Preperformance Routines

Preperformance  routines  refer  to  the  consistent sequence  of  thoughts  and  actions  in  which  a  performer engages before executing a skill. Typically, they  are  associated  with  performing  self-paced skills  in  which  the  performer  decides  when  to initiate  the  action.  Examples  include  sports  such as golf, snooker, archery, and static target shooting, as well as individual elements of team sports, such as the  basketball  free  throw,  goal  kicks  in  rugby, and soccer penalty kicks. Research in the area has addressed  both  physical  (i.e.,  actions  such  as  taking  deep  breaths  and  looking  toward  the  target) and  mental  (i.e.,  thoughts  or  cue  words  such  as “focus”) components of routines. Researchers have also looked to make inferences about mental states from  observing  physical  features  such  as  routine consistency or from other physiological or behavioral  measures.  Routines  may  contain  ritualized components  or  superstitious  thoughts  and  behaviors that, arguably, have a different origin.

Routine Consistency

When observing preperformance routines, a defining feature is in behavioral consistency. For example, in studies examining routine times, high-skilled basketball  free  throw  shooters,  golf  putters,  and rugby  goal  kickers  have  a  dominant  behavioral pattern that is followed before each attempt. This means  that  their  routine  times  and  the  behaviors exhibited are more consistent relative to low-skilled or  less-experienced  performers.  Some  researchers have  hypothesized  that  routine  consistency  facilitates higher levels of performance, but the evidence for this is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, there is  some  evidence  that  routine  consistency  is  positively  correlated  with  performance.  For  example, high-skilled  golfers  have  been  found  to  use  their dominant  pre-putt  routine  more  frequently  than beginner  golfers  and  routine  consistency  is  correlated with golfers’ handicap. In college basketball, routine  time  consistency  has  been  found  to  correlate with free throw success, with more successful players again displaying more consistent times. Further, professional basketball players have been found  to  be  less  successful  when  deviating  from their dominant behavioral sequence, most notably when performers added something to their routine (e.g., taking a deep breath). Related to this, it has also been shown that disrupting the rhythm of the routine  harms  performance.  Specifically,  speeding up or slowing down basketball players’ free throw routines  did  not  impair  performance,  whereas disrupting  the  relative  timing  of  different  components (e.g., speeding up one aspect, slowing down another) led to lower shooting accuracy.

A problem with inferring from this that routine consistency causes good (or improved) performance is that showing two things are related to each other does not allow us to say that one causes the other. In  addition,  it  is  notable  that  there  is  often  considerable  variability  between  different  performers both in terms of the time and content of their routines.  Looking  at  routine  time,  there  has  been  no advantage found for longer or shorter routines and large  individual  differences  are  apparent  in  some skills.  For  example,  in  one  study  of  World  Cup rugby union goal kicks, goal kickers were shown to have  concentration  times  ranging  from  4  seconds to  more  than  20  seconds.  Similarly,  research  into basketball  free  throws  in  the  National  Basketball Association  play-offs  has  shown  that  there  is  no difference  in  success  rates  between  routines  of brief, regular, and long durations. Crucially, in the few  studies  where  researchers  have  attempted  to improve  routine  consistency,  they  have  failed  to bring about meaningful or lasting improvements in performance. As some researchers have noted, the behavioral consistency we see in expert performers might  be  a  by-product  of  the  hundreds  or  thousands of hours of repetitive practice.

Content and Function of Mental Routines

Researchers  have  hypothesized  that  the  mental and physical components of routines have at least three possible functions. First, they can focus performers’ attention, helping them to concentrate on the relevant aspects of the task and block out distractions. The nature of the distractions might be external to the performer, such as crowds making noise or waving their arms, or might be internal in the form of distracting thoughts such as, what if I miss?  Second  (and  closely  related  to  internal  distraction), the mental aspects of a routine can help performers  regulate  their  thoughts,  behavior,  and emotions. Researchers have suggested this is a key function of routines because a defining feature of self-paced skills is that performers have much more time to think and reflect than in externally paced, reactive skills. For example, tennis players have a split second to react to a passing shot during a rally but have up to 25 seconds between points in which to consider the situation, the score, or their emotional state. In a broader sense, then, routines are the vehicle through which performers try to deploy tools to help regulate their emotional, behavioral, and cognitive responses to competitive situations. Last, a consistent sequence of thoughts and behaviors can help trigger or cue automatic, fluent performance  and  prevent  performers  from  trying  to consciously control their actions. This links to the large body of research indicating that that anxiety can  lead  skilled  performers  to  try  to  consciously control their actions, resulting in “choking.”

The specific function of any individual routine will  be  reflected  in  the  nature  of  the  content  and there is evidence that performers use mental routines for different purposes. For example, research has  shown  that  high-skilled  golfers  collectively employ  a  range  of  psychological  “tools”  in  their pre-shot routines, including distraction techniques, relaxation strategies, cue words, positive self-talk, and imagery. These psychological tools align with the  aforementioned  functions  and  are  consistent with  the  “5-step  strategy”  proposed  by  Robert Singer  and  colleagues,  a  preparation  strategy  for performing  self-paced  skills  (e.g.,  basketball  free throw)  that  has  received  good  empirical  support. The  steps  consist  of  readying  (preparing  for  the act), imaging (visualizing the movement), focusing (on a meaningful external cue, e.g., the rim of the basketball  hoop),  executing  (with  a  quiet  mind, allowing the movement to flow automatically) and evaluating (a brief assessment of the effectiveness of  each  of  the  previous  steps  once  the  skill  has been performed). The readying and imaging steps are directed toward self-regulation and enhancing self-efficacy. The focusing and executing steps are clearly directed toward attentional processes. The focusing stage encourages a task-relevant, external focus,  while  the  executing  step  is  an  attempt  to prompt  automatic,  effortless  performance  that  is free  of  conscious  interference  (e.g.,  overanalyzing movement technique).

Most  experimental  research  into  the  mental function of routines has been focused on what performers  attend  to  just  before  executing  the  skill. Researchers  have  used  various  techniques,  from directly  manipulating  this  state  through  verbal instructions to drawing inferences from physiological data, such as heart rate (HR) or measures of brain activity. Using direct instructions, there is a significant body of research supporting the efficacy of an external, compared to an internal, focus of attention, which involves focusing on the effects of movements rather than the movements themselves. The benefits are evident both in learning new skills and executing well-learned skills. For example, in one  study  skilled  golfers  performed  better  when attending  to  the  motion  of  the  club  head  than when attending to the motion of their arms as they performed “chip” shots to a target. In interpreting findings from this type of study, researchers have pointed to the self-organizing nature of the motor system,  arguing  that  an  external  focus  facilitates this, whereas an internal focus constrains the system,  making  it  less  efficient.  Consistent  with  this work,  many  performers  incorporate  a  specific external  visual  focus  as  part  of  their  mental  routine.  For  example,  rugby  player  Jonny  Wilkinson uses the word spot to prompt him to focus on the very  specific  point  on  the  ball  he  wants  to  strike when taking kicks at goal.

Psychophysiological  studies  mostly  have  been focused on HR, electroencephalogram (EEG), and visual gaze data to compare what expert and less skilled  performers  are  attending  to  during  their routines.  EEG  studies  record  different  types  of brain activity (e.g., alpha, beta) by placing surface electrodes on different parts of the scalp. Analysis of  activity  in  the  few  seconds  before  skill  execution  has  commonly  been  interpreted  as  reflecting an  acquired  ability  to  suppress  conscious  control processes.  This  is  evidenced  by  increased  left hemisphere alpha activity, a change in the ratio of activity  in  the  left  and  right  hemisphere,  a  more widespread decrease in cerebral activity, or lower coherence  between  left  hemisphere  and  frontal midline  activity  in  the  few  seconds  prior  to  skill execution.  Results  from  research  using  brain imaging  techniques  such  as  functional  magnetic resonance  imaging  (fMRI)  to  compare  activity  in expert  and  novice  golfers  as  they  imagine  their pre-shot  routines  are  consistent  with  this  interpretation.  Thus,  overall  brain  activation  is  lower for experts and appears more efficiently organized compared to diffuse brain activity seen in novices.

Research  using  HR  has  focused  on  deceleration in the few seconds before skill execution. HR deceleration has been shown to be associated with an external focus of attention and decreased cortical  activity,  whereas  greater  cortical  activity  and an  internal  focus  of  attention  is  associated  with HR  acceleration.  This  research  has  corroborated findings using other methods (e.g., verbal instructions to manipulate attention). For example, there is  evidence  that  HR  deceleration  is  more  pronounced  in  high-skilled  than  less-skilled  golfers. Adding further weight to these findings, researchers  have  also  monitored  where  performers  look during  their  routines,  notably  on  the  “quiet  eye” period—that  is,  the  final  fixation  (or  tracking  of a  moving  target)  the  performer  makes  on  a  location or object before initiating movement. Among other things, this research has shown that experts tend to have longer quiet eye duration and, what is  more,  that  quiet  eye  training  improves  performance. The quiet eye period has also been shown to  relate  to  electrocortical  activity  indicating  a motor programming or preparatory function.


Preperformance  routines  contain  behavioral  and mental  components  through  which  performers attempt to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and actions.  In  so  doing,  routines  direct  performers’ attention,  help  control  psychological  and  physiological  responses  to  stress,  and  allow  motor processes to run off with minimal conscious interferences. The weight of research indicates that it is these functions, rather than routine time or consistency per se, that facilitate performance.


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