Despite common misconception, rituals improve athletes’ performance

September 6, 2019 — by Oliver Ye

Before each game, the football team leaves the team room holding hands. The team then walks together from the team room all the way to the field, all while hands locked.

“It really just helps promote a sense of team unity,” said junior wide receiver George Bian. “It also calms the team down and allows us to focus.”

While some view rituals as a waste of time and energy, it is often a way for people to get in the “zone” or improve their concentration and focus. 

According to a research paper published by Duke University, having rituals or habitual activities boosts people’s belief in their ability to master a task. Oftentimes, they serve to reduce anxiety before stressful tasks and to improve one’s performance.

According to the research paper, over 40 percent of daily activities are driven by habit. This is partly because repeating rituals associates them with a certain task, and reinforces the ideas of discipline and motivation.

Virtually everybody has developed some kind of routine in their daily lives, from brushing their teeth before breakfast to putting on the left shoe first, but nowhere are rituals as publicly present as in sports.

Sports rituals can range from elaborate group activities like praying together to small actions like bouncing a ball a certain number of times before a serve or a free throw. 

For example, the varsity boys basketball team engages in prayer before each game.  

“Our coach, Patrick Judge, is Christian, so we always do this,” sophomore varsity guard Cameron King said. “I assume God watches over us and helps us get the win because we prayed to Him.” 

Not all the players are Christian and Judge isn’t looking to convert them — the purpose of these prayers is to provide a sense of unity  and common purpose among the team. According to King, the pregame prayers and routines significantly impacts the team in that it raises morale. 

“His speech varies from game to game since he tailors it to the circumstances, but they are always super positive and helpful,” King said.

Other rituals are individual. For example, sophomore varsity basketball guard Tyler Chu performs a certain set of actions before taking free throws in order to “calm down and lock in.” 

Before taking a shot, Chu performs the same actions. He holds the ball in his right hand, takes a deep breath while looking at the rim, dribbles the ball once and then takes a shot.

“It just helps me stay mentally focused,” Chu said. “When I go to the free throw line, people are always yelling random things, but when I step up to the line, I do my routine to calm myself and make it feel like I'm all alone practicing in the gym.” 

For others, rituals are simply a subtle action before playing. For senior varsity volleyball player Usman Khan, the ritual involves taking a deep breath before serving. By taking up almost the entirety of the eight seconds of allotted time between serves, Khan is able to elevate his level of concentration, leading to his accurate and powerful serves. 

Ultimately, the routines that athletes have developed are essential to their game. To an outsider, it may seem like a casual bounce of the ball or a two-second window of silence, but these small moments are what allow athletes to focus on their game and perform their best.

“Repetition makes people feel comfortable because they have done it before,” Chu said. “Doing what you do over and over again in game helps you relax and get more comfortable. It's a good way to get the pressure out and focus in and just shoot like you normally do when no one is around.”