Mark Powell D.Min.

Peanut Butter Rituals

Can Personal Rituals Elevate Your Performance?

Performance science vs. silly superstition.

Posted Jul 19, 2019

Source: TheNickster/Flickr

How about that USA women’s soccer team? When a team excels in the way USA women’s soccer has, people seek to unearth secrets of their success. With a championship on the line, reporters often ask, How do you prepare for this?

Articles were written about the preparation rituals of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and others. There was buzz about yoga rituals. Shopping rituals. Meditation rituals. Food rituals.

So here’s the question. Do pre-game rituals elevate performance? Do rituals help athletes enter ‘the zone’, or are they superstitious nonsense?

“I’m not superstitious. But I am a little stitious.”

—Micheal Scott, The Office

You may never win soccer’s Golden Boot, but we all need to summon our strongest performances in critical situations. Taking the LSAT. Memorizing and presenting a TED talk or corporate speech. Facing a medical challenge.

Could a personal ritual help you perform at your best? Dozens of studies say the resounding answer is yes.

In 2006, an article appeared in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. A team led by Michaéla C. Schippers and Paul A. M. Van Lange studied 197 top athletes, men and women, from four sports. The research showed that over 80% of these highly-accomplished athletes used rituals to tap into ‘the zone.’

When the game had higher stakes, when their opponent was more formidable, when athletes most needed a clutch performance, they became even more committed to their rituals. The study concluded that game day rituals were effective and should be taught by coaches to young athletes.

In 1986, researchers Lobmeyer and Wasserman studied the use of rituals on a random group of people who were not top athletes. One group shot free throws with rituals, one without. Conclusion? Enacting a pre-shot ritual improved free throw shooting accuracy. A separate study by Van Raalte, Brewer, Nemeroff, and Linder conducted a near-identical test on putting a golf ball. Rituals proved effective once again.

But what if you’re not concerned about sports? Harvard Business School researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino tested the power of enacting rituals to help people bounce back from failure and losses in general, things like relationship break-ups and business defeats. They concluded that people who enact rituals recover more quickly, regaining control, confidence, and optimism.

Norton and Gino broke additional ground with a side bar discovery: Rituals work even if one doesn’t believe. So unlike Michael Scott, you don’t need to be a little ‘stitious’ to benefit from a personal ritual.

For more information, I recommend the writings of Dr. Kathleen Vohs from the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota and the work of Dr. Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School. You can also read more in my book Clutch: How Rituals Elevate Performance and Happiness, available on Amazon.


Michaéla C. Schippers and Paul A. M. Van Lange, "The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 36, no. 10 (September 15, 2006): 2532-553, doi:10.1111/j.0021-9029.2006.00116.x.

DeAnn L. Lobmeyer and Edward A. Wasserman, "Preliminaries to free throw shooting: superstitious behavior?" Journal of Sport Behavior (June 1986): 70-78.

Judy L. Van Raalte, Britton W. Brewer, Carol J. Nemeroff, and Darwyn E. Linder, "Chance orientation and superstitious behavior on the putting green," Journal of Sport Behavior (March 1991): 41-50.

Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, "Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 1 (February 2014): 266-72, doi:10.1037/a0031772