long time ago. A friend was visiting the Nobel Prize Winner, Niels Bohr. He was a famous atoms scientist. He was visiting his home. As they we’re talking, this guy kept glancing at the horseshoe that was hanging over the door. Finally, he asks Niels, “It can’t possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe this foolish horseshoe superstition?” Niels, the scientist, responded, “Of course not, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”
It’s this sense of I don’t know if I believe in it, but I’m not necessarily willing to take it down. It might still be working.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s interesting. One of the people I interviewed for the book was Jimmy Johnson, the NASCAR driver. He said, more or less, the same thing. He’s the star driver, but he’s got a hundred people on his crew behind him building the cars and tweaking the engines and doing all that. He said, “We try not to get too hung up on these superstitions. We’re not really sure. We don’t really believe, but we don’t wanna chance it so we’re gonna partake in some of this stuff anyway.”
Peter: That’s funny. Let’s talk about a couple of the other ones beside ritual and superstition. You talk about pep talks and you say something interesting that it’s not the typical pregame motivational speech. It’s not about excitement as much as it is about focus. You give this great example of Stanley McChrystal’s five part formula, right? One, here’s what I’m asking you to do. Two, here’s why it’s important. Three, here’s why I know you can do it. Four, think about what you’ve done together before and now let’s go do it and-
Daniel: You know-
Peter: Yeah. Go ahead.
Daniel: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
Peter: No. Please go ahead.
Daniel: Well, I loved the reporting in that chapter in particular because it was a great example of the very side-load nature of academic research. I found people who had looked at military pep talks. I found people who had done research on sports pep talks. I found people who done research on business pep talks. The three groups had never heard of each other, had never looked at each other’s research. They thought that these were totally separate things, but when you actually combine them all and look at them all, they all have the same kind of elements. Somebody like McChrystal has never looked at this research himself, but the pattern he uses fits the [inaudible 00:14:34].
Part of a pep talk is giving specific instruction about you; what you wanna do. Part of it is about explaining why it’s important, making meaning around it and part of it is empathy, trying to draw a personal connection between the leader and the followers and between the team members themselves. I talked to a bunch of people like McChrystal and they all had their own formula and the formulas are all the unique, but they all were kinda the same, too. They all really had those three elements to them and it was neat that … It’s a great example of the real life practice matching the research even if people have never read the research.
Peter: Yeah. I love it. I’m gonna start to use it because I think it’s a formula that could be applied to so many different conversations that show empathy, that show confidence, that show direction that I think it was really valuable for me. What kind of music is motivational and how does it drive performance?
Daniel: Well, it’s very personal. The song that motivates you probably will be different than the song that motivates me. What they probably have in common are two things. Songs are motivational partly because of what they call the inherent musicality. The actual how it sounds; the rhythm, the beat, the tempo, the words. Here’s a good test. If the first time you ever hear a song, it instantly put some pep in your step and makes you feel a little bit more energized, you’re reacting to the inherent musicality.
The second thing that makes a song motivational is your emotional recollections, the context in which it exists. If you hear the song from your senior prom or from some other pivotal moment in your life, even a movie that you recall very vividly, you’re not reacting just to the music, you’re reacting to your memory of it and that can be energizing and motivational the same way. If you find songs that hit on both those boxes, it’s probably gonna be a very motivational song for you.
Peter: You talk about it as a legal performance enhancing drug. When I think about, when I’m going on a run, and I hear a song that boosts me up a little bit, it does feel in that way like it might be a legal performance enhancing drug.
Daniel: Yeah. They’ve actually done tests, done research studies, A/B testing, where they’ll have two groups of runners who have posted similar times and tend to run at a similar pace. They’ll have one group of them listen to say the Rocky soundtrack and they’ll have another group not listen to anything. In general, listening to some sort of motivational music before you perform an activity like that, it does increase your performance.
In talking about the book, most runners, if they’re doing a lot of serious training, they probably have a playlist. They probably spend some amount of time adding songs, subtracting songs because we’ve all experienced that being tired and suddenly the right song comes on and it does really lift you up in a way.
Peter: Dan, you talk about self-talk mental rehearsal visualization. In this category of Keys to Confidence, I’m wondering if you’ve tried that., You also bring in Daniel Kahneman, who talks about System 1 and System 2. It’s this immediate responsive behavior versus the slower thoughtful focus, effortful attention. I’m wondering whether self-talk mental rehearsal visualization can work against us, meaning that as you begin to visualize something, as you begin to mentally rehearse it, it actually makes you more stressed. Rather than get you in the zone, it gets you out of the zone.
I remember reading Martin Buber, “I and thou,” Jewish philosopher, who talked about these “I-it” moments versus “I-thou” moments. An “I-thou” moment is when you’re completely lost in connection with the object that you’re relating to and an “I-it” moment is when you have an internal dialogue. You’re looking at it, but you’re not analytical about it or thoughtful about it, you’re not necessarily in that zone.
I related it to the Kahneman Zones, right? Which is that if you’re in a “I-thou” moment, you’re really just one with whatever you’re doing. That’s a long question, but I’m wondering whether self-talk mental rehearsal visualization takes us out of the zone and out of the “I-thou” connected one moment and brings us into a little bit of distance that might actually increase our stress.
Daniel: That’s an interesting question, and I understand. Basically, the concern is that in many context we’ll perform our best, if we’re really present, and we’re adapting, and we’re maybe even a little bit improvisational to the circumstances. If we overly mentally rehearse can that create a rigidness, and a lack of improvisational adaptability that detracts from our performance? I can certainly think of situations where that might be true, but I think you have to look at the upside risk, and the downside risk.
For me, I tend to focus more on the downside risk, and I’d rather do some degree of mental visualization, mental rehearsal and try to picture myself in the setting doing really well ahead of time. Maybe not obsessing too much about specifically what the circumstances are gonna be. Try to remain some flexibility in there.
For me, I think it’s probably better to over-prepare then under-prepare. In terms of how much I do this stuff myself. I do find myself like if I’m driving my car on the way to an important meeting, I will spend a little bit of time thinking pretty directly about how I want that meeting to go, but I also tend to do retrospective stuff more. I’m much more likely to think back to the last time I had a meeting where I crushed it and reflect on how that went.
For me, it’s as much about reflecting on past success to prime myself as it is sort of obsessing about the detail of what the next meeting’s gonna be.
Peter: I love this next chapter and this focus on getting angry because it’s so unusual and it makes so much sense, but I can understand why it might also be disturbing or challenging. This idea that if you trash talk, if you get angry, it actually might help performance. Can you talk a little bit about that? Obviously, throw in a disclaimer of the danger.
Daniel: Yeah. I think, for me, reporting that chapter was particularly interesting. The broader point here is that there are a lot of techniques in the book and you’ve touched on a lot of them. Everybody’s different and music may not work for you, but it works for me. A pep talk for an ironic, unengaged crowd, that might not work so well for you. It might work well for me.
I wrote a whole chapter on hostility, anger and trash talk. I looked into the research in it. It’s not a technique that is very effective for me. Anger’s very rarely a productive emotion for me. I’m not focused on rivalry so for me, it doesn’t work very well at all. There are people and there are context. If you’re in sales, they use leaderboards. There’s a lot of measurement. There’s a lot of forced curve compensation things.
People in certain kind … Athletics, obviously, thrives on rivalry. People in certain contexts are gonna encounter anger and hostility and trash talk as a device that may motivate them, but definitely handle with care. For me, it doesn’t really work very well.
Peter: Right. One of the themes that I’m hearing in our conversation, which I’m really loving is this theme of, I think it’s affectionately called me-search, but this idea that here’s a bunch of things that people do that are really successful for people and consider and think for yourself about what’s gonna work. Music, if you really wanna use it as a legal performance enhancing drug, you’re gonna have to listen to a bunch of music and figure out what it is that excites you and what it is that psychs you up.
I had a recent podcast with Bill Burnett and Dave Evans … “Designing Your Life,” out of Stanford. A bunch of our conversation was just that, which is that if you’re gonna do design thinking, it’s a lot about a bias towards action and experimenting and reflection and seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t work. What you’ve provided us in “Psyched Up” is a number of tools that have worked for a number of people and that in there are the ingredients to help us improve our performance in the moment. The question is, which ones are gonna work best for us. That’s the work the reader has to do. Am I thinking about this correctly?
Daniel: Yeah. Definitely. I consider it a menu of choices and it definitely makes sense to try a few of them. I think, again, if you go back to the emotions that you’re trying to tweak. In general, what should you be doing emotionally before you enter a performance atmosphere? Well, you should generally be trying to turn down your anxiety. Turn up your confidence and make sure your energy level is right.
For each of us, one of those three things is likely to be more problematic than another. If you’re someone that anxiety’s a problem for, your set of techniques will probably look better or different than somebody who tends not to be very anxious, but needs to boost their confidence. Trying to understand what the underlying emotional regulation you’re trying to do and then the techniques you choose, will be somewhat dependent on that.
Peter: It occurs to me also, related to what you just said, that you have to think about the event that you’re about to perform in and what’s gonna help you maximize your performance. What I’m thinking about is I ran a race with my daughter. It was the first race that she ever ran, and she was anxious, and she was doing all this stuff to psych herself up. She sprinted out of the gate. Within half a mile, she was done.
In some ways, you have to say, okay, I’m gonna get psyched up, but I’m getting psyched up for a sprint. Am I psyched up for a marathon? What is it that I’m getting psyched up about? What’s the kind of energy I need to nurture because in that situation, I might really try to get her to nurture an energy of sustaining and persistence and measured performance as opposed to excitable performance.
Daniel: Yeah. That’s a great example of how often our natural instincts in terms of what we should do in these anxious making situations are the wrong ones. I have a story with my daughter from the same thing. My daughter is an older teenager. I took her for her driver’s test a few years ago and she was very nervous. It’s kind of a high-stakes ritual of your teen years going to take that driver’s test. I fell into this natural pattern where I was saying, there’s nothing to be nervous about because if you fail, we can just come back in two weeks and take it again. Nobody has to know you failed. It’s not a big deal at all. They call that defensive pessimism, which is focusing on the worst case scenario and then trying to argue for why it’s not gonna be so bad.
Once you actually look at the research, generally speaking, that’s a terrible way to approach these things. It’s priming the person for failure. It’s planting the seed of that they’re gonna fail in their mind, but it’s really the way I … I have a downside bias. I try to protect the downside. It’s how I used to approach these high-stakes situations with my kids. One of the results of reporting this book was I don’t do that anymore. I tend to focus on the upside, the positive. I build confidence to reduce anxiety.
Peter: Did she pass?
Daniel: She did pass.
Peter: All right, ’cause otherwise, now everybody would know.
Daniel: She passed. My second child has passed now just more recently. We’re two for two in the driver’s tests in the McGinn family.
Peter: All right, give me 30 seconds on what you did to prep for this conversation.
Daniel: I’m sitting in an office where I am surrounded by great examples of my previous writing work. I listened to a radio interview I did prior to this that was just heavily edited and cut down and burnished. It’s a three minute clip. I Google it before I go on shows like this. They just polished me to make me sound so smart and articulate. Much more than I am in real life so I listen to that before I come on a show like this. It reminds me that when I’m having a good day, I can do a good job at situations like this. I just thought about what a wonderful opportunity is. I try to think about the glass half-full. I don’t think about what could go wrong. I think about the upside of the opportunity presented me today … to talk about my work.
Peter: Well, it worked really well, Dan. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.
The book is “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.” Daniel McGinn is the author and who’s been with us on this podcast. Dan, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Daniel: Thank you. This was great.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as, access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com.
Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.