** Please note this post is a copy from my previous blog and was originally posted in Feb 2014**
There is evidence that routines increase consistency of an athlete’s thinking, feelings, and pre-sport behavior. Therefore, routines produce more consistent behavior in sports. Hence, better results. Although there is evidence that routines work, many athletes resist developing one. Coaches can be a great help to athletes in getting past that initial resistance and make a good argument for change. Coaches help athletes begin to develop the foundation for great performances. Although it can take a lot of effort by coaches to encourage their athletes to develop new routines, the cost of not doing so can be even higher; coaches can actually end up using more energy if they don’t help develop routines. An initial investment of time and energy can create a better return in the future. If a coach assists in developing a good routine, the athlete will then develop good habits, and the habits make the athlete great in competition. John Dryden said, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
Routines can go anywhere and adapt to any situation. A routine can make even the most different sport environment seem familiar and comfortable. This holds a lot of importance when the environment can be full of distractions. For example, think of how many distractions the Olympic games must hold. A routine can help an athlete normalize that environment and feel comfortable and familiar in even the most unfamiliar of surroundings.
Routines can also help keep athletes focused. One of the worst things to do in a high pressure situation is to stop and overanalyze it. A routine keeps an athlete engaged, on schedule, and focused on productive thoughts. Routines that take care of all the minor things that an athlete requires to get ready can free up space in the brain to focus on the important things at hand. Furthermore, having a routine eliminates unnecessary decision making that leads to unnecessary worrying. Decisions about simple things can become blown out of proportion and lead to wasting valuable time worrying about such things like which equipment to bring.
Parts of my routine when preparing for horse shows included having all my tack (equipment) cleaned, packed, and ready to go days prior to the show starting; having my outfits picked out for each day and/or class prior to leaving for the show; scheduled times for eating; memorizing, reciting, and air-drawing courses prior to entering the ring; and more.
One of the times I deviated from my routine was probably at one of the most inopportune moments. I was at an Oklahoma GO Show (an “A” rated show) competing in jumpers (rather than hunters) for the first time, and I chose to talk with friends rather than spend more time memorizing courses – even though I was not used to the longer and more complicated jumper rounds. It was the first time (that I can remember, anyway) that I almost went off course. Luckily, I knew I was leaving out a jump – that happened to be right in front of me, and, coincidentally also in front of my trainer. I managed to jump the fence (at an awkward angle), but I still clearly remember * Britt’s * reaction. He said I was “so busted” and made me hand draw all of my courses for the rest of the show. The result? Reserve champion of my division. After that, you can bet I made sure I was focused on sticking with my routine of memorizing my courses.
Going through a routine can also be a great asset in enhancing an athlete’s feelings of control and confidence. It is a great reminder that they have done this thousands of times. For skilled athletes, many movements become automatic. When athletes under pressure don’t perform well, they may be putting too much thought into the movement rather than relying on what they know. Rumination (over-thinking) can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks.
New research by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that some athletes may improve their performance in high pressure situations by simply squeezing a ball or clenching their left hand before competition in order to activate certain parts of the brain. Previous research has shown that rumination is associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere is associated with higher performance in automatic behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand would activate the right hemisphere of the brain; therefore lowering the risk of rumination (associated with left hemisphere).
Therefore, although it may initially take more time and require change, developing a routine can have numerous payoffs when it counts the most.
** My trainer was Britt McCormick of the wonderful Elmstead Farm in Parker, TX. **