Routines and Rituals: How to Pick Your Tic
“Am I at a tennis match or at the National Championships for Obsessive Compulsive Disorders?” This comment, which I overheard at a match in San Diego between Maria Sharapova and Mary Pierce, belies the visible role that ritual plays in sport.
Most human beings are creatures of habit. Habits and routines are established
patterns of behavior that help to produce consistent and predictable actions.
They give us a sense of control and security. They produce a sense of influence
over our environment and control of our destiny. Other than perhaps the race
track or the casino, nowhere is this behavior more prevalent than in the sports.
The very nature of sport is based on habit and routine. In tennis we practice
our strokes until they become second nature; we rehearse footwork patterns until
they are automatic responses. These are our performance routines, but we also
have pre-performance preparation routines that help to positively influence the
performance itself. While the performance routines in sport unfold with
unpredictability, the pre-performance routines are usually codified into
repeatable, uniform behaviors that become ritualistic. These preparation
routines become part of the overall performance on court and can reveal more of
the nature of the competitor than the actual shot-making itself.
Preparation routines have been shown to effect performance. These routines can
range from pre-match meals and stretching to bouncing the ball a specific number
of times before serving. Rituals are designed to physically prepare the body and
psychologically prepare the mind for performance. A boxer jogs around the ring
just before a match, punching at the air in a ritualistic dance that both
relaxes and energizes the body while at the same time he focuses his mind to the
impending bout. These routines create a mental and physical state that puts the
competitor at the most desirable level of preparation for performance.
When on the court, these routines become integrated into the play itself. At the
top level of the game, as grooved as the strokes and footwork are, nothing is
more consistent than the movements and behavior in between points and games. How
a player steps up to the line, how they recover a ball, how they towel off, how
they sip water or change racquets, is refined to mechanical precision. These
rituals create drama, color, and interest within the match.
We as spectators are
drawn into their mesmerizing power in the same way the players feel their
effect. As these rituals border on the extreme, they can develop into tics which can be either colorful, amusing, curious, or even disturbing. So what is behind these rituals? How do players
develop their rituals and what is the best ritual for you?
Rituals are Very Individualistic
On court rituals are both an
expression of a player’s personality and a protection against the same. Rituals are both designed to put a player at ease and impose certain feelings that are less natural.
Click photo: Note how Sharapova unconsciously pushes her hair back off both ears then her more deliberate two ball bounces before each serve.
Andy Roddick’s routine before serving is very different than Roger Federer’s ritual. This is because they have different bodies and different personalities and therefore different service motions. While Roddick’s serve is quick and explosive, Federer’s action is more languid and flowing. As a result, we see Roddick make a jerky flick of the ball and tug at his sleeve that reflects his personality and serving style while Federer makes a more delicate and precise bounce and play of the ball as part of his pre-serve ritual. In both cases; however, they are deliberately and consistently preparing the body and mind for the upcoming event.
Since Roddick’s play is quite explosive, he must develop rituals that help him keep from getting too “amped up” and rushing through his shots and rushing between points. Sitting longer on the changeover or taking more time between points may not be “natural” but it may be what he needs to keep from overhitting or hurrying. On the other hand, a player like Lindsay Davenport who had a very fluid playing style, had a tendency to become almost apathetic when things were going poorly. In her case a ritual that would help her to avoid slipping into that mental state would be advisable. That might be getting up to the line to start a point more quickly and then taking a moment to pause and prepare in that position versus wallowing in the backcourt or sidelines for too long where negative, “in the past” thinking, might occur.
In trying to determine what ritual best suits you, start by looking at the pros.
In the same way we select a particular player’s stroke pattern to model, we can look to model their on-court rituals. Find a player you identify with and notice the routines they use to prepare themselves between points and games. Keep in mind that the point of developing rituals is to help to tune your mind, body, and energy level so that you can perform to your optimum. The point is not to perfect rituals or to achieve a mindless state. Some people have suggested that Sharapova has almost gone overboard by becoming so robotic in her play that she is simply hitting without “sensing” the game. Becoming too ritualistic can encourage automaton-like behavior.
Also, be sure your rituals are designed to affect your performance rather
than to simply create a desired result. Focus your ritual on getting your mind
and body to achieve a state of equilibrium rather than simply concentrating on
winning. By focusing on the outcome of a point or game, you can induce tension
and undermine the positive effects of the ritual.
In some cases rituals will take on a competition of their own as each competitor
vies to create a playing environment that best suits his personality or playing
style. Some players will try to slow down the game and make opponents wait
longer than they are comfortable with. Ivan Lendl would go through a deliberate
series of rituals including ball bouncing and sawdust dispensing that would
drive John McEnroe crazy. He would simply slow down the game to an insufferable crawl. Other
players will try to hurry the opponent to assert a blitzkrieg attack, like
Steffi Graf. Some will use rituals to intimidate, like Agassi’s aggressive approach at the server prior to a return of serve and others will use ritual to diffuse a player’s attack, like Chris Evert’s unflappable countenance. Nadal will run to the sidelines on the changeover and pump his fist after a winning game or shot to assert his dominance while Federer will saunter and primp his way to the sidelines after a series of breathtaking shots to establish his style of superhuman invincibility.
Almost all ritual serves some purpose for the player. Bouncing the ball on the
serve may relax the arms and adjust the balance of the body while at the same
time give the player a moment to mentally rehearse the upcoming motion. Even
compulsively pulling up one’s socks between points may help the player to flex the legs in a way that better prepares the body. Even something obsessive like avoiding stepping on the service line after a point may be a means of mentally avoiding distractions and focusing the mind.
Some parts of a ritual, however, are designed for no other reason than to create “psychic comfort” for the player. Making sure to put on a left shoe before a right shoe, or keeping good luck charms serve no purpose other than to make the player feel as though the fates are properly aligned. Of course one could argue that if this behavior helps the player feel more confident, then it is does have a positive effect. The danger; however, is that the player becomes vulnerable to this superstitious behavior and begins to lose both autonomy and clear reasoning.
It is always better to have a clear perception of cause and consequence to develop more effective rituals and avoid expending unnecessary energy. Besides, you never know when you may look to the other side of the net and see a shinier horseshoe than the one that you brought and then where are you?
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